This is a letter I recently mailed to ECHO, in Burlington, VT, about my reactions to a recent panel they hosted on transracial adoption.
Dear [ ]
My name is Jeffrey David Stauch. I am a transracial adoptee who grew up in a predominantly Caucasian town in central Connecticut.
I have something to say and it is important, and it is sad, and it is painful, but you need to know that I exist, and that my experience exists in the hearts and souls of other adoptees in a way that was wholly unrepresented at your Saturday Community Conversation Series on 10 November 2012.
I am a voice that nobody heard. I am a voice that nobody wanted to hear, and I was not heard. I am a voice that could have educated an audience, but I am a voice that nobody wanted to hear.
My very best compliments to the panelists for their bravery in exposing themselves as a transracial adoptees. While we can all acknowledge that there might not be a stigma attached to transracial adoption, there is nonetheless a difficulty in being raised under these circumstances. It does take courage to get up in front of a bunch of strangers and say, “There is more to me than you even know.”
I also want to thank those responsible for putting this panel together. I applaud your efforts for bringing this topic into the public discourse, so please take what I am about to put forth as an earnest criticism whose intentions are to continue the dialogue, and, indeed, to dive further down into the subject of adoption as a emotionally difficult journey. This letter, if nothing else, is a call to action for all of you, all of us, to continue this dialogue.
It makes me uncomfortable to admit, and it probably makes you as a reader uncomfortable to know that I was quite angry during this presentation. There was a momentous educational opportunity that was completely missed. The stories that we heard with the panel on transracial adoption was first and foremost about race and then the legacy of adoption as a bland secondary topic.
I was in true shock watching the panel, and a fellow adoptee, sitting right beside me, was having an equal struggle keeping herself intact. I was watching a panel in whom I had invested much hope communicate a message that was antithetical to moving the dialogue about adoption and its emotional repercussions forward. I felt abandoned, by a panel who know at a very visceral level what it means to be abandoned.
Every adoptee there narrated his or her identity vis-a-vis race, but almost there was so little attention given to the feeling of being relinquished, the doctored up way of saying, crudely, we were abandoned by our own mothers. That topic was ignored all together, and for me, as a transracial adoptee, this is what I have not yet made with peace. Race, for me is secondary, because it is in fact an easier topic to discuss. I say that because as adoptees, we are adopted before we are assigned a race. We are adopted first, transracial second. In fact, to say we are adopted first is to skip a step: we are relinquished first, adopted second, and then, only then, are we assigned a race.
I posit that the error, while not intentional, was not innocent. The moderators asked chiefly about race, and at no point was it asked, “How does it feel to be adopted,” or, “Was your adoption open or closed, and did that matter?” There were so many amazing avenues that the dialogue could have taken, and instead, we listened to racial integration and racial self-realization as an indication that everyone on that panel had made peace with their adoptions.
These were all stories of redemption. Stories of resolution. As a transracial adoptee, I have trouble believing them. I really do. Not because I think that the panelists were lying, at least not consciously or intentionally. Rather, I think as adoptees we are taught, not by ill-will, but rather, by means of under-educated parenting, not to bring it up unless we’re asked. We are not taught to be curious about our origins. We’re taught that it is no big deal at all, that we’re loved by our adoptive family, as though it is an exact substitute, but it is not. It is not, it is not, and I beg you to realize this truth. Being adopted is not nearly as easy as the impressions one might have gleaned from this panel.
There were two particularly offensive moments in the panel, or at least two moments where I took great offense (perhaps I am alone!). When the panelists discussed how they answer the question “Where are you from,” no one took the opportunity to say, “I have no idea.” Do you know how downright terrifying it is not to know? Dear reader, can you imagine what it would feel like if every family portrait featured you and a group of faceless bodies? Can you imagine trying to conjure up an image of the woman who bore you and failing at that for decades?
Where am I from? I came via C-section from a New Jersey Filipina in a Manhattan hospital. I have siblings that I’ll never meet. I know nothing of my birth father. He was not present at my birth. Worth repeating: I have siblings, which means that I was not kept whereas they were. Now look, I know we can rationalize and say, “She knew you would have a better life being adopted,” or “Of course she loves you as much as she loves your siblings.” And even beyond rationalizing, we can accept it as truth. But that is not a substitute for being raised by the parents from whom you biologically came. You see, just because my adoptive family loves me does not mean that I don’t need the love of my birth family. You can’t just swap it out like a pair of jeans. It is not that simple.
There are tradeoffs, yes, and I cannot tell you how grateful I am to have grown up under the circumstances that I did. But my life is a tradeoff nonetheless. I got to be raised in relative comfort and affluence at the cost of being unable to answer the question of where I am from.
Where am I from? I am enraged and despondent every time I am asked this. Because my answer is nothing more than words with which I have only the most abstract associations. This is not an easy truth to stomach. We adoptees: we are desert plants – emotional survivors with roots that don’t go deep.
To expound briefly on my continuing trouble with this question, and my disappointment in the panelists’ answers, it was puzzling when each panelist identified as a Vermonter. This saddened me, and here is why: you put any one of those panelists in the supermarket, at the local church, or right on Main Street, I can say with near certainty that almost zero percent of native, Caucasian Vermonters would even think for a second that the panelists were Vermonters. And this matters. The labels we apply to ourselves are one thing, but the labels applied by others is another. The labels of others might be inaccurate, but they do matter, because we have all spent a lifetime being classified as something other than what we consider ourselves to be. Do you know how tiring that becomes? To answer the question, “Where are you from,” for several iterations, because my response of “Middlebury,” invokes the reaction, “No, really.”
It is heartening to know that they identify as Vermonters, but this comes off as placating to the public, their way of saying, “I don’t feel out of place.” Weigh this against the fact that whenever someone asks them the ever-troubling question of their origins, they are in fact made to feel out of place by the questioner. The questioner, in asking this question, is telling the panelist, “I don’t see you as a Vermonter.” And this matters. It’s a moment for both parties to learn.
The other moment where I took offense, and even murmured to my adoptee friend by my side, “That is a gross assumption” was when one of the moderators asked about how the panelist found ways to integrate. To assume that we are all able to integrate is dangerously misinformed. This ties back to the complexity of the question “Where are you from,” and the slight dishonesty in any adoptee when they have an answer. We never say, “A faceless mother who gave me away.”
More than one panelist mentioned that the ethnic ties ended at cuisine, and one mentioned specifically that she felt an acute need to assimilate. I don’t think I was the only one in the room that took that as more than a passing comment. I know what she means, having felt that same need, but I look back now, and see that assimilation put greater value in others’ opinions of me than my own opinion of me, or, even more importantly, my own self-knowledge and awareness. Play soccer to blend in. Be as Caucasian you possibly can. But that only takes things so far. Even after you do that, you are still different, and you still have no one to tell, no peer off of whom you can bounce those ideas, or with whom you can share the struggle.
Some further thoughts, again, to be taken as criticism, yes, but not with the rage I felt at the panel. Rather, I continue to share these thoughts in the hopes that this continues the dialogue, rather than stops it. The argument put forth that anyone can have a child, but a family has to work really hard to adopt is a cop-out. I am just going to say it. It covers up the fact that being relinquished is a deeply formative experience, one that even we as adoptees have trouble expressing, and one, I would argue, that we are not encouraged to articulate, or even to attempt to articulate.
No one took a negative view on the adoption experience. So no one left the panel today thinking of the complications that arise in an adoptive family. I have to guess that so much of this was sugar-coating, a general aversion to wanting to stir up controversy, a desperate need to show the audience that everything is okay, that I am strong, and put together, and have processed the challenges endemic to being relinquished.
This might be an innocent mistake, but the takeaway from the panel has serious implications – no one in the audience was challenged by the panelists to think about how difficult it is not to know those who bore you. How heavy the weight of relinquishment truly is.
In short, the moderators asked questions that didn’t invite robust discussion on the complexities of adoption, and as a result, the panelists did not have the need to stand up and say, “Being adopted can really suck sometimes.” Because that’s the truth. Or at least it is my truth, and the truth of a number of other adoptees that I know.
It is a difficult existence that we are taught to believe isn’t difficult. And so we convince ourselves at an intellectual level that there are no emotional issues stemming from adoption, even though we carry a weight for which we have no words for many years. Then, later on in life, we realize, I’m in my mid-twenties, all of my relationships have failed and I’m depressed, because there is a gaping hole in my life created by not knowing where I’m from. Not knowing my biological provenance. Of not having anyone to tell that to. Of not even having a vocabulary for it.
I acknowledge that I cannot speak for every adoptee out there, nor do I think that I am doing so with this letter. This said, I felt the need to let you know, courteously but firmly, that there is an entire chorus of voices that you did not see represented at the panel today, and that this carries with it consequences. It perpetuates the general opinion that adoption can be a normalized experience just like race. It can be, but to wrap up adoption in a dialogue of race and equate the two is to do a great disservice to all adoptees, transracial or otherwise.
It is not easy to admit that things are not easy. But they are not, and it is saddening to know that the audience at the Saturday Community Conversation today saw only a very narrow view of the adoption experience as lived by the children.
There is plenty more to say, but I will stop here. I do hope that you do not take offense to the tone or content of this letter. I write to you with the sincerest of intentions. I felt a deep need exiting that panel to make sure that my voice was heard, as a way to give voice to others whom I know feel likewise. I would welcome the chance to speak with you or the appropriate colleagues; indeed, I would be delighted to have the opportunity to engage with anyone of you on the subject of adoption. I do applaud your efforts in bringing the topic into the public sphere, and this letter is written with the sincerest hope that my own experience and reactions might help to improve upon future iterations of this conversation. Many, many heartfelt thanks for your attention.
Jeffrey David Stauch
Who I am:
28 year old male
Child of a Closed Adoption
Raised in Avon, Connecticut
Resident of Middlebury, Vermont
From a place I cannot even fathom