In a blog post by Rebecca Hawkes at “Sea Glass and Other Fragments” [link], I have been referred to as a “burnt-out activist adoptee”, seemingly by virtue of my own words. I think this discussion of those who speak as compared to those who remain silent is a great one. Nonetheless, I felt the need to post a response (as I often do), and it has grown into a much longer reply (as it often does), and so I am posting it here with the hope that it might raise discussion, and I thank Rebecca for acknowledging my statement, and for bringing up the issue. I also apologize for straying a bit from the original topic, again, as I am wont to do, but I think there are tangential points which need be brought forward.
There seems to be an assumption being made that adoptees are on one side of a “battle”, and there is another side to that battle, and for various reasons adoptees either silence themselves, or go silent after engaging for a certain amount of time. I agree that the reasons for our silence are complex, and I agree that it often takes a particular event or circumstance for us to become “vocal” about the topic, and that there are different weights ascribed to all of this. All the same there is a slight misunderstanding in what I said and what it implies, and I also think there is a great deal missing from this premise, and so I will hope to show what is going “unsaid” and “unspoken”, as I often try to do.
What I fear is not being considered is that those struggling with their own adoptions or with adoption as a subject of study or debate are not on equal foothold. Not for reasons having to do with “stages” or “journeys”, but for the “other side” (which I would more refer to as the “bigger picture” we are a subset of, or the “dominant mode” of things to take a more academic approach) that we are engaged with. Some on this side have a vantage point afforded to them by class, or privilege, or education, etc.; some don’t; some have found sites that afford protection; some have not; some are unaware that this is a field of engagement; some are attempting to tread quicksand; some have stepped down from their vantage point, but are still judged according to that former place; etc.
It is a complicated picture, done no justice by reductive imaginings. It seems to me that one of our “activist” goals might be to give everyone an equal starting point, or aid everyone in finding an equal footing, instead of describing “where they are” as if this is simply a function of them in and of themselves. The problem here is two-fold: first in even referring to “them” instead of “us”, and also in thinking that achieving such an even playing field involves an elevation of all to these top vantage points, in effect the very same thing. I would like to argue the opposite. I would argue that coupled with our engagement must also be a disengagement with this dominant mode.
By this I mean to say we need be aware of our own luxuries and privileges, and how this has an impact on how we address our given situation, and that of others. Everything about adoption as a subject for activism—whether one is reform-minded or abolitionist or pro or somewhere else along this spectrum—needs to be examined in the way that such activism mimics or doesn’t mimic the dominant modes of adoption (and thus of the status quo generally speaking ) and how these modes categorize us, diagnose us, splinter us, and set us up in hierarchies above and beyond our own self-descriptions, self-imaginings, and self-aspirations.
Because it isn’t adoption activism that gets to me per se, it is this razor’s edge between realms, and the growing lack of understanding from fellow adoptees that brings me down. To note is that I said “writing about” adoption was getting to me. The truth is, I get much more positive feedback from adopters than from adoptees at times; I have more fruitful discussions with those we might consider on the other end of the spectrum. Not that I am looking for positive feedback only; quite the opposite. All I ask is acknowledgment that the discussion need take into account all points of view, as uncomfortable as they might be; that this is not a static and thus definable state of affairs; and also that the sheer emotion of it is going to require that we reconfigure our comfortable ideas of what makes for “proper” discourse.
I feel the need to explain further that it isn’t my actions locally speaking as an adoptee that get to me, it is the willful desire of adoptees to maintain a sense of self afforded to them via their adoption, and which runs counter to if not undermines such actions on the ground, that depresses me no end. I don’t say this as an accusation but as a lament as I am often fond of saying; a warning from those of us who have been there in terms of other activisms. This of course runs counter to the given therapeutic notion within the adoption realm that we will all “come to terms” with this in our own time, as well as the idea that we all have “control” over our own narratives and as such cannot impose our views on others.
I find this to be problematic for three reasons: One, in the solipsism and narcissism (I don’t know how else to describe it) that mirrors many of the class of our adoption; two, in the individualism and centered-on-self scope that counters the more communal classes and places we often originate from; three, in the denial of the history of the institution of adoption and the narratives that came before us. I used to hope that such “self-awareness” would eventually move into an expanded empathy for those who are similarly displaced and dispossessed, or who have suffered for such displacements and dispossessions; this seems rarely to be the case. As such, I don’t think we can any longer avoid this discussion of status quo, class, and hegemonic state of being that defines our existence in this world we share.
At the same time, I want to explicitly make clear that I disavow completely any attempt to label us, categorize us, diagnose us, from the outside or from within. What does it gain us to refer to one another as “burnt out”? Or to assume that such a definition is static or permanent? In this reflection of how the dominant mode itself might like to define us, it ends up almost bordering on wishful thinking, especially when in no way does it reach out to such a one so defined. I am reminded of photographers who win awards for their pictures of starving children in the deserts of Africa, and the ethical question which is raised: “Why didn’t you intervene?” Furthermore, how is this photographer unaware of, say, their country’s foreign policy as a role in this child’s plight? This is a staggering indictment of ourselves, if we think about it: We, as Others, “Othering” ourselves; we, as adoptees limiting ourselves to a small part of the historical record.
The problem is, such an intervention and reaching out requires a different mindset from that of our acculturation, which is by its dominant nature competitive, exclusive, categorizing, and “Calvinist” (as I often say) in the sense that it maintains that things are “just the way they are” and there is nothing we can do about it. I don’t live in such a world anymore, and so I feel more and more compelled to address it, to testify about it, as much as I admit to having lived it, and to have regretted living it. And I ask: Is this the world we wish to live in? If so, let’s state it out in the open; I have no problem with honesty in this regard. If not, then let’s make efforts to look at ourselves and our current state of affairs.
I ask more pointedly and again, in a way which questions our “silence” as purely a given: What does it mean when adoptees in their treatment of each other, their descriptions of each other, their discourse with each other, take on the trappings of their acculturation in such a way that they themselves do the work of those who wish them silent? This is by no means limited to us; I’ve seen it a million times. What does it mean when activist groups splinter along lines that mimic the class differences, or privileges of the society that they are activated toward, within, or against? How is it expected that those who may have suffered this within their adoptive culture also must face it coming from those on the “same battlefield”?
Why is there little or no critique of these “theories”, these “diagnoses”, these “labels” that the pillars of the dominant and hegemonic mode wish to pin on us, and which have been used historically speaking to keep us down? Shall we return to the days when women were diagnosed with “hysteria”? When bumps on our heads “defined” who we are? When Orientalism, racism, colonialism, etc. allowed the powers that be to dominate other parts of the planet? In accepting the given status quo of those who define that status quo—and whose station within society is determined by such a definition—we dig our own graves. Is there no one in the various realms of social work, therapy, psychological evaluation, etc.—domains which require that adoption continue in order to justify their very existence—who will stand up to this, criticize this state of affairs?
Why is there no acknowledgment by fellow adoptees of other ways of viewing things? Of other ways of speaking? Of what we might learn from those of our origins, and not those of our adoptive class and acculturation, with whom we tend to class-identify? Of attempting to step out of the picture frame, of the box as it were? All of this has disturbing historic precedence in every civil rights battle ever fought, and certainly every activism I have been involved with in my short lifespan. To such a degree that it became the center for my research at university in terms of: What are the internal and external factors that destroy such activism; what are the modes of consensus that might be availed of to counter this; how do we avoid the “slippery slope” that is the designed entranceway to the slaughterhouse; what does it mean to live such an activism instead of just speak about it theoretically or otherwise?
I’m not saying I have answers; I’m still asking these questions myself. I ask them as an admittedly imperfect member of the subset of those on this planet dispossessed and displaced via adoption. As stated, I am only burnt out here, at this, the razor’s edge between realms. The truth of the matter is that similar to how I preferred the in-my-face racism of the French to the more sinister “Where’re you from? No, where’re you really from?” smiling-American version, I’d much rather face the death threats of the Lebanese mafias trying to keep us from stirring up problems locally than this kind of benign targeting and destruction; of throwing up the “Painted Bird” and then watching her get pecked to death by her very flock [link]. I’d much rather the loud and garrulous street arguments I get into which assume resolution as a final phase than the clipped, structured, and never-finding-resolution “debates” found online going back decades. And thus my “battle fatigue”.
For the record, it’s not a question of going into “self-care” (I’m not sure what that means, though I think I appreciate the implication) because I don’t have such a luxury and privilege here. It means stepping away from what is toxic, whether others acknowledge this toxicity or, sadly, revel in it, which is often the case. More disturbingly, for the most part, they don’t realize it, and this only exacerbates its poison nature. But by no stretch of the imagination should it be inferred that I am somehow “retiring”. Yes, it is “brutal out here”. But such brutality has a source, if we dare look to find it. It also has very particular tools, and for these there are alternatives. I ask that we simply question the use of our tools and our discourse for their sources and reasons for being; a minimum of transparency.
For you’ll forgive me when I say there is a slightly arrogant assumption in this post and those it makes clinical reference to, which is that there is some kind of “norm”, that there are those outside of this norm, that there is some kind of pre-ordained trajectory through static phases of that norm, and that we can do nothing but watch each other go through these phases. To me, this is passivist, self-defeating, and the equivalent of observing test rats in mazes without questioning why we are observing them in the first place, or understanding that we, in turn, are being observed.
An aside: There is a famous (and horrifying) lab test of electrifying the path that a dog must traverse to get to his food. He learns the correct path by gently making his way across the floor of his cage. He assumes this mode and all is well. Then the testers change the electrical pattern, and the dog is forced to relearn everything. This is repeated endlessly until eventually, the dog just lies down and takes the electric shocks. Why are adoptees silent we ask? Maybe they’ve been shocked into it by any and all of those who prefer to “structure”, “restructure”, and “observe” rather than to step in and intervene; to help out.
There is another assumption made here which is that we “disappear”. We disappear from a given class realm and scope assumed to be the norm, but we are not gone. And our activism does not stop. I have a dozen projects going on locally; anyone is more than welcome to visit me here and see how little I am retreating into a “cocoon” to “salve myself”. That such local action is sustaining on a personal and spiritual level only points out what is missing from the realm of so-called adoption activism. The binary idea of “on the scene/out of the picture” is an invention and presumption of my former place of acculturation, and few here have this luxury. We are not “out of the picture” as much as we have simply tired of the tableau set up for us to fit into; the theater lines we are meant to recite. There is a big difference.
Because the fact of the matter is that despite the day-to-day of the place I find myself in, we still manage to get by because we attempt to share each others’ burdens in no small way; in our daily interaction, in a million minor turns of phrase and gestures of mutual assistance that we don’t even think about consciously. Note I didn’t say by “agreeing with each other”. I’ve come to be enamored of the way in which problems great and small are handled in my neighborhood, in a way that allows for various levels of voice in a full spectrum of voice, as well as a full scope of public engagement. The sun does not set on a problem here, and this is of great value to me as a life lesson. Yes, this often means long, drawn-out, seemingly endless debates. But what is acknowledged is the needed “clearing of the air” in order to get to what is important for all concerned.
Comparatively speaking, the online realm and its “violent reduction”, as well as the ability to define a “removed space” is the exact opposite of this. The problem is not the place, but the claim of support therefrom when in fact there is little. You’ll forgive me when I point out that this mirrors the very specific and notable ways in which the dominant mode of things aims at targeting those destined for dismissal or destruction. I would also point out that the reduction of the spectrum of frameworks for dealing with adoption to a slim sliver of the full range of such frameworks, along with the reduction of the ability to speak to a given “band” of allowed discourse is, again, in and of itself, a function of our dominant system. We ignore this at our own peril.
I have echoed the wisdom of activists past and present (meaning, this isn’t me inventing something out of whole cloth or taking credit for anything) many times when I state that we cannot change, alter, reform, or undo a system using the tools thereof, whatever form they might take, or, at the very least, understanding their negative side. I’ll likely go to the grave stating this, but I will not let it go unstated, either as a trope or as a way of living. In a post at Mothermade’s blog [link], I summed it up this way:
My engaging in a super-mediated environment which caters to a particular audience requires a particular “voice”. I am saying the exact same thing here in my reply that I have said in conference proposals as well as academic papers and book proposals. To ignore that I “speak” in all of these different voices is to paint me as the “one-note angry adoptee” that has become something of a stereotype at this point. [Edits in square brackets: Meaning, I could speak in Shakespearean soliloquy and it wouldn’t make a difference; this is a false target. The assumption that we only have one “rational, logical, middle-tone” voice is to deny our own humanity; our own desires to work out physically or viscerally what has taken a toll mentally or psychologically.]
I also think that the op-ed piece speaks “violently”, and much more than my reply. That it be formalized and proper doesn’t hide its negative side. I am horrified by the lack of focus on the history of adoption, and the lack of forthrightness from people in the industry. There is no other way to respond to this, if you ask me. Her words are the greater “violence”: what is left unsaid by proponents of the industry is in a league by itself in this regard.
If there is a “fight”, then it is historically related to every fight for civil rights and human rights ever waged. All radical fights for change have required a forcing of hand. Moving back to a “colonized” place has taught me most of all the danger in “respectful engagement”. Because frankly I’m surrounded by those without voice, without hope, and with no choice in the matter. I am no longer speaking from my former class status, and I do not feel beholden to its “rules” of order, engagement, or discussion. Because these are tactically designed to keep down those on the wrong side of the uneven playing field. And thus my screaming into the hurricane as it were.
I’m not looking to change people by fighting them. I’m looking to change injustice in our society. And this is a battle, not just a fight. Only 10 percent of the planet thinks this way, yet the mediation, as seen here, [is considered] total. How is this fair? I’ve decided that I’m working with and for the other 90%. They don’t have the time or patience for such niceties. And when they stand up and speak out, there won’t be much for anyone else to say. And there certainly won’t be any correcting their “form”.
I absolutely understand where she is coming from with her request of me, but I also know first-hand what it means in a different context to be told “know your role”, “act civilized”. I’m not trying to be belligerent with this post, I wish simply to point out that to be “burnt out” implies an active agent of “burning out”, which is this constant echo of something I have tried physically and psychologically to distance myself from. If I disappear from this “realm” it is only because I sense that engaging with those most comfortable with their class status is no longer a valid means to an end. It doesn’t mean I’ve stopped engaging; quite on the contrary. To summarize the points here: There is no value in trying to define “adoptee mythologies” simply as a replacement for “adoption mythologies”. This is a recipe for self-abnegation.
It is the “mythologizing” which is the problem—mimicking the actions and discourse of the dominant mode—not the resultant mythologies we use to affect a sense of reality. The world is much messier, much more dynamic, much more fluid, mutable, less affected, and ever-changing than this can ever allow for, and hence the apparent need to steer, corral, and yes, shock others into quiescence; into not rocking the boat. We accept our “Facebook reality”—meaning, only dealing with the subset of humanity which is class-similar to us—to our own downfall. And the boat in the bigger picture, for what it is worth, is sinking.
My advice—or plea might be a better word—would be to try and get past this desire to rigidly define and structure the discourse, or the situation, and go with the mess of it. We are not so much “adoptees”, rigidly defined, as we are “displaced and dispossessed persons”. I can call myself an “adoptee” all I want, but this only has value among the class of our adopters if I give it any thought. This is to accept myself as the “direct object” of another’s subjective action. As such, the battle is immediately lost; we define ourselves into non-existence this way.
In a similar vein, I can call someone else “angry”, or accuse him of “mansplaining”, or “bad behavior”, or whatever anyone wants to say about form and not content, but this only as long as his “anger” is a fixed and static aspect of his being, or if it is a permanent condition, or if it is not in and of itself a function of those labeling him in this way. This also puts forward another binary that doesn’t hold water. I’m straying from the original post, I know; but I’m trying to wrap up a lot of peripheral goings-on as well. My apologies for any implication that this is of the original post which sparked this reply.
Returning to the point, we can decide that someone is “burnt out”, but this only if they share the definition and acknowledge the act of defining. I do neither of these things, not for myself, my personal sense of self, but for our sense of self, as much as English barely allows me to say such a thing. We can no longer afford to ignore the political and economic circumstances of our adoptions, or even to simply put them on a “back burner”; for in these circumstances is to be found a much greater “common cause” than if we simply all “act nice” and “speak nicely”.
And if there is a rebuttal to this, it certainly is not found in anything which upholds the political and economic realities that led to our adoption in the first place, or which forefronts the individual over the communal, or which attempts to rigidly define the parameters for the discussion of the situation. I would welcome rebuttal to these arguments put forward as arguments, and not as simple “differences of opinion”. On that note I would welcome anything which reveals to me a valid aspect to my adoption, to our adoptions. Anything at all. I wait for it, but it doesn’t come.
A friend of mine in New York, a stand-up comedian, once said that her family communicates “by putting Ann Landers columns on the refrigerator”. In a recent article posted at Land of a Gazillion Adoptees, “Of Nine Minds” refers to this rather fear of direct confrontation as “Minnesota Nice” [link]. I enjoyed the article, and I had to laugh at this a little, because my own New Jersey-New York acculturation was so exactly the opposite of this, and it recalled for me those days when states and regions had acknowledged (and respected) differences along such lines of culture, linguistics, dialect, etc.
The dominant mode that wishes to change this for very specific reasons (still seen in the televised minstrelsy concerning Italian-Americans from this part of the country) reminds me on the other hand of signs I used to see in New York City which advertised: “LOSE YOUR NEW YORK ACCENT!”; or more personally, my adoptive father of Irish descent spending his life looking for an acceptance of him that was not even an option. This hegemonic demand for change is, in this analysis, asking too much of those who have already given up if not lost everything that might have defined them. And I’ve lived this too many times in one lifetime to live it any more. This is what I meant by “pulling back”.
So we might acknowledge that our acculturation is rather loathe to get into the messy, muddy, nasty, down-and-dirty of adoption and of a discussion thereof. And we might also see that we can describe this state of “fear and loathing” rather statically or passively, as simple observers, or we might hold it up as an action point, something to work on. The point I would like to make is that it is too soon to parcel up adoption as simply another “topic of discussion”. We have not plumbed its abysmal depths, nor heard from all who have been affected by it.
When our artists’ collective here in Beirut wrote out bylaws on consensus during my research, some of the places we pulled concepts from included the Iroquois and the Quakers. It should not surprise us that such groups were targeted by the dominant cultural mode for silencing. Understanding that there is historical precedence for all of this will get us much further than will the given of much of this discussion, which seems to require constantly putting people into check for their “tone”, or labeling ourselves or others, or defining ourselves based on dubious pseudo-medical or static-identity categories.
I do not deny that these have a place in terms of our own understandings; nor do I deny that healing requires time and patience. But it also requires removing the source of injury—dealing with the dis-ease, not just the symptoms—and yet we seem to focus on removing the one healing from the injurious, which is not asked to change its ways; or else we condemn the injured to die in the desert while we take photographs of them. Worse, the injured often simply seeks a role-reversal, without calling into question those roles to begin with. I feel that our discussions must be willing to invert the tableau as it were; to expand out to points of view which challenge the dominant mode of things; which make us ill at ease perhaps.
For anything else is simply a cover and a mask for the fact that we are dealing with rather uncomfortable truths, both in terms of adoption as well as the society that gave us adoption. Anything other than this focus just leads to further misunderstanding, and in the meantime, the machine keeps churning forward, grinding us up with it. A friend in the States said to me recently: “This country is going down the toilet”. I replied: “Well, I’m down the sewer, so I can tell you where you are headed….” I imagine it might be possible for me to say: “He’ll find out for himself eventually”, if the direction we are headed were a healthy one. And this is why I think there is no time to waste. It’s time to get everything on the table; it’s time to even out our own playing field; it’s time to be honest with ourselves; it’s time to get uncomfortable. If you don’t like me yelling, yell back! I guarantee I can take it, and I will appreciate this honesty.
In all seriousness, it is as a function of my immersion with others similarly displaced and dispossessed that has been most therapeutic for me; it is the time I spend with them that is most fruitful and engaging in terms of this discussion; it is with them that I find a sense of peace, a realm without affectation, and to them to whom I retreat when I need to escape. Not “to myself”. To assume that by the statements I made that I might imply that I was losing myself in the “individual” is to deny everything I’ve written which implies that there is only hope for us if we lose ourselves in the “communal”. It also reveals itself to be making an “assumption” which is of the status quo, and which I reject wholesale. I state this not as an accusation, but as a request to acknowledge and respect this difference in points of view. For both our sakes; for all our sakes. Peace and blessings.