' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Adoption and who's my daddy are themes as ancient as Oepidus

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Adoption and who's my daddy are themes as ancient as Oepidus

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Stephen Tompkinson as DCI Banks
So turn on the TV and watch prime time and you're going to run straight into adoption or paternity mixups: Nashville; Modern Family; The Blacklist; Crises; Revenge. And even the British crime drama I tuned into last night--DCI Banks. That seemed like a safe enough show, right? There will be a murder in the first few moments; it will be solved an hour and a half later, right? Probably won't be confronted with adoption, right? No triggers, right?


Within five minutes of when I tuned in--ten minutes after it began--I learn that someone is not who she seems to be. Uh, oh, I tell myself, we are heading into the story line that will revolve around adoption. In true good story-telling fashion, the truth emerges slowly when a grieving mother (for her dead raised daughter) blurts out to DCI Banks about another young woman: "I gave her up for adoption. I was seventeen. I told her I didn't want a relationship....She's been stalking me. She was trying to destroy my family. She's vicious and manipulative--she's capable of anything."

So, the bad adopted daughter probably killed the raised daughter, right?

Wrong. The BAD mother tried to sicken (or kill) the bad, stalking adoptee...and so when the opportunity presents itself, bad mother doctors the adoptee's cocaine (!) with rat poison--containing strychnine. The raised daughter will steal the adoptee's makeup bag containing the coke, and thus...the raised daughter dies of strychnine poisoning.

"Talk about justice," said the adoptee who did not kill her half sister. "You set out to kill the daughter you rejected and you end up killing the daughter you raised. You pay for your sins, eh?"

I mean, is there drama/comedy on the tube without adoption? Or questionable parentage? On Revenge, we had an adoptee return who soon enough disposes of his natural father by, er, accidentally killing him because his mother told the returning son she got pregnant with him when his father raped her, an innocent young woman on her own. May or may not be true, because Mama Victoria is the evil bitch of Revenge.

On The Blacklist (which I have only watched all the way through once, too violent for me) we ended up in a baby-making factory where attractive, bright college girls were kept sedated while impregnated to produce children for adoption, and didn't I hear that the main character, played by James Spader, might be another regular character's "birth father"?

On Crisis, about a bus load of kids abducted, we learn that the together and attractive FBI agent on the case is really the biological mother of one of the kids, who has been raised by her very wealthy and older sister of the mother. On Nashville, Maddie, one of the daughter's discovers that her biological father is actually the incredibly cool guitar player, Deacon Clayborne, not the barely likable father she's been raised by.

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Charles Easton as Daddy Deacon
Nashville is actually the most interesting of the lot because the script is playing out not only Maddie's discovery of her biological father, but how the father, whom she's always known as her mother's guitar player, reacts to the news, and how Maddie is shown to be taking after him--singing and playing the guitar and posting videos of herself singing on You Tube...with the last name of Clayborne, not Conrad, her legal name. The man who raised Maddie (knowing that he was not her biological father) is the businessman mayor of Nashville; on the show he's jealous of Deacon-as-dad every step of the way, but still trying to be a good father to the daughter he's raised. All hell is going to break lose in the next episode, as the You Tube name change has been noted by the celebrity media. I watch the show because I like one of the main stars, Connie Britten, as well as country music, but how the script writers have handled the paternity issue and Maddie's reactions has been spot on. No complaints.

Modern Family brings us the amusing gay couple and their adopted Chinese daughter, and god help me, it is a funny. One of the best episodes I saw was when the gay couple were trying to get another child, this time from a pregnant teenager who was considering adoption. One of them sang a song--that made the teen cry--presumably thinking about her baby, not a lost love--and she ran out the door, surely having changed her mind. Last season we had The New Normal, about a gay couple who hired a surrogate mother whose own mother was homophobic, racist, summarily in stark opposition to all the politics of the gay couple. Perhaps The New Normal was too outrageous, since it was not renewed for a second season. I found it so absurdly funny I was recording it.

And I didn't even get to the specialty shows such as I'm Having Their Baby and its assorted cousins.
Mother Lorraine an Daughter Jane in their own story

But it's not as if the new drama and comedy of our age has discovered convoluted parentage and adoption are meaty themes: Oedipus is the ultimate adoptee; or is that Moses? I know I am missing a ton of them in here, but Henry Fielding's Tom Jones next leaps to mind, followed by the twins in Dickens' Bleak House, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Jane Austen's Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, and one of my favorites, Edith Wharton's novelette, The Old Maid.* We could go on. And on.

But after a day of spent dealing with adoption correspondence, writing a blog, trying to get op-eds about sealed birth certificates in print, the adoption news on Facebook, working on my memoir, et cetera, I admit I long for tune-out time with the tube or a novel that has not a single adoption trigger. So a couple of weeks ago I innocently picked up Barbara Kingsolver's novel, Pigs in Heaven at a local thrift shop. I loved her Poisonwood Bible. Whadda ya know--Pigs in Heaven is the story of a Cherokee adoption with a blameless non-Cherokee mother (until she is found to have a smidgen of Cherokee blood through her mother) and the Indian Child Welfare Act that we dealt with not so long ago in the case of Veronica Brown. So it goes. Adoption, and who's my daddy? is here to stay in fiction and fable.

Despite how adoption has been treated by our culture--with some adoptive parents trying to pretend it is not so very different from "as born to"--man has always known differently and understands that the story of whom we are connected to by blood is deep, primal, and forever fascinating.--lorraine

I first came upon The Old Maid in the library when I was pregnant. I had no idea what it was about. The title character is not who she appears to be. It's a wonderful story. I reread it a few years ago, and it held up.

For a literary dissertation on adoption, see Reading Adoption: Family and Difference in Fiction and Drama By Marianne Novy

Novy is an adoptee and a professor of English and Women's Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Her book looks at the works of literature and shows how fiction has contributed to our perceptions of adoptive parents, adoptees and first parents. A few years ago Novy organized a weekend conference on kinship and adoption, and invited me to be a speaker. It was a fabulous conference, and while adoptees and first parents were totally outnumbered by adoptive mothers who are academics, I learned a lot and was able to spend an afternoon at the nearby Carnegie Museum of Art. Take a close look at the cover of her book, it's a clever, spare drawing of a tree with two roots being grafted. 


  1. If you're avoiding triggers don't try watching Doctor Who: The Empty Child.

  2. Lioness: You can't avoid triggers.

    Tell us what's up with that show.

  3. And the movies, especially children's movies and Disney.

    Adoption or a wicked Step Parent situation in seemingly every other movie.

    One would think perhaps after all this time a new idea or two might surface?


  4. If you think that that's weird, you could compare it with the 10 episodes long Dutch "Heer & Meester"-series, though the story line of the series involves the fantastic search of a very rich foundling for his mother/origin/roots, it ends with him meeting her, by coincidentally being there when she visits his grave. Bad enough, adoption is part of the crime in two of the episodes as well, but nevertheless, the A-word is avoided at all costs, the exotic beauty, bought as baby in South America, has a "foster mother", the main character grew up in Roman Catholic institutional foster care, and the murderess who was raised by her father and his infertile wife, unlike her full brother also got to know the facts without adoption ever mentioned.

  5. Thankfully I am not a TV watcher! I can honestly say I have never watched any of these shows. My daughter likes Dr. Who, but I really never sat through it.

    I avoid the movies as well. Just not my thing.

    I have heard of "I'm having their baby", but I really have no desire to check it out.

    But I guess adoption/step-parent/etc. always makes for an interesting story line?

  6. Just wondering if you are aware that Connie Britton is an adoptive mother? She is another Hollywood actress who waited until her mid-forties to start a family and then adopted a boy from Ethiopia.

  7. Robin: I think I read that about Connie Britton somewhere and blocked it. I can't dislike every adoptive parent from a distance of the screen. And I have rather close friends who have adopted, though that does remain an issue I have to deal with.

  8. No idea if this comment is a duplicate - please delete if it is.


    Rizzoli & Isles (spelling) (Isles is an adoptee). They do adoption pretty well, from typical feelings an adoptee has, to finding out who her father is, and that he told her mother she died (there is a grave). To finding her mother, meeting her. Not a bad depiction.

    NCIS has had two different adoption stories, both done okay. http://theadoptedones.wordpress.com/2014/03/19/adoption-on-tv-again/

    There are so many shows within the last couple of years that have incorporated adoption, the above are two that come to mind in addition to Criminal Minds (they had one recently on re-homing). If they do it well they can be tolerated, if not then it ruins it for me.

  9. Actually, I did see an episode or two of Rizzoli and Isles, when they found Isle's first mother who was quite accomplished, and that it was handled well. But I didn't see any more followup. Is the show still on the air and does her being adopted come up now and then?

    And Oh! in the first season of mad Men, Peggy Olsen, aspiring copy writer, got pregnant and had the baby and someone in her family took the child. In the plot, Peggy had no problems with the loss of her baby, the father was not really involved at all or cared, even though the characters stayed on the show til the end.

    There was a little bit of follow up, but then that story was completely forgotten in subsequent years. Not convenient.

    And the same actress, Elizabeth Moss, played a detective and as we would eventually learn, a mother who had relinquished after a rape in the mini-series, Top of the Lake. Her being a first mother did play a substantial role in her character development. At least in these times, first mothers are coming out of the closet and being portrayed as real people whose lives are affected by losing a child to adoption. Top of the Lake was produced by a woman, the talented Jane Campion.

  10. Lorraine,

    I watch it on a different channel so I am probably behind in Rizzoli & Isles.

    Several episodes have had a sub-plot about her being adopted over the years, she has/the writers have done a very good job with framing the reactions, the words, the decisions and why.

    The show is based on a series of novels written by Tess Gerritsen. I have wondered if the writer is adopted, or someone in her family is - otherwise she has done her research well.


  11. To some extent, the proliferation of adoption-centric plots in recent television programming isn't that surprising. As a plot device, adoption narratives are, as Lorraine notes, as old as Oedipus. When you start to really think about the number of adoptees and orphans that have populated literary classics, the list is quite astonishing. A quick list would include Jane Eyer, the kids in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Little Orphan Annie, Oliver Twist, etc. Harry Potter is only the most recent famous orphaned/adopted kid in fiction. I genuinely think that the orphan/adoptee status of so many characters is incredibly common because their status as parentless children immediately cues us in to the fact that something extraordinary will happen to them. We somehow instinctively understand that it is simply abnormal to be raised by someone other than one's own parents, thus signaling to reader that some sort of unusual things will happen to them. If only real adoptee life and experiences were so glamorous and exciting...

  12. A few weeks back someone posted about the show 'Mom' which sunk to new depths by sending the message out that the kids of recovering alcoholics should relinquish their own babies on the off chance their babies might become addicts too.

    It was miserably ironic to use that precedent given that alcoholism has genetic components and therefore it wouldn't matter if you're raised by alcoholics or relinquished for adoption. If you have the genetic inclination to be an alcoholic, you have a damn good chance of becoming one.

    But they didn't stop there. At the end of that show the mother and her pregnant daughter are happily looking through profiles of those hoping to adopt as if shopping for curtains.

    The entire show was a sickening sell on adoption; one that couldn't have been more perfectly scripted to the koolaid drinking audience if Bethany Christian Services had written the thing themselves.

    Anonymous in the North

  13. Regarding MOM: Sounds like a retread of Juno. YUK, double Yuk. Send the show an email?

  14. Sorry, small point, but I don't believe Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are orphans. They have parents. They were simply evacuated to the professor's house during the London blitz in WWII as many children were. In the last book of the series, Aslan informs the children that they have died in real life along with their parents and friends (railway accident) and they will stay in Narnia forever.

  15. Do you want to see a movie that glorifies adoption to the nth degree? Well here it is.


  16. Merchdes Ruhl is a first mother. I read it in an interview with her out here where I live, and she has a home.

  17. I read that Mercedes Reuhl reunited with her birthson and he is godfather to her adopted son! On the flip side I loved her movie depicting a Native American adoptee returning to her roots.

    I've been an avid fan of Rizzoli & Isles since the beginning- love both actresses and had read the series of books. It is well done- although donating her kidney was a bit overmuch. This season she's slowly letting her firstmom back into her life (problems because of the mother using bdad's mafia $) I think it is one of the better depictions of the ups and downs of reunion.

    As for MOM- well, it is Hollywood''s version of adoption...the 'birthmother' making the choice. In this case- she had the support of her family, so why she would choose adoption doesn't make sense. I haven't seen the last two episodes, but I hope that once she holds the baby, she can't give it up.

    One show that is horrible is Kirstie Alley's show...just awful.

  18. Beehive,
    Good catch and you're right! The kids aren't technically orphans, but the long period of separation from their parents and the non-parent role of their uncle (?) still effectively sets them up for the orphan/adoptee plot device that I described above. There's just so many young adult heroes (heroines) that have been effectively or actually orphaned and/or adopted that I think there's a distinct pattern.

  19. @LLM, Don't forget that British books for young readers are often about children educated at boarding schools, the Harry Potter series, the Magnet, Blyton's works, and so on.
    For young people to be heroes, the responsible adults usually have to be moved out of the way, but not all of those missing parents stories are adoption related.

    A happier news is that starting with today, married homosexual couples are in the same legal situation concerning parenthood of children born in the marriage as a resullt of an unknown semen donor. No need to adopt one's wife's newborn baby anymore in that setting...

  20. Even worse is the new sitcom "Kirsty" which stars Kirsty Alley.

  21. Theodore, you are so right that missing parents stories don't all fit into into the orphan-adoption narrative. These are frequently stories in which the young person achieves heroic status through the exercise of some distinguishing virtue. The absence of parent figures is necessary for that to happen. For instance, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. little Lucy, the youngest of the children, becomes Queen Lucy the Valiant in recognition of her truthfulness and bravery. It is also she who first ventures into the wardrobe and discovers Narnia and by doing so initiates the action. But as Beehive rightly pointed out, Lucy and the other children are evacuees, not orphans. Their parents are not dead, nor have they been rejected.

    An "orphan" story that is perhaps worthy of mention is Maurice or the Fisher's Cot, written by Mary Shelley for a ten year old friend. Although a typically sentimental Victorian "improving" tale, it becomes of more interest when considered alongside Mary Shelley's great Gothic romance Frankenstein, another candidate for the orphan narrative in which the monster is rejected and cast out because he repels his maker.
    The plot is of Maurice is simple. A baby boy is stolen by a childless woman seeking to please her husband. He is ill treated by the husband. He finally finds refuge with an aged and kindly fisherman, Old Barnet, who dies, leaving the boy alone once again. Maurice meets up with a traveling architect who is much taken with the boy's beauty and manner and decides to educate him. In the course of their conversation it is revealed that Maurice is the traveller's lost son Henry for whom the father has been searching for many years. Henry returns to the bosom of his family and much joy ensues.

  22. Lorraine, did you watch last night's episode of Nashville? The fallout from the video was the main stroyline. I don't want to give away spoilers, but they explored more of the background behind why Rayna didn't tell Deacon about Maddie. It was interesting... I could really see Rayna's side of why she didn't tell Deacon, and it seemed for the first time, he was starting to understand (although he didn't understand why she never told him, and she explained that further).

    I also read a lot of different show recaps, and it seems unilaterally, everyone completely disapproves of Teddy's attitude towards Deacon and Maddie's relationship. That went a little further last night, and you can definitely see that it isn't so much about Maddie as it is his hatred of Deacon. Teddy is a universally disliked character ;), and I don't think anyone thinks he is behaving in a good way. I'd imagine even the writers are intending to make him a bit of a villain in this storyline.

    Also, Rayna is so supportive of Maddie both keeping a relationship with the man who raised her and the man who biologically helped create her. I really admire that about the character (and can't help but wonder if that ever plays out in Connie Briton's real life as an adoptive mother... just musings.). I appreciate that angle a lot- she isn't trying to insist that biology doesn't matter, and it's clear in this episode that this is not at all how she wanted things to be.

  23. In this month’s Yoga Journal we get the obligatory article about an adopter. And of course it’s all about her struggles and how tough everything is and the joy of finally obtaining “her” child.

    But we don't see articles about how yoga is helping adult adoptees like me with adoption-induced grief, stress, and anxiety (and yes, that is precisely why I practice it). We don’t see articles about how yoga is helping mothers and fathers find the strength and resources to keep their children.

    We don’t need to hear yet another adopter’s heartfelt story because that’s all we EVER hear about - the adopters, and how hard it is for them. For THEM.

    For those who might say, “But, Triona, you could write articles like that!” - I’ve tried. They get rejected. Lorraine, I’m sure you’ve had that experience also. Most other adoption writers I know, those who are first parents or adoptees, know that trying to get articles or books published from our points of view is next to impossible. Because we are not the authority. We are not the voice of adoption.

    Those who write the narrative are those who benefit from it.

  24. Tiffany--Last night we had dinner at a friend's house and I recorded Nashville...so I am not up to speed yet.

  25. Triona--

    Me know rejection? HA!

    Getting Birthmark published was a major effort because of the story; so is the follow up. Too much angst.

    On publisher rejected it largely because two women editors at said publisher did not like FMF!

  26. Lorraine - Didn't like FMF? Well, that seems like a good litmus test for figuring out which publishers aren't going to want to publish your work...

    I remember you talking about your struggles in trying to write and publish Birthmark. Thank you, on behalf of those of us still trying to have our voices heard. You shoved your foot in the door of adoption silence and held it open so others could follow.

    Notice how certain people get irate at adoptees and first parents who write about our experiences, yet completely ignore the rampant corruption in the adoption industry. Nice priorities there.

  27. What I said about the good news relates to the change in Dutch law, which assumes automatically that the mother's wife has automatically the standing of a father, provided an unknown (not the same as anonymous, the sperm bank just isn't telling the identifying info to the receiving clients) semen donor has been used.
    Furthermore, a woman can now acknowledge a child (only her wife's if she is married, I would hope), provided the mother agrees with that acknowledgement, so a married mother has the choice whether her wife or the biological father becomes a child's daddy. Starting this change on April Fool's day may have caused many fols to dis believe it.

    To some promotors of biological truth in birth administration this may be shocking, but Dutch law never demanded a biological possibility of fatherhood acquired by marriage or acknowledgement.

  28. Perfect timing - I watched DCI Banks last night. If the only fallout from restoring access, as in the UK, is a spate of dramas that demonizes birth/first mothers and adoptees, I am all for open records. My theory is it's one way a society expunges its own guilt over the cruel stupidity of closed, sealed record adoption.



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