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Adoption Narratives, Trauma, and Origins

From: Narrative
Volume 14, Number 1, January 2006
pp. 4-26 | 10.1353/nar.2005.0026

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Narrative 14.1 (2006) 4-26

Margaret Homans

Life stories of adopted people often have complex narrative lines, since to the already insurmountable difficulty of any human effort to know and fix one's origin is often added the extra difficulty of lack of information about birth parents, date, place, and, as the oxymoronic current language has it, "birth culture" (see e.g. Tompkins 276). Starting in the 1970s, with the emergence of the search and open adoption movements, with increasing opposition to the placement of minority children out of their birth communities, and with newer practices of transnational adoption modeled on these existing practices, U.S. adoption culture has placed a high value on knowledge of personal (familial, genetic) origins and "birth culture." In most cases access to such knowledge is thwarted, however, whether by law or by circumstance, so adoptive families generate doubles and substitutes. Adoption day is celebrated as well as the often conjectural birthday; narratives of the adoption trip or first encounter are told in place of birth stories; and in the case of transnational or transethnic adoption, parents construct a simulacrum of the "birth culture" by providing "same-race role models" and incorporating into family life cultural fragments (holidays, food, clothing) that are supposed to be authentic but that are, inevitably, translated and hybridized. Transnational adoptive families embark on "roots trips" to the scenes where an origin might be reconstructed: to the city, orphanage, street or police station where the child was found. In the case of U.S. domestic adoptions, adult adoptees embark on searches for birth parents. The roots trip makes origins seem knowable, memorable, documentable, yet again and again in the narratives of such journeys, origins are fictionally constructed in the face of admissions that they cannot otherwise be known. And search narratives, like the epic quest plots on which, as Barbara Melosh points out, they are modeled (Adoption in America 228–9), never arrive where the searcher wants: the past is another country and you cannot go there. Because western cultures tend to equate biological origins with identity—think Oedipus, or Harry Potter (Novy 1–2)— roots trips and searches are freighted with the demand that they provide what nothing can provide: certain knowledge of who you are. Anyone might recognize that identity and the origins that supposedly ground it are artifacts, but the adopted and those who think about them may be particularly well positioned to do so.

To say that adoption is a fiction-generating machine is not to contrast it categorically with non-adoptive family formation, but rather to claim that it presents in a particularly acute form the problem of the unknowability of origins and the common tendency to address that problem with fiction making. This essay uses narrative theory and a debate in trauma theory to read some nonfictional and fictional narratives involving the retrospective construction of adoptive origins; it also suggests how increased attentiveness to the subject of adoption might complicate narrative theory. I discuss some narrative consequences that flow from adoption's orientation towards a knowledge about the past that is intensely but apprehensively sought and that is not finally available. I argue that adoptive origins and origin stories are not discovered in the past so much as they are created in the present and for the present.

Adoption through the Lenses of Narrative Theory and Trauma Theory

Narrative theory, at least since Roland Barthes, has identified the story of Oedipus—his search for the truth about his parentage, his trust in language to tell that truth—as the paradigm of storytelling itself (see e.g. Miller 3–45, Rivkin 122–124). That this key western narrative is a story about adoption is a secret hidden in plain view. As Marianne Novy points out, adoption memoirs often reference Oedipus the adoptee, but literary theorists, starting as they do with Freud's view of the story as everyman's fantasy, have for the most part overlooked the adoption theme. For most readers, Oedipus's abandonment and "sealed records" adoption merely comprise the mechanism by which he is induced to commit his celebrated crimes. But the uncovering of adoption at and as the fountainhead of...



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