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

Friday, July 22, 2016

Adoption and Lying: Adopted Syndrome or not?

Due to the stories of reunion troubles that emerged from the last blog, I am reposting one that I wrote in 2010.--lorraine

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
But I can’t tell this story and do Jane justice by leaving out another salient factor. Shortly before she graduated from high school she revealed that a member of her extended adoptive family had abused her, and that it had started when she was about twelve. From what she told me, it had been over for a while, but the man was still around and she had to see him occasionally. Lying is a hallmark of sexual abuse—the children who have been abused are told they must keep it secret, so they get acclimated to lying by omission. She had told me years earlier that one of her girlfriends was having regular sex with her doctor in the girl’s bedroom—a fabrication that made absolutely no sense. Even though I pointed out that her story had so many holes in it a herd of wild boars could have torn through it, Jane stuck to it. By then I was used to her unbelievable stories, and gave up dissuading her. I failed to recognize this absurdity was a cry for help.

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,[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, 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
[1] B.J. Lifton is the author of three books about adoption: Twice Born: Memoirs of an Adopted Daughter1975; Journey Of The Adopted Self: A Quest For Wholeness and Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience.

[2] 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.


  1. Well, I'm adopted and don't lie much. My mother actually appears to have altered cards that i sent to her, adding sick and hurtful messages. She then showed these things to her friends. I can only assume that she told them other falsehoods as well.

    It's a very bizarre and painful situation. No one will actually speak to me about this, because they despise me for hurting my mother.

    I think lying can go both ways, maybe it depends on the level of damage the separation caused.

    1. Your mother's childhood story is very sad, and that probably had something to do with it. When people feel that there is nothing that they can control about their life, telling tales is a way to hide I suppose, or a way to manipulate conversations or people. My eldest sister was a compulsive liar. I say "was" as I broke off my relationship with her, which wasn't much to begin with. She was 13 years older than me and didn't really view me as a sister, but as a somewhat distant relative.

      Anyway, she was badly abused by our mother. Over the years, there were an extraordinary amount of phone calls that never went through that she made to me, and many letters which were never received. I finally got wise in my 30's when I realized that there were 3 letters over a recent 5 year period that this poor woman sent that were never received by me, and she would suggest that someone is "intercepting" my mail. This was the same thing she was saying to me since I was a child. And there's much more, she lied about to me to my other siblings, as she wanted to keep me - and our abusive mother - out of her life. I finally decided that she was not worth my worries or tears, as the lying was never going to end.

      Interestingly, we both have something in common, in that we both lost two children - she was an alcoholic and abusive to her kids, and her husband had her parental rights terminated. Me, I just held on for 3 years with my kids alone, and slowly disintegrated and became more abusive and could not control myself, choosing adoption as a way out for them. This similarity was never discussed by us though, as she, along with my other siblings, made it a point to stay as far away as they could. Not their problem.

      Life seems to be a series of lies told by people, to us and about us. My mother said many things to me when I was a child, that years and years later, it is obvious that they could have been nothing but lies. Lying seems to be the preferred modus operandi in my family. Luckily I am trying to be as much NOT like them, as I can.

  2. I wouldn't go so far as to call it part of the "syndrome." But I do think the lack of honesty in adoptees' lives plays a big part in their perception of truth. "As if born to." "We chose you." "Your mother loved you so much she gave you away." My son found out by accident that he was adopted when he was 12. No wonder he started inventing his own realities. When we reunited he told me all sorts of stories that turned out not to be true. HUGE tales! Not just little white lies. Later he said he thought I'd be impressed. Not so much. I know a lot of adoptees and while they don't necessarily lie about things, I find they have lots of fantasies. Magical thinking. It kind of goes with the territory, I'm afraid.


  4. How can an adopted child know the difference between a lie and the truth when their whole life consist of a lie and they are always searching for their truth. When I found my son last year he told lies just as one would tell the truth. Not only was he a consistent liar but he also had a history of stealing, cheating, and drug abuse. I was horrified at first that this was "the better life" that i was promised my son would have. After much research and talking to hundreds of adoptees I have found that this behavior is quite common. Many many arguments and pullbacks came from my sons behavior and at times I can see where I was getting sucked into his his drama so I took a break from him to get me bearings. I can never see us ever having that healthy relationship that I thought we were going to have, but he is my son and no matter how screwed up this adoption has made him, he is my son and I will stand by him and get him the help he needs until the day I die. Reunions are not the happily ever after that you see on tv. Thank you for your blogs. They have been very helpful.

  5. Oh my yes, I was an amazing "stretcher of the truth" until I left home. Sometimes even after then. The bollocks I would come up with. I think it started as a way to my hurt my a-parents feelings, and then extended to getting out of trouble. The problem with being "naughty" in my a-family was that it was a massive disappointment, and there were always comparisons to the cousins (all natural born), and a fear (all in my head) that I might be sent back. It wasn't until I was well into my 20's that I embraced not caring what other people thought of me. It also turns out that I was somewhat correct; the more authentically myself I am, the less my a-family approved.

  6. I honestly think that it is about the fantastical what if lives.... at least while they are young. After that, well, there is a point when you have to start telling the truth or people simply stop believing. I learned this young, since I grew up partially in foster care as an unwanted child. I used to make things up to make myself feel better. But there was a point when I learned that it might make me feel better at first, but after I realized that no one really thought much of me because of the lies, I stopped lying.

    1. Thoughtful comment, Lori. The difficulty with telling lies all the time is you end up with so much to keep track of, since you don't have the truth to fall back on. Hugs.

  7. "Referral bias" strongly influences findings in adoption related disorders, especially from major research institutions such as the Yale Psychiatric Hospital. There are many reasons why children who are adopted may have particular problems - even including what one might call the "The Primal Lie" of altered birth certificates, and concealment of the child's natural origins, which may indeed contribute to difficulty in distinguishing truth from falsehood in some children.

    Some of these reasons have to do with the circumstances, conditions and experiences that caused these children to be surrendered for adoption in the first place, such as adverse pre-natal influences (drugs, alcohol, even certain medications), genetic problems, etc. Also experiences after birth but prior to being adopted, such as early neglect, malnutrition, lack of attention in orphanage life, abuse, etc. leave their own damaging effects.

    But to assume that adoption itself is the primary cause of pathological lying, rather than a possible contributing factor, is to ignore other perhaps even more important reasons that may underlie the behaviour.
    In addition, it is now believed that certain kinds of central nervous system conditions may account for an inability to distinguish fantasy from reality and lead to what may look to the outside observer like a deliberate attempt to mislead.

    1. As I stated:

      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.

      and: Lying is a hallmark of sexual abuse—the children who have been abused are told they must keep it secret, so they get acclimated to lying by omission.

      I agree, most symptoms such as lying most likely have multiple causes, including possibly biological ones.

    2. Lorraine, as a person with a degree in psychology, I have to disagree with one thing - BIOLOGY has NOTHING to do with lying. Even a pathological liar is someone that does it for emotional or psychological reasons. There is NOTHING in psychology that leads to any belief that biology has anything to do with it.



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