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December 14, 2007

International Adoption, It’s a One-Way Dialogue

From Mother Jones:

When adoptive parents like myself try to keep the lid on controversy, we do
ourselves—and our kids—no favors.

by Elizabeth Larsen

November was National Adoption Awareness Month, and the
media—including Mother Jones, which recently published my story Did I
Steal My Daughter? The Tribulations of Global Adoption—have been doing
their best to bring fresh ideas to a much misrepresented topic. The New York
Times has joined the fray with, among other things, “Relative Choices,” an
engaging series of personal essays to which readers can post comments
online. As an adoptive mother, I’m delighted with the variety of
perspectives (though I do wish more birth parents had been included and feel
that the title “Relative Choices” is off tone—most adoptees don’t have
a “choice,” nor do birth mothers buckling under economic or societalpressures).

But there are viewpoints that aren’t given a lot of real estate, most
notably the perspectives of people—adoptees, birth families, adoptive
parents—who are deeply critical of adoption. Novelist Tama Janowitz’s
essay, published on November 12, unknowingly highlighted this disparity.
Intended to be a humorous look at generational resentment, the essay employs
the term “Mongolian” to describe her Chinese-born daughter’s features and
refers to a recently published book in which Midwestern adoptees in their
30s and 40s “complain bitterly” about their experiences and as a result
blame their parents. (The book, which Janowitz doesn’t name, is Outsiders
Within: Writing on Transnational Adoption.)

It didn’t take long before the blogosphere was buzzing not only about
the Janowitz essay, but also the fact that when some of those very same
“bitter complainers” tried to post their reactions, they couldn’t get past
the Times’ digital gatekeeper.

In its FAQ for posting comments, the Times makes it clear that its
criteria for allowing users to post comments are subjective and that
abusive, vulgar, or ad hominem comments are not tolerated. In the opinions
posted for stories that were not related to adoption, it is clear that the
website favors measured language over anything that tilts toward pissed off.
But how do you explain that a post that included the line “The term
Mongolian to describe Asian features went out of fashion the year your book
was published” was nixed when a response to an article about Camille Paglia
saying “Camille, dear. Return to your Madonna-lust and leave the rest of us
alone” did make it through? Several of the responses that were not published
are posted on Harlow’s Monkey, a blog by Jae Ran Kim, who was adopted from
South Korea and is now a social worker specializing in adoption. While some
of the comments might not be personally gratifying for Janowitz, none that
I’ve read are, in my opinion, anything that the general public needs to be
protected from. In the days that followed the flap over censorship, more
dissenting voices were included in the comments, including a posting by Kim.

The online scuttlebutt behind these omissions is that the “Relative
Choices” editor Peter Catapano, who is an adoptive father, is censoring
critical voices. I have no idea if Catapano had anything to do with the
filtering—neither he nor anyone else at the Times returned my phone
call or emails. But whether or not this incident was an example of an
adoptive parent censoring dissent, I think it’s vital that we recognize why
some adoption critics would not be surprised if it was so. The truth is that
it’s almost impossible to find those voices in American media. When The
Language of Blood author Jane Jeong Trenka—a Korean adoptee and
award-winning writer who tackles the difficulties she faced growing up in a
small Minnesota town with heartbreakingly gorgeous prose—tries to
submit her writing to magazines and newspapers, she gets virtually no
takers. Meanwhile, Korean editors print everything she writes.

Why? I think when it comes to adoption, American adoptive parents
(myself included) steer the discourse. We direct adoption agencies and think
tanks. We write the home studies of prospective adoptive parents. We are
policy experts and doctors and academics and journalists. We are passionate
about adoption—an institution that has given us so much—and
therein lies the problem: In our passion, we sometimes shield ourselves from
larger discussions about the toll that adoption can take, a discussion that
is in fact gaining traction across the globe. And in doing so, we are
preventing adoption from evolving.

When I attended a reading of Outsiders Within last winter, I was struck
by how much the intensity and the passion of the writers recalled the
pioneers of second-wave feminism. That movement upended our opinions about
marriage, and the institution survived for the better. Any adoptive parent
knows that the adoptive bond is not fragile. So why do we protect it from
the same kind of scrutiny?

Reading through the comments posted on “Relative Choices” and other
adoption blogs, it’s clear to me that if you are an adoptee and want to say
something critical about adoption, you had better make it abundantly clear
that you truly, absolutely love your mom and dad or you risk getting
berated. (A notable exception to these “quit whining” directives are the
respectful comments posted to Sumeia William’s “Relative Choices” essay
titled “I Am Not a Bridge,” the most hard-hitting selection in the series.)
In fact, expecting adoptees to publicly pledge their gratitude to their
parents is holding them to a standard no one else has to adhere to. Isn’t it
true that even if we hate our parents, we still love them?

Similarly, in some adoptive-parent communities, anything questioning
the current practices in the adoption universe leads to a virtual stoning of
the messenger. When UNICEF publicly states that they support intercountry
adoption—but only after all efforts to keep children in their birth
countries (through family preservation, foster care, or domestic adoption)
have failed—or the State Department weighs in with critical
assessments of Guatemalan and Vietnamese adoptions, tirades rain down.
Meanwhile, a Guatemalan adoption attorney who allegedly offered money to a
teenage birth mother’s father in exchange for the baby is praised by some
adoptive parents for her dedication.

I’m not saying that I want all adoptive parents to agree with the steps
UNICEF or State is taking to reform intercountry adoptions. But we need all
perspectives to get more space in the conversation—otherwise, we
parents are just patting each other on the back.

Since Mother Jones published my story, I’ve taken my own virtual
knocks. (Unlike the Times, Mother Jones only filters hate speech and
propaganda.) There’s not much reward in being called an egotistical
colonizer whose self-hating tendencies have rendered me a horrible mother.
But I will admit that even some of the more stinging criticisms have made me
pause long enough to rethink my assumptions.

This is a difficult time for transnational adoption, with troubling
news stories increasing and the future, at least in some countries, unclear.
But whatever the solutions may be, I don’t think we’ll find them by closing
ranks.

Elizabeth Larsen has worked for both Sassy and Utne Reader. She wrote about
her daughter in this year’s Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception,
Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, and Abortion, and in the current
issue of Mother Jones.

@2007 The Foundation for National Progress

Original article: http://www.motherjones.com/news/update/2007/12/international-adoption-one-way-dialogue.html

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