Biography 24.1 (2001) 85-98
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Performing The Search In Adoption Autobiography: Finding Christa And Reno Finds Her Mom
Jill R. Deans
In his epilogue to On Autobiography, Philippe Lejeune writes: "I admire all these people who believe they are born, who seem to know what it is to be born. . . . We have the impression while reading their autobiographies, that their birth is like a piece of property that they would own in the country, or like a diploma" (xii, 135). Paul John Eakin found this statement compelling enough to repeat in his foreword to point out Lejeune's frustration with the "biographical model" for autobiography, a narrative structure bound by chronology, by a definable beginning, middle, and end. Typically, adoption autobiographies (and adoption as a social institution) mimic the "biographical model," though they are written by people who don't quite believe they were born, have no sense of what it means to be born, who are denied the "property" of their births, who are without a certificate.
Though Eakin and Lejeune are rightly suspicious of the obligatory birth narrative as foundational, many adoptees crave the birth narrative and birth record to confirm their very existence. In general, adoption autobiographies tend to privilege a foundationalist understanding of identity in their quests for "origins." The basic model depicts an adoptee trying to locate birth parents (or vice versa) in order to claim ethnicity, medical history, "roots," his or her "nature." My project begins by recognizing that such essentialist adoption autobiographies are, in fact, a political response to the system of sealed records. From here I ask how such texts might be disruptive and ultimately transformative. I argue that because performances of adoption are both varied and iterative, to evoke the language of Judith Butler (2), they have the power to reveal and redirect the social forces that shape "legitimate" kinship in the United States. [End Page 85]
I will examine for their disruptive potential two examples of adoption autobiography in film. Finding Christa and Reno Finds Her Mom share traits common to written adoption autobiography, but they differ in their means and ability to challenge cultural perceptions of kinship and identity. As films, they are more obviously collaborative than other forms of autobiography, supporting the notion that a life story is multi-voiced and necessarily informed from without. Of course, not all visual representations of adoption are so apparently constructed; many, in fact, play off vérité traditions to promote the authenticity of adoption reunions, to reify origins as something tangible that can be claimed like luggage at airports and bus terminals, along with tears and hugs and plastic-wrapped carnations. Think of tabloid reunion scenes from such television shows as Inside Edition and Unsolved Mysteries. While these popular venues may harbor the potential for disruption and transformation, they provide more immediately the illusion of transparency, the sense that connections with biogenetic relatives are both "natural" and conclusive--essentially complete within a half hour, give or take commercial breaks.
Camille Billops and Reno tell their stories using classic documentary, voice-over narrative, interviews, some real-time footage blended with "fantasy scenes," and most importantly, a degree of self-consciousness that resembles more their written counterparts than their tabloid video predecessors. In her essay "Eye for I: Making and Unmaking Autobiography in Film," Elizabeth W. Bruss argues that the medium cannot support the autobiographical expression of self, and therefore serves "to establish practices in which 'I' may no longer exist in the same way" (320). These films operate under the assumption that the "I" is a fluid iteration, managed by a creative agent or agents. In each case, a degree of control has been seized by these agents--the subjects of adoption--from the adoption "agency" and public scrutiny. The visual autobiography in these artful productions, I argue, emphasizes the artistry of the genre, the complexity of adoption search and reunion, and the performative aspects of identity formation.
In making this argument I will first provide some background and context for adoption autobiography, establishing some of the major...