The Girl Behind the Door is John Brooks's memoir about the 18 month old girl he and his wife, Erika, adopted from a Polish orphanage in 1991, and who killed herself at age 17. Like many couples whose fertility treatments fail, the Brookses turned to adoption. They rejected domestic adoption because of the risk that the mother-to-be would change their mind. The foreign adoption scene looked bleak, long waits, countries closing their doors. Then they learned that a few children were available in Polish orphanages. Since Erika's parents had immigrated from Poland and she spoke Polish, it seemed a perfect fit.
After sending $15,000 to a lawyer in Poland, they were matched with a baby girl named Joanna. She had been born premature and had a twin sister who died at birth. After two months in a hospital, she was placed in the orphanage and given up for adoption. The couple had her checked out by a doctor and learned that while she was behind in development, she was otherwise healthy. Once out of the institution she would catch up.
TROUBLED FROM THE START
They took the baby, whom they re-named Casey, from the orphanage, replaced her drab institutional clothing with a girlish pink outfit (she looked so cute!), and spent their first night with their new daughter in a Warsaw hotel. Things did not go well. She cried inconsolably. So they could get some rest, they placed her in a stroller in front of the television until she cried herself to sleep.
While Casey soon caught up in her development, things continued to go badly. She could be unbelievably charming at school and a terror at home. She was easily frustrated, threw fits when she didn't get her way, destroyed things, and argued incessantly. The couple responded as frustrated parents often do: "We were stuck in a never-ending cycle of time-outs, withheld privileges, abandoned reward programs, groundings and empty threats to spend her college fund on a year in purgatory. We resorted to spanking her, even threatening to hit her."
Casey often locked herself in her room. Her parents broke in, demanding she listen to them. When Casey was not home, Erika searched her room for drugs, alcohol, and other evidence of misdeeds. The parents tried to peek under the wrist bands Casey always wore for telltale signs of cutting. Erika listened outside her door for gagging, a sign of bulimia.
The Brookses sent Casey to therapists, none of whom suggested that Casey's behavior might be related to early abandonment, the orphanage, or her adoption. Instead, they attributed her behavior to being "strong-willed" or abusing drugs. The therapists never suggested that the couple change their responses to Casey's behavior. The years of counseling provided no benefit to Casey, or to the couple. They did not do their own research; it did not occur to them that living in an orphanage and being removed from everything familiar could have contributed to her behavior. And it did not occur to them--and apparently not to the therapists--that Erika and John's punitive responses only exacerbated the situation.
TOO LATE TO HELP 'CASEY'
In the middle of her senior year of high school, at a time when Casey should have been happy--she had just been accepted into Bennington--she jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. After her death, John Brooks searched for clues, reading her diary, looking at her online postings, listening to phone messages, talking to her doctors. He learned how unhappy she had been but still did not connect her adoption with her death. He put his energies into lobbying for barriers on the Golden Gate Bridge, the place of many suicides.
Some years later, John Brooks saw a television program about the struggles of Romanian orphans, and that gave him the first clue about Casey's behavior. He searched the Internet for more information and finally came upon an article on attachment disorder which gave him the key to understanding Casey.
"The adopted child frequently has a low tolerance for frustration, ineffective coping skills and impulse-control and trouble self-soothing. She can be clingy, hyper-active, quick to anger or burst into tears over what others might consider insignificant or nonexistent slights....Abandoned in infancy, the adopted child has learned not to trust. Controlling her environment and distancing others around her--especially caregivers--becomes paramount as a way to protect herself from further abandonment....She can be manipulative--extremely charming, in fact, even indiscriminately affectionate, toward strangers--but cool and remote at home."John Brooks now saw a very different person on the other side of that battered bedroom door. Not an angry, misbehaving teenager bent on tormenting her parents, but a child suffering unfathomable pain for whom comfort was out of reach. A girl who had lost her mother and her twin sister at birth, her home for two months at the hospital, and her home at the orphanage for over a year after that. She had no reason to trust anyone.
"Erika and I were blind from the outset....We treated Casey as if she were our new pet. Just feed her, burp her, change her diapers, bounce her around....The first night in the hotel room...when she was inconsolable...we just wanted her to quiet down so we could get some rest. Instead of parking her in front of a blaring TV--something she'd probably never seen before--we should have taken her into bed with us, helped her and soothed her. [Later] when she acted out inappropriately and threw temper tantrums, we scolded and punished her....We should have stayed with her, helped her calm down and self-soothe. She needed to know Mom and Dad would always be there for her unconditionally."REALIZING THEIR MISTAKES--AFTER
Now he realized that discarding her old clothes in favor of new stylish ones from America was a big mistake. While it made "Casey" more appealing to him, it separated her from the one familiar thing she had from the orphanage. Although he doesn't mention it, I found it troubling that they changed her name from Joanna to Casey, although they did give her Joanna as a middle name. Surely at 18 months, she recognized her name; forcing her to answer to a new name must have been distressing. Discarding her Polish name in favor of an Irish one to go with the Irish "Brooks" was another slight, disrespecting her Polish culture.
Another thing that troubles me is that apparently they did not try to locate the girl's first mother and tell her of her daughter's death. They had her name, and the name of her hometown, a small village. Erika spoke Polish so communication would not be a problem. According to John Brooks' blog, "Parenting and Attachment," Casey's first mother said she did not want contact with her daughter. This information came from the orphanage and may or may not have been true. Even if it is true, Casey's first mother may secretly hope to see her again. It would be a kindness to tell her of Casey's death. It's a rare first mother who forgets her lost child and does not grieve for her. Knowing what happened to her Joanna, although distressing would allow her to deal with reality rather than fantasy, and mourn for her in a different way.
ATTACHMENT DISORDER NEEDS MORE RESEARCH
The book's subtitle, A Father's Journey Into The Mystery Of Attachment, explains why John Brooks wrote and published the book. He is honest about their failings as parents, and while that is to be lauded, I am critical of both of them. They waited until after their daughter died to look at the initial abandonment in an orphanage, and the more than a year there, as the source of her attachment disorder and general unhappiness. The book is an excellent outline of what not to do, especially when adopting an older child from a different culture. So many who go overseas to adopt are unaware of the basic needs of the children they bring home. This would be a good book as a starting point.
Brooks quotes from the works of David Brozinsky, Nancy Verrier, Ray Kinney, and other adoption therapists, but writes in layman's terms anyone can understand. A list of books and articles and support organizations are included. We hope John Brooks takes his message to adoption practitioners, politicians, and the media. People considering intercountry adoption need to hear what he has to say.
While adoption practitioners are ubiquitous, and zealots like Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana are pushing for more for intercountry adoptions, attachment disorders suffer from a lack of research and helpful data. Clueless people pay thousands of dollars for a child, unaware of what may await them. Some send the troubled children off to those harsh wilderness treatment programs. For many the awful answer is to grit their teeth until the child turns 18--and then can be cast out. In extreme cases, frazzled parents "re-home" the children, passing them off to anyone who will take them. Some, like the Brookses, try to get help. Those who persevere may even find competent help. While knowledgeable therapists can help families, the better answer is to help these children in their own countries.--jane
Also from FMF
Utah agency places cast-off international adoptees
'Re-Homing': Dumping unwanted adopted kids
Grief and doubt after an international adoptee's death: Max Shatto in Texas
Good news: Intercountry adoption down again
Review: Indian-born writer reveals the dark side of international adoption
Joyce Maynard's adoption "disruption"
Mamalita: An adoption book I can't love, a story that isn't for everyone
The Girl Behind The Door: A Father's Journey Into The Mystery Of Attachment
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