|Lorraine and daughter Jane, in NYC a few months after they first met|
Yes, I saw it and Yes, I liked it, wondering what they are actually asking. Like what is there not for me to "like" about Philomena? My brother asked about the nuns, others have asked about the slamming of the Church, and I tell them that yes, it was like that in Ireland and not much damn better in the U.S. I have a first mother friend who was told by a priest that she had to think of her daughter as "dead." (They are happily reunited today.)
Maybe the questions--did I like it or what did you think?" are polite ways of telling me they found the story sympathetic, and now understand a bit more about my life.
STOPPING A SEARCH MIDSTREAM
But the next thing I hear from some is: Well, the records should be open but "they" (the adopted) don't have to do anything if they don't want to, right?" Right, of course. Unsealing birth records will not force anyone to do anything. If they have shut off their minds and are not curious, so be it. This last statement came from a woman whose good friend in high school was adopted. The friend is now deceased but when they talked about adoption, the friend told my friend she was not curious about her original parents and never planned to search. Oh. So that is the main image of adoptees my friend has, even though she knows it wasn't that way for my daughter. What she vividly remembers is her friend from high school saying: not interested.
One adoptee my age who pulled the plug on a search pointedly told me she wanted to see Philomena--for Judi Dench's performance. Meaning: not the story. Don't want to go there. I got an message yesterday from someone in college whose professor announced to a class that he was adopted and not interested in searching, but oh, maybe he would like some medical information.
As someone who has been involved in adoption reform for three decades it is hard to hear this and not feel a tad let down, get a little squirt of the hormone that makes one depressed. But I know I have not been wasting my life: the clear injustice of sealed records awakes my own sense of justice and propels me forward, even if there is only one person on earth who wants the right to own her history, whatever it is. Not having the right to your own, true history is fundamentally wrong, colossally immoral.
But to get repeated messages all through your life that you cannot know the truth of your origins does shut down many, and that is why, I believe, more adoptees are not clamoring for their records. The system has beat them into submission, and many of their mothers into hiding. Julia Emily has been pouring out her feelings in the comments about growing up in a family where she could never talk about the issues that were burning up inside her. Julia Emily has awakened that spark as her parents are near the end of their lives, but it will not happen for some. How does it even happen that having had the most basic information about your life denied, that one comes to not want it, nay demand it?
SHUTTING DOWN WHEN THE GOAL IS IMPOSSIBLE
My granddaughter taught me how. She was about eleven or twelve and I asked if she had seen the Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, though it had come and gone before she came to visit us that summer. I knew it was a huge hit with girls her age. But during the school year, she was living not with my daughter, but my daughter's adoptive parents instead, and they were not much for taking her to the teen movies that were all the rage, nor were they driving her to town (they lived outside of a very small town, no movie theater) with her friends so she could be one of the gang who saw the most popular movie for girls her age that year.
"Didn't you want to see it?" I said cluelessly.
She was a tad irritated with my obtuseness, and replied: "What's the point of wanting something you know you can't have? I put it out of my mind."
I've thought about her comment whenever I hear of an adoptee saying: I'm adopted, I'm not interested in finding out, searching, whatever: What's the point of wanting something you know you can't have? I put it out of my mind. My granddaughter had stopped wanting what she knew she couldn't have.
I personally can't imagine not being so damn curious you would be planning a Watergate-style break-in every moment of your waking life to wherever your records are stored and getting your hands on your own information regarding your birth. But I'm not adopted. I was never told that the information regarding my own heritage and paternity was off limits. I never had to be curious because I knew. I just knew who I was because I was born to my parents. And about my own sense that I had to know who my daughter was when I relinquished her, I started thinking I would do everything possible to know her one day as I was signing the surrender papers.
Though we think of the original birth certificates as being sealed from some long ago era when a glimpse of stocking was looked upon as something shocking, that is not the case. Though not the first state with sealed records, New York was one of the early ones to do so, in 1935 during the governorship of adoptive father Herbert H. Lehman. The sealing continued throughout the states through the rest of the 30s, 40s, and early 50s, Elizabeth Samuels notes in her historical survey of adoptee access to records.* As late as 1960, some forty percent of the states still had laws on the books recognizing "an unrestricted right of adult adoptees to inspect their original birth certificates," she states. Forty percent! That would be twenty states! Not the measly seven we have today that allow adult adoptees unrestricted access to their own original birth certificates.
Samuels goes on: "It was only in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s that all but three of those states changed their laws to close birth records to adoptees." So just as the adoption reform was gaining some traction in the media, just as adoptees were beginning to search in any number, only then did a great many states seal birth records from the very people they record.
SOCIAL ENGINEERING AT ITS WORST
You do want to scream when you read that. And you can't help but know that this was the preference of adoptive parents. As for the birth mothers, we were hiding in shame and our protectors--the nuns, the priests, the social workers--thought it was for our own good to pretend those children we lost did not exist. They remember us as frightened, tearful young women who didn't want the whole town to know of our shame; they did not imagine that a great many of us would never forget and always want reunion. Sadly, that forlorn image is the one that far too many family and surrogate court judges have today.
And here we are now: Did you see Philomena? You don't mean that everybody who's adopted has to search, right? I had a friend in high school, I have a college professor, I know somebody at work, yadda yadda yadda and they say they are not interested in searching for their real parents. (Don't beat me up here on language, adoptive parents, that is the way some real people talk.)
I'd call this social engineering at its absolute worst. Tell someone loud and long enough they can't have something and they will stop wanting it. Natural curiosity will be subverted. In the case of adoption, stifled curiosity is coupled with a genuine fear of a second sense of rejection--what if an individual searches for her lost family, only to be told she is not wanted? My daughter considered contacting the other children of her biological father--whom she never met--but in the end, decided not to. We did know that one of his daughters harbored a deep, bitter anger towards her father, and wrongly was likely to transfer that to my daughter. I don't need more rejection, she said. As for the mothers who were told that their children will be happy and fine with their new lives and to forget them, many of us embed that admonition and are unable to act and do a search for our lost children. Far too many of us believe we have no right to do so.
Despite that fear that looms in every heart, it is the very essence of human nature to want to know your own history, your own heritage, why you have blue eyes instead of brown. Or conversely, where our genes are going in the next generation. Cicero put it like this: To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. It is long past the time for everyone to have right to know what occurred before she was born, and every mother to know what happened to her child, and how he is.--lorraine
If you are adopted or you relinquished in a closed records state, get involved. Connecticut, Colorado, Missouri, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania have bills pending. If not now, when? If not you? Who?
* THE IDEA OF ADOPTION: AN INQUIRY INTO THE HISTORY OF ADULT ADOPTEE ACCESS TO BIRTH RECORDS, Rutgers Law Review, Winter, 2001. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1281475
More on Philomena from FMF
Philomena: A forced adoption, a lifetime quest, a longing that never waned
Philomena: The Book
Is giving up a child for adoption a 'loving' decision?
Lost Daughters: Writing Adoption From a Place of Empowerment and Peace
This is a book not to miss. "A tough book for mothers who relinquished because whatever we may have told ourselves about the “good” reasons to let our children be adopted, these poignant and sad essays belie that with the sheer force of a body blow. I found myself with tears in my eyes as soon as I started reading, and they didn't totally dry up until long after the last page."--from my review earlier: Lost Daughters: Strong, brave essays written from the heart
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