Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Knowing When it's not Time to ask for our Adoption Story

Baby Batman
Anyone who has ever read my blog, or has spent more than ten minutes with me, knows that I love to tell stories. My favorite stories to tell are about my children (especially my preschooler) and the wacky things they do. The story I tell most often occurred when my oldest son was about two-and-a-half. When we asked him what he wants to be when he grows up, he simply shrugged his shoulders in response. It was when we asked him what he thinks his baby brother will be that he had something to say. "M" replied,

"He is going to be a doctor." He allowed a dramatic pause.

"And I am going to take all of his money."

We were immediately torn between laughing at his cuteness and being concerned astonished by his cleverness. I suppose we invented a new emotion that day. Don't worry, "M" has since changed his future vocation to "animal doctor." He also now claims his little brother is going to grow up to be "Batman."

I have a million-and-one more stories just like this one. They always seem to make someone smile, which is precisely why I love to tell them. However, when it comes to adoption, there is a specific instance when I don't want to be asked to share a story.

I am a huge advocate for adoptee narrative sharing. When I meet a new person who tells me they are adopted, I often ask them if they are involved in the adoption community.  They often reply, "Oh no.  I don't really know anything about adoption." But yes, they do.  They might not realize it but being adopted is knowing something about adoption. They've lived adoption in a way no one else can. By sharing their experiences, their questions, and the conclusions they've drawn, they've given a gift to the adoption community.

There are many times where we vocal activists will critique a discussion on adoption because no adoptees were invited to take part. Occasionally, these entities respond and acknowledge this as an issue. Sometimes their response is "tell us your stories then." While other adoption constellation members, professionals, and the heads of large organizations get to hash it out about research, big policy changes, and global issues, the adult adoptees at the table are inquired about their "adoption story" or "reunion story."  

Stories are great, we need to hear them. That being said, when story-telling or "sharing your experience" is the only framework given for adult adoptees to have a place at the table, there's a problem.  

I was interviewed a few years ago by a reporter who contacted me because I am the founding member of an Adoptee Rights grassroots group. After starting the interview, I soon became very concerned about the content of the article. I was told that I was interviewed because of my knowledge of original birth certificate access in Pennsylvania. Instead, the reporter was steadfastly focused on obtaining the intricate details of my adoption and reunion. There is nothing about my story that I am ashamed to talk about, and I was happy to answer her questions. Yet I couldn't help but think, why isn't she making better use of me as a resource on these laws?

I received my answer when the magazine was published a month or two later.  A few blurbs of mine about records access did make it through to the article.  However, the majority of my contribution to the piece surrounded my reunion and my experience with Tennessee's confidential intermediary.  The reporter even claimed that I am a "Search Angel," and portrayed reunion as the focus my work--something I specifically told her was not true.  I was not given the place of the "expert" in this article. 

Articles like these seem to have that one beacon of reason that casts the appropriate light over all of the anecdotes in the rest of the piece.  The place of "expert" had been reserved for a representative of Catholic Charities--an adoption professional.  This made me feel undervalued. The reporter also misquoted something I said about my first mother, which painted me in a negative light.

Restricting adoptee participation solely to story-sharing under-utilizes adoptees as resources.  It also makes about as much sense as the participants of a business meeting asking the opinions of female participants only when they want input on office drapery colors. 

I realize that this comparison is only marginally workable (and entirely sarcastic). Priceless adoptee narratives cannot be compared to window treatments. What I am attempting to say is that there's something really silly about being told "this is who you are" and therefore "this is all your contribution can consist of." As an adoptee, I have more than just a tear-jerking story to tell. More people need to realize how many adult adoptees there are that are knowledgeable, competent sources on major adoption issues.

The other unfortunate result of relegating the adoptee role to "story teller" is what many people tend to do with stories they don't like.  Feelings, experiences, and stories can be--and often are--written off as "anecdotal evidence."  Divulging his lobbying persuasion techniques, Bill Pierce* once said “One powerful case history is better than an inch of research findings.”  This is abundantly true if you hold the power in discourse--or you have something to say that others want to hear.  It's why the NCFA's well-placed stereotypes have largely overshadowed the statistics and historical/legal research gathered by Adoptee Rights activists over the decades.  

The result of sharing your story is different when you are the one without power. The adoptee is supposed to feel satisfied, if not grateful, that they were included, and listeners have the option of writing off the adoptee's story if they didn't like it.  It's long been appropriate to dismiss inconvenient narratives as, "that's just them" or "they just had a bad experience."  With this mindset in adoption discourse, adoptees are nothing more than optional and expendable resources.  The adoption community has to come to value adult adoptees more than this.  It robs itself of something good when it doesn't.

Your thoughts?  Was Mr. Pierce right?

*A former President of the National Council for Adoption.