Wild Dogs in the Basement: The Enigmatic Male Adoptee
Have you ever wondered why social media, conferences and political adoption reform efforts seem to attract disproportionately few male adoptees? Me too.
Historically, men, by nature, appear to have been wired for conquest, battle and embracing a challenge, particularly when it comes to threats to our families, our territory and our egos. When other men threaten to invade and take what is ours, we rally the troops, raise a battle cry, and take up arms. Our competitive nature shows up everywhere from the battlefield to the ball field to the board room and courtroom. But the one thing that can turn a 275-pound linebacker into a compliant, soup-slurping little boy in a television commercial is the emotional power of his mother. In the context of adoption reform, the old adage, "The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world" may take on new meaning.
There is no question that it was legislatures made up of white men who voted to establish laws imposing secrecy and codifying shame in relinquishment and adoption. Rickie Solinger points out that mid-20th century psychosocial theories about single pregnancy -- also largely set forth by white males -- "offered these girls and women a remarkable trade-off. In exchange for their babies, they could reenter normative life."[i] But there is equally no question that such laws and policies were largely driven and implemented by the influence of female social workers, adoption agency workers, nurses and maternity home owners. Women like the influential and now infamous Georgia Tann[ii], who betrayed and exploited other women in order to profit from the sale of their children, facilitated a massive -- if often naively short-sighted and allegedly well-intentioned -- disempowerment and dissociation of millions of children from their heritage. Obviously, about half of those children were male.
So what has made the difference? How is it that so many more women have embraced the cause and done a remarkable job of calling for changes in laws, policy and practice in adoption? Is it that women who lost their children to adoption have been finding their voices and speaking out? Is it that women "wake up" to the realities of relinquishment and adoption earlier and are better able to process their loss and grief? Adoptive mother Nancy Verrier has offered the opinion that many male adoptees don't confront these issues until middle age, when we are forced to consider our mortality and legacy. Then, by the time we've done the necessary work to more fully integrate our identity, it's getting close to time to retire[iii].
Is it possible that we men tend to keep the wild dogs, those complicated emotions and questions that accompany all adoptions, locked up in the basement out of fear that, if released, the entire pack may bound up the stairs and devour us? Most of us grow up better trained and equipped to punch (or flee from) a physical opponent than to navigate the onslaught of the very meaning and core of our ambiguous identity and existence. Or is it possible that male adoptees labor under a more powerful taboo that says, "If my first mother gave me away, I must honor her decision. And if voicing my true feelings might break my second mother's heart, I will bear the burden in silence." There is something noble about a man sacrificing himself for a woman he loves. But not all self-sacrifice (or self-sabotage) is noble or healthy, particularly if it is rooted in ignorance, shame and fantasy.
Some male adoptees claim that they truly don't care about their origins and see no need to search, seek support or therapy, or get involved with efforts to make the world of adoption, foster care, and assisted reproduction a more just and compassionate place. Fair enough, and best wishes if you're happy, have healthy relationships, and are cruising through life seemingly issue-free. If you are fortunate enough to have been able to channel your emotions into becoming the next Steve Jobs or Dave Thomas, please consider becoming a financial supporter of the cause. We need substantial help. Now.
But when we consider the fact that adoptees, especially male adoptees and fostered adults (with backgrounds sometimes compounded by abuse and neglect in the very homes intended to help them), are over-represented in the juvenile criminal system, adolescent in-patient psychiatric facilities, drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, and prison populations, we can't ignore the reality that something is definitely up with a lot of us. It can make for some paralyzing adaptive mental constructs. Here's a poem that burbled up out of my soul onto the keyboard a number of years ago. Maybe parts of it will strike a chord in you:
The Logic of Compromised Attachment
I drink the poison so the rat will die.
My bare feet run on tacks to stop the race.
I etch my deepest secrets in the sky.
I break the mirror, looking for your face.
I trust, anticipating each betrayal.
I climb, because I heard you cut the rope.
I build, and then extract each screw and nail.
Despair is that lone thing that gives me hope.
I crave affection, acting like an eel.
I wear these manacles to set slaves free.
I live in rage to show the fear I feel.
I try to be 'most anyone, but me.
I burn the map before I hunt for treasure.
Kind accolades confirm the crowd's disdain.
This chaos brings familiar rest and pleasure.
I hop along, when I could ride the train.
I live alone to keep me safe from love.
I go bankrupt to thwart the IRS.
I freeze my hand because you bought the glove.
I answer "no" because you might say "yes."
I educate this brain to beat my heart.
I let good food expire upon the shelf.
I feel the most together when apart.
I love my neighbor, as I loathe myself.
I kill this name because the law took mine.
I love to open gifts, then toss them out.
I celebrate sobriety with wine.
I am content, but only when I pout.
I fail because they want me to succeed.
I write, in hope that no one reads this rhyme.
I pray, believing God won't meet my need.
I do the time for those who did the crime.
Read this next sentence carefully: None of this is meant to pathologize adoptees, whether male or female. As Ron Nydam, Ph.D. puts it, "Much of what you are feeling is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation."
Thankfully, there are a growing number of male adoptees who have taken the bull by the horns and are fighting to wrestle the beast to the ground:
Advocates like Peter Franklin and Darrell McDaniels (DMC) in New Jersey; Ron Morgan in Oregon; John Greene in Rhode Island; Shane Carter in Arkansas; Gregory Luce in Minnesota; Jeff Hancock, Tim Monti-Wahlport and David Petruzzielo in New York; and yours truly in Colorado have devoted years to working for the cause. Adoptee and foster care alumnus Schylar Baber serves as Executive Director of the non-profit organization Voice for Adoption. Leading international/transracial adoptee voices include Mark Hagland, John Raible and Kevin Vollmers.
Legislators like Rep. Don Phillips of Missouri; Rep. Kerry Benninghof of Pennsylania; Rep. Chris Lee in Hawaii; Assemblyman David DiPietro of New York; and Rep. Richard Stark of Florida have all sponsored legislation to restore access to original birth certificates for adult adoptees.
From the creative, right-brain view of the conversation, kudos goes out to the following incomplete list:
Musician Darrell McDaniels (I'm Legit);
Playwright Edward Albee (Three Tall Women; The Play About the Baby; Me, Myself and I );
Authors Dan Chaon (You Remind Me of Me); Michael Reagan (Twice Born); Darrell McDaniels (Ten Ways Not to Commit Suicide); Tim Green (A Man and His Mother); Thomas Park Clement (Dust of the Streets: The Journey of a Biracial Orphan of the Korean War); Joe Soll (Adoption Healing: A Path to Recovery); Patrick McMahon (Becoming Patrick: A Memoir); Peter Dodds (Outer Search, Inner Journey); Matthew Salesses (The Hundred-Year Flood); Ray Martinez (Baby Boy R); Craig Hickman (Fumbling Toward Divinity: The Adoption Scriptures); Richard Hill (Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in my DNA); Robert Hyatt (Beat Bastard: An Adoptee's Portfolio).
Actors Brian Stanton (Blank); Rock Wilk (Broke Wide Open).
Blogs and Podcasts: Pound Pup Legacy; The Rambler; Out of the Fog
Filmmakers Chris Wilson (You Have His Eyes); Anthony Gilmore (Resilience); Dan Matthews (DANakaDAN); Steve Lickteig (Open Secret); Jeff Togman (We're Not Blood); David Quint (Father Unknown); Ridghaus and Derek Frank (Six Word Adoption Memoirs);
To help encourage more men toward self-awareness, personal well-being, better relationships and positive impact, our vision for the Male Adoptee/Alumni Impact Summit is to create a space each year in which men can gather together in a magnificent setting with an innovative format, exercise courage and build determination to turn the impact of our past into influence on our future. (Women, there is already buzz about a parallel/complementary event for you next year! Message us if you're interested.)
So what's holding you back? You may not even have words to describe it. But perhaps it's time to release the hounds, feel what you need to feel, have the conversations you need to have, make the changes you need to make, step into the arena and start making a difference. It's your call.
[i] Solinger, Rickie, Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 17.
[ii] Raymond, Barbara, The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller who Corrupted Adoption (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2007).
[iii] Verrier, Nancy, Coming Home to Self: The Adopted Child Grows Up (Nancy Verrier, 2004).