Reviewed by Michele Sharpe
With its built-in interrogation of what it means to belong to a family, adoption offers a rich context for memoir. Quests to locate mysterious origins provide deeply archetypal narrative arcs for adoption stories, too, and the specialized dialect of adoption invites stories that consider the impact of language on life.
Three recent books — Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know (Catapult, 2019), Lori Jakiela’s Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe (Autumn House Press, 2019), and Karen Pickell’s An Adoptee Lexicon (Raised Voice Press, 2019) — explore displacement, parenting, identity, and culture from diverse adoptee perspectives. These issues have come to the forefront in recent news stories including concerns about children who’ve been separated from their families at the border being shunted into the adoption industry, and the two mass murders of transracial adoptee children in 2018 America: the Hart children from Washington and the Collier children from Tennessee.
Perhaps because children themselves have no say in whether they will be adopted, the voices of adoptees have not been front and center in the literature of adoption. In fact, one pet peeve of many adoptees is that the media often refers to full-grown people as “adopted children,” as if they never grow up. It’s a form of dehumanization. As noted by Chung in her September 2018 interview with LitHub, “Adoption narratives, historically, really have not focused on adoptees. We’ve so rarely gotten to tell our own stories.”
A uniquely political type of family formation, adoption is a complex, long-term process in the lives of those it touches. For adoptees, the process can disrupt identity and culture. This disruption is especially visible for children of color who are adopted by white families.
Chung’s memoir, All You Can Ever Know, explores the tension many adoptees – and others – experience between wanting to tell their own story and not knowing what parts of the stories they’ve been told are true.
Even when social workers, agencies, and adoptive parents make good faith efforts to preserve stories from an adoptee’s birth family, those stories can end up altered, as in an elaborate game of “Telephone,” where a birth parent tells a social worker who tells a supervisor, who makes a record that’s interpreted by yet another social worker and then communicated to a family. In international adoptions, there can also be language barriers that impair information-sharing. As many international adoptees have discovered, the stories told about them being “orphans” weren’t true. In some countries, agencies have taken children for permanent adoption when parents thought they were temporarily placing their children in the hands of the agency for needed care.
All You Can Ever Know was released to critical acclaim in 2018. Chung’s memoir describes the many disconnects of being a Korean girl adopted by white parents and raised in a white community. Her loving relationship with her supportive adoptive parents insulates her to some extent, but it can’t protect her from the racism of classmates and townspeople. Even within her adoptive family, relatives of her adoptive parents say things like “you’re our Asian Princess! And of course, we don’t think of you as Asian.” Her quest to uncover the true story of her original family drives the memoir to unexpected revelations.
Dynamics between empowered and disempowered people play out in the adoption industry. The children are powerless, and the adults are in charge. Whites are over-represented in adopters, and children of color are over-represented in adoptees. The industry divides along class lines, too. Children usually come from poorer families, while adopters are usually affluent enough to pay the high fees required by agencies. As in any power dynamic, the specialized language of adoption reflects these inequities.
In her remarkably unique memoir, Pickell examines the language of adoption and weaves her own experience as an adoptee through this examination. In addition to exploding code words and sanitized phrases (“surrendered,” “adoptable,” “putative father”) that built the adoption industry of the 20th century, Pickell shows how even neutral words like “baby” can be twisted by the loss that often accompanies adoption, whether the adoptive parents’ loss of a longed-for biological child, the adoptee’s loss of connection to heredity, or the birth parents’ loss, which may be frozen in time:
The other day my mother talked about “the baby,” how her
torment over the baby never ends, never goes away, how the
baby is thrown in her face still, today, and don’t I see what she
In this conversation, I am “the baby,” yet I am not the baby she
imagines. I am a nearly fifty-year-old woman.
But loss is not the focus of any of these three memoirs. In fact, there’s something quite liberating about being raised apart from one’s family of origin in a situation that isn’t “normal”: self-definition. In the chapter on the word “Normal,” Pickell writes: “When you let go of the idea that there are rules that must be followed, the limits on your life fall away, and everything is possible.”
Adoptee memoirs, like adoptee experiences, are diverse. Although connected by elements of archetype, there is no single story of adoption. However, all three authors set the stories of their private experiences in a wider political theater. They put their particular stamp on the power differentials at the heart of adoption and reclaim that power.
In Jakiela’s Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe, her visceral relationships with her two young children establish a particular, physical definition of motherhood, even as she calls her adoptive mother her “real mother.” Despite this grounding, the memoir’s scenes often shift quickly, while juxtapositions and non-sequiturs contribute to a sense of fragmentation that is familiar to many displaced people. In the process of communicating for the first time with a member of her birth family, Jakiela writes:
Some days it feels as if my children never left my body. I imagine our DNA, three dancing fountains merged into one. I imagine our actual bodies fused, tendriled arms and legs braided like bread.
I don’t know how [my biological sister’s] words play out. I’m confused and I’m furious. Anger comes after grief and fear, a logical thing, but I can’t sort this. I want the truth and I want the lie I was born with. I want connection and I want to get as far away as possible.
Adoption reunions and paternity reveals portrayed in popular media rarely move past the intense but brief moments of reconnection. All three of these memoirs touch on those ephemeral, dramatic moments, but the authors are in it for the long haul, embracing the facets of adoption that permeate everyday life, the myriad consequences of uncovering one’s bloodline, and the costs of recovering one’s own story.