Spotlight – Andy Marra

Screen_shot_2012-03-15_at_8.53.47_PMaI was privileged to meet activist, Public Relations Manager for Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and one of the Advocate's Forty under 40 of 2012 Andy Marra a couple of years ago at an adult adoptee conference to celebrate AKA New York's 15th anniversary.

At the conference Andy shared parts of her story that are now public in her Huffington Post article, Beautiful Daughter: How My Korean Mother Gave Me The Courage To Transition. I was so excited to learn that Andy was going to share her story because it was one that I have thought about a lot since I first heard her speak. Go immediately and read it here.

Then, hear Andy on NPR

Have some Kleenex® handy. 

Reflections of the past year


Happy New Year to all my readers. I hope you and yours are healthy, safe and with the ones you love today.

I’m feeling very reflective of this past year. So much has happened in my own personal life and much of that is due to this blog and all the faithful (and new) readers.

I started this blog in March of 2006 as a way to write regularly about the issues I’m interested in, and to have a community with other adoptee bloggers I’d been reading regularly. What a gift it has been to find a group of blogging friends, adoptees who I share so much with and who have graciously shared their lives with me. I thank them all: Ji In, Soon Young, Sume, Sarah, MeeHee, HW, Jaye, Lisa, Susan and Paula. And I want to thank all the other adoptee bloggers out there who do what you do – continue to ask important questions, share your lives with all of us. It helps us all to have your voices there, your voices matter – they matter so very much. Thanks to all the domestic adoptee bloggers whom I regularly read (though I don’t comment much) and the first mother and adoptive parent blogs too. I have learned so much from all of them and their experiences have informed my views in numerous ways.

From the beginning I knew that adoptive parents were reading and although they were not the audience to whom I was initially writing, they became the most vocal in the comment box. And so I changed and reconfigured Harlow’s Monkey. I took out some of the more personal content. I began writing with a more analytic tone and became less conversational. I added more links to news articles. I became, in some ways, much more critical.

There are many times these past few months that I have considered closing the blog. It’s not for the same reasons I considered closing it before – people have been pretty well-behaved around these parts. I have pretty much accepted that adoptive parents are now the majority of my readers – I had always hoped it would be an adoptee readership. I have struggled at times with how to continue on. Do I try and be more friendly in my tone in order to have more acceptance among certain "groups?" Or do I eliminate all personal commentary and just link to articles and research about adoption without interjecting my own take on things? How do I balance all the things I want to write, while trying to keep in mind all the different places my readers are at in their own lives?

I guess the answer to all these things is, I don’t know.

I strive to learn more about all the different aspects of adoption through as many channels as possible. There are some who think that blogs by adult adoptees are myopic and naval-gazing and serve no purpose than to whine or pontificate about a single subject as if there were nothing else in our lives. But I hope that the readers of Harlow’s Monkey understands that for many of us bloggers, we have full lives outside of the blog world – just as you readers do. It’s just that most of us don’t have a community of friends or family members we can talk to about adoption. We began writing to share our experiences with each other. So it’s frustrating when commenters/readers assume that all of our concerns begin and end with adoption.

I think a lot about why I chose to have this blog be only about adoption and child welfare. One of the criticisms I’ve heard about my blog is that it’s kind of cold and clinical. That I’m not sharing enough of myself, or that I’m not open to more dialogs about the issues I bring up. And that is a valid critique. I don’t share all that much on this blog. In some ways that has been a liability because people may think I’m cold or rigid or inflexible. Some people (ie The New York Times, and other media) have solicited around adoptee bloggers but only want those with dramatic, personal experiences or stories to share – or want emotional posts, not educational or policy/political posts.

But I don’t think that everyone has the right to know everything about my personal life. And I try not to share too much about my adoptive parents, for many reasons. I think their experiences are theirs to have and to share at their own discretion, not mine. Also, I don’t want adoptive parents taking a microscope to my parents and making all kinds of assumptions about them. How they did this, or didn’t do that, and how some readers (current adoptive parents) are going to be so different.

I also want to state that my experiences growing up in a family with the adoptive parents I have informs, but does not dictate, my thoughts and feelings about adoption today. I do not "work out" any issues I might have with my parents through the passive-aggressive mode of a blog. My work and my research greatly affects the content I choose to blog about.

I guess we’ll just see where this blog goes as 2008 comes.

If everything goes well, 2008 will bring big changes around these parts. This will be the year I turn 40, the year I’ll have a child enter high school, the year (fingers crossed) I begin a doctoral program.

If I have half the blessings of 2007, I’ll be one happy girl.

I just want to end by giving a big thanks to everyone who has emailed me privately, to share your thoughts about the blog or about some of the issues I’ve raised, or to share a news story you thought others would be interested in.

Happy New Years!

Survivor’s Guilt

I have just spent
the weekend with family. People who, as much as they might annoy me,
will still have my back if I need them. Who love me, even as the flawed
human being that I am. Who, despite my flaws, ultimately believe in the
best parts of me.

I think about the kids I work with who don’t have this soft landing
called a family. Or, they do but their families are too lost in their
own problems that they can’t or aren’t willing to care about them. So
they’re in substitute places; institutions like residential treatment,
or shelter, or group homes, or with foster families who never fail to
treat them like second-hand people.

Some days I feel it’s wrong for me to have anything good in my life,
when there are so many others who don’t. It’s survivor’s guilt. It’s
the trauma of having been one of the "lucky" ones through none of my own doing. For having been adopted to a family who treated me with kindness and love instead of being adopted by a family who abused and neglected me.

I know too many kids who were abused and neglected and abandoned by their families of origin. But I also know too many adults who were abused and neglected and abandoned by their adoptive families.

Some days I have a hard time being able to say adoption is a good thing when I know so many people for whom it wasn’t. Yet, I don’t believe it’s better to grow up without family either. And some days it’s
terribly difficult to look in the mirror and be thankful for the
blessings you feel you don’t deserve. After all, only the luck of a
draw separates you from them.

Don’t Stop Believing

It’s a cold, grey afternoon and the promised snow we are set to receive is just beginning to mist down on my car, the lone vehicle on this long stretch of highway. Each tiny flake melts so quickly that my wipers lay slumbering on the base of my windshield. I am driving back to the cities from a pre-Thanksgiving visit with two of my clients, teenage brothers, who are living in a residential treatment center a few hours south of the Twin Cities.

Yesterday when I spoke to their case manager, I asked if I could take them off campus for lunch. They hardly get to leave their campus. They are in foster care, and this weekend when most of their peers are going home to their families for turkey and mashed potatoes, they will be in the residential center with a few staff.

"I don’t know," says the case manager. "X was in a hold this morning and he’s really been struggling this last week."

"Yes," I respond. "He told me he is frustrated that this will be his second year spending Thanksgiving in the center. All of his friends are going home." This boy and his brother have no home. For two years they have been waiting to be adopted.

With that statement, the caseworker changes her mind. I can take them out to lunch.

I wish the case manager, also his therapist, would remember how holidays trigger these kids. I wish they would remember that when they are in their warm homes surrounded by their family and friends, that these kids are left behind, wanting that family and feeling lost and alone. Every single thing they do is under a microscope. When they have a bad day and are in a bad mood, they’re "oppositional defiant" and when they go for months "behaving" well, one bad day can send them back to day one.

The staff is planning a day of board games and movies, yet they want to spend time with me, if only because I am getting them off the campus for part of a day. Or perhaps it is because my twice monthly visits this past year have been the most they get from anyone. Maybe it is because I am looking hard to find a family who will adopt them. X wants a family. Even at age 16, he says, "I still need a family to love me." 

On the way home, I am listening to the radio and the song, "Don’t Stop Believing" by Journey comes on the air. The lyrics,

Strangers waiting, up and down the boulevard

Their shadows searching in the night

Streetlights people, living just to find emotion

Hiding, somewhere in the night

I think of X and his younger brother. I think of them, how they are living to find emotion. Their county worker tells me I shouldn’t give them false hope that they will find an adoptive family, given their ages and their behaviors. But that’s my job. These kids, according to the law, have to be tracked for "adoption" as their permanency plan. That is why I talk to them about adoption. That is why they know I am their adoption worker and that I am looking for a home for them. And they want to be adopted.

I ask X if I’m giving him false hope talking to him about adoption and he says, "I’ve gotta have hope. If I don’t have hope, there’s nothing for me to live for."

And as I drive home, to a family waiting for me, I think about X and his brother.

How they are shadows searching in the night for a family. And how none of us are willing to stop believing that it can happen.

Back to life, back to reality


It starts with one step at a time . . .

I’m still trying to lift the fog off my brain and adjust to the "real world" again. Yesterday I met a friend for lunch and as I sat in my car, I thought, "can I drive?" I’d adjusted in that short of time to walking or taking public transportation everywhere, a decidedly unfamiliar process in Minnesota where everyone seems to drive, even if it’s just three blocks!

In a very real way, this trip with my family was an experiment to see whether or not living in Korea would ever be a possibility. Right now it’s not in our short term plans – that is, the next few years. But there IS a possibility that it might figure into our 5 to 10-year plan. What I’d hoped would happen did – my kids feel a much stronger Korean identity.

While the time with my family was important and special, the time at the IKAA conference fed my hunger for knowledge. I was able to meet with a great many folks who are researching in a newly emerging field of Korean Adoption studies, both in South Korea and around the world. I’m looking forward to putting together some of the more interesting thoughts on the blog.

My family and I were privileged to be able to meet the women of Mindeulae. Mindeulae is a group of Korean birth parents, all of whom have reunited with their children who were sent for international adoption. This group calls itself "Mindeulae" or, "Dandelion" because like a dandelion they are resilient, can’t be contained, and their "seeds" are scattered across the wind.

The parents of Mindeulae say, "My baby, my hands," meaning that they wanted to raise their own children with their own hands, but had no choice except international adoption. On August 4, 2007, Mindeulae and adoptees and allies joined together to kick off their campaign to gather 1 million signatures to promote services and resources for single parenting and to end international adoption and promote domestic adoption.

The peaceful demonstration went off without any complications other than some rain, and was an emotional and powerful moment in history. While all the conference attendees were invited, probably only about 10% participated in the actual demonstration (there were other conference activities going on at the same time) but I know several supported the demonstration and felt they could not/did not want to take such a public action.

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In eight days

. . . I will be on a plane to South Korea. I am embarking on my third trip to Korea since 2000 (also the third trip to my birth country since I was adopted) – interestingly, I will arrive in Seoul on the 20th, only one day shy of the day the metal stork brought me to Minneapolis on July 21st, 1971. Thirty-five years later, I’m coming full circle.

Only this time instead of coming to the U.S. alone, sitting on an escort’s lap (my parents did not come pick me up, instead I was delivered to them by a "helper") I will be surrounded by Mr. Harlow’s Monkey and my two children ages 9 and 13. This is the first trip to Korea for the Mr. and the kids. I am thrilled to finally be at a place in my life where I want to include them in this journey, which has been such a struggle for me for so many years.

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Yesterday I had the great pleasure to attend two events through the Still Present Pasts exhibit, both featuring filmmaker Deann Borshay. The first event was a panel discussion about Korean Adoptee filmmakers, with Deann, Jennifer Ahrnt-Johns of Crossing Chasms, and Kevin Kamin. Later last night, SPP had a viewing of First Person Plural, Deann’s film, as well as a preview to her new film, Precious Objects of Desire.

I felt like a fawning groupie, because First Person Plural is, in my opinion, the absolute best movie about international adoption made thus far. Because of Deann’s skill as a filmmaker first and foremost, her movie stands alone as a work of art and not just because her individual story is so compelling. Deann is, at heart, a skilled storyteller.

I first came upon First Person Plural back in late 2000, months after returning from my first trip back to Korea and my own birth family search. First Person Plural was the first film I’d seen about a Korean Adoptee; my reaction to the film was raw and visceral. I wept through most of the film. At that time in my life I was in my early 30s, and was confronting the ghosts of my past along with the reality of my present existence in a forced, confused and hyper-emotional collision.

My first reaction to the film was anger towards Deann’s adoptive parents, who I transferred all my own feelings regarding my relationship with my own adoptive parents, for being so clueless and ignorant about my emotional state as a Korean adoptee growing up with the forced assimilation into their world and absolutely no effort to assimilate into mine. I saw my family members echoed in Deann’s family, their ignorance was my family’s ignorance and their attempts to silence Deann was my parents attempts to silence me.

What I didn’t see at the time, because I was so engulfed in my own hurt at having come to dead ends in my birth family search, was the palpable pain that Deann’s parents felt. Although I’ve remembered every scene of the film, seeing First Person Plural again with several years behind me, I saw the desperate pain and fear of Deann’s parents. With every step towards her Korean birth family, Deann’s adoptive family saw it as a step away from them. And my own parents at the time were seething and silent about what they saw as my rejection of them.

And here is where my anger has changed. I don’t harbor anger towards my adoptive parents any more, for all the things they didn’t do. Because they did everything they were supposed to do; everything their social workers told them was important.

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Ambiguous Loss

Elephant011_1 Lately I have been interested in the work of Dr. Pauline Boss, who was housed only a hop, skip and jump away from me last year in graduate school. Unfortunately, I did not know who she was then, or the important work she has been doing on the subject of ambiguous loss.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, it was first theorized in the late 60s and early 70s regarding the loss of men who were missing in action during war, and the effects of that unknowing on their spouses and families.

The concept has been expanded over the past forty years or so to include others. And what I find so intriguing is that there are two types of “loss” that are described and defined; that of having a loved one physically present but emotionally and psychologically absent (for instance, having a parent with mental health issues or Alzheimer’s disease), and that of having a loved one emotionally and psychologically present but physically absent (such as in the case of divorce or having a parent in prison).

Naturally, this makes me think about the ambiguous loss that is present in all of those involved in the adoption triad. As an adoptee, I will speak about the effects of ambiguous loss on adopted persons but that in no way negates the very real issues of ambiguous loss in first families and adoptive families.

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