Social Text 21.1 (2003) 7-27
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Adoption, Loss of Bearings, and the Mythology of Roots
An angel with no face embraced me And whispered through my whole body; "Don't be ashamed of being human, be proud! Inside you vault opens behind vault endlessly. You will never be complete, that's how it's meant to be."
—Tomas Tranströmer, "Romanesque Arches"
In the world of intercountry adoption, two stories predominate: a story of abandonment and a story about roots. In the abandonment story, a baby is found in a marketplace, on a roadside, outside a police station, or in the tour of an orphanage; alternately, a child is left by its mother at a hospital or is relinquished or surrendered to child welfare officials, a social worker, or the staff of a children's home. After passing through the hands of social workers, lawyers, and/or orphanage staff and perhaps in and out of hospitals, foster homes, and courts, this child may ultimately be declared free for adoption, a process that requires a second, legal separation that constitutes the child as a legal orphan. Similarly, a mother who relinquishes her child to state agents must consent to the irrevocable termination of her rights to the child. In international adoptions, the child will also be separated from its state of origin (a procedure that in some nations involves sealing the record of this severance and altering the child's birth certificate) so that it can be connected to a new family, a new name, a new nation. The child is given a new identity. It now belongs in a new place.
This story of separation is a story about loss and the transformation of loss into a "clean break" (Duncan 1993, 51) that forms the ground for starting anew. The clean break separates the child from everything that constitutes her grounds for belonging as a child to this family and thisnation, while establishing her transferability to that family and that nation. With a past that has been cut away—an old identity that no longer exists—the child can be reembedded in a new place, almost as though he or she never moved at all.
Even as this legal story of separation is the official ground for constituting adoptive identities, another story competes with it in both law and adoption practice. This other story was a persistent counterpoint to the movement for "strong" adoptions that prevailed at the Hague Conference [End Page 7] in the early 1990s (Duncan 1993) and was incorporated into the Hague Convention as children's right to preservation of their "ethnic, religious and cultural background" (Hague Convention 1993, Article 16c). The preservation story implies that there is no such thing as a clean break and underpins the search movement in domestic adoptions, the debate over sealed records, and the movement to keep adoptions open in the United States today (Yngvesson 1997; Carp 1998; Verhovek 2000). In this story, identity is associated with a root or ground of belonging that is inside the child (as "blood," "primal connectedness," and "identity hunger") (Lifton 1994, 67-71) and unchanging. But it is also outside the child in the sense that it is assumed to tie her to others whom she is like (as defined by skin color, hair texture, facial features, and so forth). Alienation from this source of likeness produces "genealogical bewilderment" (Lifton 1994, 68, citing Sants 1964) and a psychological need for the adopted child to return to where she really belongs.
The story of a freestanding child and the story about a rooted child appear to be mutually exclusive and are associated with different adoption practices. The former is associated with race and other forms of matching that are intended to produce "as if" adoptive families that mimic natural ones (Modell 1994). Even in international transracial adoptions, where race matching is impossible, adoption practices in the 1960s and 1970s emphasized complete absorption of the adopted child into the new family and nation (Andersson 1991). By contrast, the story about...