Wednesday, May 25, 2011


What is holding me together right now? I have no idea, really. I wonder if May will be the annual "Natural Family Dumps Kara Month." If so, I will have to remember to boycott May in the future.

As my dad's digitizing project continues, he sends me daily updates. Yesterday's included this one of me on my adoption day. Note the annotation on the border of the Polaroid, obviously written with joy on the day.

I think it's lovely that my father felt (and feels) nothing but complete happiness surrounding my adoption. That makes at least one of us. Why shouldn't he feel unadulterated happiness? But I don't want to burden him with the shadows of my own sadness.

I've been thinking a great deal about several adoption-related conversations that are going on right now.  One is about the relative insignificance of adoption trauma in light of other worldly tragedies (e.g., the Holocaust), and the second is about how adoptees, even when adult, are often brushed off as infants--rapped on the knuckles, if you will--when we say things that others don't like or want to hear.

Starting with the second: adoptees are often chastised for overstepping boundaries that aren't even evident, or worse, we're mocked for questioning things that people say about us. I think it's a ploy for some people to avoid dealing with their feelings about the things we bring up, especially when we're talking about how adoptees are being treated. Not many people like to admit that they're complicit in hurting people (I for sure know that I don't), but I believe that integrity means admitting when we have hurt someone, owning it, or even just listening to others when they tell us that we may have said something hurtful. This goes for EVERYONE (I have been taken to task for using the word "choice" related to surrendering and learned from the criticism), but I have seen nastiness in spades lately directed toward adoptees who speak up to say that they feel hurt or are worried about the feelings of other adoptees. Usually we're told that we need to stop and think about how our natural mothers feel. While this is important, we are ALSO allowed to have our own feelings, and these feelings may be in conflict with those of our natural mothers.

Being in one of those spots right now where I have been rejected in silence again, hot lukewarm to cold, without a word, I am ANGRY. I don't want to hear excuses about her trauma, her problems, her sadness, her wounds. You know what? She is a big girl and needs to take care of herself. I am a big girl and have  right to be angry about being treated like a used paper towel. I do feel for her, but my patience was pretty much used up in the past 12 years of silence. So if you're a natural mom who wants to support my silent mom, go for it. I would like to support her, too, except she won't let me. Please don't burden me by telling me it's my job to acknowledge her trauma. Because my PRIMARY job to take care of ME. Which includes feeling what I feel, a mixture of extreme sadness and anger and betrayal and confusion.

And no, this isn't the Holocaust, or genocide, or the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, or a tsunami. I am not making my story about anyone but me. But you know what? My BFF, who lived through the Khmer Rouge genocide and saw horrors I cannot even imagine, doesn't play the "I had it worse than you ever did" game. Because he's my FRIEND. He listens and loves me and supports me fiercely, no matter what. If it sucks for me, it sucks for him. He said that he's watched me these past couple of years and hoped that I'd at last be able to be angry about all that's happened, because anger sometimes helps propel you up and out of the mire. He especially felt this when I was suicidal last year. It's not good to get stuck in anger, but a good dose of it is often necessary to bring about change.

I'd say that people's use of metaphor is most profitably considered in terms of its authenticity. If you're making a spectacle of yourself for attention but it's clear that you want the attention more than you are experiencing pain (and yes, it's pretty clear when people are faking their dramatic outbursts), it's distasteful. But who are we to judge someone else's depth of pain? I find it hubristic to issue blanket statements about what others should and shouldn't do, or what they do or don't feel. Some of us HAVE lost our entire histories and families.

There are some adoption bloggers who have moved past the more difficult parts of their own experiences and don't feel the nagging pain so acutely anymore. They have integrated adoption into their lives such that it's not so central to their daily narratives. They go around saying, "This isn't a big deal. Ignore it. Move on." I am happy for them, but I would also hope that in their peace they would find compassion to allow those of us still working through our pain to cry and rant and think through our problems. Healing doesn't happen overnight, and I have been in this reunion game for less than two years! I hardly think that I can snap my fingers and be done with it. I tried the antidepressants, tried the therapy, and it's just taking TIME. Have some compassion, and pass the glue.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


I was reading the "Modern Love" column in the Times this past weekend and my heart stopped when I read this passage: "We looked at old family pictures in Matt's basement and reminisced about the good old days that we hadn't lived through. I felt that the yellowing photographs could tell me something about the boy sitting next to me, that through the eyes of his ancestors I would somehow come to know him."

That's exactly what I don't have. My connection to my history has been severed. There is no pile of photographs of ancestors to which I belong by blood that belongs to ME. I have seen some such photographs at A's house, but I was denied copies of them. I can only guess that my claim on them is suspect. I know it makes C uncomfortable to think of me as family. I can respect that, but artificial distance gouges into old wounds, and it hurts to know that my history is lost to me and to my children, grandchildren, and so on. What we have starts with me. I guess I am like Eve.

Meanwhile, my adad is merrily digitizing boxes and boxes of old photographs of his family and of my amom's. I love seeing them both as children; looking at their siblings, their cousins, and my grandparents. I see my aparents reflected over and over in the larger picture of their family. All of those photographs belong to me, although my father is sending the digital copies to my acousins. In truth, I feel I should give the hard copies to my cousins because it is THEIR heritage. The photographs are mine legally, of course, but my cousins' children and grandchildren will find meaning in the eyes and smiles and cheekbones of ancestors that Callum and Tobey won't. What belongs to me by legal right is given with open heart but doesn't fill the emptiness and desire for knowledge about these people whose blood runs in my veins. The people whom we do resemble. At least Callum takes after Mark's family and has that in his favor. Like Callum, like Mark, like Ludwig in 1915...

Perhaps more knowledge and photographs of my nfamily may come with time. But they may not, and my sons and I may have to come to terms with perhaps never knowing what my great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, etc., looked like. Because of my being that inconvenient child, meant to be erased and forgotten. Purged from the family tree. Never mentioned again.

It hurts, really hurts, when they say, "You have another family." Yes, I do. I am not disputing it. But having another family doesn't mean that adoption had no repercussions for me. That I simply traded one existence for another and morphed into another human being. Not possible.

A few months back I bought a book of narratives about family, some fictional some not. The editor chose to introduce it with a quotation from George Eliot's Adam Bede that is like another punch to the stomach today:

Family likeness has often a deep sadness in it. Nature, that great tragic dramatist, knits us together by bone and muscle, and divides us by the subtler web of our brains; blends yearning and repulsion; and ties us by our heartstrings to the beings that jar us at every moment.

My legacy is living with two families: one that I was born to and one that was made by adoption. The family that I was born to has a difficult time accepting me, for many reasons. That is a difficult burden for me to bear. I know it is difficult for them, as well, but I had hoped I'd find people as excited to get to know me as I am to know them. My expectations were shattered. My afamily loves me with all they have, but the one thing they cannot give is the thing I want the most. It is a cruel truth.

Yearning and repulsion? Yep. Jarred? Definitely.

Here's my adad's senior picture from high school. When I get lost in all of this crap, I remember how much I love him and my mom. They would go to the ends of the earth to help me if they could make a difference. You know what? My aparents are the only ones who have been there for me through it all. They're not perfect, but they put me first. ALWAYS. They don't whine about their shit. They don't make me take care of THEM. They act like PARENTS. And while I hate the pain of adoption, I am happy that the fucked up universe dropped me into their laps. I think about my dad telling me about their going to visit me that first day, and me being brought into the room, screaming my head off. They gave me a bottle, looked me over, and were asked, "Do you want to take her home?" My dad always cries at this point and says, "There was no way in hell they were taking you away from me!"

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Undead

I have a huge soft spot for movies and television shows and books about the supernatural, as I've mentioned before. I remember seeing Pet Sematary when it came out back in 1989. Although back then I wasn't equipped to think about it in the critical terms I am today, I remember thinking about some of its moral quandaries: what does it mean to bring something/someone back from the dead? What is lost at the threshold of death? What forces are involved that change things?

I especially remember thinking about the great sadness of the couple who lost their son and thinking that the father's attempt to bring him back as the child he had been was doomed to failure; the undead Gage was going to be the impossible replacement child for himself. He might as well have been adopted. And in his homidical rebirth, he fits the adoptee stereotype to a T. Sad, but true.

A brilliant friend of mine sent me an e-mail this morning on the topic of reunion. She wrote, very aptly: "I feel that adoptee reunions are straight out of Stephen King's book, Pet Sematary--you can bring them back, but they will never be the same again." We lose what we lose, and it's gone. Forever. We will never be the kept child. We will never have the place in the photographs or at the family table for holidays past. We might be in photos now, or at holiday feasts, but we will be haunted by our ghost selves, and we are ghosts for the family that didn't include us then. We can build relationships with our mothers, fathers, and extended families as adults, but our natural parents will not be the people who nurtured us.

I think many of us come to grief in reunion when we want what we lost and what we can never have. It's tantalizing to think about the "what ifs." I wish, for example, that C were a person on whom I could call for comfort (as one might do with a close friend, if not a mother). At least for now, I wish she were someone who would return my telephone calls. My adoptee hypervigilance is in overdrive, as I fear she is backing away just as surely as she took tentative steps forward. She might have good reasons; I just don't know, and if she won't tell me, I still won't know. I am excellent at inventing possibilities, such as wondering if she told her husband more about our contact on her trip to Paris, and he put the kibosh on what we have. Truth is, I just don't know and need to stop guessing.

I am trying to get better at living with uncertainty and realizing, as Joy told me so sagely, I will be okay either way. She's left me before. She can/might/will leave me again, although I hope she won't. I can't control what she does, only what I do in all of this. Perhaps I am finally mature enough to take in those difficult lessons of mindfulness and breathe, letting the worst of the doubts slide over me while acknowledging the ghosts and not allowing them encase my heart and soul in chill.

I have plans to visit A at his home for a weekend in June. His wife and son are going to be staying with C for a month while A is busy with work and fellowship applications. He invited me down, saying that he'd welcome the company. He has been a little distant and uncharacteristically quiet of late. I catch myself wondering if there is something he's not telling me about Newman family politics. Probably. But he'd tell me if he wanted to, and in the absence of that, I need to look forward and take his offer of a weekend away at face value. I treasure opportunities to spend time with him and get to know him better. Frankly, I adore the man, and I do wish I'd known him from the time he was born. We missed out on so many years.

Then I stop myself, and remember that we cannot resurrect the dead, or we will likely come to grief if we try. I will enjoy the man he is now and let the ghost little girl of me find and play with the ghost of the boy he once was.

And in honor of the Mother's Day just past, I want to share a picture of that ghost little girl with my amom, taken when I was probably about three years old, on Easter Sunday. I love her dearly, as she loves me, warts and all.

I have been enjoying our discussions about family in the wake of my uncle's death, and some interesting tidbits of family history have emerged, such as my father apparently becoming drunk and disorderly as my uncle's best man! Dad, you are very naughty.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Duck Among the Chickens

When I was in graduate school, I felt horribly at sea. I was rejected by my adviser, I was studying a topic far from the mainstream of both art history in general and the Berkeley department in specific, and I didn't have many like-minded friends around me. I found a steadfast ally in the brilliant Boreth, who has gone on to great things (mostly outside of art history: both of us see ourselves more as cultural studies/visual culture/literary types). He studied South and Southeast Asian art, and for many years I ended up by his side, hanging out with the Asian art crowd. At one point, the Chinese art professor called me the "duck following the chickens." I was the misfit, as usual: the person with, but not of, the family. I was welcomed, and I loved what I learned; I smile to remember the summer that Boreth gave tour after tour of the mandala exhibition to his rapt, ancient, blue-haired groupies, waxing eloquently on yab-yum at the Berkeley Art Museum and rocking his collection of silk scarves.

Nice digression, but back to the duck.

I was thinking today about how being an adoptee has meant that I am a duck raised by chickens. The chickens love me very much and are very supportive, but I no matter what happens, I am still a duck. They can pretend I am a chicken and call me a chicken, but it's insulting to my duck-ness.

A guest blogger wrote courageously and honestly on my friend Amanda's blog about how she felt there were differences in how she and her aparents' bio kids were treated. I can see how that might be, whether intended or not. Adoptees often don't look like their aparents or share the same talents or interests. This doesn't have to be a negative thing, and there are obviously many differences between people who share biological ties. Adoptees, however, don't share the benefit of knowing that they were born where they belong and where they can, more likely than not, see themselves mirrored in someone, if not their parents. I can imagine that having siblings who do share blood ties with the family could make things very complicated. Then you truly are a duck surrounded by chickens. Maybe the chickens are nice. Maybe not. But you are not one of them, even if your amended BC says McCluck.

It was interesting to read comments from adoptees who had grown up to become adoptive parents themselves, and there were, of course, the requisite references to being grateful that their "birthmothers" had given them up so that they could dodge horrible bullets of abuse/drug addiction/homelessness/what-have-you. I know that some people truly feel that they are better off for having been adopted. I must take them at their word. It depends hugely on the individual situation, although society in general loves to play up the idea that adoption is about providing a "happily-ever-after" ending for everyone involved. I flinch a little when people tell this particular story, even if it's true for them, because of its being the foundation of so much unpalatable rainbow-farting propaganda.

There is no way to determine that my experience with my adoptive family was better or worse than my life would have been if C had kept me. Only different. I do know that I didn't dodge a bullet so much as trade one middle-class existence for another one. My natural grandparents were better educated and more affluent than my adoptive ones. In both my natural and adoptive families, it is a given that children will grow up to go to college. C graduated from college with a double major in French and Spanish immediately after my birth and took a teaching job several months later. She was 22 and not a teen-ager. If any bullet was dodged, it was by my natural family who avoided having a bastard around to sully its "good" name in the small town where my grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, and many other family members lived.

I have never considered being an adoptive parent. At one point my mother-in-law asked what I would do if Mark and I couldn't conceive, and said that she hoped we wouldn't adopt because you never know what kind of horrible child you might get; yes, she really loved me. I worried about infertility, which makes no sense, but that's another one of the gifts of adoption: taking on anxiety about things that don't truly relate to you.

Infertility proved not to be an issue, and I gave birth to my two boys. I found that I love them with a feeling of connection completely new to me. I am glad that they will never have to worry about who they look like and where they come from. They are secure in a way that I will never be; that's probably the best gift I can give them. They don't have to struggle with the feeling of disequilibrium that I live with every day, as I try to build my identity on a foundation of liquid rather than solid. I have been rather more successful at this of late, but it's not a battle that's over by any means.

After having thought seriously about adoption and what it has meant for me, I know I couldn't have adopted a child. I couldn't have taken a child from his or her family and watched him or her struggling with the losses I did. There is the off chance that she or he might have been just fine to be given up and never have looked back, but raising a child with no interest in his or her roots would have been triggering for me. I cannot pretend that one family can be substituted for the other. They're not the same. Adoption comes with loss. And when I hear about open adoptions in which natural families treat adoptees carelessly or ambivalently, I am sent over the edge. I would take on the child's adopted baggage as my own, and I have quite enough baggage for myself.

If my sons ever become fathers at a time when they are unmarried, young, or that is otherwise "inconvenient," I hope that the child will either be aborted or kept. I cannot stand the thought of a grandchild of mine being separated from my family by adoption, even by open adoption, with its rosy promises of e-mail, pictures, visits, and "all that love." My grandchild is my grandchild. I will fight to keep my grandchild, no matter what. I don't want to think of another family member lost out there. It hurts too much even to contemplate. I know that as the paternal grandmother I probably won't have a hell of a lot of say, but I have very frank discussions with my sons, even now, so that I hope later on they will choose partners who think critically about adoption in the way my family does.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Family and Loss

My aparents are visiting this week, having just returned to California from a trip to the Midwest to see two of my mom's sibs. My mom's eldest brother passed away last week after a 30+ year valiant battle with Parkinson's. Sadly, we have discovered that his "caretaker" took advantage of my aunt, his wife, who appears to be in the early stages of Alzheimer's and tried to scam my aunt out of her money and her home.

It's possible that the "caretaker" hastened the death of my uncle. We know that my uncle was taken from his deathbed, against his wishes, to witness my aunt (who was likely drugged) give power of attorney and her assets to a man she had known fewer than two weeks.

I have seen stories like this on television and read about them, and they sickened me. It's absolutely horrific when violations of trust and crimes happen to people you love.

My aunt and uncle do not have children. I am sure that the "caretaker" who quit her job at the rehab center to follow my uncle home and "direct" hospice care took note of this. She also took note of my aunt's strained relationship with her brother, and worked hard to alienate my aunt from other family members, like my parents, and old friends who might be suspicious or could contradict the fabricated tales these lowlifes were spinning.

My aunt is fortunate that the police in her community and family have rallied to separate her from these new "friends" of hers who have stolen money from her; as the days go by, her mind is clearing and she and we believe that she probably was drugged to make her more docile and agreeable to their nefarious plans. She is a feisty Connecticut woman, and even the cloudiness of early Alzheimer's and her loss could not account for the dreamy laziness of her thinking. None of it made sense.

We hope that we can make a case to go after these assholes criminally. They are the lowest of the low, preying on the vulnerable in their time of greatest need, and it is becoming more clear by the hour that they laid their plans quickly to manipulate my aunt and leave her penniless and alone.

Their criminal ways remind me a great deal of those in the adoption industry who prey on pregnant women who are without financial means or family support to keep their children. "I'll be your friend! Let me help you! I can provide a better home for your child, and then your problems will be solved." Ugh.

Adoption is also inescapably and openly involved in the discussions we've been having with and about family. One of my aunt's nephews, J, recently married, and almost equally recently his wife was diagnosed with Stage III uterine cancer. She had to undergo a hysterectomy and is now getting chemotherapy to fight the cancer. She and J have no children. Apparently my aunt told him (as usual, without great tact or timing, given the cancer and loss of fertility), in the presence of my parents, that adoption is a wonderful, loving option and look how wonderfully it turned out for Kara and her parents.

In some ways what she says is true. I do not have an adoption horror story. I love my parents dearly and cannot at this point imagine a life without them. We understand each other and they support me unconditionally. Since this is the only life I've ever known, it is heartbreaking to imagine the loss of the pleasure of growing up with them and sharing the love of their families. As I have said elsewhere, all I know is that adoption guaranteed me a different life, not one better or worse. It did guarantee me the loss of my identity, and that has been hard.

Reunion is very new to me, and I don't think I've been in the same room with my aunt since my wedding day in 1999, when my adoption issues were very much on the back burner. She has no idea about my long-term feelings of loss. Those feelings don't negate the love I feel for my aparents, but they certainly complicate my lived experience as an adoptee. I am very careful about what and to whom I express about adoption because I don't need to be lectured about loyalties, gratitude, etc.

I may go visit my aunt in June to help arrange for long-term care, and when I do, I wonder if I will be able to open up to her about what's happened to me in the past couple of years related to reunion. Or if she will tacitly or explicitly declare loyalty to my aparents and turn a deaf ear. You never know.

I do know that I love her, and she has been one of the family members who has always accepted me, nerdy quirks and all. I want her to be safe, and we will all miss my uncle, who was one of the kindest, most wonderful people I have ever had the honor to know.