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Gaslighting in Adoptionland? Intent vs. Technique

Gaslighting. To one degree or another, we've all experienced it, we've all done it - even if only as part of a practical joke. But what role has it played in shaping policy, practice and relationships in relinquishment and adoption?

One British editor predicted that it was the front-runner for 2018 buzzword of the year, and since then, its use appears to have become even more prevalent, especially on social media. Since the term is descended from the 1938 British play Gas Light, it seems fitting to rely on the Britannica definition, quoted here in part:

“Gaslighting” is an elaborate and insidious technique of deception and psychological manipulation, usually practiced by a single deceiver, or “gaslighter,” on a single victim over an extended period. Its effect is to gradually undermine the victim’s confidence in his ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, right from wrong, or reality from appearance, thereby rendering him pathologically dependent in his thinking or feelings on the gaslighter..."

It is undeniably damaging to anyone who has been subjected to it, ranging from an abusive partner to a parent or cult leader, and its effects are not to be minimized.

But the term has also morphed into a broad accusatory generalization widely leveled against those whose personal experience, or whose social, religious or political views may not align with how one person chooses to view the world. As a result, some social commentators have cautioned readers to be careful how they apply or misapply it.

I was recently in a support group conversation in which a participant offered the observation that, when we aren't honest with our feelings about being separated from our families of origin and subsequent adoption, we gaslight ourselves. This used to be called avoidance, or denial, or self-deception, or a coping mechanism designed to compartmentalize pain. But now it's "gaslighting?" The group agreed with another remark that all advertising boils down to some form of gaslighting, because the basic message is, "You can't live without this product."

Of greater concern, I have seen adoptees in social media "support groups" (some of which amount to nothing short of vicious anti-adoption propaganda echo chambers) accuse someone with a different opinion - such as another adoptee with a different experience, or an uninformed adoptive parent - of "invalidating my voice and gaslighting me." Many times, the person leveling the accusation is actually gaslighting the target of their rage about the alleged level of damage inflicted by the person voicing an alternative view or asking a question.

Don't get me wrong. The loss, grief and struggles associated with maternal separation and adoption are real, and in many cases long term. But has Adoptionland become so self-absorbed and narcissistic (another overused buzz word best left to professionals, but I believe applicable here) that voicing a different viewpoint, or sharing a different experience is no longer a way to enrich a conversation or encourage nuanced "both-and" thinking, but rather has become an intentional, insidious personal attack on the validity and sanity of another human being? Here's a disturbing plot twist: what if, in many cases, the person alleging that they are the "gaslightee" turns out to be the "gaslighter?" Welcome to conversations in Adoptionland.

That said, and good intentions acknowledged where they do exist, some of the techniques summarized by Brittanica legitimately apply to adoption-related policy, practice and advocacy in a number of cases. They include:

"...attempting to convince the victim of the truth of something intuitively bizarre or outrageous by forcefully insisting on it or by marshaling superficial evidence; flatly denying that one has said or done something that one has obviously said or done; dismissing the victim’s contrary perceptions or feelings as invalid or pathological; questioning the knowledge and impugning the motives of persons who contradict the viewpoint of the gaslighter; gradually isolating the victim from independent sources of information and validation, including other people; and manipulating the physical environment to encourage the victim to doubt the veracity of his memories or perception."

The first example that leaps to mind is the historic treatment of unwed pregnant girls and women in an effort to convince/coerce them to relinquish their babies for adoption. Many were (and still are) told repeatedly that they were unfit to parent. Many were isolated in maternity homes with no access to outside help or resources. They were told that they would forget and move on with their lives. Language designed to create a false sense of empowerment was developed (i.e., "place" your baby, rather than "give up" or "surrender" your baby for adoption; phrases like "courageous loving choice" were designed to gaslight the devastating emotional reality of denying the most basic of human instincts).

Because many adoptive parents were told, "Love is all you need" as they were considering adoption, some were shocked and disappointed when the bundle of joy that came into their home had undisclosed fetal alcohol syndrome, or problems with healthy attachment, or acted out their grief and loss in addictive or self-destructive ways. I met one adoptive mother at a recent conference who told me that she felt lied to and manipulated by an international adoption agency, who failed to disclose the severity of the abuse that the child they adopted had suffered. They were both unprepared and ill-equipped for the lifelong commitment they had made to a child, who perceived them as the reason he was transplanted from his family of origin.

As a result, many adoptees have been gaslighted (gaslit?) by their generally well-intentioned adoptive parents, at least in part because the feelings and struggles we experience don't align with the "your love will be enough" message delivered to them by agencies. I can remember standing as a child of about eight years old at the far end of the family living room, desperately wanting to talk about the feelings roiling inside me, but having no words or sense of a safe environment for such visceral communication. One of my adoptive parents partially lowered their newspaper, looked at me and asked, "May I help you?" The conversation ended before it started. Today my response to that question is, "If only someone had taught you how."

International and transracial adoptees, hungry for genetic markers and cultural identity, have been poorly served, if not blatantly gaslighted by the seemingly compassionate, non-racist mantra, "We don't see color." It sounded good when it first rolled out, but as it turns out, these adoptees very much need for their white adoptive parents to see their color, embrace it, honor it, and encourage identification with it.

In the political/legislative arena, mid-20th century lawmakers, generally at the behest of social workers and adoption agencies - many of whom genuinely wanted to see children raised in loving homes rather than orphanages or foster care - tilted laws in favor of the interests of adoptive parents in order to create a scenario in which adoption would be "just like having one of your own." Many, though not all, adoptive families have formed healthy bonds and are deeply devoted to each other. But I suspect that any parent who has raised an adopted child side by side with a natural-born child would be hard pressed to say that, no matter how much they love all of their children, it was just like having one of my own.

Opponents of bills that would restore direct unfettered access to original birth certificates and certain other records for adult adoptees continue to gaslight legislators with the myths that (1) mothers were, or could be, guaranteed anonymity from their own offspring, and (2) there is some correlation between adoption and abortion. Mothers I know who have relinquished, a number of whom have also had abortions, have uniformly told me that they are two separate decisions. One is about whether to carry a pregnancy to term; the other is about whether to raise a child.

Given all the gaslighting in which adoptees have been steeped, it should come as no surprise that we can be adept at gaslighting each other. Adoptees who align with the talking points of the "all or nothing now"(AONN) political camp - which supports killing any less-than-perfect bill based on the bizarre logic that, no matter how many adoptees die waiting, leaving everyone behind in the name of leaving no one behind is the only path to equality - have adopted the techniques and kept the gaslights burning. Over the past two decades, they have foisted a number of false claims onto fellow adoptees, historically denigrating or abusing anyone who believes differently on social media. Specific examples include:

  1. Asserting for decades that adoptee access to original birth certificates is a fundamental/civil right (rather than a procedural right), while in full knowledge that every higher court opinion, including those in support of retrospective access from higher courts in Tennessee and Oregon, has ruled otherwise. Oddly, after more than two decades, they have failed to even articulate how it could happen.

  2. Continuing to claim that incremental change cannot and does not work because no one ever comes back to follow up, while in full knowledge that multiple states, now including CO, CT, HI, MA, RI, TN and VT, have proven otherwise.

  3. Labeling successful advocates and allies who share the same goals but think differently on strategy as "the opposition" or "the enemy" - and far worse profanities, while pretending to take the high road in the debate.

  4. Now, in the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health decision, the latest gaslighting of adoptees by the AONN camp is the assertion that an undeniably offensive footnote reference to the "domestic infant supply" (p. 34, footnote 46) is a "core" element of the ruling designed (presumably in collusion with the adoption industry) to increase the number of babies separated from their mothers. They stand by this position, even after being confronted with the fact that reputable sources like AP, USA Today, Snopes, Fact Check, Politifact, VerifyThis and the Statesman all refuted the alarmist allegation flying around social media.*

So is it fair to describe the history and current status of relinquishment and adoption as one big Coachella-esque gaslighting festival? Yes and no.

Inappropriate use of the buzzword to try to silence alternative viewpoints is ignorant, ill-advised, and often amounts to true gaslighting itself and therefore needs to stop. While the pernicious intent required by the official definition of the term is not evident everywhere, many of the techniques are.

In the struggle for truth and transparency in adoption, unlike the old adage "fight fire with fire," we will never defeat systemic gaslighting with more gaslighting - especially when it comes to one another.

*ASRC takes no position on abortion because our members include both pro-life and pro-choice viewpoints. We believe that our mission to bring truth, education, advocacy, community and healing is a nonpartisan issue best served by generating support from members of both parties, and any organization who calls for restoration of access to OBCs and simultaneously incorporates a pro-abortion, anti-adoption platform makes a grave strategic blunder.


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