Friday, July 20, 2012


                                         ONE MOTHER OR TWO?

”I have come to is unnatural for members of the human species to grow up separated from and without knowledge of their natural clan, that such a lack has a negative influence on a child's psychic reality and relationship with the adoptive parents...” . Journey of the Adopted Self, Betty Jean Lifton

It is common in discussions of adopted children today to say they have two mothers, a biological mother and an adoptive mother. Adoptee author Betty Jean Lifton, for example, a prime mover in what we are now calling open adoption, wrote that she felt pulled this way and that by her two competing mothers, biological and adoptive, as follows:
“For deep inside every adoptee (Lifton often presented her own views as the views of all adoptees) there is a chalk circle where he or she is pulled this way and that by two competing mothers.”  Lifton concluded that she was disappointed in both of her mothers and had ended up with no mother at all.
 I am the oldest of four children adopted into a single family at the same time after spending 26 months in a county orphanage, an earlier form of foster care.  I was five when we were abandoned to the orphanage and had memories of my biological relatives. My younger siblings, Mark, Michael, and Janey did not. 
When we were in our late 20s our biological mother sent a letter to our adoptive parents asking if they were the couple that had adopted her children and requested that we be given her address in case we should wish to meet with her.   Dad opened the letter first and came to Mom in tears, saying, “The letter I have anticipated for 21 years came today.”  Mom sent the letter on to the four of us who were scattered around the US.  Without consulting each other all of us declined the invitation to meet with our biological mother.  We simply were not interested. 
Our adoptive mother responded to our biological mother as follows:
“Over the years our hearts have ached for you.  You gave birth to four beautiful, talented, wonderful children.  We know.  They have lived with us….”  Then she described our lives and achievements to that point.
Twenty-six years later Janey and Michael met our biological mother at a luncheon in the home of Michael’s mother-in-law, who vigorously promoted the reunion.  As she put it, “How do you know who you are until you have met your birth mother?”  I was overseas at that time and Janey later described the event for me.  “She was all Me, Me, Me and very defensive.  She psychologically drove us out of the room.”  Michael left the luncheon abruptly.  “I wanted to get out of that room,” he said.  “I was so depressed!  I wanted her to be interesting and there was no way I could make her interesting.”   
As for me, I was not pulled between two competing mothers, as Lifton would have it.  That was not my experience at all.  Once I felt secure and happy in my new family, I would not have welcomed the resumption of ties with biological relatives who had seriously wounded us when we were very young.  I would have found that confusing, even threatening. The issue for me, since I felt betrayed by my “natural clan,” was not two competing mothers but whether to have a mother at all, one I could trust and come to love and be a son to.
When the Luchs adopted me at the age of eight I was an angry child.  I was angry because we had been abandoned to a crowded, understaffed and poorly resourced county orphanage where our beds were stained with urine, where we never had enough to eat, and where we were constantly bullied by older boys.  I had come to believe we were abandoned to the orphanage because we were throw away children not worth loving.  To protect myself I denied to myself that I needed love.  I pushed adults away.  My adoptive mother told me later that she worked with me for one year before I would accept her hugs without resistance.  Among her friends she called me “my little ramrod.”  Two years passed before I would spontaneously express my love by hugging her.    
Eventually she won me over.  I had the good fortune through adoption to spend most of my youth with a woman who was among the best and most loving of mothers.  Here is how I describe that experience near the end of my memoir, Children of the Manse.
“I have but one mother, Evelyn Luchs, my real mother in the only sense I can make of the word mother. Evelyn Luchs became my mother because she raised me and truly loved me. It is as simple as that. She nursed me when I was  sick, counseled me when  I  was  confused  or upset, and was always there for me when I most needed her. She loved me when I was being unlovable. She made it possible for me to begin to trust and love and laugh again.  She helped dampen down the fiery core of rage within me created by serious neglect and abandonment. She never gave up on me. My true and forever mother encouraged my love of the beauty in life and filled me with a hopeful sense of my own life’s possibilities. She helped me to believe I could make good use of the life I had been given to contribute to my own happiness and to that of others. Mom modified but could not erase entirely the cold-eyed realism I had learned from my early bitter experiences.  At times I thought she was being na├»ve, but I came to agree with her that it is better to live trusting and occasionally be disappointed, than to go through life suspicious of the motives of others. She let me know by her actions as well as her words that I was worthy, loved, and valued.”
It may be true, as Betty Jean Lifton believed, that it is unnatural for some adoptees to grow up entirely separated from their clan.  But I believe many of us adopted from foster care have to be freed from our biological relatives to develop into flourishing and psychologically healthy human beings.  Separation from my natural clan had an entirely positive influence in my life and in my relationship with my adoptive parents.   
If only all the children in foster care today who have been wounded through neglect and abuse by their biological parents could have such a mother as I did!  Or father.  Some of them do.  But if only all of them could have such a mother!  Or father.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


When I retired and left a life spent mostly abroad as an American diplomat, I had the time to research my early history as a child abandoned to a county orphanage.  I set out to obtain my official social workers case file which I hoped would confirm and enrich the memories I had of that period in my life.  At the same time my younger sister was beginning to open up contacts with our biological family, in which I had less interest.  But she persuaded me to go with her to meet an uncle and aunt, an older brother and younger sister of our biological mother.  I agreed, mostly because I was grateful to Mary, the aunt, because she had helped me to begin to read at age four, a gift I have appreciated all my life. 
Published personal accounts of adoption seemed to me to be mostly about the unhappily adopted who had only been able to find a sense of belonging through reunions with their biological relatives.  That did not seem to fit my case at all.  But how could I be sure?  Perhaps I would also experience a dramatic and fulfilling sense of belonging through a reunion with Nate and Mary.  And if that happened, would the identity I had in part accepted and in part forged over the years of living as a Luchs crumble before the flesh and blood reality of a family whose genes I shared?  Who would I be then? 
So I was anxious about meeting these biological relatives.  If I belonged to these people biologically, did I have to think of myself as one of them after half a century living in a different family and culture?   I was almost sixty years old.  My sense of identity, which is linked to my sense of security, was hard won, primarily during my adolescent years.  I had absorbed the culture of my adoptive parents and had come to believe that our identities and fates need not be determined by our biological families.
My biological father spent most of his youth in prison and at one time, he, a brother and sister were all locked up by the state of Ohio.  Did that mean I or my brothers and sister had to repeat that sad history?   If so many of our personal characteristics are determined by our genes, why didn’t we have criminal records?  Why had none of us ever been arrested?  
We are freer than we often think.  Sure, the borders are set by biology.  We probably can't much change our IQs.  We are born with musical talent or we are not.    But I believe from my experience as an older adopted child that within those given limits, there exists a great zone of freedom and our identities and what we make of our lives is in considerable degree up to us.    
I had come to see the hard way how biological families can hurt us and keep us from developing our full potential.   I had to be freed from them to undo the damage they had done. When biological families abuse us instead of nurture us, when they seriously neglect our health and education and well being, we must be freed from them to make a new beginning.  Truly, I had to be separated from my biological families to become me. 
Well, you may be asking.  How did the breakfast meeting with your biological uncle go?  It was friendly and pleasant.  But as I said to my sister afterwards, I did not see…..a single similarity, odd as that may sound, nothing that resembled me.  He and I looked so unlike each other that I thought; if someone had randomly selected an older man off the streets and set him down to breakfast with me, the odds are he would look as much like me as this biological uncle.  It turned out that I and my siblings physically bore more resemblance to our biological father’s family. 

Monday, May 14, 2012


Michel de Montaigne, the 16th Century French author who invented the essay literary form, probed the human experience so deeply that most of his readers believe, when they read his essays, they are reading about themselves.  Examples:
Ralph Waldo Emerson:  “It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book in some former life.”
Andre Gide:  “So much have I made him my own that it seems he is my very self.”
Bernard Levin:  “How did he know all that about me?” 
A favorite essay of most readers is “Friendship.”    As a young man Montaigne formed an intense relationship with Etienne de la Boetie, which, forever after he considered the most important relationship of his life.  La Boetie died suddenly of the plague when Montaigne was 30 years old. 
Writing years later, Montaigne compares his friendship with La Boetie to biological relationships.  “Truly the name of brother is a beautiful name…but why should the harmony and kinship found in these true and perfect friendships be found between brothers?”  He pointed out that biological brothers necessarily compete (we call it sibling rivalry) and “often clash with each other.”  “Likewise,” he wrote, “Father and son may be of entirely different dispositions, and brothers also.   He is my son, he is my kinsman, but he is an unsociable man, a knave, or a fool.”   Montaigne believed that the freedom essential to true friendship is unlikely to exist among biological relatives because “ they are friendships which law and natural obligation impose on us…and our free will has no product more properly its own than affection and friendship.”
La Boetie’s death began a tragic period in Montaigne’s life.  Three years later the father to whom he was devoted died.  Then his brother died improbably in a tennis accident and Montaigne himself nearly died while riding his horse.   His wife would eventually give birth to five daughters but only one survived infancy and lived to adulthood.
Sarah Bakewell, in her excellent recently biography of Montaigne, How to Live or a Biography of Montaigne, describes how in the last decade of his life a young woman, Marie le Jars de Gournay, came into his life.  She had read an early edition of his essays and felt, “she had found her other self in Montaigne, the one person with whom she had a true affinity, and the only one to understand her.”   They eventually met and though they were often linked only by correspondence, he eventually invited her to become his adopted daughter, an offer she quickly accepted, as well as his first great editor and publicist.  Bakewell thinks their relationship was not sexual, partly because Gournay remained on good relations with his mother, his wife and his biological daughter. One reason Gournay wanted Montaigne to adopt her was to replace her deceased father. 

Bakewell observes:  “What Montaigne’s real daughter Leonor thought of this claim to surpass biological family bonds is anyone’s guess.  One could not blame her if she felt put out, but it seems she did not.  She and Marie de Gournay became good friends in later years, with Gournay calling her “sister,” as was logical if they had the same father.”   

This is how Gournay and Montaigne described their relationship:
Gournay: In truth, if someone is surprised that, although we are not father and daughter except in title, the good will that allies us nevertheless surpassed that of real fathers and children, the first and closest of all the natural ties.  Let that person try one day to lodge virtue within himself and to meet with it in another; then he will scarcely marvel that it has more strength and power to harmonize souls than nature has.” 

Montaigne: “She is the only person I still think about in the world.  If youthful promise means anything, her soul will some day be capable of the finest things, among others of perfection in that most sacred kind of friendship which, so we read, her sex has not yet been able to obtain. (Note: That women were not capable of “sacred friendship” was a common view in the 16th Century!)  The sincerity and firmness of her character are already sufficient, her affection for me more than superabundant, and such, in short, that it leaves nothing to be desired, unless that her apprehension about my end, in view of my 55 years when I met her, would not torment her so cruelly.” 

Montaigne died at age 60, five years after he met Gournay.  This was, ironically, the same length of time he had enjoyed in his earlier intense friendship with La Boetie, which ended only when La Boetie died.   

Monday, May 7, 2012


I am one of four siblings adopted into the same family at the same time and have long believed the most important quality in any parent, biological or adoptive, is an open heart with the capacity to offer love.  That is not all a good parent needs but it is the most important of the essentials.  It seems ironic to me that of my biological parents, one had an open heart and one did not.  Of my adoptive parents, one had an open heart and one did not.  The same was true of my biological grandfather and my adoptive grandfather.  One, the adoptive grandfather, had an open heart; the biological grandfather did not. 
My biological father was a troubled man who spent too many years in prison.  I think most of his problem was a father who paid no attention to him.  A rural school teacher, Lonnie’s father let his son drop out of school in the 4th grade.  Despite his faults, Lonnie had an open heart.   When he was with you, you believed you were the center of his universe.  I became deeply attached to him.  
My adoptive minister father revealed much when in an unpublished memoir near the end of his life he wrote the following heart-rending words: 
“God, may I learn to let go the inhibitions which keep me from strong friendships… if I can let the coldness within me melt, then I shall be warm to others so that they have an opportunity to know me…I fear that people don’t want me in their company because I seem cold or I withdraw from them.

On the one hand, it was as if he was locked in his own prison.  And yet he was an extrovert who constantly praised “outgoing” people.

“Look at yourself, Luchs,” he wrote in his memoir.  What do you see when you are alone that when you are with people you can forget?”

My four parents, biological and adoptive, open and closed, change places when we come to mothers.  When I interviewed her younger sister and older brother decades after we had been adopted, they told me my biological mother was the spoiled favorite of her father and was all her life unusually self-centered.  That never changed.  At her one and only meeting with our biological mother nearly 50 years after she had abandoned us to a county orphanage, my younger sister, Janey, said of the meeting:
“I could not believe a woman could act that way.  It was all about me, me, me, me….and very defensive.”  
Through the years I often wondered why I had warm feelings for Lonnie, my biological father, and none at all for Eunice, my biological mother.  The more I learned about them and my early life, the clearer the picture became.
On the other hand, my experience of my adopted mother, Evelyn Luchs, was that she was an extraordinarily warm, open hearted and compassionate woman.  I was as lucky in my second mother as I was unlucky in my first!   I became as emotionally bound to Evelyn Luchs as I was to my two blood brothers and sister, even though she had had no role at all in the first eight years of my life. 
The same pattern existed with biological and adoptive grandfathers.  One had an open heart.  One did not.  My paternal biological grandfather lived next door when I was very young and I have no memories of him at all.  He took no interest in me or my three siblings at all.  Of my maternal McNelly grandparents, who lived two miles away, I have vivid memories to this day and especially of Grandma McNelly, to whom I became attached.  Even stranger, when I and three younger siblings were placed in the county children’s home, Grandpa Boggs did not visit us at all.  Not even once.  He lived five miles away and was in good health.
I first met my adoptive grandfather, Cliff Coulter, when the four of us were taken to his farm during our school’s spring break.  The morning after we arrived he invited me, because I was the first child up, to walk with him to a remote pasture to milk his cow.  This is how I describe Grandpa Coulter in my memoir, Children of the Manse. 
 “His voice, like his face, was warm and friendly.  He asked me about my school work and what I liked to do.  He didn't talk a lot.  He asked me question after question.  He seemed to be interested in what I was telling him. Being with Grandfather Coulter was like being with my biological father, Lonnie, because he listened to me and seemed to be genuinely interested in what I was saying and that made me happy.  I decided I wanted this new grandfather to like me.”
Grandpa Coulter listened.  He seemed genuinely interested in me.  And as I was soon to find out, he had an open heart and a great capacity to love.   That is what counts, especially in adoption.   

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


In her book, Twice Born, Betty Jean Lifton recounts a conversation she had with Erik Erikson, the famous psychoanalyst.  Erikson was a half adoptee and had a lifelong interest in the subject.  The two of them had a brief exchange about the terms “natural mothers” (her preference) and “biological mothers” (his preference.)  Then she asked how the unsealing of adoption records would affect the identity formation of an adopted child. 
Once that happens, Erikson replied, “Every thing will be different.  For awhile there will be a transition period.  Some children and, indeed, some biological parents will suffer, some won’t.” Then Lifton asked, “Is there any reason it might not be a good idea to tell a growing child that she can know who her natural parents are at the age of eighteen?”      
Erikson responded, “It may be a good idea but there should be some careful study of when the child is ready to receive such information… And that decision (to reunite with biological family members) should not be made by society or by the biological or adoptive parents.  And it should be presented as a choice, not an obligation.” 
Erikson also expressed concern about how knowing she (the adoptee) has that choice would affect her relationship with adoptive parents if she was an adolescent in rebellion.
Danea Gorbett in her recent book, Adopted Teens Only, recounts how a reunion with her biological father’s family was arranged in her teens without her consent.  “During this process nobody stopped to ask what I was thinking, feeling, or what I wanted….This whole process became very disturbing to me when I found out no one but his parents knew I existed…The anger and resentment continued to grow.  In fact, this process was so traumatic for me that I actually blocked most of it out and do not remember many of the details.”
Again, Erikson’s wise words:  “And that decision (to reunite with biological family members) should not be made by society or by the biological or adoptive parents.  And it should be presented as a choice, not an obligation.” 
Learning the history of my biological parents at 18 would have been disastrous for me.  When I was 29 years old my biological mother sent a letter to my adoptive parents giving her address and inviting me and three younger siblings to meet with her.  My adoptive and real mother forwarded the letter to the four us who by then were living in different places in the US and abroad.  Without any consultation among us, all four of us declined the invitation to meet with our biological mother. 
At age 60 I began a campaign to unseal my Ohio State records because I hoped to document and write about the 26 unhappy months the four of us had spent in a county orphanage.  I managed to obtain my case file three years later and with the documents from the orphanage experience were included my father’s prison records.  Even at 63, it was not an easy pill to swallow.  And when there were brief reunions later between me and my siblings with members of our biological clan, they were not fulfilling.  They were not healing.  They did not anchor us in reality, as Betty Jean Lifton would have it.  They were disappointing and sometimes harmful.   

Monday, April 2, 2012


One of the highlights of Betty Jean Lifton’s book, Twice Born, is the conversations she relates with her husband, the psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton. His is a calm voice of reason as hers is sometimes not.    I particularly like the following quote because it puts being an adoptee in perspective. 

“Everyone survives some kind of trauma in early life….In that sense
 every one is a survivor.  But an adoptee does have a particular kind of separation,” he conceded.  “It can be debilitating or it can give special insight.”  

What I object to in some of Betty Jean Lifton’s writing is that I hear the whine of self-sorrow.  That particularly annoys me because she was adopted at the age 2 ½ without any background of serious neglect or abuse.  And yet she describes her own adoption, as do others in the search and open sealed records movement, as a Holocaust.  I find that an exaggeration and the use of an historic and tragic event as an inappropriate metaphor.  She was not, as my two-year-old younger sister Janey, an abused or seriously neglected child.  She did not, as Janey did, spend 26 months in an impoverished and understaffed county orphanage that could barely provide for the children’s physical needs and had no time to address their emotional needs.  What would she call Janey’s history?  An Armageddon? 

On another topic, Betty Jean Lifton asks her husband,

“Why do some adoptees have to search for their natural (her own special word for biological) parents while others do not?” 

Robert J. Lifton answers that some of an adoptee’s need to search has to do with relationships with the adoptee’s parents.  I am sure that is true.  I think my recovery from a background of abuse and abandonment is largely due to my intelligent, sensitive and loving adoptive mother.  It’s hardly a secret that Betty Jean did not enjoy a good relationship with her adoptive mother nor was her relationship with her biological mother, once she managed to find her, any better. In her own words, “I had two mothers instead of one, but since both had disappointed me, I had none.”
But she does not simply ask her husband about those who have little or no interest in connecting to their biological origins.  She slurs them, describing them as “eternal children,” “artificial,” even “Uncle Toms.”  She brands them with such psychobabble terms as “self-denigrating” and sees them as full of “internalized guilt.”  

On yet another subject her husband, Robert Jay Lifton, says:

 “I would say that if one is twice born (adopted), one has to carve out a new self distinct from the one society has assigned you.”  

Carving out a new self is precisely what I did.  Sooner or later in life we learn that we all create our own identities, an insight that comes from Erik Erikson, the “father” of American identity studies.  I do not believe knowledge of our biological origins is necessary to that process.   In fact, it can be harmful.  In my case, while my adoptive parents were influential in my creation of my own identity, I see myself as something other than they were and certainly very different from my biological family.   Betty Jean Lifton finally comes to the same conclusion when she tells her husband,

“It (adoption) allowed me to create myself.”   

Sunday, April 1, 2012


I had lunch with a local social worker last week.  A month ago I talked with an outstanding young woman who directs the CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) program in our county that does so much to protect children in foster care.  While we covered many subjects, I asked both of them; do you recognize the name Betty Jean Lifton?  They did not.   Betty Jean died last November and I suppose those whose books were written a generation ago cannot be expected to be remembered forever.  But I can’t think of anyone more responsible for the creation of what we are now calling open adoption. 
When I retired from my career as an American diplomat over a decade ago, I had for the first time the leisure to explore and reflect on a subject that has long been important to my self-understanding.  My adoption.   I read a small library of books at that time.  I read Brodzinsky and Kirk, Tresiolitis and Sorosky, Kemertz and Toth, and Weger and Verrier and others whose names you may or may not recognize.  But above all, I read Betty Jean Lifton.  I found her an intelligent and gifted writer.  She raised many issues in a provocative way in her books ---Twice Born (1975), Lost and Found, the Adoption Experience (1979), and The Journey of the Adopted Self (1994.  Her books challenged me to think deeply about my own experience and to write down my reaction to her theories and conclusions, which were quite different from my own.    
They may have been different because she did not have my history of biological family abuse and neglect.  Nor had she spent two years in a county orphanage as I did.  While my adoption was also “sealed and secret,” I did not have to wonder about what family and culture I had come from.  I had memories and I was glad to be freed of that family and that culture. 
Lifton wrote as if she was speaking for all adoptees, a noun she sometimes capitalized.   Her books are sprinkled with such inclusive phrases as “As adoptees,” “Nearly all adoptees,” “We adoptees.”   She seemed to think the adoption experience extended only as far as her own experience and that of other adoptees she interviewed or counseled.  But she did not speak for me and I can suspect she did not speak for the majority of adoptees.       
I don’t think anyone can speak for all adoptees. I think each one of us experience the wonderful institution of adoption differently.  The three siblings with whom I was adopted (four of us into one family on the same day) had a different experience from mine.  I was five years old when we were abandoned to a county orphanage and eight years old when we were adopted.  I had many memories and attachments to two members of my biological family.  My younger siblings were two and three years old when we were placed in the orphanage and had no memories of that family at all.   In sum, I think Betty Jean Lifton did not pay enough attention to the diversity of what it means to be adopted.    
I also think Betty Jean Lifton was too hard on adoptive parents, romanticized biological relationships and blamed most of the psychological problems of adoptees on “the closed and secret system” of sealed records while paying little or no attention to other causes such as the stigma once attached to adoption, which though weaker  today continues to exist.  The other and most important source of problems for adoptees is a poor adoptive experience.  I think unhappiness in her own adoption led her at times to be critical of adoption altogether.  I find in her writing little of the positive, of the joy, of the fulfillment that most adopters and adoptees (85% to 90% in most studies) take from the experience.  Too often she writes as if adoption was only a sorrowful business full of perils that creates mostly unhappy human beings.   She did not believe that adoptive families can be “as strong and as enduring” as biological families.  I think they can.   In future blogs I will present another, more positive view of the amazing institution of adoption.  
But before I begin to disagree with her on some fundamental issues, I want to honor Betty Jean Lifton.  She had great influence on the practice of adoption today, especially open adoption.   She probed the depths of her own experience honestly and was right sometimes as well as wrong sometimes.  In her books she included the voices of those such as psychoanalyst Erik Erikson who disagreed with her.  Please keep that in mind in the blogs that follow when I disagree with her in this new series I will call, “A Dialogue with Betty Jean Lifton.”       

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Of all the basic human drives surely one of the most fundamental is our need to belong to a family.  I described in an earlier blog how that drive was so strong in Stanley that after being rejected repeatedly and then totally abandoned by his biological family, he created a “false family” that included his legal adoption by Henry Love Stanley, a wealthy cotton broker in New Orleans.   Stanley had never even met Henry Love Stanley!  It was a fiction he managed to conceal from prying journalists and the world’s public for thirty years.   
 I also described how Stanley came to believe he had found in Livingstone the father figure he had been seeking all his life.   Biographer Tim Jeal confirms that “The father and son aspect of their relationship did not exist solely in Stanley’s imaginings.  Livingstone came to think of Stanley in precisely that role.  ‘That good brave fellow has acted as a son to me,’ he would write to his daughter, Agnes.”  And when Livingstone asked Stanley to find the grave of his son, Robert, who had died fighting with Union forces in the battle of Gettysburg, and to erect a memorial stone over his body, Livingstone was entrusting to Stanley a filial task.  One reason for Stanley’s highly positive description of Livingstone in his book, How I found Livingstone, was his desire to tell his friends he had been cherished, as a son, by a truly good man.  But Livingstone died a few years later and in any case, could not fulfill Stanley’s undying quest for his own family.   
Stanley’s hunger to belong to a family never seemed to end and nothing else seemed to satisfy him.  A major reason Stanley had become an explorer in Africa was to become rich and famous. But when fame arrived he found it “was useless to him.”  The relatives who had rejected him as a child and young man were now after his sudden wealth and became ever more grasping.  More generally, Stanley came to see himself as surrounded by the envious. “I can count my friends on my fingers but my enemies are a host” he wrote.  He received threatening letters.  He hated being stared at in the streets and had to take expensive hackney cabs everywhere to avoid that.  He loved dogs and had five of them, three rescued from a pound.  But they could not fulfill his desire for a human family. 
Eventually, in his 50s, Stanley married Dorothy (Dolly) Tennant, an attractive 36- year-old woman twenty years his junior.  After many medical consultations and attempts to produce what she called “my great expectation and deepest desire,” they were faced with the fact they would have no children from their own bodies to love.   
But Henry would not give up.  In l894 he pleaded with Dolly to agree to adopt a child.  She refused.  But by the autumn of 1895 she had at last become aware of how deep was his wish to adopt and gave her permission.  Without the hope of one day raising a child, Stanley believed that the rest of his life would be very bleak.
An opportunity arose when a son of one of his first cousins died, leaving a widow who was too poor to support her six-month-old-son.  At least that’s the story Stanley and Dolly would tell close friends.  However, biographer Tim Jeal writes, it is more likely that the boy was actually the illegitimate grandson of Stanley’s half sister Emma.  Why, once again, did Stanley make up a cover story?  Most likely, writes Tim Jeal, he wanted to spare the boy the stain of illegitimacy which Stanley had suffered through during his own youth. 
When the 13-month-old baby boy was brought to their home, Stanley was ill in bed.  Dolly, who described the boy as “a delicate featured beautiful little boy with a finely shaped head,” carried him upstairs to their bedroom and laid the baby down beside Stanley.  Dolly and Stanley smiled as they looked at each other and Stanley said:
“We will keep him forever.  He is ours.”  
From then on Henry Morton Stanley’s happiness became almost entirely bound up with giving his adopted son the love he himself had never known as a boy.  Stanley finally had his family. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

How an Abused and Abandoned Child Became a Famous Explorer

In the last blog I discussed the incredible life of the famous 19th century journalist-explorer and naturalized American, Henry Morton Stanley.  We learned from Tim Jeal’s new biography of Stanley that he was an abused child rejected and abandoned by his mother and her family, and that he survived nine years in an English workhouse, essentially an orphanage where adults and children paid for their board and room as laborers.  Despite this difficult and emotionally painful beginning, Stanley eventually became a highly successful journalist, a world renowned explorer, and an author whose books were best sellers and made him a wealthy man.  How did he possibly do it?  Would it surprise you to learn I think his early years were in some ways a good beginning for an explorer of Central Africa in the 19th century? 
Take isolation and loneliness, for example.  Exploring in Central Africa in the l9th century was an unusually lonely business.  Explorers were far from home in an often hostile environment. They were surrounded by, travelled with, and sometimes were threatened by people of very different cultures and customs who spoke no English.  But Stanley, who eventually learned to speak Swahili, was used to social isolation.  His family had rejected him.  He was an introvert and socially awkward with strangers. He had established a pattern of seeking solitude when he was unhappy.  Moreover, he was used to operating alone.  He learned early in life that he could depend only on himself.  He had developed that self-trust in his own capabilities that those with such backgrounds sometimes do. 
Exploration in Africa in the 19th century was dangerous.  Stanley was aware when he went looking for Livingstone that in four previous English-sponsored explorations of the Niger, Nile, Congo and Zambezi rivers, the mortality among British subjects was over 60 percent!  There was, first, the danger of disease, especially malaria and its complication, black water fever, which killed so many of the Europeans who dared go to Africa at that time.  Stanley, like David Livingstone, had an excellent constitution.  It’s not that he was never ill during his African journeys.  He suffered debilitating fevers and dysentery like everyone else but his bouts with fever and dysentery were less severe and not fatal.  While he probably owed some of this good constitution to his genes, it is also likely that his immune system was frequently challenged and strengthened by germs and contagious diseases in the conditions of poverty in which he lived as a child. 
There were many other dangers.  African wildlife, for example, presented some:    highly poisonous snakes, stalking lions and leopards, frisky hippopotami, and rivers crammed full of crocodiles.  Other dangers came from hostile, slave-seeking tribes.  There was also the danger of being drawn into tribal warfare, of being made to choose which side to join.  On his way to finding Livingstone Stanley had to pass through the territory of one hostile tribe that was known to practice cannibalism. 
Stanley was a high roller.  He took great risks against the odds, partly because of the sense that his deprived childhood had left him with precious little to lose.  He had no family to speak of.  This background helped him endure misfortune, since reversals did not surprise him as they would more fortunate men.  Eventually he came to believe his survival after close calls with death was due to “Lady Luck.”   He was a fatalist.
Tim Jeal’s fine biography of Stanley identifies yet another element of Stanley’s background that contributed to his success as an explorer.  Unless they were ill and had to be carried in a litter, European Africa explorers moved on foot.  And if there is a single characteristic that is indispensible for an explorer in 19th century Africa, it is his capacity for endurance, his ability to face every challenge and slog on.  The following paragraph in Jeal’s book nicely sums up the answer to the question we began with:  “How did he possibly do it?”  

“For a man like Stanley, who needed to prove himself after his childhood rejection, mastering Africa was a test that could scarcely be bettered.  The task would have an epic dimension, involving power, pride, and above all, endurance as he battled with the African environment and with his own human limitations.  At the heart of the non-conformist Christian education of the workhouse had been the idea of redemption through suffering…becoming a new man.  In the vastness of Africa, as ruler of his small party ---away from the social distinctions of north Wales, from the greed and materialism of the slaving owning Deep South, from the helpless boy he had once been---there might emerge the new, perfected Stanley.”  

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


I spent some hours during a recent snow vacation in Central Oregon reading a new biography of Henry Morton Stanley who was described by author Tim Jeal as “the greatest explorer of the century.”  David Livingstone, the British missionary-explorer and Stanley, the naturalized American journalist, are no longer the celebrities and best-selling authors they were during the second half of the l9th Century in Britain and in the United States.  Younger Americans may never have heard of them.   But they interest me because I spent five years living and working in Africa as a young diplomat, mostly in East Africa where so many of the 19th Century European explorations took place and where Stanley and Livingstone were still spoken of as legendary figures. 
I found this new biography by Tim Jeal fascinating for another reason.  Any victim of child neglect and abandonment tempted to feel sorry for himself should consider the case of Henry Morton Stanley, who began life in Wales not as Henry Morton Stanley, but as John Rowlands.  John’s early life was a nightmare.  Born to an unmarried 18 year-old who went on to have four more illegitimate children by at least two more men, John never knew his father.  His mother quickly abandoned him to her father who died when Stanley was five years old.  He eventually was placed in a workhouse, an 19th Century English orphanage, by a prosperous uncle who wouldn’t keep John in his own home because he was shamed by John’s illegitimacy.  An adult Stanley would never forget how his guardian fled and the door of the workhouse was slammed shut and he at age six “experienced for the first time the awful feeling of utter desolateness.” 

After nine years in the workhouse John eventually escaped and accepted an offer to become a cabin boy on a ship bound for New Orleans.  That voyage was the beginning of a new and liberating chapter in an incredible life story that biographer Tim Jeal has told so well.  He documents how Stanley fought with both the Confederate and Union armies during the Civil War, prospected for gold in Colorado, became a journalist and then a war correspondent, and how he persuaded the owner of the New York Herald to finance an expedition to find David Livingstone in the heart of Africa.  That was only the first of Stanley’s African explorations which he described in several best-selling books, beginning with How I Found Livingstone.  The books made him a wealthy man.   
But it is Stanley, the neglected and abandoned child and extraordinary survivor, that most interests me.  After being repeatedly rejected by his mother and biological family, Stanley spent a lifetime trying to find a family to which he could belong.  At age 21 he had still not quite given up on his mother.  He returned to his home town in Wales from the United States ill, penniless, and exhausted after walking the final 21 miles of the journey.  What his mother said to this anything but prodigal son was, “Never come back to me again unless you are in far better circumstances than you seem to be in now.”  To this the mother of five illegitimate children added that John “was a disgrace to them in the eyes of their neighbors” and ought to leave as speedily as possible."  
So eager was young John to belong to a family and to conceal his illegitimacy and impoverished background that he fabricated his adoption by a New Orleans businessman, and took the man’s name as his own.  Over night John Rowlands, the son of a former prostitute who refused to have anything to do with him, became Henry Morton Stanley, in a fictive adoption he managed to hide from most of the world for many years.
Once Stanley located David Livingstone the two men spent four months together looking for the sources of the Nile River, one of the great challenges for l9th century explorers.  During that period the two men formed a bond, the bond of father (Livingstone) and son (Stanley).  Stanley believed he had found in David Livingstone the father figure he had been seeking all his life as Livingstone began to consider Stanley a son.  One result of that relationship is that Stanley the journalist single-handedly restored Livingstone’s badly tarnished reputation after the tragic failure of the 1858 Zambezi Expedition during which his beloved wife, Mary Livingstone, among many others, had died. 
Is there any connection between Stanley’s painful beginnings and his world fame as a journalist and explorer?  What drove him?  What created his incredible self-discipline and will power?  That will be the subject of the next blog. 

Friday, January 13, 2012


When I refer to my physical and emotional healing after suffering a history of child neglect and abuse, I say I am “mostly recovered” and “mostly healed.”  Those who know me casually sometimes tell me: “You don’t act like an adult abused as a child.  You seem perfectly normal to me and you have had a successful career many would envy.”  I usually mutter something about resilience in children and I may well be among the 15% of abused children, some with histories far worse than mine, who seem to recover and live successful lives despite everything.   Even so, one reality of the tragedy of child abuse is that it always leaves after shocks.   
I agree with the Buddhists about causes and inevitable effects.  Every action we take in this life for good or ill leaves a result that cannot just be wiped away.  That is the iron law of cause and effect.   Christians teach much that same thing when they say that while our misdeeds can be forgiven, that does not mean the harm those acts cause can be nullified.
Those who know me well recognize what I call my residue of child abuse.    Here are some of the signs they see.  I have a powerful startle reaction to loud noise, so strong that those who observe it comment on it.  Furthermore, if anyone’s hand or arm comes near my head suddenly, even in acts of affection, I flinch so strongly I am usually asked, “What’s wrong?  Why did you do that?”
There is yet another residue of child abuse.  My wife, who came from a loving family and had an unusually happy childhood, likes to relate her wonderfully delightful dreams.  Almost all of my dreams, on the other hand, are unhappy and filled with anxiety.  Many are full blown nightmares.  Only rarely do I have a happy dream. 
So these are some of the visible and rather obvious signs of child abuse.  There are, of course, other and invisible symptoms among adults abused as children.  But that’s another discussion.  
I am not complaining.  Despite my early history of abuse I have had an exciting and fulfilling life and may well be a more compassionate and sensitive person than if I not been abused.   I write this only to underline the seriousness and tragedy of child abuse.  It can never be entirely undone.    

Thursday, January 12, 2012


One of my chief tasks when working with children as a volunteer CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) was to prepare a comprehensive report about the children to whom I was assigned for court hearings. The report was addressed to the judge who would make critical and often difficult decisions about the children’s futures.   A CASA report is not meant to replace the reports of social workers, therapists, and others who worked with or represented the child but to give the judge an additional and independent source of information.
Preparing this report involved getting to know the children through regular visits to their homes.  It also required interviewing social workers, therapists, the children’s teachers, and anyone else who saw the children in question on some regular basis.
In my experience the most productive interviews were with teachers.  They were the best source of objective and accurate information about the children whose cases I was assigned.  That’s hardly surprising.  Apart from parents and foster parents, no one spends more time with children than their teachers.  They were keen observers.  They knew the children through the children’s behavior in their classrooms and when that was a problem, were usually aware that the child in question had a difficult home environment. 
In Children of the Manse I describe the contribution our school, a university teacher training school, made to our recovery from abuse, neglect, and two years in a county orphanage. Next to our home, Rufus Putnam School was the most important arena of our activity and our mother, herself a teacher, knew she had strong allies there in her campaign to restore our physical and emotional health.
Putnam teachers were observant witnesses of our behavior and development, a second opinion to our mother’s own of how we were doing. In the monthly written reports our teachers prepared, (Putnam did not give letter grades to elementary students) the four of us were often described as “easily over-stimulated,” even after we had made the initial adjustment to life in our new home.  At one time or another that first year, the reports described all of us as “tense.” “Mark is unable to lie still during midday rest periods. He plays with his hands and feet.” And of Janey, “She is gradually overcoming the tenseness she shows in all her work.”
Our teachers note that we were all abnormally self-critical and that I especially found failure difficult to accept. “He is likely to be discouraged when things do not work out the first time.  He needs to learn patience,” one teacher wrote of me. Mark’s teacher wrote of him, “Billy needs to develop more patience. He is so anxious in beginning  anything  that is new to him that he does not think as well as he can.” High levels of anxiety (clear evidence of a lack of confidence) as we undertook new tasks or projects were common to the four of us. We had other traits in common that were documented during our first years at Rufus Putnam.  Janey was the most difficult to understand but we all had speech problems. I wrote in the student’s section of a Putnam report, “I am trying to talk so people can understand me better.” Also, our ball handling skills were mediocre or worse because of the lack of any sports equipment at the orphanage. (That’s hard to believe, but true.) One playground supervisor at Putnam wrote of Mark, “He needs training in catching and pitching, and lacks coordination.”
But it was not just in observation that the teachers at Rufus Putnam contributed to our recovery.  We immediately responded to the emphasis at Rufus Putnam on the creative arts, none of which were given any attention at our former school near the orphanage.  We all responded to music in Ms. Morley’s twice weekly music classes after no music classes in our former school or at the orphanage.  “Janey is very musical,” Ms. Morley wrote. “Her dance interpretations are beautiful, graceful.” “Lewis is a good singer. He is much interested in all music activities.” “Mark works so hard in music and he is very musical.”
Of our fine Putnam teachers, my personal favorite was the art teacher, Mary Leonard, and her class my greatest delight. At that time I seemed to have more talent for art than anything else. Mary believed all children are natural creators, which is true, and that all children have artistic talent, which may be true.
Leonard exemplified a major John Dewey principle, building educational programs on the interests of the student.  Because she believed artistic creativity in the young was innate, it followed that the role of a good teacher, like that of a good coach, was to be an encourager and to create the conditions in which the student’s inherent talents could emerge. I believe Mary Leonard was one of the truly great elementary teachers of America.  She and all our Putnam teachers were talented educators and contributed much to building our confidence and restoring our mental health.