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Absurd Reality, part 1
I want to state this as plainly and neutrally as possible, with no polemical intention: Adoption is absurd.
When I call adoption absurd, I am not calling it wrong. Nor am I calling every form or instance of adoption absurd. My core case of adoption—the example that all of my writing on adoption assumes by default, unless I specify otherwise—is the plenary adoption of an infant or small child, where “plenary” means the total legal severance of that child from their biological parents and the transfer of legal custody to other adults, newly deemed their parents. This case encompasses both intercountry and domestic adoptions, and, given that the subject of the adoption is assumed to be very young at the time of severance, it assumes that that person exercises no agency over their severance or adoption.
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Adoption, described to that extent, does not sound absurd. For if “parent of” and “child of,” as described, are legal statuses, then plenary adoption is the splitting of the biological or “natural” statuses of parent and child from their legal or “conventional” counterparts—a splitting that typically does not happen to “kept children,” but could “in principle” happen to them, as often happens not only to babies but to older children whose parents’ legal rights are terminated through the operations of what I join with others in calling the United States’ Family Policing System.Severance may be necessary in some cases, cruel in (many) others; but in what sense is adoption, which presupposes severance, absurd?
The answer is that adoption is defined not only by its legal structure but by a historically conditioned set of social expectations that imagine adoption as what I call “having a child by nonbiological means.” And this concept of adoption is absurd. It depends on a silencing and obscuring of the actual reality, wishing to install in its place an absurd reality of parents “having” children already had by other people.
There is a way of thinking about adoption trauma that focuses on aspects of the process, or event, of parent-child severance, and which traces the psychological difficulties faced by many adoptees back to their experiences, possibly preverbal, of those aspects of severance. Perhaps no one has done as much to popularize this kind of analysis of the adoptee’s predicament as did Nancy Verrier in her 1993 book The Primal Wound, which argues that neonatal separation, with its breaking of the psychological and physiological bonds between natal parent and child, leaves a psychic imprint on the child that can persist for life. People who endorse this way of thinking about the effects of adoption on the adoptee often recommend Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, which offers a range of considerations in support of the thesis that physical and mental trauma can reshape the brain and nervous system, carrying consequences for the sufferer that are not necessarily accessible to conscious recall. It is easy to see the appeal of Van Der Kolk’s ideas to someone who traces the adoptee’s predicament back to specific traumatic experiences, since people adopted as infants or very young children are almost never able to recall any of their preadoptive experiences.
While I am not concerned to criticize this type of analysis of what adoption does to adoptees, I do think it is a mistake to regard traumatic early experience as the sole or even dominant determinant of what makes the adoptee’s predicament difficult. What makes the predicament difficult is that it is absurd, and it is very hard to live in an absurd reality.
In these thoughts I am guided by the work of two philosophers, Cora Diamond and Jonathan Lear. In 2003 Diamond introduced and explored the idea of “the difficulty of reality,” given by “experiences in which we take something in reality to be resistant to our thinking or possibly even painful in its explicability, difficult in that way, or perhaps awesome and astonishing in its inexplicability.”At the core of the idea is that the world can present itself to you as in a kind of state of flagrant contradiction, as when the poet Ted Hughes writes, in “Six Young Men,” of looking at a photograph of six smiling young men, taken before the First World War, knowing that all their lives would, within six months, be snuffed out in that cataclysm. The last stanza of the poem is this:
That man’s not more alive whom you confront
And shake by the hand, see hale, hear speak loud,
Than any of these six celluloid smiles are,
Nor prehistoric or, fabulous beast more dead;
No thought so vivid as their smoking-blood:
To regard this photograph might well dement,
Such contradictory permanent horrors here
Smile from the single exposure and shoulder out
One’s own body from its instant and heat.
The contradiction here is not a more narrowly logical one, but concerns the clash between apprehending those men’s lives in their fullness against the awareness of their absolute obliteration.
Diamond cites other examples of the difficulty of reality, including the horror some people feel at the juxtaposition of the pleasure people take in eating meat, against the knowledge that so many of the animals who yield that flesh “live” in unspeakably brutal conditions. Far from these being strict contradictions, it isn’t even that everyone feels the difficulty to the same degree. As we know, many people are capable at shrugging at such realities and saying, “Yes, life is complicated.”
To me—and, I believe, many other adopted people—what plenary adoption does to the idea of “family” creates its own kind of difficult reality, one that never settles into making sense. The idea of taking a child from their parent and training them into calling someone else “mom” or “dad;” the idea of adoption as just another way to “have” a child who was already had by someone else; the resulting chaos in the very idea of who is and is not my “kin;” the resulting burden on the adoptee to decide whether, and how, to recover the relationships lost through severance, and what it would mean to “recover” them, if that is even possible; all this difficulty arises from an absurd reality that can, as we have seen, be described in straightforward terms as a severance and reassignment of legal parental rights.
The absurdity of adoption lies in the irreconcilability of what we are told adoption does—give parents to children, and children to parents—and what we, as adoptees, know we lose that “kept” people do not lose: a family history, a culture, a legible body.The absurdity lies in the untenable situation of both loving one's adoptive parents in the way that children love their parents but also knowing that it's a "put-up job" that one cannot openly acknowledge as such, because to do so would be to thrust a dagger into their hearts. If adoption trauma lies in the head, the absurdity of adoption lies in the world. But because it is a world of our making, we can also unmake it.
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The locus classicus is Dorothy Roberts’ Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World (Basic Books, 2022).
“The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy,” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 1 (2003): 1-26. Available online at Project Muse.
By “legible” I mean not only the understanding of one’s own body that comes through knowledge of one’s family health history, but that which comes through genetic mirroring—something that few non-adoptees seem to understand or appreciate, with the philosopher J. David Velleman being a notable exception. See my posts on mirroring here: