Between Moses and Oedipus Rex…

J. Wes Unruh

My decision to move across the Midwest from Wichita to Denver in the last few weeks of 1996 were precisely because I wanted to go “off the grid” and slip away from any possible handlers that might be in my life. I felt as if I could slip out from their overview by leaving Kansas. Later, I would again act on this anxiety when I arranged to move from Wichita to Troy, NY a decade later. In both cases my world in Wichita felt uncomfortable, my nest too tight. I had outgrown the egg and sought to crack its shell.

Collective worship in religious settings put me in a panic. I found the zeal in those around me suspect and performative. I became increasingly convinced that I was an experiment, and that those around me, my adoptive parents, the therapists they chose for me, the psychiatrists they recommended, were all attempting to control my actions. In a sense, it was a strictly provable theorem, and I ultimately recovered equilibrium after removing myself from the sphere of influence of my adoptive parents.

Each time I did this my lot in life did significantly improve, and I’m certain they were the right decisions. I felt drawn to the choices, like there were omens meant for my eyes that led me to make the narrowest of choices across a weirdly diasporadical route through all the regions of the United States. I have a deep appreciation for the country, and the people that I’ve met in every region. This country’s greatest untapped resource is empathy. My fears and paranoia were founded on a perspective poured inward, focused on the “primal wound” that N. Verrier delineates. Recovering from being an adoptee isn’t possible, it’s a legal designation, and I can’t undo it, or ignore it. Recovering means showing up, engaging, looking up. Forced, relentless optimism, in the face of the absurdity of life.

Now, I’m no longer convinced I was under constant surveillance. I realize that much of what I felt was displaced rage, an unending scream, buried behind my silent, infant mask I assumed at birth. As an adoptee, I feel I have always had a life-long infection, a buried, festering sore, at the breaking point where identity and the self in relation to the world index, the nexus where I meet others. Bridging that chasm means having a vision of what is possible. The bridge must be precise, but the chasm is itself unchartable. Adoptees are all left, more or less, with this bridge to construct, on their own, from their side of the canyon. I feel as if I achieved an impossible task, bridged an impossible abyss, I’ve solved a riddle that had been at the back of my brain, occupying all of my subconscious processes, for decades. Now I’ve begun clearing out that space, using it to do more, be more aware, more centered around my friends and family. I don’t feel rushed, or as if my time is misspent, that I could be doing more, somehow, to answer these questions.

Adoptees are never “the good adoptee” all the time, we are all afflicted with some residue from our pasts. I am no expert on what families are healthy and which are troubled. All I know is my own experience and the layers of pain I’ve navigated to understand what affected me most directly. More importantly, the roles I see played out in fiction, that I’m tagging in these films, are never the totality of one’s life. I found great resonance in the stories of Luke Skywalker finding his ancestral narrative come to completion over the course of the various Star Wars films, and I found a great deal of empathy for the stories played out in The Truman Show and Flirting With Disaster. I do not necessarily think I am caught in a horror film, or even a drama. Life as an adoptee, particularly once I uncovered the central confusion around my identities, began to feel more like a farce. My fears were unfounded, my anxieties misplaced. I have trauma, yes, but no more or less than any other child growing in that world, there at that time. To be at peace with the life I led, and instead mourn the relationships I might have had, did have, perchance, in some universe next door, that is where I land. That, and a deep conviction that relentless optimism is the only flame strong enough to keep alive hope.

When I left the house of Jerry and Karen the first time, soon after I returned from visiting Idaho, I felt adrift and aimless. I did not have a direction, and was instead led and driven by my neurosis and my fears, led from opportunity and shielded by privilege in a world that I felt was actively hostile. I lived in the cheapest apartment I could find within walking distance of the gas station where I worked third shift. I felt like I presented such a clearly destitute target that no one would bother me when I walked through the light industrial area alongside highway 54, in summer of ’93. It was a two mile walk or more, and I maintained the pace for several weeks before I encountered an ex-classmate who needed a place to live, but had a car. I had a bed, and I split it in half, taking the box spring and giving him the mattress. Without him there, I knew it was a matter of time before I’d have had someone break into my studio apartment. As it was, I was evicted and he was picked up by a bondsman by the end of summer, but at least we both somehow survived.

What I do know is that my survival is luck. That there are many people who see their family tree as a stump in the yard. Even worse, the current political climate means all past bureaucratic determinations are prone to revisitations. Adoptees from overseas and across the north and south borders are facing deportation in some cases. Identity erased, these discrepancies aren’t taken into account as cases for additional empathy by federal agencies. Instead, the tendency recently has been to assertively enforce deportation. I can’t imagine the degree of mental stress an adoptee would feel being deported to a country they likely already have conflicting emotions about, and then being banished from the land where they’d been led to believe they were part of a family. The stories I’ve read about these “bad adoptees”-adoptees so without standing in our country that they have been rejected by the federal government as even being worthy of citizenship, often are strangely Kafka-esque. They read like absurdist fiction, struggling to integrate into a country they were taken from… Phillip Clay only one of many suicides as a result. My politics are shaped by these attitudes about identity, particularly when identity is wielded as a weaponizing force.

Throughout my life I have heard that the greatest “sin” of the liberals was that they “played identity politics” –a statement that I heard throughout my teens. My extended family was avid listeners of Rush Limbaugh. The only periodical that my adoptive father received was the “Conservative Chronicle,” a weekly compendium of articles, penned by a deep roster of conservative columnists and editorial cartoonists. That my adoptive father would use this phrase whenever he talked about politicians is not surprising, but the frequency by which I recall it being brought up led me to think about identity politics in a way that related to my own sense of identity. I started to see that expressing an identity could be a political act. I believe identity is the essence of representation, for example. I struggle to articulate my identity as an adoptee because my experience is Nothing and I speak from Nowhere. Or I did – all adoptees who are searching without answers are de facto voices from the void. I spoke from that place years ago, I sent my howls moonward, seeking others of my ilk. To be from nothing, and named nothing, and then overlayed–this is all dramatic fiction. But it is also how I play my identity politics out–I am a ghost, a mask, a thorn in amidst the “Blessing” that is the “adopted child”–I and all those other bad adoptees are the voice accomplice within a shadow cast by a myth. I have always felt that I exist somewhere between Moses and Oedipus Rex, and it didn’t end well for either of them…

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Jeffrey Wes Unruh

Adoptee, born at the Magic Valley Regional Medical Center, April 15, 1974. I spent 23 years trying to figure out all the details, concluding my search in 2019 after meeting my biological father. I'm working on a book that encapsulates my thoughts on adoption in general, and the experience of being adopted.