Adoption as a social and legal construct is an uncomfortable wedge that splits and secures the tenuous identities of adopted people. Split from their original kin they are shifted to stranger families to become stuck on the threshold of never really being let in or truly left out. Familial doors are left ajar, leaving ongoing doubts of who they are and where they fit in.
ADOPTED, an anthology of poetry and prose by Diana Dunning, Sofie Gregory, Rebecca Johnston and Melinda Rackham, explores the wedges that make up their adopted lives. The foursome recently came together to experiment and collaborate with their writing under the literary guidance of David Chapple from the South Australian Writer’s Centre.
They acknowledge that their adoption experience has affected them in many different ways and that adoption is much more than searching for original families – it is a lifelong search for themselves, for their unresolved identities, without full knowledge of their personal histories.
Their collection is 60 individual pieces covering all of life experience. It is evident when reading this anthology that the life changing experience of adoption is ongoing and continues to impact on events from cradle to grave, through adolescence to old age, from school to retirement, from marriage to divorce, from searching to reunion, from sickness to healing, from private funerals to public apologies and memorials.
The consequences of adoption, often harmful and disorientating, remain with the adopted person throughout their lives. As Sofie Gregory succinctly captures in this short poem:
At the heart of my core
At the core of my heart
My mother was lost at my birth
And with her went my ‘self’
A new self shakes as the earth quakes
It is often difficult for non-adopted people to grasp the magnitude of the adopted persons primal loss and the ongoing impact this has on their daily lives as the wounds of adopted people are rarely recognised, even less discussed, as they lie deep within the psyche darkened by unresolved family dynamics.
To highlight the feelings of disconnection adopted people experience with themselves and with others, the authors go beyond their life writing to convey the inner and outer tensions they have to deal with. They cleverly use design and layout techniques to expose the awkward predicaments that are thrust upon them.
This includes a bold cover, dominated by blank space, across a strikingly bright, blood red background with the word ADOPTED, wedged along the right hand margin, the black letters lying on their side not upright. Readers are given no further information, about whose stories these are — no names appear on the front page. Origins remain unknown.
This is analogous to many adopted people who often begin their lives with little or no personal information. What others take for granted — known family roots—adopted people have had to spend years trying to find or fight to to be given their personal information. Success is never guaranteed and even if one does find who one is looking for, they are not always open to sharing more. As Rebecca Johnston reveals:
My Pandora’s Box
Need to remain silent
Paging through the section headings exposes further wedges this time of a binary nature: Conception/Deception … Trust/Disgust … Repair/Despair … Attraction/Repulsion … Known/Unknown …. Analyse/Synthesise.
Adoption is never linear, straightforward or without challenges. The residual effects of losing one family at birth and pretending it is erased and counterbalancing this with the legal construct of a new family where one is expected to neatly fit in, creates a gnawing unease within the adopted person. Diana Dunning captures this extremely well:
the great divide
You don’t understand
What it is for me
To be so far removed
From the feeling of
Your being there
Will you wait for me
Or walk away
As I watch and stare
At the you I think
Is standing there
It soon becomes apparent that none of the individual writings have an author attributed to them. Readers are left to wonder who has written each piece? Who do these stories belong to?
Reading personal stories without a personal attribution is like being taken along a seemingly random pathway, a patchwork of disjointed discourses that remain frustratingly disconnected. There is no clear chronology, no firm familial base resembling a home, no bonds of attachment—identities are fragmented, leaving one bewildered and confused. Once again the inevitable questions arise: Who are the people behind these stories? Why are there so many lose ends? Will we be able to find out who they are?
These design devices: the emptiness of the cover, the binary contradictions of the section headings and stories without personal attribution are confusing and disorientating— welcome to the world of adoption as experienced by adopted people!
Gaps in knowledge, bewilderment, confusion, disconnection, uncertainty are common experiences for adopted people who, like the authors of this anthology, have to make sense of their lives turned upside down and inside out through adoption as they move to find who they are. In the words of Diana Dunning:
second windmill to the right
… I asked my dear Mum some more of my Dad
He’d died years before but nobody cared
Her reply was abrupt and quite unexpected
‘All you need to know is that he was a bastard!
… I called my twin brother and asked ‘did you know?’
‘How long?’ ‘Twenty years. Brothers and wives too.
Mother threatened. We solemnised oaths
To respect her wish to not tell you the truth’…
Only when we get to the end of the book are the personal identities of the four authors made known, along with snapshots of their adoptive experience. Here too their literary contributions over the preceding pages are finally assigned an author.
Working through the writings once more, with the benefit of being able to cross reference against the individual authors, their personal stories open up, they are invisible no longer. We get to know who they are and the struggles they have had to endure as Rebecca Johnston highlights:
With knocked-upped genes
And a guilt-ridden attiude
I dance here often
Addicted to the temporary relief
Of stalking my ancestors
Just the dead tree with present living seed
Searching for, and finding—or not finding—first families is a pathway adopted people inevitably follow at some point in their lives, most often as adults, seeking each tiny piece to help repair their fragmented psyches.
They may find what they are looking for. Understanding and healing takes a lot longer.
In Bequest, Melinda Rackham, buries her mother and following the funeral and wake, has a chance to reflect:
… ‘Pat and I struggled for twenty-five years to define our relationship. I knew her stories, her medical history, her holidays with Sr. Anne. I listened to tales of my half-sibling’s marriages and divorces, studies, harebrained schemes, the grandchildren’s growing up, school, sports, jobs, cars, lack of respect. Being childless I reported on my projects and overseas travel. We didn’t meld back together. I stopped seeing her for a while. But I could never say I don’t believe you. I deserve to know the truth of me. I always defaulted to niceness in an attempt to delay re-abandonment’…
ADOPTED is in many ways an anthology of grieving with the four authors addressing their familial losses that mask a deeper enduring pain. Grieving involves facing denial, seeking to understand and move beyond anger, negotiating through healing options, overcoming the black dog to arrive at some form of acceptance along with a sense of meaning. The extended adopted journey mirrors these stages of grief, and like the grieving process is unpredictable tending to meander and unfold instead of a linear progression of neat answers or packaged healing.
Congratulations to the authors on their combined anthology. Their writings are an important contribution to raising awareness about the ongoing impacts adoption has on the lives of adopted people.
Writing about unsettling life events helps bring clarity and understanding to them. The wedges ease, akin to slipping the chocks, allowing affected people to ease into life’s rougher waters. To stay afloat, ballast aligned and with better balance less likely to sink or run aground.
ADOPTED was published in 2017 by IdentityRites with financial support from Forced Adoption Support Services and Relationships Australia, South Australia.