My story is now serialized for the Deep Americana podcast.
One supposes it must seem strange to someone who was never adopted to consider what it is like growing up around people who look nothing like you. Adaptation is the key to adoptee survival, adapting to a world that is out of joint, a world that is filled with cracks, fissures, where an identity can disappear, only to be replaced by a legal fiction. A world where international adoptees can be disappeared as non-citizens, non-entities, adrift in a liminal legal state between countries. Adapting to this world as an adoptee does set one apart from the ‘normal’ experiences of family and society. One must adapt, as there is a kind of warping between one’s personal expectation of one’s eventual appearance and the actual appearance one naturally develops into… I did not know, when I was fifteen, what I will look like when I turn fifty.
As I aged, and my appearance changed, I felt the fracture between myself and the adopted family within which I’d been placed grow ever keener, sharper, hard-edged. I felt my social circles expand in directions that provided escape, freedom from a space that increasingly seemed confining, suffocating. Realistically, I am unable to tell if my experience was tied to any one trigger, or if it was a cumulative pressure of a number of factors. I am certain that I would have given up, lost the will to live, actively pursued self-destruction, if it weren’t for my friends who found ways to extract me from the home environment I felt trapped within.
Now, years after that time in my life, and a full beard or two later, I know who I look like and what to expect. Discovering that information was painful, and grueling, and worth every moment of anxiety and confusion. To lack a sense of identity is to be unmoored from the very fabric of society. Not having that internal sense of how I could expect to age, to know how I will appear given enough time, was one constant source of dissociative stress.
Now, accentuate that disassociation that a person adopted into a family of a different culture, skin tone, or country. Imagine the impact that the lack of genetic mirroring must have on an infant, a child, an adolescent throughout their life. I acknowledge fully that I have had it easy, compared to an adoptee who is ‘transracial’ or who was adopted from another country. Spare a moment to consider why adoption must appear as itself traumatizing, when there is such a life-long compounding of the lack of physical identity, a mirroring that all non-adopted individuals take entirely for granted. I survived, but not without scars and a great deal of emotional strife. I’m a lucky one, there are adoptees who have had much, much more difficult lives… and all too often, those lives didn’t need to be so disrupted.
One of my favorite games of the last few years is Gorogoa, now featured on my wife’s web site “Play like a Feminist.”
Gorogoa is a gorgeous puzzle game that involves rearranging hand-drawn squares as it tells you a non-linear story about time, aging, and desires.
Who Should Play:
Gorogoa takes a while to get a hang of how to play, but once you get into it, the puzzles are absorbing and visually stunning. It’s not great for first time players, but provokes good discussions and meditative play.
Made by: Producer: Annapurna Interactive Digital; Developer: Buried Signal, Jason Roberts
Available on: Android, iOS, Linux, Mac OS, Microsoft, Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, Xbox One
Price: $4.99 – $14.99 (depending on platform)
Play time: 2-5 hours
Questions for Gorogoa:
- Gorogoa was hand drawn over the course of about four years. How does a hand-drawn game change how it feels to play?
- The narrative of the game was somewhat elusive, yet always present. What do you think the narrative was, and in what ways was…
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We are all individuals, and our interests and desires are formed as much by our biology as our experiences. Those who are raised with their biological parents find corresponding interests driven by genetic similarities, something often completely missing from the equation within an adoptive family setting.
When there are no shared interests within a family dynamic, there is no support to develop those interests.
At best, I would be left on my own to engage with those things I found interesting. In many cases, I was punished for my interests, or actively prevented from pursuing them. I learned to hide what I was reading, I developed speed-reading unintentionally along the way, my constant state of near panic, a adolescent-long hyper-vigilant state of mind, drove this adaptation.
But it also left me convinced that I was inherently flawed, broken, and unvalued. My inner world was awash in self-erasure, fantasies of some distant rescue operation underway to recover me from my life and bring me back to my true parents. And when that rescue never came, the feelings of hopelessness grew ever stronger-a mental anguish that I could only relieve with physical self-harm. Physical pain washed away the emotional pain, for an hour or so. This pursuit of pain as a reliever of anxious thoughts, racing thoughts, and as a way to reduce panic continues throughout my life.
It’s an artifact of my anxieties, as much as the physical symptoms of stress. But it’s not the only psychological factor. I also find that it is very difficult to remain on conscious track of a concern, related to my adoption. Grueling, it can be to write about this – I am more than a subjective subject, I am somewhat damaged.
The scars from my cuttings are mostly faded. I can make out the brandings in good light, and the largest of the scars is plainly visible on my skin if you know where to look. But the invisible scars, the memories that block other memories, the fictional what-ifs that play out in my head whenever I try to understand myself – these have caused significant cognitive impairments at moments. I’ve spent many hours unwilling to move from my bed, convinced the world was made of pain and rejection. My identity was a mask, a layer that allowed me to move through a certain space, so long as I never spoke my thoughts or expressed my interests. I grew up becoming a polytheist within a cloistered monotheistic culture. My eventual questioning of my faith proceeded from the complicated notions of sin, lying, identity, and obeying God’s commandments, as my family expressed those instructions.
A dozen years ago, I wrote the following in an email to a member of my biological family:
“I didn’t start looking for nancy until my parents told me
that a paralegal, a lawyer’s aide, had dressed as if she’d given birth
to me and was wheeled out of the hospital in a wheelchair with me in
her arms, something I was told around my twenty-fourth birthday. I’ve
always felt out of place, out of time… like I was filling in,
handed a script and some clothes that didn’t fit.. But being told I
was more or less rushed out of a hospital under creative misdirection
at birth tends to push an already romantic mind into some fantastic
“Adding fuel to the fire, my decree of adoption was never obtained by
my adoptive parents until the middle of last year, and when I did
finally see it, I find that my birthdate was left blank. I kinda feel
like I’m metaphorically wandering around with a missing limb, or a
gapping hole where my spleen should be
“I am quite curious about my father now. I wouldn’t suppose you’d be
familiar with the japanese cartoon Inuyasha… probably not. Growing
up adopted, cultural forms are not easily discarded: adoptees are
routinely discovering their biological fathers are somehow warped
(movies like Flirting with Disaster, or the Star Wars Trilogy) or the
adoptee is somehow seriously unstuck from the reality of hir
surroundings (like The Truman Show, or The Ring.)”
Looking back now on this correspondence, I am struck by the fact that even then I relied on filmic encoding to express roadmaps of empathy for my internal state. This need to connect emotionally is overwhelming, and it is the films I listed, along with many more that have come out since then, that provide touchstones for those not adopted, or considering adoption, to understand complexity of experience and how adoptees may or may not cope with their own personal truths. In that same chain of correspondence, I elaborated on my life experience:
“I was raised, as you surmised, in a virulently
fundamental home. My father, full-blooded german mennonite brethren,
has always been involved with church leadership, starting with the
baptist church we attended in twin falls. My mother was raised
nominally catholic, but considered herself amoral until she started
attending a baptist church with my father. It wasn’t the same church
the Harpers attended in Twin Falls, but shared a similar view of
infallibility re: the king james red letter version of the bible.
“It is fair to say that I’m still not fully certain my adoptive parents
are who they say they are, and there were moments in my life where I
felt that I was being watched and my life scripted according to some
secret cabal’s whims. I’ve always felt watched, and when I saw the
movie The Truman Show for the first time I cried for nearly an hour.
I don’t know if my parents really believe what they say they believe,
partly because their worldview is so wildly divergent from my own that
I find it hard to find safe territory for just idle conversation.
“As I grew up and came to understand the implications of the various
teachings, and began arguing the various points of theology in class
and church, I became more and more disenchanted with monotheism in
general. At first I stated repeatedly that I didn’t have any problems
with christianity if they’d just get rid of everything Paul wrote and
they stopped printing the old testament, but over time I realized that
the doctrine of evangelism was what really bothered
“Gradually I came to see the history of monotheistic culture as one of
subjugation of indigenous people, and the systematic eradication of
sustainable communities in a quest to find some endpoint to the
timeline where god will be summoned to clean up the mess. Depression,
paranoia, and a flattening of affect accompanied this crisis of faith.
“Attempting to stake out this philosophical ground in the face of
adversity from my parents and peer group was more than simply
rebelling. I was reacting to the cultural attitude towards the Iraq
war by that point, utterly convinced that the united states
administration had been co-opted by this fundamentalist current
determined to bring about a fulfillment of prophecy simply to find out
if they could summon god by wreaking enough havoc on the plains of
“Rather than set out in search of alternate beliefs, I tried very hard
to attain a state of aggravated agnosticism, where I tried to will
myself to stop believing in anything – instead to examine the
psychological structure of belief. This lead to a very long
fascination with a branch of occult logic called chaos magic, and this
is also where my story gets downright full of reasons for any
card-carrying fundamentalist to ban me from their doorstep. Today I
find a lot of comfort and clarity from taoist, buddhist, and shinto
concepts, but I don’t adhere to any espoused doctrine. Then, at age
16, I was reading everything I could find related even obliquely to
the history of occult secret societies, from the OTO, skull & bones,
and the freemasons to the more obscure groups, like p2, the order of
the nine angles, etc. Anything that sought to keep itself secret
“Admittedly, this obsession with hidden lore was a manifestation of
repression, as I hadn’t actively confronted the fact of my adoption.
When my parents had me placed in a christian mental hospital in texas,
it wasn’t because I appeared depressed, or had acted out in some way,
but because they searched my room and found my books on shamanism,
tarot, and runes. When the christian doctor interviewed me, he never
brought up the subject of adoption in the entire seven weeks I was
there, but instead informed me I was there because of demonic
“Over the years I’ve found humor in the fact that I was put in a mental
hospital not because I thought I was experiencing demonic attack, but
because my parents and psychiatrist thought I was experiencing a
demonic attack. When people in the west and east coast express
amazement over the culture of the midwest, I often use this experience
to illustrate the current state of psychiatric medicine.”
The Harpers I reference there, and Nancy, whom I reference earlier, are my biological family. I learned that when I was seven my real grandmother identified me to the rest of her family. My identity within the myth of the “happy adoptee” was secure as a way to help cover over the trauma they had experienced as a family. As my interest in “the occult” grew, they became increasingly obsessed with the notion of a generational curse, passed on to me by whomever my biological father had been.
Ultimately, I survived this breakdown of narrative and system of superstitions, but it was not without scars.
My adoptive mother told me on the way to church one morning that when a ewe dies and isn’t able to take care of a lamb, the sheepherder will put the wool from the lamb’s real mother on another ewe, so that the lamb will be adopted by that new ewe. I was four or five years old. This was the first differentiation I can remember, this was how it was first relayed. Pinning down a memory that longs to be repressed is a quiet victory in the noise that is my mind. When I push to recall thoughts I had, or instances where the awareness that there were others out there who knew me, who knew I was alive and living alongside their own social circles broke into my world, I was somehow repressing that knowledge and it manifested as increasingly self-destructive patterns and paranoid moments.
I later learned this myth of sheep was inherently flawed, just another lie piled upon a lifetime of deceit.
When I was at the end of sixth grade, attending Twin Falls Christian Academy, there was a book fair. The parent church of the Christian school was Grace Baptist Church, and the church turned out to support the book fair, raising money for the new gymnasium that had been built behind the church, expanding the classrooms for the school. I was at a table filled with books, and my maternal grandmother approached me, clearly struck by my appearance. She asked me what books I liked, and I tolder her I was obsessed with Encyclopedia Brown. I may also have mentioned Star Trek, of which I was a bit of an evangelist at the time. She started to say something, then left abruptly. I remember she asked me if I knew who she was, and I felt immediately like I should know. She never told me who she was, just turned and left. I remember turning to someone next to me and asking who she was, and not getting a reply.
I remember this sensation, this moment, this clear longing to recall, most keenly when I rewatch the 1998 film “The Truman Show,” and the scenes of people trying to wake Truman up to his constructed reality play out. Looking back, I feel as if my life was designed to play out as a performance for that family whose presence I somehow escaped.
Years later I learned from my biological mother’s brother’s wife that my biological grandmother did indeed approach me, that she was aware that I was her grandson, and that I was attending Christian school in the same church that had arranged for my private adoption in early 1974.
As I learned more about the circumstances around my adoption, I realized that the details of my life were known by a significant number of adults in my world. My birth was a secret kept not only by the state of Idaho in a formal way, but also something planned by two pastors in defiance of the desires of my birth mother, with the assistance of a family doctor, whom I am beginning to suspect may have also been related to my biological father.
A pastor at my parent’s Tyler Street Baptist Church had been contacted by a pastor at Grace Baptist Church, where I later went to school, looking for a young couple who might want to adopt. Two other men were involved, my birth mother’s doctor who pushed her to give up her baby, and my adoptive parent’s lawyer, who seems to have overlooked getting all the appropriate signatures on my final decree of adoption.
I know now that my life, at least through the age of fourteen when I was living in Twin Falls, was constructed primarily to keep me in the dark regarding my real family, and that religious authority was used to override my birth mother’s own desires, has led me into some rather absurd theories about my importance and purpose. There is a kind of conspiracy around my birth, secrecy and lies that keep me from connecting to my actual heritage. But DNA testing does route me entirely around those legal and social barriers, DNA testing and the passage of time. Stories become less dear, people who were responsible for the erasure of identity pass on, and their offspring are likely as curious as I am. DNA testing opens up all kinds of possibilities that were never foreseen when the adoptions were taking place and I had been sealed away.
Adoption’s history is a conspiracy of the dead, of ideological bias, of the past. A conspiracy that occurred in countless ways over the long history of the United States of America, to countless babies and children. I am one of thousands who were adopted and were sealed away from their truth by Idaho’s laws developed to disrupt and obfuscate. Proving that something untoward occurred, proving that my mother was coerced into relinquishing me to the care of strangers at the insistence of Baptist pastors and a family doctor seems impossible now, forty-five years from the date that this event took place. But it is the truth, and I finally figured it all out. And at the end of the day, it is only I who care enough to have figured it out.
And yet, it was an injustice.
Back when I was young it seemed like I lived within books, within libraries, within spaces where books were venerated – the nooks in friends homes, awash in comics, or buried in magazines in the corners of couches, while adults discussed television, or news, or weather. I would read voraciously, rather than eat. I would read while I rode my bicycle, rather than watch the road. I would read books to hide other books I wasn’t supposed to read, like Cliver Barker’s Imajica. I read the entire children’s section in the Twin Falls Public Library by the time I was ten, which unlocked the adult library for me. Having an adult library card at the age of ten allowed me to start discovering reading material that opened my world up in ways my adoptive parents were unable to anticipate.
But as I aged, reading faded. This isn’t entirely true, I began tweeting. My reading time, when I used to read books, became replaced with tweeting time, which was a kind of incessant search–a search for something to distract me momentarily from the search that always consumed my passive thoughts. A search for who I was, or at least, how I fit into the world. Reading was searching, and I read fast.
By my late thirties I read less and less for pleasure, unless it was for a purpose, or discovery. A few authors could get me to stop my scrolling on Twitter for a while, but I always went back to Twitter. Live breaking chat from around the world is an incredibly dynamic experience, and the earliest years of Twitter provided a lot of different ways to play with the service. It was a consuming hobby.
My speed of reading never faded, but the desire to read escapism left and my desire to search, understand, and uncover took over. Perhaps I found it harder to listen to the insights and daydreams of others because the noise inside my own mind was so unsettled. Ultimately I found that only a few authors had the density to appeal to me, and the pain, and understanding of pain, that I needed to read at the time. My hope is that in finding a way to finally get my own experiences into print I can return to my childhood love of reading.
I have also grown weary of social media. When I first joined Irreality in 2005, no one had seen anything like it online, and the small community that used the service was insular but inclusive, and the features, while server-intensive, implied a utopian, self-correcting, self-improving social space could be maintained online that gave users the feedback they desired while allowing for customizations that expressed each user’s individuality at the granular level. That online platform failed, and it has always felt like a high-water mark in my experience of online community building. That its failure was concurrent with the rise of Facebook, with all of it’s flaws, only underscores what the internet lost with its passing.
I’m happy to leave social spaces entirely, wander off into the analog world and wash my hands of the digital spaces. I came to the internet from offline computing in the very last months of the 1980s, and I have a very clear memory of realizing, sometime in 1994, that if I sat in front of an online computer for long enough I would figure out who my parents are… that somehow it would happen.
There are many, many aspects of being a person I feel I sacrificed along the way to pursue this seemingly insane quest, but having completed at least the primary arc of the journey, I cannot think of any other way I could have spent my life that would have been as satisfying.
The image on this post is a section from the journal I’m now editing and drafting into a book-length manuscript. After I finished writing this long-hand, my osteoarthritis at the base of my right thumb became so pronounced that I’ve now had the trapezium removed from that hand and my thumb tied to my finger with a tendon harvested from my forearm. I’ve relearned how to use my right hand, and I’ll use it to finish this book. I’m one of the adoptees who went through hell and came out the other side with a few scars, a missing bone or two, and a fierce determination to use my story, my experience to help prevent trauma to other adoptees, if at all possible.