Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Jane Eyre, adoption, and the subjugation of selfhood

The back story is this: I had a great love for all things Bronte when I was an adolescent, but my passion for mid-Victorian melodrama and naturalism was gradually eclipsed by a fascination with manicured, 18th century satire and cynicism. I wanted to see the recently released movie version, but not without first re-reading the novel. I dug out my neglected, dog-eared copy, expecting the vague sense of horror that Wuthering Heights, read at 30 rather than 13, had inspired. Jane Eyre held up better. 

Jane is an orphan. When the story opens, she is living with her uncle’s wife and children, her uncle having also passed away. Her aunt has no genetic connection to her, and while her cousins do, they treat Jane as if she is a foreigner. They base their feelings for Jane on their sense that she is not of their world; her father was a poor clergyman, her mother driven by passion to marry below her class. Jane is “poor, plain, obscure and little”, and at no point do the Reeds let her forget that. Ideally, Jane would have felt mirrored by her relationship to her cousins, but they do not accept her as their equal.  Her aunt demands gratitude for having rescued Jane and for blessing her with material goods. 

Sound familiar?

I was not abused, as Aunt Reed abuses Jane. But it is not difficult for even a ‘happy’ adoptee to empathize with her sense of alienation, isolation, and bewilderment. Jane is unable to command herself into a ‘proper’ posture of grateful submission, and her aunt’s frustration with her inability to meet expectations eventually leads to Jane’s banishment to a harsh, austere school. The headmaster of the school demands quietude, submission, and piousness, and since Jane cannot eradicate her intelligence and will, she is forced to subjugate her selfhood to her role in order to survive. Her inner world is rich, colorful, and fantastic, but her exterior expressions are passive and meek. She cannot reconcile herself. 

With Rochester, she is freed from submission. Treated as an equal, coaxed out of her role as a dependent, her inner life is given rein. When he calls her his equal and his likeness, when he acknowledges that he is not even her equal in his present debasement, Jane is allowed, for the first time in her life, to approach another human being as her full self.

It is ultimately her desire to reunite with her genetic heritage that belies the instability of her life with Rochester. In writing the letter to her uncle, a man her ‘adoptive mother’ attempted to keep from her, she sets in motion a series of events that lead to the intervention in Thornfield’s chapel. Rochester, her liberator, demands in his impassioned grief that she submit to yet another form of bondage – a bondage which accedes her will but not her independence.

Still with me?

She flees, and in a series of events in which the reader is forced to suspend disbelief, she is reunited with her cousins and is bequeathed her uncle’s fortune. When she discovers for the first time that her friends are actually her family – and are willing to accord her a place in their own definition of family – her reaction is that of an adoptee embarking upon reunion. 

Glorious discovery to a lonely wretch! This was wealth indeed! — wealth to the heart! — a mine of pure, genial affections. This was a blessing, bright, vivid, and exhilarating; — not like the ponderous gift of gold: rich and welcome enough in its way, but sobering from its weight. I now clapped my hands in sudden joy — my pulse bounded, my veins thrilled.

"Oh, I am glad! — I am glad!" I exclaimed.

St. John smiled. "Did I not say you neglected essential points to pursue trifles?" he asked. "You were serious when I told you you had got a fortune; and now, for a matter of no moment, you are excited."

"What can you mean? It may be of no moment to you; you have sisters and don't care for a cousin; but I had nobody; and now three relations, — or two, if you don't choose to be counted, — are born into my world full-grown. I say again, I am glad!"

Jane’s joy at the reunion, and her insecurity (“if you don’t choose to be counted”) are familiar. Once she is accepted as a true member of her true family, she is finally able to reconcile the disparate aspects of her selfhood. In the mirroring of her relations, she is able to weigh her personality against comparisons, and comes to a deeper knowledge and a freer exhibition of her core identity. The stubborn intractability of St. John, his rigid mastery over himself, allows Jane insight into her own struggles, and finally leads her back to Thornfield Hall. 

Whether or not Rochester is also forced to regulate his own passions before the consummation of their relationship is immaterial; it is Jane’s journey from debasement to passion to an integrated self that forms the scaffolding of the story. One senses that had she returned to Thornfield to find Rochester still in bondage, she would not have been crushed. She approaches temptation only after she has developed, in her own sense of self, an inoculation against it. A vision of her heritage called her away from Rochester; the reality of it allows her to return to him. 

Reader, she married him.

But more importantly, she reunited with herself.  

Friday, April 1, 2011

It's not a triangle

Triad. Triangle. Trinity. Three points, connected by three lines. Three angles. A mother, another mother, and a baby. This is how we define adoption. This is how we lose sight of the reality of it.

I don't mean to diminish the importance of motherhood, or the damage that the cycle of infertility, shame, and loss that creates an adoption scenario inflicts on the three main protagonists. It's not simple, or easy. But to talk about a triad is to mitigate damages that actually stretch much further, and pierce much deeper, than the triad language suggests.

I didn't just lose my parents. I lost brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins. But I didn't just lose them. So did my son. So did my husband. And so did my grandchildren.

And I am reunited. I am no longer just a truncheon. I know which tree I was cut from. There are millions of adoptees who don't know, who may never know, and their children - and so on. L'dor v'dor. From generation to generation. And as Malthus taught us, reproduction is geometric.

Yes, there is a triad at the epicenter. And I'm sure the force diminishes as distance increases. I will feel this more than my son does, and he will feel it more than his children do.

I love my brothers and sister, and I mourn what I lost with them most of all. We cannot regain what we have lost. There is only a forward motion, a linear progression, and we fumble along as best we can.

If we saw the entire family tree rather than three sticks pasted together to form a triangle - if we viewed adoption holistically - if we thought of a family tree as a living, breathing entity rather than a metaphor...would it still be legal and moral to take a chainsaw to it?

Somehow, I think not.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

My Dog Deserves Better

While we were on the Great Discovery Road Trip, ‘Grandpuppy’ got to spend the week with my adoring parents. I have to admit, I didn’t really consider his stress level when I arranged to meet my mother in a parking lot to transfer him to her car. I heard him yelp all the way to the freeway. It was the sound of panic.
He knows my parents. He visits them occasionally with us, and they visit all of us. I never thought it would bother him.

Here’s his routine. We get up early to get the munchkin ready for school. Sometimes grandpuppy gets attention, but often he gets hooked to a leash and walked – very quickly – out to the potty spot, since our patio home doesn’t have a private yard. He comes in, he attempts to steal leftover waffles, we trip on him, and he goes into his part of the house, which is tiled slate and therefore easy to clean. He has a nest of doggie beds under the desk where he sleeps. If he can find bones the munchkin hasn’t hid, he chews on them. He waits for us to come home, plays for a little while at night, curls up on the couch with my hubby, drifts into doggie dreamland, and then is abruptly woken and put back in his kitchen/dining/den area. He’s very, very loved, but it’s a crazy house and a crazy routine.

I wasn’t there when he arrived at their house, but I can imagine the scene. New toys were laid out; new bones were given to him. There were acres to run across, peacocks to chase, foxes to study, and at the end of the day there was a fluffy bed piled with blankets for him to sleep on. When morning came, no one got up to go anywhere. He spent time in the backyard, or the barn, as he wished. He ate horse poop and barked at the cows across the road. Doggie heaven. 

Isn’t it interesting that he was depressed? Isn’t it interesting that he didn’t eat for three days, that he cried when I came to get him, and that he clung to us for the first few hours he was home? His little doggie mind couldn’t rationalize that he was in a home that would generally be judged as better for dogs, with people who loved him. He didn’t care that it was doggie heaven. He wanted his people. 


Rest assured, potential and actual Adoptive Parents, I’m sure all of this is only applicable to the canine species. He’s an angry doggie who doesn’t understand that he was saved from time at Ye Olde Doggie Daycare or some other sterile and institutional setting. A child would understand that a home with ponies and barns and peacocks made for a better life. A child would know that her pink princess canopy bed came at the cost of her people, her identity, and would find that a reasonable trade.  A child would understand that all the love, adoration, money, and idyllic nature scenes in the world made up for everything. She would be grateful. She wouldn’t cry. 

I guess I’m glad my dog deserves better than she did.

State of the (re)Union

Last week, I met my brother ("Luke"), my grandmother, and my grandfather for the first time. I think I can see now why some reunions succeed, and some fail. I can see why they break apart. It's painful, and awkward. They are more than strangers, more than friends, bound by mirrors and reflections, and yet less than what we think of us as family, for there is no shared history. No matter what is gained, nothing can be regained that was lost.

So. My grandparents. I love my grandmother. I'm ambivalent about my grandfather. I don't think that's unusual at all, except that everything is much more fraught in this situation than in a typical family. We connect with some family members but not others, and the parts of my grandfather that are reflected in me are the parts of myself that I don't like, that I have tried to change and to fix. So it stands to reason that it would be uncomfortable to spend time with someone who exhibits those qualities. In my grandmother, on the other hand, I see the parts of myself that I treasure. Neither one of them is perfect - it's just a matter of whether or not their faults are ones I can tolerate, and forgive. I am more like my grandmother; whether it's because I have nurtured the tendencies we share more than others, I cannot say. As someone who lost her adoptive grandparents at an early age, it is a revelation to have a grandmother again, and to interact with one as an adult.

I don't have a barometer against which to measure my brother.  I now know that I have half-siblings, none of whom I've met, and none which are close to me in age, but my only 'sibling' growing up was my mother's poodle. It's hard to develop fraternal feelings for a dog you hate, much less have a conversation with it. So I was the only one, the lonely one, and if you had asked the child that I used to be what her one wish would be, it would have been a sibling. I was jealous of my aunts and uncles, how my dad called his sister 'sis' and my mom called hers 'her best friend'. There was something there that was beyond my comprehension. There is a deep, deep understanding. I get him because, in some ways, I am him. There are a few who may understand the desire to go out to the woods and howl at the moon, or the pain in poetry, or the poetry in pain, the way that he does - but none in so unfettered a way. We have a dependence on our forebears, and a responsibility for our descendants, which mars the purity of our understanding. I can't encourage my son to howl in the woods, because the woods aren't safe. I have no responsibility to my brother except to be his mirror. And he has none to me except to provide a reflection.

When I first found him, I was a little bit frustrated - mostly at our first parents. I didn't understand that in the end, the fact that we were both separated, the fact that we both yearned and fumbled and groped for our identities, would tie us together with some of the shared experience that we missed by not being raised together. Because in whatever ways our childhoods were different, in one way they were the same - we were both adopted. And in a strange sort of way, it's the next best thing.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Like a band of gypsies they go down the highway...

T-minus 13 days until live reunion. I've scheduled my time off at work. I've rented a car. I've made reservations for my brother's flight.

Two weeks from now, I will no longer be an only child. I will be in a room with both my brothers, and my grandmother, and the entire extended family - with the sole exception of my father, who is the compass point of the entire meeting but missing. He will be far away, dealing with his life, which is sinking faster than a lead cannonball. I forgive him, though, because I am a misogynist and he is broken, and his flight from reality has very little to do with me.

I'm beginning to feel something that might be guilt as regards her.  I know that she will be a short fifteen minute drive from where we are going. I know where she lives, what she looks like, who she's married to, what she does in her spare time, and something of her relationship with her remaining child. The thing is, though, that she doesn't know I know. She doesn't know that I'm meeting my brother there, who she also gave away. She doesn't know that she's a grandmother, or that her grandson will go the places she went when she carried us in the space beneath her lungs. She knows nothing except that she had children - a lot of children - and abandoned them.

I did romanticize her. I read reunion stories of mothers who waited for thirty, or forty, or fifty years for their lost child to come back. I read about how they ached. But to paraphrase Lady Bracknell, "To lose one [child], Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose [a whole frigging lot of them] looks like carelessness." I think I could process this better if I were one of several children of varying ages who were removed from her care after she'd done something - but we weren't abused, or turned over to foster care, or kept past the one-week Healthy White Baby sell-by date. We were individually packaged for Domestic Infant Adoption, and only to be sold separately.

Rambling, rambling. But should I contact her, or no? Is this guilt, or am I looking for an excuse to break down a few barriers when I know I'm angry with her, and not able to give selflessly?

She should know all about giving, right? She's the original professional.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

I'm a misogynist...

I have always described myself as a feminist. I'm a little reactionary in some of my politics and I have an abiding passion for Edmund Burke that makes me susceptible to the rhetoric of tea partiers, Fox commentators, and anyone else who quotes him with abandon - but I can juxtapose Wollstonecraft against Burke and find just as much to agree with even though they were mortal enemies. I'm a working mother - an executive - and I know how much I owe to the women in the generation before me who shrugged off their shackles and beat a path for me to follow. I'm pro-choice. I read Gertrude Stein and Gloria Steinem.  If you would have asked me yesterday, I would have called myself a socially-liberal feminist.

But I'm not.

And here's how I know - I forgive him more than I forgive her. It's misogyny. A woman should care about her children. A woman should love her children enough to fight for them, or at least to keep from having multiple kids and giving them away. A woman shouldn't walk away. A man, though - well, shouldn't we just be grateful that he was there, that he talked to us in utero, that he cared for her when she was pregnant, that he didn't drive her to the abortion clinic or drive away. That he went to the hospital, signed the paternity papers, and signed away his rights. He stuck around long enough to give me away, so he - he can be forgiven almost anything. Her? Not so much.

I don't agree with these feelings. I think they're sentiments that Sarah Palin would agree with, and that terrifies me. The reasoning is specious - but this isn't reason. It's just feelings, and that's what I feel. She should have tried harder. She isn't much of a mother.

She did it three times.  I have another half-sibling somewhere out in the world, not his, but hers - and she gave that one up as well. Four children, and she kept one. I don't know that I can forgive her.

I've forgiven him everything. And I hate myself for that.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Family History

I met my aunt, in person. She's the only one who lives in the same metro area that I was raised in, and that's just coincidence. We had dinner - my husband, my son, her husband, and us. My aunt takes after a side of the family that I don't, so we don't look alike. We have the same sense of humor, though, and that was wonderful. I'm glad that I met her first - it was less charged, and I feel better prepared for some of the upcoming reunions that will involve my immediate family.

Anyway, she gave me a photo album. It contains pictures of my father's family going back to the 1840's, when photography was new. It's amazing to trace them down through the years, as their resemblance to me grows stronger and stronger. It's amazing to look at someone born a hundred years ago and think, "I have her chin"...these are things that I knew, intellectually, were missing from my life. But having them - oh, that's another thing entirely. More than any other photo, I keep going back to the one taken shortly after my birth. My grandmother stands with her children; my uncle, my aunt and her first husband, and my father. And my mother. His hand is on her shoulder, and he's looking over the top of her head. They're staring into the camera. I'm the only grandchild at that point in time. And I'm missing. I'm a thousand miles away, I'm toddling out behind the barn, watching the horses, playing with my dog. I'm not there - but I'm in the world. I have a life unfolding, but all I see in that picture is my not-there-ness, a space in her arms where I should have been. So - gifts. That come wrapped in the pain of knowing that the picture is incomplete.

Is it wrong to think about photoshopping myself in? I'm tempted, just to see what it would have looked like if they had, you know...kept me.

It does hurt.