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.”