This series of posts is based on an interview conducted with Romy Lynn Attieh. The interview was conducted for a paper that Romy wrote entitled: “Exploring Kinship and Gender in the Return Narratives of Transnational Adoptees Born in Lebanon” for a class with Dr. Rosemary Sayegh called “Oral History and Gender”, in the Anthropology department at AUB. The first entry to the series can be found here: [link to entry].
RL: Can I ask you now, your reasons for coming back, your reasons for staying?
DD: I think if I had to point to one specific moment in time [it would be after] my parents had retired to New Mexico and they were clearing out [their stuff], as my father said, “before we kick the bucket” we have to clean the house. All of my stuff [that they had] started coming back to me. All of my papers, all of my drawings that they had of mine, and all of this stuff. So I had these boxes of information about myself. I was going through one box and all of the paperwork from the orphanage was there, about 20 or 30 sheets of paper. I thought I had read them already, and I had been in touch with some adoptees in France and (PAUSE) [I remember that] they seemed to me, at the time, to be pretty hardcore, meaning: “we’re going to go back! We’re gonna go to the orphanage! They’re lying to us!” And all of this stuff.
I was like, “I don’t, I don’t, I haven’t contacted anybody there yet so I don’t know [what you are talking about”; I tried to distance myself from their “activist” focus]. But [then] I found a piece of paper which was the, I don’t know what you would even call it, the official name change decree, which states: “this child of foundling status, whose parents are believed to be dead, will now be known under the name of — —”, and it was the name that they gave to me. And I had thought that this was my family name, and I remember that [realizing that it wasn’t] sent me into such a tailspin. I really can’t say why. Maybe it had been building up my whole life. It was my 40th birthday and I had planned this big party and I had decided that no, that [the majority of] these weren’t my friends, that they were just acquaintances, and why am I doing this and what am I doing here, and what have I done my whole life. [I canceled the party] and that’s when I decided to go back; and going back to me at that point meant [something simple, like] I’m going to go back and take Arabic language classes over the summer.
So I started looking up universities [for such classes], and I found AUB, and I found a job listing. I’m reading it and I call my sister over, she was living with me in NY, and I was like, “read this”. She’s like, “that’s your job!” I was like, “what do I do?” She was like, “apply!” So I applied, and five months later they accepted my application. So it was like, ah, sight unseen diving in, as I call it, jumping off a cliff, jumping off a cliff into the void. I realized after that point two things, one, that adoptees live a life of affectation [meaning affected identity markers], two, I think it maps onto things other minorities go through. We are acculturated in a white environment and the dominant cultural mode is white. And you are of a certain class. You have to act in a certain way. And this wasn’t working for me anymore; I wasn’t comfortable with any aspect of that. And so I decided to come back. I thought coming back I would look for family, but just like now, the idea of finding family still terrifies me on some level. So, it’s been ten years, I’ve been here and I still haven’t made that second leap, but it’s coming. I think its coming.
Here I would like to bring something up that I believe ends up dividing adoptees into two false “camps”: Those who are still in the “fog” as it were, and those who have managed to stir themselves from this fog; who realize the toll that their adoption has taken on them.
This is often presented in psychological terms; the “defogged” adoptee is considered by the dominant mode as “broken”, “ungrateful”, “unable to bond”, or otherwise fraught with psychic damage. At the same time, the adoptees who present themselves as “not having suffered” for their adoption are celebrated and often turn on adoptees who might claim otherwise.
What is forgotten in all of this is that all of us who have moved on from our fogged existence (also referred to as “drinking the Kool-Aid”, or as I refer to it now as having a “colonized mind”) were once fully immersed in the “other side” as it were. My rather mental spiralling down at the age of 40 is a fulcrum between two states of existence.
As such, I would like to argue that one side of this cannot exist without the other. Like “black matter” in space which is not “point-out-able” but which is made aware to us by its affect on what we can see, to be “in the fog” likewise points to a potential for liberating oneself from that fog, and similarly, that fog acts as a mass of “black matter” that has an effect on an adoptee’s psyche whether acknowledged or not.
I’ve argued elsewhere [link to On “radical psychology” and adoption] that psychology as such is not so much about the individual, but defines more the society that the individual finds herself in. I say this in an effort to escape the double-bind of the adoptee, namely, one who has been displaced, dispossessed, and disinherited in psychologically traumatizing ways and yet whose only recourse to deal with such trauma likewise comes from the society that wrought such trauma in the first place. This is a devil’s bargain of no small proportion.
In this question from Romy, I was struck by my flashback to when I was completely suspect of adoptees who claimed some kind of activist stance. This also refers back and answers in a way the question from yesterday, wondering why American adoptees do not return to Lebanon. We need acknowledge our acculturation which not only has managed to stifle any sense of resistance in us, but which makes us suspect of those who attempt such resistance.
Historically, this is a recent occurrence. And my research into resistance against adoption reveals a constant attempt by those on the “downhill” side of the adoption equation to do two things. First, to correct the injustice that they have suffered, or to at least register their voice as valid and heard. Second, to equally resist the attempts of the dominant mode in society to define them as outside of the polis, that is to say, those who are seen by society as having valid rights as “citizens” of that society.
Yesterday I was describing French adoptees in a rather unkind light. Yet, these were the very adoptees who “opened my eyes” to the false aspect of our defining documents. This presents a much more complicated picture than a more reductive notion of “fogged” and “unfogged”. Those adoptees who were activated to return and confront the orphanage were the same adoptees who, upon their return, seemed to seek out or fall into the obnoxious racist and classist tropes that the orphanage had and has no qualms about evoking and perpetuating; the same tropes that are embodied by our very adoptions.
This complex picture need acknowledge a variety of impulsions, notions of “free will”, as well as the psychological trauma of adoption itself. By this I mean to say that we are made up of what drives us as individuals, what drives as as members of a given social class, and what drives us as members of the “club of adoptees”. These drives may be perceived as being all of the same “direction” as it were; they may conflict and contradict each other, they may not even be acknowledged by us. Nonetheless, whether we acknowledge them or not does not change the fact of their existence.
For one example, at my job as professor at a local university, it was in my individual interest to stifle any anti-adoption/pro-justice stance for reasons having to do with the local politics of my department as well as the global politics of the university. This was likewise in my “class interest”, as an adoptee who had managed to leapfrog class barriers that present themselves to others in similar displaced situations, such as migrants, refugees, immigrants, the formerly enslaved, and who found himself on a “career track” dependent on such identification. In the big picture, this stifling was sensed by me as being detrimental to work that I had started that spoke not only of our condition as adoptees, but also of these other dispossessed and disinherited groups. I made particular “common” decisions, and have suffered the “individual” and “class-based” consequences.
In a similar vein, yesterday I was speaking with a former student who informed me that in her final year, putting down my name as a potential advisor brought with it the explicit threat of failure; this was made aware to her by former colleagues in the department I was teaching in. I likewise informed students that to work with me as an advisor likely would mean a near-failing grade, having nothing at all to do with their work, and everything to do with the politics of the place we both found ourselves striving in. I bear no ill will against those students who for three years would hang out in my office, only to shift into survival mode their final year, in an effort to secure their graduation and employment beyond that. Classes of students that managed to “stick it out” together were similarly victims of “collective punishment”; those classes described as “strong” and “unified” in their first year were later described as “failures” for not having produced [individual, competitively derived] “star designers”.
Here we see a microcosm of the world we live in. It is no accident that our “Western” acculturation tends toward the “individual-mindedness” of this dismal equation as being of prime importance. The communal and the collective, the collaborative and co-equal have all been historically targeted as impediments to the “progress” embodied in our current era by religiously-informed capitalisms. Most recently, we can point to both Gaza, Palestine, and Ferguson, Missouri as being particular cases in point of this targeting. I find myself focusing more and more on the crossovers between such resistances, and their histories in terms of class and manifestations of that class. That Gazans should give pointers to residents of Ferguson concerning how to deal with tear gas is rather sobering in this regard.
Given my understanding of the time before and the time after an “awakening” in this regard, and given my sense that there is no real difference before or after this awakening in terms of the effects of the original crime of adoption on our own psyches, I no longer feel the need to discuss our situation in terms of those “in the fog” and those “out of the fog”. I no longer think it is a “matter of time” before adoptees in general “defog” or “decolonize” their minds; I see no point in waiting for this to occur, because the effect of this colonization is the same whether an adoptee “awakens” or not.
I do think a bit more honesty from those who claim to be “happy” with their adoptions is in order, in terms of an overt and open evaluation of the situation and an acknowledgment of their “leg up” over others, and their determined decision to define themselves within the dominant mode of their acculturation—a placing of the individual over the communal. Given the currents of how things move societally speaking, it is obviously to no one’s advantage to “swim upstream”, to go “against the current”. But maybe the work we do should not be so concentrated on “turning around” others whose actions our own lives bear witness to.
The work to be done need also consider changing the direction and flow of the very stream itself. This is a much larger task, and requires us to think less about our own individual selves in relation to this stream and more about how this stream washing over us affects our behavior, our sense of selves, our ability to advance and move forward with our lives. I say this on the eleventh anniversary of my decision to return to this, the place of my birth. I hesitate to call it a “birthday”, since in all likelihood that was a week ago, or ten days ago, or two weeks prior.
I no longer dread this day coming; what was previously a profound depression concerning this date now is more a vestigial melancholy. I believe it is the same melancholia that is behind what I describe as a “dread” of searching, which seems to be based in a kind of complacency in the “plateau” I’ve managed to craft for myself. I am loathe to start climbing again; I worry about what reunion will bring in terms of responsibilities (familial and otherwise); I fear the moment when I am “out of clues” and thus perhaps am psychologically putting this moment off into the future.
I am convinced that “return” was the absolutely correct decision to have made eleven years ago. I only regret that the decision was not made at a much earlier point in time. The logical conclusion of this line of thinking is to wish that the adoption not have happened; of course, this is an existential conundrum better left unconsidered. And of course, to even consider that we as adoptees have a “Right of Return” seems almost impossible to fathom. I place it out there, all the same.
And so the “take-away” of all this is that there is that which we can acknowledge, point a finger at, even accuse concerning our “adoption psychology”, and there is that which we might not be aware of, like the hidden part of an iceberg. What is above the water level is fixable, notable, avoidable. What is underneath looms much larger, and poses greater danger. One cannot be regarded without the other. Both together have a gravity which is present whether we are facing them or looking away. I try to imagine a manner of approaching them that doesn’t involve the potential for scuttling; foundering; drowning. Today, I am incapable of considering that I might be successful in this regard.
The series entries:
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (I)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (II)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (III)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (IV)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (V)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (V-postscript)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (VI)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (VII)