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Grand Narratives

November 6, 2014

Adoption, for me, has long been an act of psychological resistance. The fact that I was adopted is most certainly a part of who I am, but what I resist are narratives that attempt to wrangle me into a shape that fit a particular explanation or agenda.  I am adopted; therefore, I am __________.  Nothing stops me short like someone–expert or activist or amateur know-it-all–filing in those blanks for me with his own theories and assumptions.  Even my kids, in their innocence, sometimes do this to me.  The other day, my five-year-old remarked out-of-the-blue, “It must be very sad for you to be adopted.”

Adoption is rife with grand narratives: birth mothers who always loved their babies; clueless white people who adopt kids from other countries; adopted kids who are incomplete puzzles that only roots, and reunions, will fill.  These narratives are populated by heroes and villains, saints and sinners, or at least binaries and foils, and the roles are often interchangeable, depending on the story, on who’s telling it, when, and why.

Several years ago I picked up a copy of Nancy Verrier’s The Primal Wound. For many people connected to adoption, Verrier’s book is a game changer, revolutionary in its attempts to validate the feelings of adoptees who suffer, suffered, and continue to suffer from a traumatic separation from and abandonment by their birth mothers.  I read the whole book shaking my head “no.”  I didn’t feel validated; I felt repelled by a theory that didn’t fit my own feelings and experiences.  In the last few years I’ve met many adoptees whose narratives do support Verrier’s assessment of the impact of adoption, including a dear high school friend who is a big fan of Verrier.  That they claim a primal wound and I don’t doesn’t make them broken and me whole.  It doesn’t make them realists and me a denier.  None of us is more real, more true than the other; we’re just different, and resisting grand narratives in that difference.

If anything, the more people I meet in the world of adoption, the less adoption feels the same.  The more of us there are, the more stories there are.  It’s not that there aren’t universals in adoption, aren’t strains of sameness that compel us to seek out each other, and our stories.  It’s just hard to tease those universals from the vast experiences that make us who we are.

Adoption is incredibly complex. It’s easy to understand how we are drawn to certain narratives as a way to corral those complexities, and perhaps to make us feel better or validated or vindicated, depending on what we’re searching for. If there are good guys, we want bad guys. If there is abandonment, we want salvation and hope. My story has all of those things. My story has none of those things.

If all goes well, my twin will return shortly to Morocco to adopt a second child.  I plan to be there, at the moment her child is placed into her arms, the moment his story takes a turn.  That my twin, who was adopted, is now an adoptive mother herself, is now a mother, has added a new layer of complexity to the unfolding narrative of our lives, much as it must have done for our birth mother who went on to give birth again, and to adopt three times.  It’s not requisite empathy for an adoptive parent to have played another role in the adoption triad, but it certainly must help.  There’s a danger of hindrance as well, though.  My twin and I guard against reading her children through the lens of our own feelings and experiences and then writing their story as if it were our own.  What we wanted and needed as children who were adopted may be very different from what her sons want and need.

The key is listening, to all the voices, to the clamors and the whispers all writing their stories as they live them.  Somewhere in the tangle of these voices and stories is what adoption really is. If you press your ear against the ravel, you’ll hear it.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. maryanne permalink
    November 16, 2014 12:13 am

    I have not seen your blog before, but was sent to it by a friend. I too do not believe in a universal primal wound that afflicts all adopted persons, and have gotten a great deal of grief for daring to say that. I am not an adoptee but a reunited birth mother, many years active in adoption reform. I do not want to take away the belief of those for whom primal wound theory resonates with their own experience and provides comfort. On the other hand, I do not think that primal wound can be scientifically proved, and it goes against most of what is known about child development. It is a matter of belief and faith, and some believers treat anyone skeptical of primal wound as a heretic.

    Of course many adopted persons are deeply hurt by their adoptive experience, but I think this begins not at birth, but when the child has enough cognition to realize what adoption means, that his first mother and family for whatever reason abandoned him, and further life experience and personality shape his reaction. Of course different people deal with this in different ways. As you have noted, adoption is very complicated and reactions to it are individual. Not everyone fits one template or pattern as primal wound theory posits. I do not think it is good for the adoption reform community to accept primal wound as a known fact that cannot be questioned.

    I too know Michael Grand and agree with his theory of narratives. You might also appreciate the work of Dr. Jean Mercer who is a child psychologist and professor
    who has written about child development, the lack of scientific verification of primal wound, and the harm done to adopted children by many forms of “attachment therapy” She has a blog called “Childmyths”.

    Verrier’s theory is simplistic and reductive and seems based solely on her experience as mother of an adopted child who was a difficult baby, and a biological child who was easy and placid. This scenario could just as easily have been the opposite, as babies, like adults, vary a lot in temperament and behavior, adopted or biological.

    • twinprint permalink*
      November 25, 2014 6:25 pm

      Thank you so much for your incredibly thoughtful (and supportive) response. I don’t know the work of Jean Mercer. I’m headed to her blog now. I really appreciate the tip! Again, many thanks!

  2. November 7, 2014 7:24 pm

    The great Victorian novelist William Thackeray said that we all live by illusions. It’s just important to choose the right ones. We all create our own personal narratives, our own stories that explain ourselves to ourselves, and we select those memories and observations that fit those narratives, which is to say, no one ever knows the whole truth about himself or about anyone else. All we can do is try for honesty, continue to question our own assumptions, and listen to others with open minds. An adoptee who doesn’t feel the primal wound may be like a person without arthritis who doesn’t feel joint pain. He’s lucky, perhaps, but his experience does not cancel out the arthritis sufferer’s agony.

    • twinprint permalink*
      November 8, 2014 12:23 am

      Thank you for your thoughtful response. And I agree with you absolutely: “All we can do is try for honesty, continue to question our own assumptions, and listen to others with open minds.” If anything has been reinforced for me in the last few years, it’s that. The reality is that a reflective journey may still lead me (and likely has?) to the same conclusion that I offer in the blog post. I stand behind my assertion, however, that the primal wound is not part of my own narrative, not because I’m being dishonest with myself or pacifying myself with false illusions. Nor does my disavowing of that narrative negate any pain, for example, that my birth mother has experienced–or anyone else, for that matter, for whom the primal wound narrative does fit.

  3. Jon Devaux permalink
    November 7, 2014 2:05 pm

    A follow up for you, I went to the website of Nancy Verrier and enjoyed her views. I eMailed her with information on our family and ask a few questions regarding birth fathers. I also ordered her book.


    • twinprint permalink*
      November 7, 2014 3:50 pm

      I’m happy to have pointed you toward someone in the adoption world whose views support your own personal narrative as a birth father. As I wrote in my blog post, I know of many others who have found great comfort in what she has written. I also know of others, including my twin and me, who haven’t. Verrier has her detractors in the research world as well. It’s probably no surprise that I prefer their work, one in particular, Michael Grand, whom I met an adoption conference a couple of years ago. His book is The Adoption Constellation: New Ways of Thinking About and Practicing Adoption. He’s a narrative theory person like me.

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