The Social Eugenics Framing Adoption

‘Nature’ is simply another 18th and 19th century fiction.

—Robert Smithson

In a run-up to Mother’s Day two weeks ago, The Guardian ran pieces on “motherhood” with a touch of essentialism to boot. First this piece by Nell Frizzell, “We all have non-biological mums. This Mother’s Day, let’s celebrate them too” which blithely skates over the fact that adopted children have “non-biological mums” in her using the word “mother” as a stand-in for friend, confidant, teacher, mother-in-law, etc. Then Rebecca Ratcliffe’s “Most adopted children never meet their birth family. Is that all about to change?” focuses on Amanda Boorman, a social worker and adoptive parent, who formed the Open Nest, a charity that ostensibly supports adoptive families examining the possibility that adopted children should have contact with their “birth parent/s.”  Taking cues from Contact after Adoption website, a partnership between the University of East Anglia and Research in Practice which “supports practitioners working on making positive post-adoption contact plans and supporting birth relatives and adopters through contact planning for their child,” Boorman and other social workers are urging for this model where “birth parents” are necessarily part of the adopted child’s life.  Coincidental to this project came the recent remarks made by a senior judge, Lord Justice McFarlane who stated that “[t]oo many children are being forcibly adopted against the wishes of their families and prevented from having any contact with their natural parents, a senior judge has suggested.”  The narrative running narrative clearly establishes this notion that there is the “real” as biological, and then all the rest is tertiary.

Both articles reveal a social unconscious within British society, as well as and other western cultures, that there is a naturalisation of the “family” within the ethos of the judiciary and social work whereby the presumption that biological ties are not only better for children, but that they are deemed more legitimate and more authentic than, say, those bonds which are resultant from human connections of love.  As an adopted person, I cannot find these sentiments which prioritise the biological over the chosen family as anything less than eugenical and offensive.

I don’t remember when I learned I was adopted. I am sure I must have been quite young because it seems as if I always knew.  Was I ever curious about the people who were my biological progenitors? Not really.  The funny thing is that when you are adopted you tend to want to be within that family where your parents are, you know, just your parents. You don’t run to windows staring out as a tame voice in your head utters nonsense like, “Who am I? Where did I come from?” My siblings and I would always laugh out loud when we watched television episodes on adoption clearly produced and written by those who had no idea what adoption was about.  These dramas were inevitably over the top and unrealistic as one-offs with an emphasis on ‘biology” that only people who believe and are invested in the filiation of “blood ties” could project.  Remember that episode of “The Facts of Life” when Blair arranges for Natalie to talk to her birth mother?  Or “Different Strokes” which is truly a remarkable commentary on adoption, race, and class in the United States?  Neither of these representations of adoption or “the search for one’s mother” reflect the reality of most adoptees.  And while mimesis holds no allegiance to truth, I do find it troubling how decades later we are still given the schlock of adoption in the media and throughout society such that recommendations emanating from the University of East Anglia are allowed to perpetuate.  Reality for adoption children and adults is actually akin to what non-adopted people experience, especially when the adoption happens early on in the child’s life.

I grew up not only understanding that I was adopted, but also with the knowledge that being adopted brought to the table certain political manoeuvres, since I witnessed throughout my childhood my mother using this fact as a mechanism of showing her beneficence in discussions.   Without my consent, a very personal item of my existence was brought out into full social convention and became coffee and playground chitchat as my mother would point each of us out to strangers stating our age when she “brought us home.”   I was acutely aware early on how my adoption (and those of my siblings) was a wild card for our mother to show up her goodness.  Oh, if I had a dime for every time we heard the litany from others of how “needy children who needed a home,” my mother’s “selflessness,” and the general attitude that adopted children were a “choice.”   All the framing of benevolence seemed to many to be a compliment for adopted children, a narrative we were all supposed to embrace as we look down at the ground and then back up with a smile because we were so “lucky” to have a good home.  This fiction, however, is as intertwined with the narrative from the outside world which mostly views us as social service projects and a reflection of neoliberal ideations on the “blended family.”  The reality, however, is anything but this fantasy.

I remember when several years ago while visiting a friend in upstate New York, a man was playing with his daughter and my friend later introduced me to him and he said, “That’s my adopted daughter over there.”  I asked why he felt the need to share that with me pointing out that she is a private human even if he saw fit to use this as a subtitle to his life with a complete stranger.  I empathised with this daughter who, like me to her adoptive family, looked nothing like her very light-skinned parent.  The father said that he tells people that his daughter is adopted so that they know. I pressed on and said, “I see you and your wife over there are very light-skinned and your daughter looks east Asian. Do you really think people are not connecting the dots? Or entirely uninterested as it is her private life?” I then told him that I was also adopted and this sort of narrating in which he was engaging might make him feel good, but that he is exploiting his child’s life in this story.  I was not amused and I doubt he appreciated my thoughts, but I let him know how this felt to a child to hear their existence narrated when it is really their private kernel of truth only for them to divulge in their time.

The problem with this sort of settling of the family narrative in this manner is that for the adoptive parents, they are necessarily sharing a story that is theirs to a certain degree, but which is vastly the property of their child. There is a point where adoptive parents need to let go of the narrative which explains their motives behind adoption and allow for their child to have the life that other children have–that of being the offspring of parents who wanted a child.  End of.  All the rest is dressing that becomes invasive to narrate throughout the child’s life.  I never once appreciated these stories, as we stood by, listening to the recitals of our parents’ benevolence and our “specialness.”  Somehow, it didn’t feel special and adults would be surprised by how early on children can feel exploited by these publicity stunts.

What is at the core of the adoption narrative is inevitably the explanation as to why one’s child does not look like the parent/s.  Ironically, I looked very much like my father although not at all like my mother. And as an adult I was told constantly by those who worked with my father that I was the most like my father in character out of all his five children, to include those “biological children.” However, growing up and hearing one’s mother explain why one of her children is black, another “looks Jewish,” why one is musically talented but not another, quickly became an exercise in listening to the genealogy of humans’ need to racialise everything.  It was as if the basis of our existence first depended upon knowing our blood lines in order to ascertain our authenticity as humans, a vetting that most every adopted child faces even today.  And to those “natural children,” one can only hope that they do not grow up to tell their adoptive siblings that they should “be grateful to have ever been adopted.”  Indeed the authenticity as a “real” family member is a hurdle that many adoptees with non-adopted siblings face—especially in situations of familial problems and secrets.

Growing up in the Deep South from the age of ten, not only was my adoption known, thanks to my mother’s ritual narration of this fact, but because of this I was asked my race practically on a daily basis.  It is remarkable to me how by virtue of being adopted the first question that comes to many people’s minds is pedigree.  I recall how my mother loved to show off as if a benevolent 1970s version of Mia Farrow with her Benetton menagerie of children whereby she would speak of us as if we were prizes on a game show as she narrated each one of our “stories” for the enthralled listener.  Because our adoption was part of how we were “billed” publicly, we would regularly be asked who our “natural mother” or “natural father” was on the school bus, at recess, and pretty much every weekend family event we attended.  It occurred to me from quite a young age that humans were predisposed to a morbid fascination with blood lineage and as a result my siblings and I were asked in quite cruel terms by these pedigree-obsessed types, if our parents were our “real parents”, if our brothers and sisters were “real” as well.  “Real” took on a hue of negativity for us and being adopted came to mean that our lives were this merry-go-round for people who believe that, by virtue of our being adopted, they have the right to jump onto and pose such intrusive questions.

Ultimately, this sort of habitual grilling of the adopted child and adolescent affects how the adopted subject sees the world in profound measures.  When you are adopted, people assume that your life is for them to excavate and measure against their own–as if their existence is the normative one against which to streamline and rate yours. Upon further reflection, it occurred to me that many who are not adopted cannibalise the narratives of adopted others in an attempt to bring their own frame of reference to right.

I would listen to these folks, obsessed with genealogy, as they spoke of their own lives and families: “I’m one quarter Scottish, one quarter Irish, one quarter Dutch…” I felt as if these people were describing the pedigrees of dogs.  The older I grew I came to understand that mass society’s obsession with blood lineage held at its core all of greater societies’ assumptions and prejudices about the nuclear family and about “respectable forms of reproduction” ultimately.  And the more I heard of their lives and their “natural families,” their narratives made no more sense than my own.  As I listened to them proudly evoke lineage here and there, I would begin to understand some of the nuances within their own histories–that indeed some of my classmates’ families were not so “prim and proper” and that the stories they were told were just as complex and “messy” as my own.  With divorce being very much apart of my generation, the family structure was necessarily about a merging of various non-biological components which involved additional plots of love which gradually shifted and even replaced some of the assumed “natural” lineages assumed by quasi-religious meta-narratives.

Being adopted meant that the world was framed in exclusion of our lived realities with our existence posing an interruption of this 19th century romantic dream of the natural human continuum.  Adoptees are an inconvenient reminder of all the items that the natural family refuses to acknowledge—from infidelity, premarital sex, economic injustice, to rape and the inability of a mother to keep her child due to a family which pressured her with their “shame” and society’s “judgment.”  Being adopted means that we grow up in a world perpetually curious about how we see ourselves simply because this world is uncomfortable in seeing us as a reminder that families are not that gilded photo album their own parents have presented them.  Skip forward several years to this “natural subject” sitting in the therapist’s chair, explaining how she feels inauthentic as the child of K.

The projection of others’ discomfort onto the adoptee is manifested generally through bizarre one-off questions on which most every adoptee has been on the receiving end. Reading online adoption blogs and the many government websites with information for adoptees, it is no wonder that there is a booming business with online adoption agency web templates and blogs which set out to engineer the virtual connections between prospective parents and children or between adoptees and their progenitors.  But the reality is that no matter the choices that adoptees make in order to find or not find their progenitors, the social structures of most societies is such that adopted children are considered “challenging” and a “risk” to such a degree that was even a problematic psychiatric term was developed for those adoptees who have difficulty bonding or attachment disorders—“adopted child syndrome.”  The adopted child is perfectly pathologised to reflect all the problems that the “natural family” mirrors as normative, meanwhile what you learn as adopted growing up in the world is that there is no “natural mother” or “natural family.” There are just mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and families.  The framing of the adopted child as “different” is the prerogative of the individual who sees herself as the “natural subject”.
Here are some of the five-cent remarks I grew up hearing:

“But aren’t you curious about your real parents?” I would answer, “No, because I live with my real parents and see them pretty regularly.”  And the retort would be, “You know what I mean…” No, uh, I don’t.  This notion of “real parent” comes from a profoundly grotesque, racialist and eugenic depth of the social unconscious where people with known kinship feel that they have the right–dare I say obligation–to survey the structures of others.  Terms like “adopted mother’ and ”real mother” (or now “biological mother”) are terms which are meant to condition the subject into feeling that she is lesser than… And it is this “lesser than” which functions ultimately to normalise the rest.

“But aren’t you curious about your biological parents?” which resulted in my saying, “No, not really.”  “Why not? I would be curious.”  I would then challenge the person to ponder that perhaps their parents were not who they believed them to be–that perhaps their mother had an affair and maybe they are actually curious about their own lineage.  The looks I receive at that moment are generally somewhat perplexed by my directness;  yet this person who addressed me with a litany of questions as if I was under an interrogation lamp never for a second thought that his questions might be a tad offensive, if not presumptuous.

“But aren’t you curious if you look like your biological parents?”  No, actually I am not.  I am not curious, nor do I care.  Call me weird, but most of us who are adopted are actually busy in the real world, not looking out a window [cue chamber music soundtrack playing in the background] as we ponder our existence.  Most of us have had to live our lives under this odd microscope of those individuals who think blood ties are preferable to what we live.  Paradoxically, all I know is my own life and that this life feels quite beautiful without my needing to confirm that I derive any specific set of physical, intellectual, or emotional qualities from someone I have never met.  I am as interested in answering invasive questions about others curiosity of my existence as I would be in filling out my taxes for fun.  It is just not something that passes through my head.

“But aren’t you dying to know if you have siblings?”  Actually, I do.  I have four siblings thank you very much.  Being adopted means that your lived experience invalidates you from being heard by many of these bloodline fanatics.  It is as if you exist for others to confirm that what they saw in that ABC “After School Special” resonates within your words.

“Don’t you feel abandoned?” Well, now that you put it like that….

“Don’t you wonder how you can speak so many languages?”  No, I really don’t. It’s called studying.  

“Don’t you wonder if your ”real” mother loved you?”  One need not be adopted to wonder this. Were that the case psychoanalysis would cease to exist.

“But she’s your mother!! Why don’t you want to know her?”  Such statements make me wonder if these folks have some sort of fantasy of living out their projection of the adopted child (which they have uniquely constructed in their own minds). So please, have at it.

“Don’t you wonder what race you are?”  No, I am of the human race.  

“Aren’t you curious what your natural mother is doing?”  No, nor do I count my every inhalation.  The funny thing about this question is that people actually think that adoptees sit around whenever we have a spare moment and bang our heads against the wall thinking, “Is she eating fettuccine?  Or does she prefer linguine? Or, wait, might she be lactose intolerant?  A Marxist?:  The presumption is that we see our own families in the very bigoted way that many people still sadly see adoptees–as not our families.  Thankfully, our reality is that we tend to see our families just like anyone else–even with the side dishes of problems that every family has.

“Does it bother you that you don’t look like your adopted mother?”  Clearly this disturbs you.  

“Do your parents have any of their own children?”  If that excludes me, then yes.  

“How did your mother take in someone else’s children? I mean, didn’t she worry about you all having psychological problems?” As opposed to your psychological wellness in asking this question?

“Do you feel lucky to have been adopted?” You clearly haven’t met my mother.
“Are they your real brother and sister?”  Real as in?  

When at the doctor’s office and inevitably I am asked about my family history of heart disease, I respond, “I don’t know–I am adopted.”  And several times the response goes something like this: “And what about cancer?”

Another top hit is, “But your mother couldn’t possibly love you like she loves her own children!”  Given that my mother was a lite version of Josef Mengele, that was probably the case sadly.  

“You’re mother must be an amazing woman to have ‘taken you in.’” Now that you put it that way…

And my absolute favourite of all time is this: “Oh you poor children! All coloured, adopted, and with a divorced mother! The problems you will face down the road!  I’ll pray for you.”  I remember as a young girl eye-rolling at these statements, thinking from about eight years of age on that the only problems I had faced thus far in my life was not my “colour”, not my divorced parents, and certainly not my adopted self. The problems I faced were purely those of these pedigree-obsessed bigots who uttered such idiocies.

So when people would say to me, “Don’t you want to find your real parents?” I could only react to the delusion that such a question harbours—myriad prejudices, spanning from their notion of the “real” (as their own) to the imperative in their assuming this requisite search upon adoptees.  Such questions presuppose that not wanting to find one’s progenitor is somehow a bad thing.  It’s not.  They also assume that every adoptee is actually fulfilling themselves in this search, as if The Razor’s Edge minus the white flannel.  We exist to mirror your lack, thank you very much.  

So next Mother’s Day, Guardian editors, do a less shitty job of reifying filiation through the publication of pieces which naturalise kinship as uniquely biological.  Being a mother to a child, or a child of a mother, is first and foremost a social relationship which is hopefully based on respect, caring, and love.  Pedigree is nothing other than a means of suppressing love in favour of the biological functions of a society in negation of its own history.   Just as James Baldwin theorises “colour” as that which is “not a human or a personal reality” but which is instead a political reality, so too is the extent of the pedigree entirely political.  In fact, Baldwin takes the limits of race and posits this against that which is the answer to both racism and the naturalisation of the family:  “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

The racialisms inherent within western societies make being an adoptee uncomfortable as a child, especially confronted with the rigidity and purity assumed by the assumed “legitimate” family.  All the rest is other.  The best perspective on this subject was given to me by my Uncle Hemendra who said to me one day when we discussed this very subject: “There is a proverb in Sanskrit that says, ‘Anyone can stir curd into milk.’”  I smiled.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: