The following is from a series of musings on trauma, memory, community, and place. The introduction to the series and beginning essay [link] explains the purpose of this month of entries.
I remember visiting my orphanage a long time ago.
It’s not a welcoming place.
The nuns who work there are generally very kind.
But the place….
The place is haunting.
Families in the neighborhood talk about the troubling sound of children being punished.
That is, when the orphanage was running full tilt.
Back in the day.
Now it stands empty.
The middleman has been cut out.
In the endless effort to streamline and formalize the trafficking of children.
Let’s please be honest about this from now on.
There is no such thing as a valid adoption.
Let’s just get that out of the way once and for all.
I’m not sure I recall why I was there this time.
It wasn’t the time I found a dusty forgotten desk full of originating information written out on index cards.
It wasn’t the time that one of the nuns exclaimed that my research was “upsetting” to “Our Lord Jesus” (blessings upon Him) as embodied by the crucifix on the wall.
It wasn’t the time after I wrote a last-ditch effort to patch things up with the nuns there and was warmly welcomed back, much to my great surprise.
By this time, some adoptees had found their families and the dreaded disaster resulting from such reunion did not occur.
The fear of scandal overrides anything approaching our rights as human beings.
I now approach the orphanage-as-place with a mix of trepidation and loathing.
But also understanding.
The orphanage-as-place, deprived of its mythology, is a horrid stain on society.
A palliative for those who do not wish to witness what their society has wrought.
A place of egress; a place of warehousing; a place of euthanasia.
A slow and deliberate euthanasia, but a euthanasia nonetheless.
In this light, the orphanage we were “rescued” from and adoption itself can be listed together as categorically the same thing.
Performing the same function.
In essence, we never leave our orphanage.
We move from one alienating place to another.
Which is no less alienating.
We simply change the site of practice.
In a cavalcade of caretakers.
And an upscaling of our care.
We need to admit this to ourselves.
If I am in a public clinic, and I am then moved to a private hospital, and then to a home hospice, this changes nothing of my “condition”, the reasons for it, and the source problems that caused it.
It does give a nicer name to use regarding the “care” aspect.
It does allow us to feel better about ourselves in terms of such “care”.
But fundamentally speaking, it does not do anything but alleviate symptoms and suffering.
To greater and lesser degrees, and in greater and lesser measures of efficacy.
And only in terms of their manifestations, as opposed to their derivations.
Whether they be of the patient, or of the adoptee.
And with such care afforded to those who can, well, afford it.
The only difference is that with a hospital, say, we can’t really point to the lifestyle of doctors and nurses as causing an influx of patients.
Whereas we can point to the class status and lifestyle of adopters and absolutely make a link between this and the presence of “orphans” in the world.
There is no arguing with this, and until such a time that this is the starting point of the conversation, I from now on refuse to discuss the subject at hand.
There are orphanages that actually function according to some minimum of human dignity.
I have witnessed them.
They are few and far between.
We should give them another name.
Because just as the orphanage-as-place is haunted by the shadow presence of those processed through and departed from its halls, the word itself is tainted.
The day I was in the orphanage for reasons that escape me there was in fact a child present.
He was born of a domestic worker.
And a Lebanese father.
I recall once when one of the nuns, worried to a dither about my efforts to broach the subject of the history of the orphanage, told me that “I needed to think of…”
At which point I thought she might say “…the child’s mother”.
I thought she might find some common cause with another woman trapped or coerced or pressured or forced to give up a child for reasons of poverty or honor or family name.
Instead she said “…the child’s father”.
“Daniel, you have to think of the child’s father; perhaps he is a famous businessman in Canada or Europe or America. Think of his reputation!”
I just stared at her in disbelief.
The sins of the father….
It is at this point that I don’t understand the equally misogynistic acquiescence of a woman adopting.
There is no getting around this.
The powerlessness of the mother and that of the adoptive mother are one and the same thing.
Despite any effort she might make in convincing herself that she is “progressive” or “empowered” or “enlightened” or “blessed”.
On this day the nun at the orphanage said that a couple from Spain was coming to see the child.
But that I should nonetheless consider adopting the child myself.
Time stood still.
My tongue remained tied.
In such a suggestion can be found an inverted exigence that forces silence upon us.
I mean to say that this suggestion closes down in and of itself the induction of any further argument.
I recall being in the office of my former department chair at the university where I used to work.
She said something along the lines of: “You of all people should be the one most wanting to adopt!”
In such a statement can be read the writing on the wall, should another word be forthcoming from my mouth that doesn’t follow the path laid out for me.
I replied: “Or not.”
Thus sealing my doom.
I remember a mother of a child from a former Soviet Republic who laughed at my earnest suggestion that we are, in fact, trafficked.
“Of course I bought my daughter!” came her hyenic response.
In such a retort can be heard the dissolution of all valid argument in the face of those who represent the given power differential involved in this practice.
What I would like to ask at this point, after this lengthy treatise on the subject, is why are these people discounted as aberrations?
Whereas the “happy” adoptee is exalted as the rule that disproves the exception?
I have two other questions.
This one eats at me most every second of every day as I come in contact with those who are collected at the bottom rungs of society. Just for a few examples:
The Syrian shoeshine boys, whom I’ve watched grow up, and whose stories I’ve learned, and whose places I’ve come to know, and for whom I can’t help but think that returning to serve in the army in Syria is by far a better situation to be in than on the streets of Beirut….
The widowed women with their now-adult sons and the women refugees who make the rounds of my neighborhood, asking quietly after stale bread from the bakery, bruised and turning fruit and vegetables from the greengrocer, leftovers from various eateries; who never fail to have a kind word and a blessing at their lips, who take care of their children as they can, and whose ability to maintain their dignity during such times often requires me to remove myself from their presence in order to not reveal the stinging hot tears rolling down my face….
The slave laborers from Ethiopia, in the hundreds of thousands emigrated from their place, who are treated like pack animals at best, and who manage to find relief on certain occasions only by throwing themselves from “Madame’s” balcony….
The young people I know and have known who strive as much as their education dollars can provide, as much as their lack of wasta can advance them, as far as endless days on the streets can give them anything approaching a leg up in this so-called country, in the shattered hopes for a better life….
I’ll leave it at that for now.
My first question to the adopter is: How did you choose?
How did you determine “this child” and “not that child”?
That is, if you did not in fact put in a request of what you were looking for in the first place.
My second question to the adopter is: How did you justify that choice?
How did you pick “one” and not “all”?
Via what devil’s bargain?
Through which reasoning worthy of Machiavelli, or Kafka, or Herod?
I stood at the window separating me from the child now in the arms of strangers.
I resent the implication that my decision is any less valid than theirs.
Because in fact, their “decision” is not for them to make.
It is invalid from the get-go.
It is for the child.
In the supposed act of “salvation” is an equivalent gesture of condemnation.
In the so-called act of “charity” is a similar manifestation of barbarism.
If some think of saving some, then some are saved.
If all think of saving all, then all are saved.
There’s nothing more to say.
This is the end of the discussion concerning the validity of adoption.
I remember during an online back-and-forth about the recent scandal of “re-homing” adopted children a comment was made by a mother about her “understanding” those parents who might re-abandon children temporarily in their care.
Of knowing what it means to be at the “end of one’s rope” concerning children.
This is very different from the groups of adoptive parents commiserating their lot in life which now involves second thoughts, disruption, and trafficking on the “down-low” of those children who didn’t answer their dreams of perfect parenthood.
The fault lies not with the adoptees.
And their resistance is beyond normal.
I replied: “In a culture that individualizes, that creates nuclear family as a core unit of society, you effectively raise your children alone.”
I thought I had overstepped my bounds.
But there was only resounding agreement.
We raise children alone, and we raise them to be alone.
When they proclaim their loneliness, and the ills such a state wreaks on their lives, we tell them to seek treatment alone, to suffer alone, to die alone.
Euthanasia would have been much kinder.
We consider their shifting familial situation, but we don’t think of their literal displacement as being equally violent.
There is rupture of family.
There is rupture of place.
This makes of the rest of our lives an “interruption”.
A paused moment that lasts a lifetime.
The shift to an individualized mindset of course lends itself to adoption.
We’ve moved so far down this path that we don’t remember the communal nature of what has been left behind.
For it wasn’t always this way.
The children who run around my Beirut neighborhood surveilled by everyone around them, known to them or not, remind me of the stories my father told of growing up in New York City.
Or my youth in a suburban neighborhood in New Jersey.
Populated by New Yorkers seeking greener pastures.
Maintaining their immigrant-derived notions of community for a long while.
The fences would only come much later.
The downtown would be destroyed by strip malls only much later.
The local farms, orchards, and cow pastures would be rid of only much later.
The tolerance of the Other would only become fear, then disdain, then outright dismissal of the Other only much later.
And now “later” has become “too late”.
Far, far, too late.
Image: Naturalization | Date: 1968 | Place: New Jersey | Camera: Polaroid | Caption: This is my father’s picture, one he was always so proud of. It has always been oppressive to me, previously in ways I couldn’t explain, now in ways I wish I weren’t aware of. I seem to recall an argument with him–we might have even been joking–in which he brought up the oath of naturalization, which at the time forced one to swear off allegiance to any and all “princes and potentates”. I replied that those words came out of his mouth, not mine; that I was not beholden to them. Similarly, during the swearing in ceremony at my sister-in-law’s naturalization, my brother walked out of the room twice, at the mention of “our boys fighting for freedom” overseas. The man sitting next to him castigated him for doing so, on “this, the most important day of your wife’s life”. My brother replied: “My wife grew up with the Pinochet dictatorship, put in place by a CIA-led coup against a democratically elected president. She and her family have left to escape the economic and political aftermath of that, as supported by this country. There are friends and family who have been disappeared, never to be seen again. No one has the right to lecture her about freedom or liberty or democracy.” Despite her educational degrees–everything she studied was local to Chile–she works as a medical assistant. At least once a week someone in her office park asks her if she’s the “new cleaning lady”. I wish to emphatically state once again: We have neither decided on this life–nor chosen this destiny–of our own free will; dispossession and displacement can not be separated from their context and history.