' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Slate's "Prudence" gets adoption all wrong; advice columnist ignorant about adoption--again

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Slate's "Prudence" gets adoption all wrong; advice columnist ignorant about adoption--again

Daniel Mallory Ortberg
aka Prudence
Daniel Mallory Ortberg, the 32-year-old child of evangelical pastors, spews advice under the name "Prudence" in Slate Magazine. His skill as a writer -- nothing more --qualifies him to dig into the human heart and mind, and thus he's an advice columnist at Slate. Ortberg has no children. He transitioned from female and says he identifies as queer but has dated women. His experience is far removed from a) being adopted; and b) being a woman who gave up a child. And he makes no attempt to walk in their shoes. It's all sliced-and-diced contractually, with no attempt to understand. Well, then, neither did Ann Landers, or her sister, Dear Abby, when it came to adoption.

Nonetheless, Ortberg, aka Prudence, has no problem telling a womAn who identifies herself as "What Do I Owe Her?" who had just been found by the daughter surrendered to adoption over 30 years earlier that  "you do not need to tell her anything and, in fact I'm inclined to think you shouldn't have any further communication with her." (Emphasis his)

What Do I Owe Her? explains that the daughter is the product of years of sexual abuse by her half brother. She says she feels nothing for the girl and doesn't want a relationship. She concludes with "I have told no one in my current life about my past. You are the only one I can tell."

Prudence/Ortberg follows up with.  "You don't have to explain or justify your decision not to speak with her, and if it would make you feel easier, you can block her number or decline to answer her emails and carry on with your life, knowing that what you are doing is the kindest and easiest for everyone (Jane's Bold).

A book cockeyed advice
columnists need to read
Kind? Denying your child basic information about her origins is cruel, plain and simple. Without knowing her past, her daughter will stumble forward, always wondering, if that successful women on TV could be her mother, or if that man selling used cars could be her father. Or perhaps her mother was a porn star and her father is President of the United States. Adoptees don't live in a vacuum. As my daughter Megan wrote in a recent post, they need to put together the puzzle of their lives even if the picture is not pretty. What Do's daughter did not cause her mother's sexual abuse, and she should not be punished for how she came into this world. She is entitled to know her origins.

Easy? Clearly it has not been easy for the woman who wrote to Ortberg.  Remaining in the closet, fearful that her daughter will somehow circumvent her efforts to block her and show up at her door, dictates a lifetime of stress. As a woman who transitioned into a man, Ortberg should know that staying in the closet never works in the long run.(His advice reminds me of advice that would have been to a woman who identified as a man several decades ago -- forget it and try to act normal. Further, as long as What Do is internalizing blame and allowing herself to be shamed for something that was not her fault, she can never be fully herself.

It's a pity that What Do turned to Ortberg for advice. If she had written to someone who knew what they were doing, she would have been advised to seek a first mother support group and read some of the excellent books by first mothers and adoptees.

Jane in the Age of Ignorance
Ortberg joins a long line of adoption-ignorant advice columnists who spin tales about the blessings of adoption and the importance of secrecy. Ann Landers, and her twin, Amy Van Buren,  as well as Joyce Brothers headed up the parade in the in the 50's--the age of ignorance--and continued into the 70's and 80's, the age of enlightenment, when adoptees and first mothers began searching for each others. Dr. Laura, Marguerite Kelly, Annie Lane, and Carolyn Hax lead the cheers for adoption and secrecy today.

As author of the New York Time Ethics column Kwame Anthony Appiah, also gay and childless, employs "ethics" rather than pop psychology for his answers, but reaches the same misguided results. He argues that promises of secrecy should be kept so as not to discourage mothers from giving up their babies. (This is one of the same reasons a judge shot down ALMA's lawsuit to unseal birth records of adoptees in the 1970s.)

The Classic, from an adoptive
mother and therapist 
Does Appiah, who holds a Ph.D. from Cambridge, who Wikipedia page proudly enumerates his vaulted pedigree like so many medals, really believe that mothers would keep their babies if they cannot be guaranteed secrecy in adoption? Or that they would opt to abort? If he had an ounce of experience in the real world of child-bearing--and if he had a soupcon of empathy toward the adopted--he would recognize that pregnancy and child birth come from an entirely different mind set than abortion. In another blunder, Appaih agrees that adoptees should be bound by agreements between their first mothers and adoptive parents, accepting the premise that adoptees are chattel subject to the control of those who paid for them. Forever. And ever.

Advice columnists such as these do great harm not only to those unfortunate enough or gullible enough to ask them for advice, but also to the thousands who read their columns and accept their pop psychology advice. In trying to decide what to do when I found myself pregnant and unmarried in 1966, I was influenced by Ann Landers to believe that the proper thing to do was give up my baby. I thought it was possible to keep her a secret, and get on with my life with only an occasional wistful look backwards. That Ortberg, spews the same nonsense half a century later is mind blowing--and heart-breaking.--jane

Update: After I posted this on July 31, further research disclosed that Ortberg transitioned from women to man.

Dear Prudence Column, 7/12 Scroll down
About Dear Prudence
Kwame Anthony Appiah
'Mallory is Not Gone' Daniel Mallory Ortberg on Coming out as Trans

Megan's Story: An Adoptee Fills in the Pieces
What if I Don't Want to See the Child I Gave up for Adoption?
What if our son's mother wants a relationship with him but not us
Annie Lane's damaging advice: When one child has an open adoption and the other doesn't
When your adopted child wants to visit her birth mother....
Joyce Brothers touted the advantages of being adopted

TO SEND TO Ortberg and Appiah, et alia:
Adoption Therapy: Perspectives from Clients and Clinicians on Processing and Healing Post-Adoption Issues
By Laura Dennis
on December 8, 2015 
This book is truly ahead of its time and is desperately needed as part of the curriculum of every college where social workers and therapists are trained. This book is the result of those hard lessons that the caring contributors generously shared to offer insights into how we can do better when addressing issues that adoptees universally face. Thank you to Laura and the other contributors for allowing the rest of us to peak into what it means to live adoption. (Amazon)

The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child
By Nancy Verrier

I knew I had some subconscious or unconscious "issues" from having been adopted, but I didn't truly understand them until I read this book. If you are adopted, get this book. If you have adopted children - or are even thinking about doing so - get this book. I learned a lot about myself while reading this - it explained a lot of my behavior as a child, and even as an adult. Being adopted IS traumatic, no matter what age it happens at - I was adopted as a baby, but still had issues because of it. My parents used to tell me that I was "chosen," and while they were trying to make me feel good and "special," it always made me sad to hear. Not because I didn't like my adoptive parents, but because - even as a child - I knew inside somewhere that to be "chosen," I first had to be given away. I didn't understand those sad feelings as a child, but thanks to this book, I understand them now. 


  1. "Everybody wants to know where they come from, even if it doesn't turn out like you wanted it." - Our totally favorite comment from ABC's Find My Family message board.

    1. I want a connection more than knowing where I came from.

  2. Hmm. It sounds like (in reading the letter and his response), as if it's more about protecting her adopted-out from the natural father (a sexual abuser and rapist), and the adopted daughter's natural grandmother (who looked the other way and isn't a moral person at all, and not trustworthy as any kind of a family member. I don' think his advice was that bad. He suggested to her some language she could use, or not - - Is it really a good idea to send this young woman into the arms of a sexual predator? And his enabler? Why bring more trouble into the adopted woman's life?

    Could we talk about this? I'm on the fence and not sure his advice is that bad, or that the natural mother is that bad. On the other hand, I suppose by the mother's clamming up, the adopted daughter could find her sexual-predator father through a different route, and that would be very bad, as she would be in contact with him, not knowing there is danger.

    But - the mother did say she wouldn't even send a serial killer their way! Clearly she has a conscience, and a desire to protect her (adopted out) daughter if she can. That's a maternal instinct, we can't ignore it and fault her for that.

    1. Um excuse me? That doesn't keep anyone safe at all. You just simply tell the truth and keep communicating.

  3. I don't know if they're all simply "adoption ignorant". Maybe they are.

    The "easiest way" is not to avoid, but to live in reality and to face truth. The "easiest way" keeps one a prisoner whether they recognize the fact or not. A prisoner of secrecy and shame and fear. Fear of being found or found out. That's a very heavy burden to carry and pays no good dividends in the long run for **anyone** close to that person. i.e. short tempered, snapping at people for no apparent reason, other inexplicable emotional outbursts, decisions and actions done that make little sense to those around them that are very much secrecy/fear/hidden trauma based in origin.

    Perhaps this was an innocent effort thinking this approach would truly be protecting everyone. Adoption effects so many people, profoundly, and for life, that perhaps the best advice a columnist could give would be; find an adoption competent therapist. But then, adoption competent therapists can be as scarce as hens teeth.

    These columnists could also suggest the many resources of adoptee and first mother blogs, and books, or Facebook groups. But then, that would make too much sense to send someone to those that have walked down this path. To point them to those, connected to many others, who collectively have lifetimes of experience with the hard parts of adoption.

    How can anyone think the daughter (or any adoptee) does not deserve to know her (their) truth and at least receive some answers? What if, or more likely when, through DNA or other means, she finds her father who also happens to be her uncle? Wouldn't it be 'kind' for bio-mom to prepare her? DNA's a game-changer. Truth will out.

    Secrets breed lies. Lies produce a tangled web that snares many.

    Perhaps it is just biased advice. Biased by a need to protect, at all costs, adoption's barbaric practices. Who knows?

  4. These two for-profit advice distributors to the masses need to find another job: "...promises of secrecy should be kept so as not to discourage mothers from giving up their babies..." Exactly! A mother ought to be encouraged and hugely supported by everyone within 3 feet, to keep her baby because this is the humane and authentic path. As for "... adoptees should be bound by agreements between their first mothers and adoptive parents..." Yeh! Well-how about the agreement the adopters made with the mother in most open adoptions for visits, frequent contact that ended abruptly. No equal opportunity exists for mothers who hand over their babies unwittingly to profiteers. And who was it that said, nothing existed in the papers she signed that would legally protect her from being discovered by her child. Excellent perspective Jane. Love your photo.

  5. My feelings, in reading "prudence" were more in line with Cindy and N&O, I think..It seems to me that his response may sound like the typical "protect" the closeted bmom and everyone else blah, blah from the searching adoptee.
    But, I used to work in search/support, for many years, and I did receive some calls from adoptees and mothers who had been involved in incest situations. The adoptees who found they had been conceived in incest were terrified, revolted, filled with regret that they had searched and even looking for a legal way to seek redress in the court system. I did not hear this from other "unhappy reunitees" even though there were many people whose reunions were not great. And I got one call from a young woman(conceived in incest) who had been adopted within her kinship family whose rage and pain was so great it made me realize that, living with truth in your face, all the time can be a greater burden than distance. Especially when you are a kid, and you feel that "horror" that adults project onto you.

    These kids could be kept in a family with no explanation given, or they might someday find out. But incest is/was more common than people think.
    Incest is a crime. It was 50 years ago. It still is a crime. It is also a social horror, that most people loathe. Single parenthood may have become much more acceptable today, but incest/child molesting? No, if anything, there are even more fears today of these things. What happened to this woman was a crime.......and a social horror that Ortberg may have understood (son of a pastor) and he fell back on that.
    The adopted away daughter has asked for her information and so she is owed that. Very carefully, very gently. The mother should also provide what records/evidence she still has because her mother and brother sound like they would try to discredit her.Perhaps a crime victims counselor could help? I too, sense maternal feelings. But she will need help and support of a specialized kind.

    1. Kitta, your perspective on the incest aspect of this story is valuable. This situation is not the run-of-the-mill mother who is embarrassed or ashamed of having gotten pregnant in a long term or brief relationship, and afraid of telling those close when the adoptee shows up. It cannot be dealt with with the same advice or by the average adoption support group or reunion counselor.

      I have never dealt personally with a mother or adoptee from an incest situation. If confronted by such, I would feel way out of my depth, and suggest a counselor or group that dealt with that special and awful circumstance. I have known mothers who were raped and a child was the result, and some of them do go on to have a relationship, others do not. As someone who was not a victim of rape or incest, I can understand mothers in those circumstances having so much more to deal with, and in need of more support and expertise than I feel I could provide. It is not hard to understand why a mother would want nothing to do with a child of incest. I would not know what to say to such a woman. This is much more complicated than "just meet her and tell the truth." I agree with Kitta that a crime victim or sexual abuse survivor counselor might be helpful, maybe to both mother and daughter eventually to try to soften the blow and provide ongoing counseling for both. This is a horrible tragedy for mother and adoptee. There are no easy answers.

    2. Point made. The advice on this first mother blog is much more sound and compassionate than the advice given by these columnists. It may have taken some discussion to get to that point, but it didn't take long.

  6. What fries my brain about these columnists is that neither of them have any doubts about who they are, where they came from, who conceived them. They know. Like the whole world that is not adopted, they just know. Prudence aka Daniel turns out to be a trans, as Jane will explain momentarily at the blog itself, and his parents were evangelical ministers, and it's a known fact that evangelicals like adoption and see it both as a way of doing good but also as a way of refuting abortion. But for one moment, they, like the legislators who can't support unsealing records because they must "protect" mothers, can't walk in the adoptees' shoes. Pathetic.

  7. Just fyi, identifying as queer is not the same thing as being gay. Idk who that clown is, but his queer identity could be referring to his sexuality (gay, bi, pan, ace, etc.) or his gender identity (cis, trans, enby, etc.).

    "Queer" is, in my understanding an in my personal usage, mostly an umbrella term for "not heterosexual" and also sometimes "not cisgender" (though then often used in the word "genderqueer" to make that clear). It's not, however, a synonym for "gay". At least not these days.

    1. from Wikipedia:
      Ortberg identifies as queer and has mentioned dating women.[4]

    2. I find it very interesting that many of those seeking to deny us equality and treat us badly are from repressed groups. I have blogged about this.

  8. It’s a matter of opinion and just as a lot of you on this forum disagrees with Prudence, a lot of people do agree. And right now, nothing can be done if a mother chooses not to reveal information she might know. A lot of babies were conceived under circumstances that the mother does not choose to discuss and yes, at this time it is her right not to do so.

    You can Rail about this all you want but that is how it stands.

  9. Thirty years ago all states but two had sealed records. Natural mothers were deep in the closet. We "railed" against the unjust system and guess what, now nearly 30 states have some sort of openness. Paraphrasing Martin Luther King, We are not where we want to be, we are not where we should be, but we are are lot farther down the road than we were before.

    Would you have told the civil rights workers of the Sixties to do nothing? I guess so.

  10. My family did not know that I had a child that I relinquished. My other children did not know. Very few of my closest friends knew. When the call came that my son was searching for me, I hesitated for an instant. And then I opened the door to this young man who carried a burden his entire life. He thought he was unwanted, unloved, and all alone in the world. He had parents who loved him dearly, gave him all that they had to offer but it still wasn't enough. I too carried a burden. A burden of regret and shame. An unbearable sense of loss. The best thing in my life has been to say "yes" to my first born. No matter what it has cost me, it has cost him more. I would encourage every first mother to say yes to your child.

    1. Best comment ever written in the history of everything I've ever read on adoption, and I've read a lot.

  11. Thank you for writing this. I've long felt that Ortberg's advice has become completely shallow, mean, and extreme. He lacks entirely in real-world experience, nuance, compassion, curiosity, or humor. It is an entirely self-serving column in which he can dispense his social/political views in place of meaningful advice. It boils down to nothing more than bad-faith assumptions, stilted and robot "scripts" that no human would ever utter, and "get therapy." It's a self-parody at this point, and seems to be only getting worse. Contrast with virtually any other of Slate's advice columns, especially Care and Feeding and Ask a Teacher. The problem lies squarely with Ortberg. I don't know how he got this job but he's clearly not cut out for it whatsoever.

  12. I do agree with Maryanne that it is complicated. In the case of a child conceived through incest and surrendered to adoption, the adopted person should learn the truth, as this can aid in her understanding of why she was not raised by her first mother, and why it is difficult for the first mother to meet her daughter with open arms. I think this is better than cutting her off with no explanation, or with lies. The road to healing may be a long one, but right now the mother is cutting off part of herself as well, which is self-damaging. The truth will set you free!

  13. Amazon has a book, written by a psychiatric nurse, which could help the first mother as well as her daughter: Healing Sibling Sexual Abuse: A Very Personal Story. There is another book by Vernon Wiehe at amazon. I think it would help the first mother to realize she is not alone (just as first mothers were helped by learning they were not alone, e.g., when Dusky wrote her first book in 1979). There used to be a website called Stigmatized.org, devoted to those conceived in incest or rape. The site no longer exists, unfortunately. Sadly, the first mother has been traumatized in three ways: incest, unplanned pregnancy and carrying a child full-term, only to give the child to another woman. The woman must deal with incestuous abuse before she can be open to a relationship with her child. She needs to communicate this to her child: I need time! And this is why. She doesn't have to feel anything for her child (love, for example) because love is not something that can be forced. But, maybe she can try to feel some empathy for the child, and try to put herself in her daughter's place (of needing to know etc.)

    The mother might also get in touch with RAINN, who could steer her to some resources. Therapy is often suggested; the therapist should be knowledgeable in dealing with sexual abuse. The choice of therapist is critical. Kluft, a psychiatrist, has noted in his research that incest victims are "sitting ducks" for therapist-patient sex! The therapist must have a healthy understanding of boundaries in relationships. Pauline Trumpi Evans, author of Doctors Who Rape: Malpractice and Misogyny



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