Over the weekend I met up with an old friend, a therapist who facilitates groups of parents of troubled children, and while some of them are children of divorce, she added that a fair number of them are adoptive parents. A friend of ours sent their teenage son for a year to a school for problem kids, and the son reported that many, if not most of the kids there were adopted, or children of divorce. I won't go into the children of divorce issue here, but the statistics of trouble are there, among the adopted:
"The number of Adoptees in the adolescent and young-adult clinics and residential treatment centers is strikingly high. Doctors from the Yale Psychiatric Institute and other
hospitals that take very sick adolescents have told me they are discovering that from one-quarter to one-third of their patients are adopted. A great many of these young people are in serious trouble with the law and are drug addicted. The girls show an added history of nymphomania and out-of-wedlock pregnancy, almost as if they were acting out the role of the "whore" mother. In fact, both sexes are experimenting with a series of identities that seem to be related to their fantasies about the biological parents."--Betty Jean Lifton, Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience.
Jane, the daughter I surrendered to adoption, had a great many emotional problems, but because she also had epilepsy, it was impossible to ferret out what was caused by the social and psychological trauma of being subject to frequent seizures, and what was caused by being relinquished by her natural mother. Yet one aspect of her personality that made it difficult--for both sets of parents, adoptive and (one-half) genetic--to deal with my daughter was her proclivity to lie. Christ, it is even hard to write this because I wanted to type "not tell the truth" because that somehow seemed gentler than come right out and admit how often and how easily Jane made up stories that were not true.
Some adopted people reading this may find it troubling, and so I want to stress right here, that not all adopted people have such a loose relationship with the truth as my daughter Jane did. But her proclivity to make up stories--all right, to lie--is not singular among the adopted population. Yet this facet of her personality made it extremely difficult to have a relationship with her that was not somewhat always on edge, somewhat removed. Because behind most of what she said lay the question: What is the truth?
Below is a something I wrote about my daughter that did not make it into Hole In My Heart: memoir and report from the fault lines of adoption in quite this way.
Honesty was often in short supply when you spoke to Jane. She bent the truth so often when she was asked just about anything it was hard to know what she thought much of the time. When she needed a story to smooth the way, when she needed an easy excuse, out came the lie. If she were twenty minutes late, and a simple explanation, and a quick I’m sorry, I got involved in talking to X, might have led to a mild annoyance, she avoided that with an elaborate fabrication. About someone who stopped her in the street and needed her help doing something that took an hour, or the boss who asked her to stay over time and she couldn’t get to a phone, or the movie that started late because the sound system did not work, or the phone that was out of order, and on and on. Her excuses were sometimes plausible, more often unbelievable, but if you pointed this out to her, she simply denied it and stuck to her story while giving off a defiant attitude: Why don't you believe me?
Was I really going to call the movie theater and find out if the movie had started a half hour late? No. Or check up and see if someone’s phone was out of order and now amazingly working? No. Or track down the old woman who needed her help to cross the street, and then the woman fell, and it took a half hour to get the woman to where she was going? Of course not.
|Jane and Bo, our Alsatian, in a happy moment, circa 1984|
Once she talked about being abused—I never got any specific details—what she said never changed, her negative feelings about the man involved never wavered, and now those offhand comments of hers about him that used to strike me as odd made a certain kind of awful sense. She had been in therapy as a youngster. She once said that she did “not tell Connie [her therapist] the truth. Because the truth was too dangerous.” The truth was almost certainly about the sexual abuse at the hands of this man. Perhaps her lying became a habit when she was hiding the abuse.
After hearing numerous falsehoods and obfuscations—too many to recount, too many to remember—I told her the parable about the boy who cried wolf one too many times. We were in my office at home, I was at my desk, she in a leather-and- steel chair from the Sixties that spun around, so she could turn away from me, and spare herself some embarrassment. I told her that I loved her, but that her lying made it hard for people to believe her about anything.
Adoption-rights pioneer B.J. Lifton, an author and therapist, emailed me this about the predilection of some adoptees to have a loose relationship with the truth:
“Since adoptees grow up with falsified birth certificates and secrecy about reality, in their minds there is no border between truth and lying. They have no true narrative, so they can make up anything they want. They are ‘free spirits, not entrapped by roots,’ as a birth cousin suggested to me.”
The subject of adoptee’s difficulty with truth-telling is a loaded one, related to what some call the Adopted Child Syndrome, a name coined by a Long Island, New York psychotherapist who noticed that an unusual number of his clients were adopted. According to David Kirschner, the parents would bring them the children, describe the problem, and then on the way out, turn and say: “ ‘Oh, I don’t remember whether we mentioned it, but Mark is adopted.’ They would immediately add, ‘but that has nothing to do with the problem.’ ”
Kirschner writes that when he examined the child, he discovered a rich fantasy life, revealing that indeed being adopted was the problem, or at least a part of it. “The fantasies, reflected in projective personality tests, were usually spun around two sets of parents, one being viewed as the good parents, the other the bad. There were also elaborate themes of loss, abandonment, and rejection; and the child’s behavior problems often included lying, as they felt they had been lied to; stealing, to compensate for the theft of their identity; and truancy or running away, a symbolic effort to find their biologic roots and an environment in which they felt they fit and belonged.” He emphasizes that while this is not true for all adopted people, it does affect a subgroup where the process of forging a clear and healthy sense of self, “an integrated identity that is consistent with reality” goes haywire.
After a while, I did not bother to dispute Jane’s claims about—well, almost about anything. Tony, my husband, and I took everything she said with a grain of salt. Maybe it was true. Maybe not. Of course this characteristic built a wall around her, and it was one that neither I or her other parents were ever able to climb. Yes, the four of us shared our frustration about Jane’s lack of truth-telling, but nothing any of us said made the slightest difference. The behavior was as automatic as a facial tic.
Yet there were moments when I was sure all pretense was discarded, no fabrications constructed, and that is I what I remember about that pristine afternoon after our Loehmann’s excursion, the late lunch at Pizza Hut, just the two of us with our Pepsis and slices. There were no lies, no fantasy stories, no crazy tangents about anything. Just for that few hours, this mother and daughter. These moments would always be all to rare. But of course they all began with my signing away my parental rights and her subsequent adoption by another mother.--lorraine
 B.J. Lifton is the author of three books about adoption: Twice Born: Memoirs of an Adopted Daughter, 1975; Journey Of The Adopted Self: A Quest For Wholeness and Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience.
 David Kirschner, Ph.D., Adoption: Uncharted Waters.
PS: We have a guest for the next few days, it's unbearably hot and it's summer! Comments may be a little slow to publish so don't despair, but we will get to them.