THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SELF-DEFEATISM IN
by Damsel Plum
The buzz-word in adoption reform these days seems to be “compromise”. “Compromise is the only reasonable solution”, we hear over and over again from seasoned veterans of the reform movement. Granted, the art of negotiation often involves compromise, but the enlightened negotiator chooses his bargaining chips carefully. There are plenty of areas in which we can compromise, plenty of reasonable offers we can propose to allay the fears of closet birthmothers and insecure adoptive parents. The civil rights of adult adoptees however, should not be one of the bargaining chips.
In “The Activist’s Handbook” (University of California press, 1997), author-activist Randy Shaw points out that legislators have long controlled leaders of grassroots social change organizations with the “be reasonable” argument. Access to legislators and invitations to sit on committees have been interpreted as being incumbent on one’s willingness to “play nice” with the legislators and to “be reasonable” regarding what legislators view to be possible. The fact is that anyone can have access to legislators. Holding fund-raisers, inviting them to swanky lunches and pointing out that your interests have the power to both benefit and hurt their reputation, are far more powerful than crying victim and playing into the “be reasonable” game.
While Randy Shaw points out that many different grassroots leaders have been manipulated by the “be reasonable” argument, there is reason to believe that the adoption reform movement would be especially susceptible to this sort of condescending exploitation. Adoptive parents have viewed adoption the reasonable alternative to remaining childless. Birthparents were told that relinquishment was the reasonable alternative to shame, stigmatization and poverty. Adoptees are often fed the message that silent acquiescence is the reasonable alternative to appearing “ungrateful” or “acting out”. Those most intimately involved in adoption have been controlled by others’ perception of what should be reasonable behavior for us, even in the face of compelling arguments and examples which prove that unconditional open records for adult adoptees is not only completely reasonable, but also necessary to achieve civil rights for adult adoptees.
Shame and lack of entitlement have long played a part in the lives of many in the adoption reform movement. These modalities have led to unwarranted compromise without taking the whole picture into account. They have led to proposed legislation based on the ill-defined “rights” of closeted birthmothers superseding those of adult adoptees. They have led to demeaning Confidential Intermediary (CI) systems which are often understaffed and which charge adoptees large amounts of money to effect contact, when the adoptee may not even want contact. They have led to strange, ill-supported arguments for open records including that adoptees are all psychologically damaged by adoption, that those who do not desire reunion are “in denial”, that we all suffer from a “Primal Wound”, etc.
Psychological arguments are among the least compelling when dealing with the issue of adult adoptee rights. A good many adoptees are happy to have been adopted and some do not desire to search. Nonetheless, these adoptees should have the same right to access their government documents as the next citizen. Using the argument that adoptees in general need to search and find in order to “be whole” will not fly with the general public since this is simply not the case for many adoptees. Open records is about rights, not about wounds, nor about facilitating reunions, which the government has no business doing anyhow. Until the adoption reform community realizes this, they will remain cowed in their vestigial victimhood and ever ready to compromise away their rights for the sake of whatever crumb of openness is thrown their way.
It is interesting to note who has been willing to compromise what in the adoption reform community. Birthparents have offered disclosure vetoes and CI systems if they could be proffered but an ounce of access. Omnibus adoption bills whose lobbying efforts were spearheaded by birthmothers give the passage of longer revocable consent periods precedence over the rights of adult adoptees. Even supposedly progressive adoptive parents are heard telling us that we are lucky to get anything and that contact vetoes “aren’t so bad”. When it is pointed out that these are essentially restraining orders being levied on the basis of one’s adoptive status, they try to tell us that very few people file them or that they are a “stepping stone” to openness. Most often their argument breaks down to the saddest and most self-defeatist chorus of all: “The opposition won’t allow it. We’re lucky to get anything at all.” Are we? Is this arguing from strength?
Each side of the triad has had its share of bad press. We have all read about or seen fictional portrayals of birthmothers who abandon children in dumpsters or who come back to stalk and reclaim their relinquished offspring. NCFA poster-girl Carol Sandusky is notorious for her prodigious talk-show blather blaming her psychological problems on being sought out and found by her abusive birthmother. Likewise there are news stories about potential adoptive parents who knowingly buy black market babies or who fake pregnancy and murder pregnant neighbors to claim their children. These sensational stories (which represent the extreme edge of the adoption experience) sink into the public consciousness and help contribute to the triad’s sense of indignity and lost control
The ones most frequently portrayed in a negative light however are adoptees. In public discussions of open records, we are almost exclusively referred to as “children” and our personal responsibility, maturity and motives are called into question. In a recent episode of the popular NBC television series “Law and Order”, an adoptee who had spent her life in and out of foster care is portrayed as a murderous inheritance-seeker. Although the character’s birth records would not have been sealed given her circumstances, the show’s writers deemed it appropriate to get a jab in at open records by having a main character make the remark that records should not be opened because of such people. The message? Adoptees are more aberrant and dangerous than the rest of the population.
Negative stereotyping keeps the public thinking of adoptees as eternal children who should be grateful to have homes at all. Those who go bad demonstrate the danger of diverging from this assigned role. Thanks to such perceptions we often find ourselves apologetically explaining why we would dare to want to know where we came from. “Well, you know, I could need medical information.” “It’s ok in my case since my adoptive parents support me. They are my real parents.” “I have this nasty primal wound and it’s bleeding all over my house. You see, since I’m adopted, I’m a packrat, so much more furniture is being ruined than would be with your average wound victim.” “I know I’m a shameful bastard, born in sin and given away to worthier parents, but if you would be so kind as to allow me to see my original birth certificate I promise not to be naughty.” We should not have to apologize and make lame excuses for wanting the civil right every other citizen of the nation has. And yet we feel we must.
An especially pernicious manifestation of these apologetics comes in the form of adoptees (and other triadians) accepting seriously compromise legislative provisions such as mandatory CIs, disclosure and contact vetoes. The assumption on which this is based is that adoptees do not deserve the same rights as other citizens, so we should be lucky to get anything at all. Or so we would be told.
Don’t apologize for daring to want what everyone else has. Develop your allies and choose your advocates carefully. Learn the facts, study the tactics of successful grassroots movements, educate others, and reach out to the public at large. Don’t be cowed by arguments that you have no rights and are lucky to get anything at all. If someone is on a legislative committee, looking for a judgeship, or otherwise stands to gain politically from compromising your civil rights, perhaps you should think twice about having this person as your organization’s advocate, regardless of their triad position. Once you get the word out, empower yourself and your group, you will find that legislators will be more willing to take on your cause for the positive publicity and votes they stand to gain as civil rights advocates.
Adoptees – the time has come for us to take the lead in the issue which most impacts us, and over which we had no decision. Come out of the closet and don’t be ashamed that you are adopted. Knowledge is power. Conviction and self-respect form the armor which will protect us from the lies thrown into the fray by our enemies and the ignorant ones who are manipulated by them. Education and outreach are the swords with which we can cut down the briar of secrets and lies set up by who fear the truth and profit from lies. Defeatism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are not children. We are not second-class citizens. We are not shameful. Real open records is reasonable. It’s our job to make it happen the right way.
Damsel Plum, M.A. is a reunited adoptee, mother of two and Yale-educated linguist who resides with her family in Marin County, California. (This article first appeared in the Summer 1997 issue of the Bastard Quarterly.) Copyright 1997 Bastard Nation All Rights Reserved