A chorus of starfish

I recently returned from a business trip to find my adoptee
friends and allies engaged in numerous discussions both on- and off-line about
the May 10th New Yorker article, “The Last Babylift: Adopting a Child from Haiti”
by John Seabrook and the subsequent NPR interview with Seabrook and Fresh Air
host Terry Gross
. A fellow friend and scholar, Korean adoptee Kadnexus, offered
a critique of the NPR story. Mr. Seabrook himself found the blog and commented,
setting off a series of comments from adult adoptees, adoptee allies, and
adoptive parents.

Up until yesterday, I had intended to deconstruct Mr.
Seabrook’s comments as exemplary of how adoptive parents dismiss the adult
adoptee voice – and indeed he is dismissive and at times very patronizing and
demeaning. I also was torn between the two – no, three – different “hats” I
wear – the first as an adult adoptee of color who was transracially and
transnationally adopted, second as an adoption scholar and researcher, and
third as a social worker and former adoption worker. Each of these perspectives
from my own life, and I could maybe even add another hat, that of a parent,
informs how I see Mr. Seabrook’s initial New Yorker essay as well as the
comments he offers at the Kadnexus blog.

Each of these perspectives (and indeed, they are so
intertwined it may be impossible to separate any of them) has a definite view
of the article, NPR interview, and the author’s comments on the Kadnexus blog.
In the end, I have decided not to deconstruct Mr. Seabrook’s comments (of which there are several) on Kadnexus’
blog in full. I want to say I am disheartened that Mr. Seabrook does not show
the kind of compassion he claims to have for his adopted daughter to the adult
cohort of adoptees of color that she will someday join (and I don’t mean an
organized “group” – I mean that some day this child will grow up and by the
experience of being adopted transracially and transnationally, will be counted
as one of us, whether she ever personally chooses to engage in a social way or
not). You can all read Mr. Seabrook’s comments for yourself.

I decided instead just to highlight a few things that were
brought up by Mr. Seabrook in his New Yorker article, which for the record let
me state that I found interesting and in many ways both refreshing and
problematic.  I also want to claim
a broader space. So, although Mr. Seabrook’s New Yorker piece is the jumping
off point for my thoughts here, I do not want to paint Mr. Seabrook as some
kind of ogre. He is, in fact, all too typical of many adoptive parents,
especially those early in the journey.

First of all, it is clear that Mr. Seabrook was aware of the
complexities of adopting a child from a foreign country. He spends a lot more
time than many of the other articles I’ve seen in the New York Times
(especially the blogs), Slate, Salon, etc. by adoptive parents. I thought Mr.
Seabrook highlighted a lot of the difficulties of being an adoptive parent in
light of the complications and complexities.

A few things stand out for me, however: first, in terms of
adult adoptees (for which, it turns out, he is not as understanding of the
nuances) he describes Mei-Ling Hopgood’s memoir as “bittersweet” – and I’ve
noticed that Ms Hopgood’s memoir is often held up as the “good” one. Is it
because by the end of the book, Hopgood comes to appreciate her adoptive parents
more after her birth family reunion, and writes about adopting herself someday?
Jane Jeong Trenka, on the other hand, he dismisses as “bitter.” Is this because
her narrative counters his own justification for adopting internationally? When
he writes that he and his wife chose international adoption in part because
birth parents in other countries “don’t change their minds about giving up
their children” that is in direct contradiction to the fact that Trenka’s mother
sits outside the social worker’s office every day for months in order to find
her daughters. Is it because Trenka’s adoptive parents are so unwilling,
(unlike Hopgood’s) to engage in the paradox of transnational adoption that
makes Jane come off as “bitter?” Because that to me would emphasize and kind of
clarify that maybe having a less rigid sense of entitlement as an adoptive
parent actually improves an adoptive parent’s relationship with their child
through adulthood.

Mr. Seabrook also valorizes the Holts and Pearl Buck because
they were willing to look beyond the race matching in adoption that brought
them to the critical attention and animosity of American child welfare
agencies. It isn’t just that the Holts and Buck’s “radical notion – that love
could transcend any cultural barrier – was ridiculed within the adoption
What is not explained are the reasons why agencies in the
U.S. found the Holts and Buck problematic. Yes, at the time there was an
emphasis on race matching but let’s not forget that the majority of the adoptive
at the time demanded matching by race, religion and other physical
features. Having just spent several months researching the Child Welfare League of
America archives and the International Social Service archives
, there is more
to the these organizations concerns about Holt and Buck than Seabrook’s
assertion that their opposition was solely based on race matching. The majority
of adoptive parents – even in today’s multicultural society – are not rushing
to adopt children of different racial, ethnic or national origin.

Child welfare agencies such as the CWLA and ISS
were opposed to the growing international adoptions sponsored by Holt and Buck
because of their concern about corruption and coercion of birth families, and
because of the lack of preparation by American adoptive parents. The CWLA in
fact had long been concerned about independent adoptions (and Seabrook fails to
mention that for many years, the Holts operated as independent facilitators
conducting proxy adoptions – that is, no home study of the prospective adoptive
parent, and the child was adopted by the American family sight unseen,
delivered to them without having full information about the child). CWLA and
ISS were opposed to American families adopting children without the auspices of
agency oversight over concern about the child. What CWLA, ISS and other
organizations were espousing were standards based on the best interest of the
child, not on the best interests of the prospective parent. It is because
children who were adopted by white American families were being rejected as
they grew because of the racial, physical, and intellectual differences that
led agencies to recommend “matching.” Other adoptive parent scholars and
academics have written about this in greater detail, especially Ellen Herman in
her book, Kinship by Design.

To me, the most disturbing aspect about this whole “conversation”
over at Kadnexus is Seabrook’s own words in the comments. Time after time he
makes demeaning, sarcastic comments about the adoptees who responded to his
article. Obviously, “we” struck a nerve. We criticized his decision –
HIS DECISION – to adopt a child from Haiti (and furthermore, to write about it
in a way that felt very disrespectful to many). We, those of us who as children who had NO DECISION
about our adoption experiences, can be criticized but somehow he should be
immune from critique? As a journalist, shouldn’t Seabrook know that once he puts something
out there in a published forum that it is open for critique, the same way
people often critique my work and that of adult adoptees? I won’t even get into the whole part of Mr. Seabrook’s
assumption that because of his critique, Kadnexus must “have had an unhappy experience.” I, and many
others, have written about this in the past.

As an adoption scholar, I thought he started to do some
research but let his own subjectivity as an adoptive parent skew what research
he studied. From his comments it looks like he only read research that
validated what he thought, which is really, really easy to do. After all, the
majority of the research on transracial and transnational adoptees look at us
while we’re kids, many of the findings are based on what white adoptive parents
reported about their kid’s views (not the adoptee themselves), and most use
white, middle class measurement standards of “well-being” and racial identity,
not those developed to reflect diversity in race, ethnicity, culture or
especially socioeconomic class. In his article, I believed that he had an understanding of structural problems. But in
his personal comments at Kadnexus, he emphatically only ascribes importance to
the individual. I suppose it’s a version of the starfish story. As a social
worker, I hear this all the time and I don’t like it, because it totally strips
away personal responsibility to do anything on a larger level. We may “make a
difference” in the life of one “starfish” but we do nothing to address what is
happening in the ocean that is causing all the starfish to wash ashore. Mr. Seabrook states in his comments that those of us who critique from a structural level are "Clever people making clever arguments their esteemed colleagues will
esteem without any heart in the arguments at all. Not that this
endeavor isn’t important to one’s career, but from my perspective it’s
very far from the point."
I would disagree with Mr. Seabrook. I think some of us critique because we actually care about MORE people than just the cute child that is adopted. We actually care about the child's country and community and what inequalities in a global world mean to all of us.

As a social worker and former adoption worker, I question
whether he sees his own adoption experience as finding a family for Rose or finding a
“Rose” for his family.  I’m
heartened by his family’s commitment to raise his daughter in a diverse area,
and that his family has ties to her community. That will certainly help. I
worry, however, that his comments show that he views Rose as a “rescue project” and
himself as a savior. From a child development point of view, is Mr. Seabrook
prepared for the potential times in the future when Rose may come to have
questions or feelings about her adoption experience? I would want to suggest
that Mr. Seabrook and his wife read Vera Fahlberg’s excellent book, A Child’s
Journey Through Placement.

As a parent, I can see that Mr. Seabrook’s love for his
child is immense and he ferociously defends his parenting towards a “happy”
(his words, not mine) place. As a fellow parent, I understand wanting our
children to be happy. I want that too. I’ve never met a parent who wants their
child to be miserable. Yet I also know, as a parent, we have blind spots – and
we cannot shelter our children from pain nor force happiness onto them. We can
set the stage for them, and we can do everything possible to create a stable
and nurturing place for them, what I call the “soft place to land” when the
world is not so friendly or loving. But Mr. Seabrook and other adoptive parents
must make sure this includes a soft place to land in terms of adoption and
race. Because as a parent, you can’t guarantee that the world will accept you
and treat you fairly based on who you are and your merits alone – but as a
family, you can and must.

And finally, as an adult adoptee of color, I am so proud of
being part of an amazing and awesome community of adoptees who have so
eloquently articulated and offered to engage in dialogue with Mr. Seabrook and
the general public at large. There are many myths we still need to deconstruct.
We are often demeaned, mocked, and treated like children.  It's frustrating – when we talk about our personal experiences, we get accused of trying to over-generalize the adoptee experience and inappropriately apply our personal stories to other adoptees. When we talk in terms of structural critique we get accused of not seeing the "heart" of the matter.

Mr. Seabrook is not alone in doing
this, and I am giving him the benefit of the doubt that he never thought his
words and ideas would be so challenged by us. If his, and other adoptive
parents, take-away from all this is that adult adoptees of color are “angry” or
“bitter” or whatever, then all we, and our adoptive parent and non-adoptee
allies can do, is continue to make our voices heard, and support each other in
compassionate and caring ways, and know that in addition to making a difference
in the life of a starfish that we didn’t stop there – in the end, we at least
tried to make a difference for all
the starfish – and everyone else who shares the ocean. Remember, those of us adult adoptees raising our voices – we were those starfish. What we're saying now is, don't forget about the rest of them.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

5 thoughts

  1. We do hear you. I, along with so many adoptive parents, hear your stories and we take them to heart. I so appreciate you sharing them so that I can be a better parent to my own son.
    For what it’s worth, I do think there is something about being new to the game of adoptive parenting that makes it very hard to read and accept the experiences our own children will have. It is *so* hard to hear that the choice we have made is anything but good. So hard to accept that the choices we have made can impact our child negatively…as parents, we want only to protect our children and do right by them. It’s horrifying to think that we could have done something to hurt these children that we love so much. It’s such a paradox that, in the case of international adoption, we can only do right by our children by accepting the idea that we may have hurt them first. I’m five years into this journey and it’s getting easier and easier to read and understand the experiences of transracial adoptees. And I keep at it because I do understand that it is NOT about me. It’s about my son.
    I guess my point is this: We do hear you. We might not always show it in the right way (heck, we might not always show it at all), but we do hear you. And while it is NOT your job to educate us, so very many of us appreciate it that you do. Keep talking.
    Thanks for your blog and sharing your experiences. You are making the life better for so many other children along the way.

  2. You said this very well. Boy, did he take me back, though. I can remember the time when I found even discussions of open adoption a bit threatening.
    You pointed out on the Kadnexus blog that, when analyzed, Mr. Seabrook’s comments and not those of adult adoptees were dismissive and insulting. I agree with you. Also, he doesn’t make any connection between the child he loves and who is the happiest child on the planet (as he described her) and the feelings expressed by adult adoptees in the comments. So he has to diminish those comments by saying his daughter will grow up in a totally different world. The irony is that some of those adults are still young enough to be part of what Seabrook would call his daughter’s world, including people who grew up with access to diverse communities.
    All in all, I found him extremely defensive. When he just dismissed E. J. Graff out of hand I got very suspicious because her research has been invaluable. She is not just “a clever person making a clever argument”–the website set up at Brandeis on corruption in international adoption is a trusted resource and I bet Seabrook has used it in his research.
    Anyway, I really liked this post. As I said to a friend, I could not stand the rather weary New Yorker attitude in the NPR interview, as though it were really tiring to be the world’s newest adoption sage. Honest to f–k he’s been an adoptive parent for what–a few months? And he’s read a couple of books. Gimme a break.

  3. I don’t have time at the moment to read everything he wrote, but he definitely lost this AP at “don’t change their minds about giving up their children” and describing Jane Trenka as “bitter.” He obviously doesn’t understand or hasn’t read her work.
    I think I understand the place he comes from. I am subject to that influence myself. But he is wrong to stay there. I fear this is a common mistake of adoptive parents, but one that I have hope can be overcome. My life would no longer have any meaning if I were to fail to accomplish that.

  4. Really really good critique of that, er, “conversation.”
    Two opposing things struck me above all: Seabrook’s sarcastic, maybe even snide dismissal of the adoptee experience, and the strength of adoptee voice in response.
    The adoptees will prevail, because perspectives like Seabrook’s fall apart under scrutiny. Anyone who references Buck and the Holts as examples of adoption done right pretty much shows how out of touch with reality they are. It still angers me that he got so much press in spite of this.
    Thanks for posting your thoughts on this.

  5. Maybe some day he will find out. Hopefully it won’t be too late for his daughter. Some people, regardless of whether they are a doctor, a computer operator, a car dealer or adoptive parent- think that they know everything and are not willing to learn from others who have been there. It is their personality. Perhaps he even has a personality disorder which has him stuck in a sort of narcissistic, condescending frame of mind. In which case, he will never learn- and will blame his daughter for any problems she has in the future. Or maybe one day he will wake up and realize the adult adoptees were right and he was wrong. Let’s pray for the latter.

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