Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Book Review: "Dancing on the Wind" by M.C. Beaton

Dancing on the WindDancing on the Wind by Sarah Chester
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Moll Flanders, only not depressing. Would make an awesome Masterpiece Theater series. Whomever designed the cover for this (audio) edition should be fired, since this is a late 18th century setting and the cover illustration is over a hundred years off, fashion wise. Sympathetic but quirky protagonist, detailed look at several levels of 18th century English society, and believable characters all around. There are several points in this meaty story that a lesser novel would have saved for the action-packed climax at the end, but this one just keeps the drama coming. A few bewildering moments where the author seems confused about what various items of clothing are called, the worst of which are references to petticoats. A petticoat is tied at the waist and supports one's skirt(s). It does not have sleeves(?!). The framework cage that supports late 18th century skirts is a farthingale or panniers, not a "hoop", and it most certainly is not sewn into a petticoat...that I know of. Minor quibbles, but the first time I've run into these particular errors. At any rate, I love M.C. Beaton's writing and was pleasantly surprised to run across in the "available now" section on my library's website. Not sure why this is included in a "Regency" series, since the setting pre-dates that period by at least a decade and should probably be called "Georgian".

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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Star Wars Memories

A long time ago, science-fiction was kid stuff, and cinema and television were a vast wasteland relieved only by the occasional Twilight Zone or Lost in Space. For the most part, if we wanted sci-fi or fantasy we had to turn to novels by Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Tolkien, Burroughs, and many others. For TV viewing, our choices were, for the most part, cheap, campy, and short-lived. Then came Star Trek. Airing in prime time, it told stories about people and ideas and possibilities. There had been nothing like it before, and it would be years before there was anything like it again.
The 1968 poster for 2001
In the early 70s I was a pre-teen looking for adventure and escape. I was an avid reader, but movie watching was something we did for the most part on our little black and white television. It seemed we never lived anywhere where a kid could walk or take a bus to a movie theater, and my parents were not avid film-goers. We hit all the major Disney releases and re-issues, and the occasional other odd film. Back in those days a mom could drop off her kids at a matinee double-feature without a qualm and grab a few hours of kid-free shopping or whatever mom did when we weren’t underfoot. Mom wasn’t always on the ball when it came to reading the movie listings in the paper. This could result in some surreal outings, like the day my little sister and I, aged around seven and nine, ended up at an inexplicable double feature of Disney’s The Song of the South preceded by Blue Water White Death, the classic documentary about great white shark hunters. I loved the shark documentary, but poor Cheryl was a bit restless until the Disney flick rolled.
Trippy, man...
Even if we had lived near a theater or been old enough to drive and spend our allowances on movie tickets, there just wasn’t a lot for a sci-fi fan out there. I was only five when 2001: a Space Odyssey had hit the theaters in 1968. One of the first blockbuster serious sci-fi films, it blossomed in that genre wasteland like a glorious oasis. Maybe it was just too far ahead of its time. It was re-released to theaters in 1974, and this time at eleven years of age I was old enough to notice. Unfortunately, perhaps in an attempt to appeal to more than sci-fi fans, the studio gave it the groovy tagline “The Ultimate Trip”. My mother, most definitely not an Arthur Clarke reader, took one look at that poster art in the paper and told me it sounded suspicious. I went back to my nightly Star Trek viewing. Thanks for nothing, studio suits.
I clung tightly to whatever genre viewing I could get. I subscribed to Starlog Magazine for all my sci-fi and fantasy news. When Space: 1999 was announced I was thrilled. It aired on Sunday afternoons, and I almost never missed an episode. When our parents made noise about us maybe moving to Lake Chelan in Eastern Washington, I went into a panic. The local TV station there, in the middle of nowhere, didn’t have Trek or Space: 1999! I saved up my allowance and bought an LP with a sort of radio theater version of the first two episodes of the latter on each side, but it wouldn’t be the same.
Luckily that move fell through. Instead, in early 1976 we packed up and moved from Vancouver, WA back up to the Puget Sound area from whence we had come. I was leaving my dear friend and fellow sci-fi nerd Renee behind, but we promised to write. We sent each other drawings and terrible short stories that would probably fall into the “fan fiction” genre today. Sometime late in that year we started to hear rumblings via Starlog and the occasional entertainment segment on the news about a new sci-fi film in the works: Star Wars. There was something about the breathless reports that caught my attention. This was going to be big. My response was my usual one for back in the day. I went to the book store and picked up the novelization. Nobody talked about “spoilers” back then. We were made of sterner stuff.
The story had it all: action, adventure, a relatable hero or two, a scary bad guy, big politics that were way over my head which made everything seem even more real and serious and important. I couldn’t wait for the movie to get to our little corner of Kitsap County.
On our family vacation late in the summer of 1977 we tripped around California, including a visit to San Francisco. I had no idea that Star Wars had already been released, albeit to limited cities, in May. Out in our benighted corner of Washington State it hadn’t really made the news, and definitely not the theaters. By August of ’77 the studios finally realized what a goldmine they had and re-released Star Wars with actual hoopla, premiers, and other fanfare. When we stepped off the cable car near a huge department store, I was astounded to see that the window display was entirely Star Wars themed, including a glamorous mannequin version of Princess Leia complete with impossibly long tresses being done up by another mannequin dressed as a hair stylist. Star Wars had gone big.
Back home in Kitsap County, I re-read the novel and scanned the newspapers for any tidbit about the film. When the Seattle Times ran a special photo spread covering the entire plot of the film, I cut it out and made it into a booklet. It’s in one of my old albums somewhere. Special Star Wars themed glossy magazines showed up at the checkout rack at the grocery store. I bought them. One morning I was almost late for school because I’d heard on the news the night before that Good Morning America was going to do a Star Wars spot the next day. I was mesmerized.
From the Kitsap Sun archives
Finally, the big day came. Star Wars had come to the Roxy Theater in Bremerton, and mom was going to take us right after dinner one evening. I was so pumped I could barely eat. I was worried we’d be late, but poor mom was trying to finish dinner then wrangle me and my two younger siblings into the car for the forty minute drive to the theater.
When we arrived, a bit late, the opening crawl had gone by and we walked into the darkened theater just in time for the blockade runner to roar over our heads…followed by the impossibly huge star destroyer. By the time our butts were in seats I was fully entranced. When the first quiet moment in the story rolled around, probably with R2 and C3P0 landing on Tatooine, I noticed I still had my paper dinner napkin clenched in my hands. It was shredded.
Up until Star Wars, I hadn’t really had a favorite movie except maybe Gunga Din (1939). Not only did Star Wars supplant it, but it took over my imagination and fueled years of short story writing, early costuming efforts, and dreams of escape from the mundane. My mother had always kept our hair short for expediency. In 1977 I rebelled and began to grow it out, determined to have long hair like Princess Leia. Except for a brief period in 1988 when I chopped it all off in a fit of depression, my hair has been long ever since. I built blasters out of bits of wood and metal. I decorated my room with posters of X-Wings and Y-Wings, and papered the ceiling with star charts. I built a little “control panel” box with switches and lights and levers and put it in my bedroom window to make my room into a spaceship. For Christmas that year my thoughtful Uncle Dennis bought me the double LP of the score by John Williams. I pretty much wore that out after a few years of constant use, then switched to cassettes, then eventually to a boxed set of special edition CDs in the 90s.
I read the subsequent novels, including two or three Han Solo adventures. Eventually I fell off the wagon of reading the related novels, but when The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi premiered, I was there, this time with friends in downtown Seattle waiting in long lines. When the prequels were released after many years of no Star Wars, having avoided the spinoff stuff, I was super jazzed then kind of bewildered by the results. So much to love, so much to groan about. My love affair with George Lucas was pretty much over. I will forever be grateful that he gave the world Star Wars, but I’ve learned over the years just how many people made that first project what it was despite Lucas’ best efforts, and much of my gratitude has transferred to them.
I never dressed up as characters from the films. These days it’s called “cosplay” and I’ve never been into that. I have, and still do on occasion, dressed as myself if I were in some fictional world or other. I don’t want to pretend to be somebody else. I want to go have adventures myself.
I was fourteen when I saw the first Star Wars film. Back in ’77 I had to make cut-and-paste books of pictures and buy magazines to relive the movie. I would play the tie fighter sequence music, sit in a rattan swinging chair with my feet propped in the windowsill, and pretend I was operating one of the Millenium Falcon’s quad laser guns. A few years later, a post college, older me, driving through the Cascade Mountains at night to a remote Medieval reenactment, put on a motorcycle helmet and cranked the asteroid belt track from The Empire Strikes Back, swooping around mountain curves in the darkness with a sky full of stars overhead.
It’s late at night as I write this, on December 13, 2017. Tomorrow I’m going to Seattle once again for the opening night of a Star Wars movie, this time a fabulous double feature of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi at the Cinerama. Now I’m fifty-four, and this will be episode eight. Eight! These days we have it easy. I can just pop in a disc or stream one of the films any time I want on a huge, flat-panel TV with amazing sound. Fourteen-year-old me, sitting in a theater with a shredded paper napkin in her fist, would have been beside herself with impatience had she foreseen the ready availability of media in 2017.
What a great way to put a cap on the past few months. Earlier this year I found my birth father and a couple of siblings I never knew I had. A few months after that, my father suddenly passed away. I was only able to meet with him twice, but even that was amazing. My mother passed away far too young in 1984, so I never met her. The silver lining is my two brothers, both great guys who have welcomed me into their circle.
They’re both sci-fi geeks, too.
We’re all going to see Star Wars together tomorrow.
I’ll try to leave my napkin at home this time.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Adoption and Reunion, part 3: Ignoring the Wound

The Open Wound
“Many doctors and psychologists now understand that bonding doesn’t begin at birth, but is a continuum of physiological, psychological, and spiritual events which begin in utero and continue throughout the postnatal bonding period. When this natural evolution is interrupted by a postnatal separation from the biological mother, the resultant experience of abandonment and loss is indelibly imprinted upon the unconscious minds of these children, causing that which I call the ‘primal wound.’ (Verrier, p. 1)
Even though I always knew I was adopted, and saw it as perfectly normal and not any kind of big deal, and was raised by a two-parent, middle-class household with plenty of love, there are consequences to being separated from one’s mother as a newborn.
“…the (adoptive) mother usually attaches very quickly to the (adopted) baby and loves him as her own. Most of the time, because she has had no previous experience with which to compare what she is now experiencing, she notices nothing unusual. And even if she if very perceptive and does notice some difficulty in the bonding process between her and her new baby, she may have no clear understanding of it, because she has not had adequate preparation for it. She has not been told that the baby is mourning for his first mother.” (Verrier, p. 54)
I was told that I had “colic” as an infant. It’s not surprising, as in 1963 I’ll bet they put me on some nasty formula made with pasteurized, homogenized cow milk. I don’t know if I was ever nursed by my birth mother. I’m guessing not. There’s nobody to ask now, although somebody may know what the hospital policy was for surrendered newborns in the early sixties. At any rate, how much of my distress as a newborn was intestinal and how much was being yanked away from my mother right after birth and put in a crib in a room with a bunch of other screaming babies? I was taken home by my new parents at eight days old. That’s eight days out of the womb. For nine months before that I had been intimately connected to my biological mother. Hearing her voice, feeling her heartbeat, sharing cells and blood and hormones. She was uniquely designed to respond to me and nurture me and give me the security to grow and gradually become an independent human being. No human baby can be anything but traumatized by the adoption process, however smooth and benign and immediate. I have no conscious memories of this first period of my post-natal life, and that’s probably just as well.

Avoiding the Search
“When asked why they want to search for birth parents, adoptees will often give a socially acceptable answer, such as wanting health information or having an interest in genealogy. Yet when I asked a more specific question:  ‘For which parent would you search…?’ the majority answered, ‘The mother.’ …something to do with feeling an unconscious connection with that lost mother which seems profound to them.” (Verrier p. 18)

“Socially acceptable” pretty much sums up my approach to everything as I entered adulthood. I dutifully attended Bible school in Minnesota because it was expected of me. By the end of the school year I was glad I’d gone, but I would never have considered telling my parents I didn’t want to go in the first place. By my late teens I was what we in the Christian ghetto call a “luke warm Christian”. Yes, I still believed, but I wasn’t exactly on-fire for the Lord or any kind of prayer warrior or anything else overt. Let’s just say I was kind of a “coasting on momentum” believer.
Baby Cheryl & 2-year-old me, Nov. 1965
My sister, on the other hand, balked at the idea of attending Bible School. Maybe it was her searching for spiritual relevance outside of Christianity, or just the thought of spending months in Minnesota, but I guess it was non-negotiable for her because she went straight to college. Resisting authority came naturally to her. When she finally met her birth parents, a free spirit and a high-powered investment banker (never married to each other), the origins of her type-A personality were obvious. She was the kind of kid who could blithely ask for anything she wanted or make fearless declarations of intent regarding school, jobs, or whatever.
I did my rebelling and exploring in a less obstructive, more internal way.
In seventh grade I had an English teacher who encouraged creative writing, and I embarked on a journey of short story and vignette writing that lasted until I began to lose my innocent creative verve in the grind of college and young adulthood. I had a whole fantasy world where I was the protagonist, a kind of alternate universe that explained my origins as an adoptee. Of course it needed to be romantic. Being a huge Edgar Rice Burroughs fan at the time, it followed that I was the child of a warlord on a distant planet. Sadly, my mother had died in childbirth during a time of war, and I had been sent to Earth for safekeeping with a typical family. It didn’t occur to me at the time that perhaps this was my subconscious sensing the separation from my birth parents, because I was unwilling to let myself actually want to find them. Why would I want to do that? I didn’t want to upset my adoptive parents, despite the fact that they always told us they would support any desire to look for our origins.
I gradually put away my childhood dreams, and creative writing endeavors, and tried not to rock the boat too much. I did have my limits. I was not going to study engineering like my dad, or marry and produce a gaggle of kids as my mom hoped, but I would try to get an acceptable degree and become some kind of “successful” adult.
It didn’t pan out that well. I was trying to please people who just took for granted their expectations for me. When I did well at something that I found fulfilling or important, it seemed to be registered as me demonstrating an amusing but unmarketable talent. When I failed at attempts to move in a direction that made sense to them, they never criticized or condemned, but neither did I sense any support to help me find a path that made sense for me. I had to do that on my own, feeling like a failure every step of the way. It’s very difficult to write about my early adulthood without sounding bitter or critical. It is not my intention to attack my parents, especially since my mom isn’t around to defend or explain herself. They really did the best they could with the tools they were given, and another couple could have done very much worse. I’ve come across some horror stories in my reading on the adoption phenomenon of the mid twentieth century. There are so many kids who were lied to about their origins, some not told they were adopted until adulthood, sometimes on the adoptive parent’s deathbed. Then there’s the classic “sibling turns out to be a parent” situation, always good for mental anguish. I’m so thankful my parents were honest and up front about it all. That said, I still struggled with identity and expectations, and it all came to a head in my college years.
My first year at the University of Washington, my dad’s alma mater, starting Fall quarter of 1983, was exciting but ultimately frustrating. My initial goal had been a degree in Ocean Sciences, but my freshman year was a series of miserable grades in math and chemistry prerequisite courses. I lost 15 pounds one quarter from the stress of trying to get a passing grade in basic chemistry. It was the math. I just don’t do numbers. I ended up dropping my final attempt at a remedial math course after a week. It was one of those giant rooms with hundreds of students and I had no idea what the instructor was talking about half the time. It was terrifying to feel so helpless and stupid.
A trip to the South Pacific, from August to November of 1984, afforded not only some needed time away from normality but also a couple of heart-to-heart talks with different guys who were following their hearts in creative ways. One, a music major, was especially instrumental in helping me come to the logical conclusion that I could take all my interests and talents and glob them together in the Drama department. I declared my major the next quarter after returning from that trip. I didn’t think my parents were overjoyed by any stretch of the imagination, but I thought at the time that it was something I could at least excel at, academically, and come out of with a degree.
It should have been a relief and a joy to be taking courses that I could throw myself into with a measure of enthusiasm, but I always felt like I was disappointing my parents on some level, so the moments of real joy were few and far between. After a couple of years I just wanted to graduate and get on with life, whatever that meant. It didn’t help that my depression was getting worse. 

Special Irony
Before I continue this more or less chronological story of my journey, I want to reiterate the fact that my adoptive parents loved and wanted us. They absolutely wanted kids. Before they got the three of us they were youth group leaders at their church and constantly had a house full of kids. Some of my earliest memories were camping trips with carloads of teenagers. They tried for several years, but Marilyn just wasn’t able to conceive. They were both twenty-seven by the time I came along, and they were thrilled. There are baby books full of congratulatory cards and letters for each of us. Grandpa Ostlund (mom’s dad) shot the occasional short reel of 8mm film of us as kids, and in the sequences with mom and dad and any of us babies, you can see how happy they are. One thing that mom told us over and over when we were little was that we were “special”, that they had picked us out of “all the other babies” and that they loved us very much. I took that at face value as a tiny kid, but at some point it started to curdle as I matured and applied a bit of logic to my situation.
For adoptees, being told we are “special” can come to seem like a bald-faced lie. I never saw it that way, but at some point in adolescence I started to mistrust mom’s opinion of my “special”-ness. Part of it was the mistrust of any mother’s opinion of one’s talents and accomplishments. We want our parents’ approval, but we also wonder about the weight of approval that is almost obligatory regardless of merit, because we’re their little angels. The other part of that growing mistrust was something I never quite understood until my recent reading of “The Primal Wound”. Just how special can I be if my birth mother didn’t want me? Many adoptees are told by adoptive parents that “Your mother loved you so much that she gave you away so you could have a better life (or whatever story they choose to tell).” The illogic of that statement isn’t lost on a child. They are basically being told that love equals abandonment. Therefore, if the adoptive parents say “we love you very much”, the child, even if it’s on the subconscious level, expects that abandonment will probably follow at some point. 
“…the child, having been told that he is ‘special,’ feels that he has to be perfect in order to retain the love and acceptance of his parents. This need to be special can put a great deal of pressure on the child to live up to some perceived expectations which are frequently unattainable. This often leaves the child feeling inadequate and worthless, a reinforcement of his feelings of having failed his first mother. The need to be perfect for the ‘rescuing’ parents makes the child suppress his own true self in order to submit to the wishes of his parents. …’you have to be good or you’re gotten rid of.’” (Verrier, p. 57)
I’ve already mentioned my abandonment issues and some of my abandonment-themed dreams. There were other variations on those dreams over the years. They have all but disappeared in the last decade, but I spent my teens through thirties basically feeling like a giant failure, and those dreams followed me the whole time. I made feeble attempts to do what I saw as the right things, and when I tried to follow my own dreams and made a mess of even that I would chalk it up to being “bad” or “broken” again. I was my own worst enemy.
Graduating college should have been a happy time for me, but I was so tired of school and people and life that I didn’t even want to go to the graduation ceremony. I did it under duress, and because I felt obliged to my folks for putting me through school and they really wanted to do the whole deal. More guilt.
After college I threw myself into a series of theater jobs. Stage Manager for Taproot Theater, costume shop stitcher at UW and then Seattle Opera, plus a smattering of odd costume design gigs around town. During that period a misguided engagement to a guy I should never have dated in the first place ended in a disastrous breakup, followed by a couple of other relationships that also left me bewildered, spiraling me down so deep into the pit of despair that I cut off my hair, grabbed my backpack, and headed for the Olympic Mountains on an aimless sort of “get out and vegetate” impulse. My grandfather was also dying of cancer, so I left my North Queen Anne apartment and moved to Redmond to help grandma out.
Cutting my hair alarmed my mother enough that she finally saw I was seriously floundering, and she suggested I get professional help. A battery of tests at Harborview Hospital’s Depression and Anxiety Center netted me a dysthymia and major depression diagnosis.
Sometime during those last few years of college, around 1985-87, my sister got serious about finding her birth parents. We attended a couple of meetings of the Washington Adoption Reunion Movement together and heard many heartwarming, and sometimes heartbreaking, stories of adoptees, and also birth mothers who had relinquished children years before. Part of me still saw being adopted as normal, unremarkable, and of no concern. Another part of me was packed firmly into the back closet of my subconscious, and that part was very much concerned indeed with finding my real origins.
I was still telling myself that I had only an academic interest in locating my gene pool. If the subject ever came up in conversation, I would cite “medical history” as the number one reason, but after hearing all those WARM testimonials I also wanted to at least, whether by letter or in person, tell my birth parents that everything had turned out fine. I would certainly not tell them that I was a depressed college kid who was rapidly burning out on theater arts and hoping for an alien abduction. I also didn’t want another family to disappoint, with all the obligatory holiday dinners and other regulation social obligations that family implied. One family was plenty.
I know this makes it sound like my adoptive family were terrible people, and they aren’t. They're pretty awesome, and a few more years of maturity has helped me appreciate them for who they are. Back in the 80s and early 90s, however, I was a sad kid gradually losing hope for a rescue, by aliens, marriage, or anything else. The first thing I looked for when attending a holiday function was the resident cat or dog, or library. I enjoyed being around my family, but was happier if I was at least one room removed, listening to the conversation as comforting background noise. That’s still a default setting for me in especially a new social situation, but now it’s a happy place that I can move in and out of, rather than a hideout.
The sad fact is that once the childhood “food and presents” focus of birthdays and Christmas and the “food and more food” focus of Thanksgiving evolved into the more complex expectations of young adulthood, I found I had less and less in common with my immediate and extended families. Family gatherings became an exercise in control for me as I struggled to be sociable. Being pleasant with grandma’s cat or smiling while walking Uncle H’s dogs (a great excuse to get out of the house) didn’t count. Every year after about age ten it was harder and harder to find something to talk about with cousins, aunts and uncles. My little brother was always close to his age-equivalent cousin on mom’s side, and still is today. My sister, the extrovert, is great at networking and keeps in touch with folks, too. I just never got the hang of that. It’s all on me. I just had nothing in common with my extended adopted family other than being family. I was going to say “other than being related”, but the reality is that I’m not related other than by being grafted onto an existing family tree, like a pear branch being grafted onto an apple tree. I was fed by the same root system, but I’m still a pear. 
That pear, by 1988, was a severely depressed, but now medicated, Drama School graduate living with her grandparents (soon to be grandparent, singular), barely making a living in theater arts, with a series of catastrophic romantic relationships under her belt and no idea what she was ultimately going to do with herself. That invisible wound had become a major problem. I should have been actively searching for my birth family, but I had banked that fire so far down that I pretty much forgot it was there.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Adoption and Reunion, part 2: Abandonment and Acting Out

(Most of the excerpts quoted are from Nancy Newton Verrier’s “The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child” unless otherwise stated.)
Three adopted munchkins.
Being adopted is something I always took for granted growing up. My sister, brother, and I always knew we were adopted. We were informed of our “non natural” state at such a young age that I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t part of our identities. The first friend I ever made, at the age of four, was also adopted, as was his sister who became my little sister’s best pal for years. As a child I pretty much thought everybody was adopted. More precisely, the word “adopted” was almost meaningless because it was just the way things were. When I was around five years old I remember a friend announcing that she was going to have a sister or brother. When I asked her which, she said she wouldn’t know until her mommy had the baby. The idea that a human mother was pregnant, like a cat or a dog, was shocking. Up until then I hadn’t known that could be a thing. I was only two when they brought my sister home, but I was just big enough at five years old to remember going to the hospital to look at my little brother in the maternity ward at Swedish Hospital in one of those classic glassed-in rooms full of babies in boxes. For years I thought that’s how you got a baby: you went to the hospital and picked one out, like going to the pumpkin patch for your Halloween jack o’ lantern.
There was no shocking revelation later in life. There was no stigma about it. We were raised like any other kids. We weren’t less a part of our family, or spoiled to compensate for some vaguely unfortunate beginnings. The only drama that occurred, according to my adoptive mother, was when I cried when I was told that I wasn’t Norwegian like them, but some combination of German and other European background. I have no recollection of that incident, although I remember a brief time when I toyed with the idea of being Irish for some reason.
That story used to make me chuckle. Poor little kid crying because she found out she wasn’t a Scandinavian: awwww. The more I learn about adoption and its consequences, the more sympathetic I am to the disappointed little kid I once was. I wanted a connection, to belong, to fit in and be an intrinsic part of a tribe. Somehow I thought that even though I was adopted into another family after birth that I was still at least somehow similar to my legal parents in some way. Nope, I was an alien. A much loved alien, but “not us” nevertheless. Personal identity became a fluid thing, since I didn’t really have a concrete one of my own. This does not make for a secure mental canvas. Despite what we were told back then, adoption is not the clean, easy, pain-free solution that the social workers were selling during the Baby Scoop era. There were consequences on all sides.  

Abandonment Issues and Acting Out
“For love to be freely accepted there must be trust, and despite the love and security our daughter has been given, she has suffered the anxiety of wondering if she would again be abandoned. For her this anxiety manifested itself in typical testing-out behavior. At the same time that she tried to provoke the very rejection that she feared, there was a reaction on her part to reject us before she could be rejected by us. It seemed that allowing herself to love and be loved was too dangerous; she couldn’t trust that she would not again be abandoned.” (Verrier, p. xiii)
I see this in myself, as well. As a small child I had dreams of being abandoned. The recurring one I remember most was usually short but traumatic. Mom would be driving us to a store with a big parking lot, implying a grocery store of some kind. Sometimes it was both mom and dad, but at any rate the parent is driving. As folks often did back in the day, we were instructed to wait in the car while mom ran in to pick up a few things. I/we would wait and wait, until I would finally decide to go in and look for her because it was taking so long. Just as I reached the door of the store I would hear the car start up and I would turn around to see it pulling away. I would scream after them to wait, but the car always drove off without me.
I usually woke up crying.
Later on, in my teen years, my subconscious turned the tables and I became the abandoner.  In my dreams I would overhear family, and sometimes friends, talking about what a problem I was, or how disappointed they were by me, or some such thing, and I would feel crushed by rejection. At that point I would either jump out a window and fly away, or leap into the trees and swing off into the deep forest like Tarzan in the jungle. Sometimes I would then feel the people who just rejected me giving chase, grabbing at my feet, but I would kick them away and struggle to keep ahead of them in a panic of flight. Sometimes it would be a breathlessly clean escape, and I would feel the exhilaration of freedom as I soared over the ocean or up into the mountains. These were often the last dreams of the night. My dreams were, and are, usually quite vivid, and the last one of the night will color my mood for the morning and sometimes the entire day.
Verrier talks about her daughter, and other adopted children, developing “testing out” behavior. I don’t feel like I did much of that beyond the average moodiness of the typical teenager, but I do think I began to pull away from my adoptive family as I entered puberty and began to feel the “I don’t fit in” feelings of adolescence. In later years I just chalked that up to the vagaries of puberty. Most of us go through a phase of feeling that nobody understands them. For me this angst was definitely aimed at or received from my immediate family. My adopted sister, a classic extrovert to my classic introvert, definitely manifested “testing out” behaviors. A typical strong-willed child (after the James Dobson model), Cheryl befuddled our parents by constantly pushing and testing boundaries. I befuddled them by turning inward, isolating myself, rejecting classic “girly” pursuits, and falling into periods of depression that became clinically problematic by my late teens.
As a young child I occasionally resisted attempts to integrate me into childrens’ activities at church, like Christmas pageants and the like, and would deliberately perform badly at rehearsals in a feeble attempt to be removed from the program. This must have been aggravating in the extreme for my mom, the church organist, who knew I was more than capable as a performer. At one point I grew so fed up with my piano teacher, an old-school battleaxe with a penchant for corporeal punishment, after she once again rapped me across the knuckles for making a mistake, that I exploded and mouthed off at her. I have no memory of what little bratty me said, but I definitely remember the dressing down I got from my father when he got home from work and heard about it from mom. I was told what a rotten kid I was, and that I was way out of line for acting so badly to my teacher (no argument there). Not for the first time, and certainly not the last, I was told that I had an “attitude problem”. There was no commentary about the knuckle whacking habit of the teacher. I heard about my “attitude problem” a lot in those years. Any time I was depressed, or sad, or confused by my math homework, or generally being a sulky kid, I had an “attitude problem”. This resulted in me 1) hating the word “attitude”, and 2) increasingly convinced that I was broken.
One summer, on one of the last “family vacations” I ever endured, teenaged me was experiencing a particularly blue patch and keenly missing my Sea Scout friends and other chums back home. I was not happy about driving hundreds of miles a day cooped up in a hot car with a father who struggled with anger issues on a regular basis when either the car broke down or he just got tired of driving cranky kids around. We ended up in Queen Elizabeth Gardens in Vancouver one day, a truly beautiful place, but it was utterly lost on me. I was lonely, feeling hopeless about my life and my future prospects, and in the middle of a two week road trip with people with whom I had little in common other than living in the same house. Everything was colored, or more accurately de-colorized, by a particularly bad bout of yet undiagnosed depression, and the beautiful garden seemed like a complete mockery of my feelings of hopelessness. I made the grave and untactful error of declaring “This is depressing” within earshot of my parents. Not unsurprisingly my dad blew a gasket. He ranted at me, barking “There’s something wrong with you!” with no attempt to hide his disgust, generally indicating that I was a blight on the landscape and a discredit to the family escutcheon. That fit in perfectly with my already bleak outlook and general sense of worthlessness. In hindsight, part of me was probably trying to provoke that very response and get that dreaded abandonment in motion. I think I thought it was always looming, so why not get it over with?
My parents did the best they could with the three of us, but they were at a real disadvantage. They both came from Scandinavian-American backgrounds with huge, tight-knit extended families contented with a seasonal round of family picnics, holiday gatherings, anniversary celebrations, and other large gatherings where the kids played in the yard and the grown-ups sat around a table and played card games. They went to 9-5 jobs, got married, had kids, went on fishing trips, attended a couple of different Lutheran churches, and avoided drama of any kind. This was fine when I was very small, but as I hit my teenage years I was longing for adventure and excitement. I was a Sea Scout and never happier than when out on a boat or at least working on one even tied to the dock. Both my sister and I were and are avid readers, with me leaning toward action-adventure, sci-fi and fantasy. My sister, an extrovert, can talk to anybody about pretty much anything, and was always busy at family gatherings. I found myself increasingly turning inward as the years went by, and found it difficult to engage with anybody because I could never seem to find common ground. Great folks, all of them, but our interests just didn’t overlap and I would find myself out at family functions sneaking off to read or play with the family pet.
Some of this can certainly be chalked up to “surly teenager syndrome”, but not all of it. Most of the time I wasn’t crabby,  just generally ill-at-ease and longing to be left alone. Mother repeatedly badgering me to “Smile and be pleasant!” didn’t help, especially when she surprised me with that admonition at times when I felt I was being perfectly sociable. I was more than likely doing a really bad job of masking my misery, never having had a particularly good poker face. Poor mom and dad: there’s nothing quite so discouraging as complicating those hormonal teenage years with undiagnosed grief manifesting as depression and abandonment issues.
By my mid twenties I would be officially diagnosed with chronic dysthymia (persistent depressive disorder) coupled with occasional major depression.
“According to 1985 statistics used by Parenting Resources of Santa Ana, California, although adoptees at that time comprised 2-3% of the population of this country, they represented 30-40% of the individuals found in residential treatment centers, juvenile hall, and special schools. They demonstrated a high incidence of juvenile delinquency, sexual promiscuity, and running away from home. They have had more difficulty in school, both academically and socially, than their non-adopted peers. The adoptees referred for treatment had relatively consistent symptoms, which are characterized as impulsive, provocative, aggressive, and antisocial.” (Verrier, p. xv)

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Adoption and Reunion, part 1: Starting the Journey

Like so many things in life, my life certainly, endeavors seem to go in fits and starts. Writing, something I sort of forgot to do for several decades, is definitely one of them. National Novel Writing Month comes around every November. My first year participating was 2010 (maybe ’11 or ’12 or’13?…too long ago to remember). About a week of 1,500 words per day, average, and my spouse’s computer gave up the ghost. He needed it for work and whatever, so I let him use mine instead. By the time we had a new machine for him the month was almost over and it just wasn’t going to happen for me that year.
The upside was that it had kick-started my writing muscles. I was blogging sporadically at the time, but a lot less sporadically than I have been lately. A couple of years ago I started producing a podcast, then two podcasts, for my historian husband. Mostly it was a way to get him thinking about topics for the book he needs to be writing, but it also got me busy using my writing muscles, too.
The last decade or so have been tough for me, energy wise, in that I don’t have any. I have maybe two or three hours of “work time” in me every day, and then I’m all done in. The podcasts have used up my creative juice most weeks. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
This past summer my personal life got crazy. It was mostly in a good way, but it was a huge paradigm shift and an energy suck. As some of you may know, I'm adopted, as are my two siblings. No revelation there. I've always known. I went home with my adoptive parents at eight days old. Half a century later, big revelations about my personal history surfaced in a wacky, serendipitous social tectonic event. The first of these psychological, social upheavals occurred when I was conceived in 1963. The second tremor happened when I was born and surrendered by my birth parents. The third big one happened when I found my birth family this year (well, we sort of found each other), rapidly followed by another shake-up upon losing my birth father just a few weeks after having only just met him 53 years after I was born.
I have an unfinished novel that I was toying with finishing for NaNo this year, but the whole birth family thing pushed that project to the back burner for the time being. A week into November I decided to jump into NaNo with a giant pile of ramblings about this whole adoption and reunion journey. I was actually catching up and had every hope of “winning” NaNo 2017, when I came down with a cold.
That sounds like a weak excuse, but when I get sick I get good and sick. Colds are supposed to last a week. Mine usually go ten to fifteen days, and I’m flat on my back for a good portion of it. I fought back hard this time, taking massive amounts of vitamin C, probably up to 50,000 units/day, plus multiple doses of Lysine, D-3, and whatever else sounded good. Chicken bone broth with garlic and ginger. Hot baths to bring up my body temperature and kill the virus. As much sleep as possible. Saline water sluicing out my sinuses…the works. I had the symptoms pretty much knocked out in five days, a personal record, but it was another week before I had any kind of energy at all. That was the day before Thanksgiving, and with two instances this year (one for my adoptive family and one with my newly-acquired brothers), any writing that might have happened pretty much went out the window.
I had averaged around 1,700 words per day on the days I was able to write, and if I had done that for most of the month I would totally have hit 50,000, but…yeah. As it stands, I almost cleared 17,000. This is not failure by any stretch. Nobody who writes a pile of pages is wasting time. It’s all good, and those 17,000 words are the beginning of my catharsis. Being adopted wasn’t news to me, I’d always known. Feeling like I didn’t fit in and had no place in any tribe was a constant shadow on my life, but I always chalked it up to maybe a bit of aspbergers’ syndrome or faulty brain chemistry. Goodness knows I’d been told enough times as a teenager that “there is something wrong with you” and that I had an “attitude problem”. What teenager doesn’t have an attitude problem? I figured my “square peg” feelings were typical and that I shouldn’t waste energy stewing over a big nothing.
I was wrong.
The more I’ve read and researched the whole adoption thing, the more I’m finding that adoptees, their biological mothers, and our adoptive parents, were pretty much sold a bill of goods during the Great Baby Scoop of the late 1940s to early 1970s. No matter how much we were wanted by our adoptive parents, no matter how much they loved us and gave us stable environments, we had suffered a trauma that went unacknowledged. No matter how birth mothers were reassured that surrendering a child for adoption was the best thing for that child, those mothers still suffered a grievous loss that they were forced to endure in silence and secrecy in most cases. No matter how much adoptive parents felt that they could replace the birth mother/parents, they were in many cases faced with raising children who behaved in ways they couldn’t understand and who presented with physical ailments that made no sense because nobody would acknowledge the separation trauma experienced by that newborn.
As I’ve processed this major turning point in my life the past few months, the most helpful book I have read so far is “The Primal Wound:Understanding the Adopted Child” by Nancy Newton Verrier. This is a must-read for any adoptee, adoptive parent, birth mother, and family member of any of the aforementioned. After blazing through a copy from the library, I ordered one of my own because I knew I was going to be going back to it over and over. Excerpts from this book, and a few other sources, became writing prompts for me to hash out feelings, personal observations, and memories both old and newly dredged up. I’m about 1/3 of the way going through the book, using pertinent passages as prompts.
I sincerely wish I had found this book years ago. It was published in 1993, and I can’t help but think that I might have avoided many pitfalls in my life if I had read it then. I’m pretty sure it would have made a huge difference in my relationship with my adoptive family. My adoptive mother passed away five years ago, and there is so much in this book that we could have talked about, so many questions I would have had for her. Sadly, my birth mother passed away in 1984 when I was just turning 21 and had only begun to toy with the idea of searching for her. In the 80s it was still a monumentally difficult task to match adoptees with their birth parents. In most states this is still very difficult for arcane and illogical reasons. Even if I had been proactive about my search back then, it’s unlikely I would have found my mother before she died. On the other hand, it would have allowed me to be there for my little brothers, who would have just lost their mother. It’s hard not to regret this, and to beat myself up for not trying harder to find my origins.
There are multiple reasons for my procrastination and outright avoidance, not the least of which was the outright obstructionism of Washington State. I was also struggling off and on with depression and the general frustrations of a 20-something college student who was desperate to find her place in the world. Add to that the aforementioned square peg syndrome with regard to my relationship with my adoptive family. All I wanted was to get away and be “me”. I felt no real kinship or closeness with my family, and actually felt like I was a constant disappointment or embarrassment to them, so the thought of yet another familial entanglement was somewhat less than appealing.
What I’ve learned in the past few months is that my feelings of isolation and alienation, and my parents’ confusion and resignation, were not because I was “broken” or “bad”, but the natural feelings of somebody in a social group for which they were utterly ill-suited.
None of this, fairly typical for adoptees, has been acknowledged by social workers, doctors, or even psychologists until the last decade or so, despite studies going back into the 1930s and earlier that revealed the consequences of adoption.
November is over, but I’m just starting to put my thoughts out in a digestible format. I’ll blog about some things a bit here. Most of what I write won’t show up here, as it’s going to be just for me, some for my family, and eventually maybe a biographical piece worthy of general consumption. We’ll see. There’s a lot to process. I thought, at first, that I’d be able to work things out over a few months. What hubris! Fifty-four years of not knowing my origins, of no contact with my tribe, is going to take more than a few months or years to hash out. I’m still in shock, really. My brothers and other biological family probably are, too. It’s nice to feel like I actually belong somewhere, though. That’s a pretty alien feeling and going to take awhile to get used to. I’m cool with that.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Sticks and Stones

Ever get on a roll where you feel like you're really getting things done and checking off the boxes on all those lists? That's been me, lately. Getting to household projects, garden projects, barn projects, cooking great stuff, starting to get quality sleep, actually dropping some excess weight, seriously tackling the household budget...feeling great about all of it. ...And then out of nowhere somebody says something(s) that totally undermines all that momentum. Words can hurt, because words represent attitudes and intentions. Be kind and supportive to people around you.

I'm going to spend the rest of my day re-building momentum, because I am NOT going to throw in the towel in the face of contempt.