' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Adoption and Lying: Adopted Syndrome or not?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Adoption and Lying: Adopted Syndrome or not?

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 divorced parents, she mentioned that a fair number of them are adoptive parents. Another 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 & Found.

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? And in the end, her recognition of this perhaps is what finally let to her suicide.

From Hole in My Heart, a memoir of grief, adoption, sorrow and suicide
by Lorraine Dusky
copyright 2009

....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.

Some of her stories were indeed fantastic. There was the story about her friend in high school with spina bifida who, she said, was sleeping with her doctor. What! I said, how is this possible? How can it even happen? Where do they, umm, tryst?

He comes to her house to see her and he comes to her bedroom.

What? That’s impossible. Doctors don’t make house calls, and her parents would never go along with this. Jane, that just doesn’t make any sense.

It happens when they are not home, she countered with conviction. He stays for forty-five minutes or so. In her bedroom.

Honey, that can’t possibly be true. Doctors do not make house calls anymore. And—

He does so. Really. Why don't you believe me?

Where to begin? You know she must be lying, but after a while, after her ardent insistence, after you have said you don’t believe her but she still persists with this improbable romance, that her teenage friend is sleeping with her doctor, who makes house calls and visits her friend alone, in her bedroom, what really can you say?

You raise your eyebrows in disbelief, you shake your head, you shrug and look away. You drop the subject. But you know. That can not possibly be true. You wonder why she has made up such a ridiculous story.

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,[1] 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[2] 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 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.

[1] B.J. Lifton is the author of three books about adoption: Twice Born: Memoirs of an Adopted Daughter; (McGraw Hill) 1975; Journey of the Adopted Self (Basic Books) 1994; Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience (Third ed. Univ. of Michigan Press) 2009.

[2] David Kirschner, Ph.D., Adoption: Uncharted Waters (Juneau Press, 2006), Baltimore. Kirschner’s practice led him to notice that many serial killers were adopted, and this controversial connection raises hackles, to say the least, among adoptees and adoptive parents. But Kirshner’s work is diligent and the statistics irrefutable; any list of serial killers includes a hugely disproportionate number of adoptees. He has testified in more than 20 homicide cases in which the accused was an adoptee. When I wrote about his work in an opinion piece in Newsday, I received a threatening and disturbing phone call laden with numerous cuss words around midnight from someone who did not leave his name. I looked behind my back for the next couple of days.


  1. I never saw lying in Megan, certainly not making up stories out of whole cloth. At the beginning I think there was some boasting but I think that had to do with trying to prove she was good enough.

  2. I think the problem is twofold, on one hand you have an identity based on a lie; secondly you often have an individual terrified of rejection---not quite sure where rejection comes from or when it will reappear.

    Personally, for social grease I lie as easily and naturally as I tell the truth. I was pretty much trained to. It was part of tacit understanding in my family. You know like "don't ask, don't tell"

    I remember my nmom asking me once how I could lie so blithely on the spot, and I laughed and said, "oh next life come back adopted and then the gift can be yours too"

    I will say I know the difference between fact and fiction and don't do it for attention. The last lie I remember telling was to a meter maid who was going to write me a ticket for parking in the commercial zone of a bank. I "explained" that I was there "on business" so thought commercial was appropriate. Just stuff like that.

    Not like, "oh I went to the moon when I was 8" Who knows maybe the doctor was banging her friend, stranger things have happened.

  3. I'm really not a fan of adopted child syndrome in general, but do see where it applies to some very disturbed and criminal individuals like some of those Kirschner studied. But I don't think it should be generalized.

    In my own experience, the adoptees I am friends with are not liars, although some have emotional problems and issues relating to adoption. My surrendered son seems to be impeccably honest, and not a bullshitter of any kind. I don't like that kind of person and usually can see though them pretty quickly.

    I'd say my son has a vivid fantasy life and imagination, but so do I, and we do know the difference between fantasy and reality. Most creative people are very imaginative but that does not make them liars.

    I wonder if the high numbers of adopted teens in all kinds of treatment centers might be due in part to adoptive parents not accepting them for what they are, or being afraid of what they can't understand. Also a lot of it could be a bad mix of heredity and environment, or in the case of kids adopted older, bad treatment in foster care.

    I don't think it is a simple thing or all due to being adopted although that can play a part.

  4. Many years later when I brought up the doctor and her friend, she said she did not know what I was talking about.

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  7. I just used the doctor story as one example. All of us who knew her knew that she had a loose relationship with the truth. It drove all of us crazy. And, as the whole book makes clear, was an issue that deeply affected her life and her relationships with people. I loved her yes, she was my daughter; but I also had to accept her on her terms.

  8. The worst liar I ever met was abused, not adopted, and she lied easily. Being lied to does destroy relationships.

    You can say that X percent of people locked up are products of single parent families too. But then if you actually look at the predictors of future criminality, the big ones are having a family member already incarcerated and anti-social behaviour at a young age. All else considered, the family composition recedes. That is not to say that this issue doesn't exist. I tend to agree with Maryanne that it seems more like parents who can't accept their kids. I just wish that the bio-parents didn't think the kids should be mirrors of them either. Every kid deserves to be treated as an individual.

  9. I wouldn't know whether lying is more common among adoptees. It certainly hasn't been my experience of adopted people.
    I do know that the two most outrageous whopper tellers I've ever known were not adopted. But both were idealized and had unrealistic expectations put upon them when they were children.

    (Kind of off topic, and this is perhaps just a quirk of mine, but while in general I love and adore B. J. Lifton for her wisdom, I wish she hadn't used the term "nymphomania" to describe the sexual lives of the troubled young adopted women she describes in 'Lost and Found'. Its opposite, 'satyriasis', is never used in the context of highly sexually active young men)

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  11. Ah....what I haven't posted is that my daughter was abused by her grandmother's live-in companion (adoptive gf had died) beginning when she was about twelve. My daughter's lying was so entrenched by the time she revealed this...that her adoptive
    parents particularly had a hard time believing her. I had a few fleeting moments of --Is she making this up? But they were gone by the time the phone conversation ended.
    This was too big to make up.

    Sad sad, yes I know.

    Once Jane revealed this, she never veered from her story, and so in the end, her other mother did tell her that she believed her.

    I write more about this in Hole in my Heart, but I'm not going to go post that part at FMF. Please understand. At least not now, but Osolomama's comment deserved a response, since it is part of my daughter's troubled story. And Maryanne, I am not generalizing, and I make every attempt to make that clear in the text and footnote; I simply think it is worth noting.

  12. Lorraine, that is such a terrible thing to have happened to Jane. I am so sorry. The sense of betrayal for you and any first family when there are abusers lurking in the a-family.

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  14. Lorraine,

    What I meant was that Kirshner generalized in his book, not you. What I particularly remember is some of the stuff about the murderers he studied, that would not have killed had they not been adopted. That I think is a stretch and he seemed to attribute every pathology in those extreme cases to being adopted. With serial killers like Son of Sam and others who killed their adoptive parents, I think adoption may have influenced their fantasies and choice of victims, but they may have killed no matter who raised them.

    It must have been very hard to deal with your daughter's constant lying. As other people have said that destroys relationships, especially the kind of pointless lies that makes you doubt anything the person says. I've known people like that, I avoid them. But when it is your own kid, you have to deal with it. I know other parents dealing with pathological liars, usually just a part of other dysfunctions, and it breaks your heart again and again.

  15. Thanks Maryanne, that was how it was...both sets of parents in the end just shook their heads about it. The lying seemed to go down when she was in college, but you just never knew. But remember, she had a double whammy--being adopted and being abused--both triggers for this kind of behavior.

  16. Well, I think that one thing I found is that lying comes more natural to my daughter than breathing. She has lied so often that living in a small town is catching up with her.

    Between the lies and the screaming and name calling, I have given up all hope of a real reunion of any kind. She goes so far as to hack my myspace, then send messages from my messenger on myspace - horrible things said to people I do not know!

    She has told all three of her husbands - she is on #3 now - that I am nuts. Very manipulative. She even went so far as to create emails and myspace characters to maintain the charade.

    She took it to my blog - so I made sure that she had to use her name or a name (some how she does not seem to be able to make up things when speaking directly to me - like her name - but will make up things that happened).

    A day or so ago I finally had enough and told her that she would either rant in public - cause I was tired of the battles and would not do anymore of it - or she could call me or use my email. That I would not bother to respond.

    How do you deal with all of this?

  17. Lorraine,

    I hate to tell you this, but your daughter is lying about being abused. I have a ton of experience with an individual who was adopted and would tell LIE AFTER LIE AFTER LIE.

    You are making a huge mistake by thinking it is too big to be a lie.

    The lies i've observed are on this level. This person lied about 3 different family members dying within the summer. Lied about flying home for the funeral. Lied to his managers about it. When the 2nd and 3rd family members, we caught him at home instead of in pennsylvania. he lied and said his credit card was not accepted online. lied and said he was kicked off the train. lied and told us that we could speak to his parents to verify this. (he needed to verify something because we essentially caughth im steailng an 800 dollar watch) . lied about his mother being depressed and in the hospital so we couldnt speak to her. lied to me and my friend saying his parents have talked to managers and "verified" the story. (we talked to his managers) lied to his managers so bad that they started taking donations to send flowers and cards to the fake funeral, (40+ people signing the card). HE NOT ONCE admitted to lying at ANY point in this story. I asked him POINT BLANK about many of these lies. he then cited his family troubles and he didnt need to defend himself.

    also lied about stealing a watch, it was returned, but the circumstances of its return was a lie. then lied again when we proved cirumstances. then said he the second lie was in fact a lie, told an extremely convoluted third lie (this is because he promised proof that he would never be able to show). in his third lie, he described a security guard that he called over when he allegedly caught the person stealing ( i wont go into the story). he lied about when that security guard was working. proved that lie wrong. talked to the security guard, and proved his entire story home.

    and now he is home because of the fake funeral for the 2nd and third family members. he is not coming back to finish his internship. the watch story and the family death story i believe are part of the same lie.

    he also lied about having a d1 basketball offer, 1560 sat, president of his class, never got below an A in his life, we proved all of this wrong.

    do NOT underestimate the lies these types of people will tell.

    what you have to understand is when someone comes up with extravagant lie after extravagant lie, the chance they are telling the truth about a 1 out of 100,000 occurence (getting abused by your grandfather since 12) is less than 1%.

    Sorry, your daughter is lying.

  18. I noticed a few people comment the adoptees they know don't lie. I'm an adult adoptee and I don't lie now. But I certainly did lie a lot as a child and a teen. Slept around a lot too. Don't do that anymore either! But all these explanations about acting out the roles of the bmother and lying because we were lied to just don't ring true to me in any way. I think the truth is far more simple. We grow up desperate to avoid rejection and disapproval, desperate to know who we are and for other people to like who we are. We want to be someone. We want to be important. The behaviours that follow are inevitable. Perhaps some adoptees are so damaged, particularly if compounded by abuse, they don't grow out of it.

  19. Linda is 50 and was adopted, and she LIES to her new acquaintances about being sexually and physically abused by her adoptive parents,(now both deceased) by saying that they "damaged her", hoping that people will automatically think she was physically and sexually abused. She wants new acquaintances and friends to think this.She tried to pull this STUNT when she met up with us again, (her relatives by adoption), after having lost contact for a few years. We met up with her shortly before her her adoptive brother's funeral, then again at the funeral. She said that her adoptive parents had "damaged" her, and started to cry. We were sucked in for a short time, then one of us asked her bluntly, "was it physical or sexual abuse?"
    Linda replied,
    "Good grief nothing like that. They
    loved him (my adopted brother) more than me." and then she said, "my dad was an emotional cripple, now I have problems in all of my relationships" (single parent with a restraining order on ex-spouse)

    Also at the funeral was one of her new friends/acquaintances. She approached us as Linda's relatives (by adoption),and asked us if we could have a confidential chat. She asked us to tell her all about the "dreadful physical abuse" that Linda had suffered at the hands of her adoptive parents. We were shocked by Linda's lies to this lady, but not surprised, as we'd had a foretaste of this "damage/abuse" story! We knew that this was just "a story ".

    At the age of 50, Linda's still a demanding in your face kind of person, like the tantrum throwing child she used to be. She's still an attention seeker, and she's got a prickly personality nowdays, a sharp critical judgemental tongue. At 50, she's loud, and abit rough around the edges, with an obvious drinking problem. Her language is colourful, and she swears like a wharfie, after a few drinks, and so she's not the most easy person to immediately get along with or to like, and that's the truth. There's nothing sweet, and gentleabout her. (Her adoptive brother was less complicated and less demanding person, straight forward, warm, friendly, gentle, quiet,etc.)
    We can only guess that Linda wants people to feel sorry for her, and from that, she gets their pity, their kindness, their emotional support and their warm fuzzies , the closest feelings that she has to being loved. It's a pity that defammation has to occur for her to feel loved!!! It's also a shame that she hasn't worked out by the age of 50, adopted or not, that to feel loved, and to be loved, you have to give out love to other people. Wonder what the adoptive family would say if they were alive today? They'd probably say "We're sorry if you didnt feel loved enough.We did love you. We tried so hard. It wasn't easy. We don't want to see you so unhappy. Try and get some help."

  20. I have recently been reunited with my 36 year old son and it is his constant lying that has us at a standstill for the last few weeks. In the beginning of our reunion he constantly would tell be that he was all about the truth and then he would tell me these outlandish stories that sounded as lies. When he found out I was talking to his adopted sister he totally freaked out and said she was a liar. Our last conversation he told me that his whole adopted family lied and I would never know whether he was lying to me or not because he became so good at it. Then he started accusing me of lying to him from day one but could not give me one example.I finally decided that we were headed down an unhealthy relationship path and suggested he find a good adoption therapist and that when he was ready for a healthier relationship with me that I would be here and would love him unconditionally.
    Several months before I was reunited with with my son, my sons soccer coach asked if he could stay with us for a few weeks until he goes away to college, which I said yes. This boy was 21 and was also adopted and told me he couldn't live with his adopted parents any more because they were abusive. I asked the best friendsof his aparents about their relationship and they told me that the adopted boy was never abused but he did make up stories to get what he wanted. The boy ended up living here for a year because the college story was a lie as well and all the other stories he told to remain here were lies as well.
    Two adopted boys from two different enviornments and both were angry, insecure, liers, who broke my heart into pieces because as much as I wanted to love them both they made it really difficult to have a healthy relationship with either one.

  21. What you describe Anonymous is not at all unusual, and is one of the most troubling aspects of adoption.

    My daughter brought home a friend from the summer camp where both of them worked as counselors for a week or so. He was also adopted, she said. He borrowed a jacket, and a few others pieces of clothing, including a sweater I could not replace. Borrowed.

    He took them when he left. I phoned his [adoptive] mother. She wasn't really surprised and said she didn't know what she could do, that behavior was par for the course. She was very sorry but at her wit's end.



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