Family, against all odds

I had a friend in college who once said to me that, though he considered himself an atheist, he wanted so badly to believe there was something, anything out there watching over us with tender love and care. He just couldn’t. I was always struck by this because I felt the exact opposite: whereas he was burdened by his lack of belief, I was always burdened by my faith. I wanted not to believe. The last thing I wanted to accept is that this life is all part of some grand plan, some ornate and elaborate blessing after blessing or curse after curse or some hodgepodge of the two. And while I don’t know whether I was ready to throw it all to coincidence, it just feels to me even now like it might be a little simpler if I were more in control of my fate, if God or the Universe or the Great Whatever wasn’t hovering over, because like most of you, I cringe at the notion of being out of control.

But my friends who know I’m adopted from birth and know that I’d communicated with my New Jersey birth family since returning from Morocco will know that some strong sense of purpose, some path-crossing synchronicity, has complicated all of those doubts and beliefs of mine over these past few years. Unbeknownst to me, it was finding out my birth father had worked in the church – just as I had. And it was finding out just after returning from two years of living in Morocco (a place Peace Corps had sent me some seventy years after my grandfather had lived and worked there in the War) that in fact, I was tied to Morocco in another way, since my biological father had traveled there and to Southern Spain around the time of my birth. Of all the places on the planet to be tied to my New Jersey biological family and to my Tennessee adoptive one, it seemed so strange that Morocco would be it.

Sometimes, when you get this kind of news, it seems so unbelievable that it feels like it came out of a movie. People call it “stranger than fiction,” and it is. I worry it’s so strange that it inflates my ego and gives me the false notion that I’m in some sort of Truman Show scenario. Would someone please tell Ed Harris to stop already? There is even a part of me that hears it, knows it to be true, and yet cannot fully accept it, because to do so makes me feel sometimes as though I’ve either fabricated these events in my head and am a pathological liar, or even if it is true, why entertain it because no one else would ever believe it anyway? If there’s anything I’ve learned these past few years, it’s that truth is almost always the scarier reality. But sometimes the more beautiful one despite the silly things we fear.

On Christmas day, I left a little sentimental gift for my girlfriend’s adopted brother, Zech. It was a children’s book I loved that was mostly drawings by John Lennon, and I’d penned a little note on the inside saying that I’d always felt a kindred spirit with this Beatle who’s mother had died when he was young and whose father had disappeared. You gravitate a little to the people who share and understand your story, even if theirs is slightly different, and in the past few months, I’ve gravitated more to Zech and really come to think of him as a brother of sorts.

Truthfully, even though I’d known her family for years, I didn’t even really know Mattie had an adopted brother until we started talking just before I moved to New York. I’d only really known Mattie as someone with roots in Tennessee and had been close with her aunt for years since Mattie and I had both “grown up” at the same camp where her aunt worked, Lakeshore. A few months ago, we discovered that Mattie’s mom, too, in attending Lambuth University in my hometown, had known my grandmother who worked for the Dean. Small towns are small towns, so no major surprises there, and the Methodist community is not a terribly large one. But it was still one of those nice human connections that we made, one of those moments when you discover you have a shared history in some way or another, and that’s always a little affirming.

When I left Shelter Island almost exactly a year ago as I write this, Mattie’s family was a refuge to me as I job-searched New York City and New Jersey. They took me in and treated me as family. It seemed fitting that I’d end up somehow in New Jersey since my roots were on the Jersey side of Philadelphia. And when Zech moved home, it felt like just one more member of the family was showing up.

So, on New Year’s Eve when Zech and I were talking about our Irish ancestry, he mentioned his birth name, and I jokingly asked how he spelled it since it sounded similar to my own. When it was the same, I asked again, “Wait, I’m a Johnston; aren’t you from outside of Philadelphia?” We both started naming areas: Cherry Hill, Mt. Laurel. I mentioned my birth father’s name, and Zech mentioned his grandfather’s name, and that his grandfather had died three weeks ago, and he pulled out a picture of my birth father, his grandfather. My girlfriend’s adopted brother is my biological nephew. His mother is my biological half-sister.

Like I said, stranger than fiction. I want to write Nate Silver, the famous statistician, and ask how that’s statistically possible that a girl I met in Tennessee happened to have someone adopted into her family who was my biological kin in New Jersey. When we sat down with the family to tell everyone else what we’d discovered, Zech joked that I will be more related to his child than anyone else in the family once the kid is born. These days bring a quiet reflective awe, an awe at the power of fate or coincidence, whichever it is.

And so, indeed, back to that whole conversation about coincidence and fate. What am I to say? The facts are in front of me. They are either the craziest coincidence ever or there’s some force pushing us toward a certain reality. Or maybe that’s too limiting a view? Maybe this happenstance and others like it are far more common than we realize or might choose to believe. If you told me that my grandfather had crossed paths with a Moroccan who knew my biological father fifty years later and who also met me when I lived in Morocco, I just don’t think I’d be surprised at all anymore. In fact, knowing how small Morocco can be, I half-expect that was the case. And not because fate wills it that way or because coincidence rules the day with its own sense of destiny or lack thereof but because we, dear humans, are so much more connected than we too often choose to realize. Redneck jokes and “I’m my own Grandpa” music aside, we cannot deny the interconnectedness we all share – sometimes an interconnectedness we may know nothing about. What if this revelation had never come my way? In a way, it changes nothing, because I’d already decided to love Zech as family. Nor does this revelation take away from the daily decisions I’ll make down the road. I am not bound to Zech now anymore than I was before. Because unless I am bound by love, all other sense of duty and obligation is vapid and meaningless. Who we make our family is as much a matter of our choice as it is a matter of blood, and that has far-reaching implications for the world we now face, a world where we seem so divided by our choices to be distant, by our perceived sense of kinship: “you who are not my kin because you think differently or look differently.” I’ve played into that narrative too frequently myself, and maybe sometimes, we do distance ourselves from the ‘family’ because doing so becomes temporarily necessary for our safety and sanity, but how should I act if the family is much bigger than I was prepared to admit before? How should I act if the family is, yes, blood, but is also bigger than blood and, indeed, global? To that friend in college who struggled to believe, I think our sense of the divine, then, is rooted not in belief but in active, faithful choices of love. Whether there’s a God overseeing that or not is less important as whether you chose to love as big and bigger than you might have intended when you started on this little journey we all share. And anything we might call God that lacks that faithful action really isn’t a god I’d like to believe in anyway. However I construe it, I do see something sacred and whole in the choices behind me and in the choices ahead.

In the meantime, you can just think of me as your crazy Uncle Phil. Whether by blood or by choice, there’s a good chance we’re related anyway.

Changing Trains, or a little life update of sorts

There’s this moment after leaving the Secaucus station where the train ducks into a tunnel, and the deeper into the dark it goes, the quicker the air pressure changes as if to suck the little sickle cell up the vein to the heart of Manhattan. From under the Hudson, all the passengers are adjusting their ears with those closed-mouth yawns where they move their jaws into their throats repeatedly to equalize the pressure. And all the while they are staring into the black windowpane as though just outside the train there’s more to see than the bleak concrete tunnel. In reality, the windows have become mirrors. And in the tunnel, the train feels smaller, a community traversing together even if momentarily. There’s the woman doing her make-up because she woke up a little too late. The twenty-something is wearing a pair of Beats and bouncing his head up and down as though the whole train has been sucked into his favorite Eminem song. A woman walks the aisles begging for loose change so she can get home. A balding, slim man with glasses reads the Times. Another man with slightly hipper glasses, the Daily News. Most today are buried in their phones. The Quiet Car, the “no-talking” section of the train, is surprisingly louder than the other cars, mostly because everyone is so quiet that every screech, every bump, and every “Oh my God is the train about to break apart!” cacophony has been deafeningly heightened. Everybody is waiting. That’s what this is more than anything else. The City is coming but it isn’t here yet, and we have all resigned to the hard fact that this just is what it is and isn’t about to be any faster. Commuters are surprisingly patient people. Most of the time.

Sometimes, I think, I get so good at waiting that I could just end up living there in the train. I used to think it was because I loved the unknown that I ended up in wait. But the unknown implies some kind of obsession over the destination, and maybe for better or worse I just really like the journey. Suffice to say, I’m no longer on Shelter Island. I guess I sort of unintentionally traded it for Manhattan. And so, the last month and a half has been train ride after train ride between the City and New Jersey. I worked briefly delivering food via phone app as I walked from Greenwich Village to Harlem and back again. The tips were terrible. The work was exhausting. But when you walk miles on end around New York City, it’s hard not to fall in love with all the steel and glass – the way it stands fixed and stately while the arteries and veins below and beneath are dangerously alive and well.

In all the walking I did, I found myself meandering about some pretty fascinating places. I attended a faith table in the halls of The Riverside Church where Dr. King and Paul Tillich and past Presidents once preached. So, too, I found myself laying down in the street of Federal Plaza to stage a “die-in” protesting deportations of undocumented immigrant children that ended in their death. I spat on the steps of Trump Tower. I slurped down my first oysters with an old friend from the archaeological dig in Israel. I grabbed drinks in a quaint little bar in the Upper West side making new friends as we discussed just how to tackle the problem of Islamophobia head on. There’s something about this city, its mecca of ideas and hope, that makes you feel as though this could be where it all begins, whatever ‘it‘ is exactly. Every part of me that believes in changing the world, however narcissistic it may be to believe I could get to have a hand in doing so when that task belongs to us all, nevertheless feels called to this island more than any other.

Of course, it hasn’t been without its eye-openers. I was in Penn Station recently doing what people in Penn Station do: waiting. And killing time there, a homeless man approached me and asked me to buy him food. I hesitated and wanted to ignore him but went into Duane Reade and bought him a sandwich anyway. Afterward, I was upset with myself for having done so. My mind wandered to concerns about the “system of dependence” and whether I’d contributed to that. I felt guilty for having helped someone. And then it sort of hit me: is our country so broken, am I so broken, that there’s inevitable cultural guilt now ingrained in helping someone in need? And it’s not really about whether I’d bought the bloke a sandwich so much as it’s about the authentic kindness I was so hesitant to offer. I’m not even sure there was anything kind in the way I bought him a sandwich. I just wanted to give him the food as quickly as possible so he could go his way and I could go mine – both of us returning to our different worlds of waiting. And looking back on it, I don’t even think my hesitance or lack of kindness was about concerns over “systems of dependence,” the way my brain had conjured up that lie to make me feel better so much as it was about this very strange human desire to not want to confront real pain and suffering – be it our own or someone else’s. Suffering is something we’re so afraid of, given we’re so determined not to be reminded of our own mortality or our own flesh, that we’ll add to the pain by ignoring it as long as we can lest we have to see and do anything about it. But it’s the very fact that we have absolutely no idea what to do about it, how to help, that we end up preferring to ignore than to act.

A few weeks before, uncertain of my future and reeling from all this unexpected change, my girlfriend Mattie and I went to see Avenue Q and then to a Moroccan restaurant afterward. When it was over, we headed back to Penn Station for what had been a fantastically-successful evening. But when we got to Penn, we discovered there were no trains out until 11:11, two hours off. We were both exhausted but figured, “Hey, the City is ours, so let’s just keep walking around.” But every corner we turned, the City was just covered in darkness. A man wailing for help as if the world was ending. An addict coming up and begging for money from Mattie as his hands shook. When we said we wouldn’t give him money, he started grabbing for Mattie. I stepped between them ready to do whatever was necessary. There was more: people who smelled so badly you couldn’t sit within twenty feet of them in the train station, drunk people vomiting, a woman touching herself, a man who could barely walk. It was as if our romantic, privileged night had had the veil pulled, and the suffering side of the world was out in full force. It was scary, all that suffering. And so we naturally turned to those questions about what the hell we could do. Admittedly there was something off-putting to our white privilege luxury of getting to ask these questions. I was job searching and technically “homeless” and still saw “them,” these sufferers, as a “them.” Again, was assuming we can do something not kind of narcissistic? Who the hell are we to think we could tackle any of the problems these people have?

So, too, Mattie and I are really different in how we approach solutions to problems. There’s that old metaphor you might know about the guy walking on a beach with his friend, and he sees thousands of starfishes. Every so often, he picks one up and throws it back to the ocean. His friend asks, “Why are you doing that? It’s not like it matters,” and the guy responds, “It mattered to that one.” Mattie is relational. She sees throwing one starfish back into the sea to be hugely important even if it’s small in the grand scheme of things. I’m, sadly, embarrassingly, not often interested in the starfish as individuals – not as much as I feel I should be. It’s not that I don’t want to help. It’s that I’d rather go find the scientists, find out why all the starfish washed up here to begin with, discover it’s, say, the cause of Big Oil or some form of pollution, and then I want to go and speak truth to power. I think there’s salvation in Mattie’s approach. We need to see each other as people and not as broken systems even if the systems desperately need change. But I struggle with that.

We talked more: we joked about creating an organization of lobbyists who lobby lobbyists but for good causes. Such organizations are out there, I guess, but I don’t really feel they’re collaborative or united enough. We pressed the metaphor more. Mattie works in a pet store and is well-aware of how broken the pet industry is; she’s literally raised caged birds from the egg. The system is broken, and though Mattie abhors the notion of caging these creatures meant to soar, she understands that as much as she’d like to free them, a broken system means more birds, and it’s unlikely they would survive in the big blue yonder. She can do what little she can, though, and that’s to make sure they have good homes, that their cages are clean and well-kept and enough for them for now. It isn’t really a solution to the systemic problem, but it’s necessary work. A homeless shelter, a food pantry, a welfare check, food stamps: they don’t fight the system. They may even inadvertently shore it up at times. But until someone really tackles the Powers that Be, really breaks them apart or exposes them for the injustice they bring to our world in a way that begins meaningful change from the top-down, Mattie is right in caring for the caged birds, in throwing back one starfish at a time, or at least drizzling a little water on it to keep it alive. I don’t mean in using these metaphors to in any way cheapen that I am talking about people, human lives in reality. But it’s a point worth acknowledging – that it takes a metaphor about animals (where the power dynamics between human-to-animal are obviously very different than they should be when we’re talking human-to-human) before we often empathize with our fellow humankind, that we recall that they are, indeed, an us. And it’s fear, ours and theirs alike, that’s rendered us a them to them and them a them to us.

Our fellow humankind. Our brothers and our sisters. That’s where I’d like to leave this little blog. Back in September, a Facebook argument with a former Wabash professor of mine went from a post on his wall to a private message to exchanging emails. I won’t rehash the argument entirely, but I will say that the late Dr. Webb and I were on two polar ends of the political spectrum, and yet, he was more than willing to engage with me not just civilly but kindly, something I deeply valued and haven’t always been able to do myself. We talked, mostly, about adoption and how adoption should be understood by Christians in particular. He, as an adoptive parent, and me, as an adoptee, and again, we mostly disagreed, but on one point in particular, Dr. Webb and I couldn’t agree more: For him, his adopted children were his children. To put the word “adopted” in front of that cheapened it. They are “my family,” he stated, “My kin. As much inside of me as my ‘biological’ children. That’s a miracle made possible by grace.” I felt the same way of the wonderful people I call Mom and Dad. Where we disagreed was in the nuance: Dr. Webb felt strongly that blood is what makes someone kin, and to adopt someone was to make them by grace your own flesh and blood. While I appreciated what he was trying to do with that, I felt too much of our country’s negative history, of racism and tribal mentalities, were tied to privileging blood over choice. To me, our own flesh and blood are not our kin unless we’ve chosen to make them so. In a sense, even if someone is “biologically” yours, only through adopting – that is, choosing to nurture them – do they become yours or you theirs. If adoption creates blood bonds, as Dr. Webb argued, the family remains too small for me. The beautiful act of choosing to love, to adopt, radically reshapes how large the family can and should be, and it removes those barriers that keeps us an us and them a them.

But those barriers aren’t broken unless we strive to know each other, too, to really know each other, and that means to know our suffering, to confront and help carry it for one another. A week before his untimely death, Dr. Webb posted a beautiful, albeit haunting, article on depression, and as I read it over, I couldn’t help but think that it’s those old fears and those same broken systems that have kept us disconnected from one another. Dr. Webb’s beautiful theological definition for depression is that it is “when your need for God is as great as your feeling of God’s absence.” He goes on to say, “If joy happens when your gifts fit the needs of the world around you, depression results when your emptiness echoes God’s silence.” This is true and God’s seeming silence, I believe, is felt most by the “silence” of those who surround us and by our own ways of silencing our true selves. But finding our voice and hearing others is hard work, and I can say I have, sadly, incredible understanding of when and why we fail to do so. I am thankful to have known this little giant of a teacher; his voice was heard. And will continue to be.

And so, the train keeps moving. We can put down our phones, our headphones, our newspapers, our staring into the bleak windowpanes and begin to talk again. We can begin to view those of us on the train car (and those off it) as an us and not a them. We can do the hard work of giving voice to ourselves and to others but only if we are willing not to give into our fears of the inevitable suffering that surrounds and too often destroys us. For now, I am gainfully employed in the City. I’ll be securing resources that will benefit on-the-ground workers from Syria to Gaza and from the horn of Africa to India. And every morning and every evening, I’ll hop on a train or a subway car, and as it sways back and forth in some rhythmic chant to the bloodstream of the City, I’ll try to do more than just waiting. Because the City isn’t what we’re waiting for. It’s not some distant place we’re trying to get to when the train pulls into the station. It’s right here, right now. It’s the train and the people on it. And it’s up to us whether they’ll be family or not.

Broken and Healed, or Holding Close the Tension of the Opposites

Not all that long ago, a friend of mine was telling me about growing up in a rough family situation. His father had committed suicide and his mother’s new fiancé was so abusive that Child Protective Services had to step in and remove him (and his kid sister) from the home. A local Southern Baptist Church became their refuge, their youth pastor’s family taking them in and adopting them. He was literally raised by his church family. But then he went on to remark that because he’s gay, he has an admittedly complex relationship with the church; he is only out to those he can trust, mostly out of fear of being unfairly shunned by the very church that rescued him all those years ago.

“Funny that our churches would be the very places that could both save us and condemn us,” I remarked when he shared his story. I so admired his willingness to stick with a church that could hold such hurtful views about who he is as a person. He seemed to understand, probably from his experience, that the church was more than that one issue, though.

My own story, though different, could resonate with his in a way. It wasn’t too many months ago that I learned that before my adoption, I was the product of a church scandal – a pastor who’d abused his power and come to regret it, a woman who’d buried the truth in just enough manipulative secrecy in a failed attempt to forgo her shame. In learning this, it was a struggle to determine what to make of “church,” if not also what to make of myself. Despite how dramatic it sounds, there were days I thought of myself as a church ‘bastard,’ born in literal sin, doomed to inherit and carry out the bad choices of my progenitors. And the church itself was complicit in that brokenness. On better days, I could see the redemption in adoption, the intense grace of giving an innocent child a shot at a better life, seemingly free of the past, and the metaphor of being a “child of God” was all the more important.

For too long, though, it was either one or the other.

Everywhere I look these days, people seem to be caught up in this fight between good v. evil, liberal v. conservative, Christian v. atheist, science v. religion, the list of false dichotomies goes on and on. If I had to wager a guess, I’d blame Augustine’s Manichean roots for the Western world’s obsession with dualism, but it doesn’t really matter who is at fault. For whatever reason, we’ve colored every issue as though it’s black-or-white without any nuance when in fact the world is very grey. Of course, I suppose it would be nice if the world were as simple as we sometimes like to pretend it is. It would certainly make decision-making (and sticking to the decisions we’ve made) a whole lot easier if there were always a right or a wrong answer (more so if that answer stayed true as time passed).

That said, I’m not intending to harp on some kind of moral relativism when I suggest everything is a little murkier than we wish to admit. I definitely think, after all, there are times when its important to speak truth to power or to stand firm in what you believe. And yet, I only hope to advocate that those of us who think, for example, that the church is pure evil might see the good in a place that would rescue a child from harm and those of us who think all the answers are in the Bible might temper those opinions with the reality that the Bible (i.e. its past interpreters) doesn’t exactly have a kind history to every person of every race or creed. To put that another way, we’ve got to learn to let go of those things we’re certain of, not for the sake of relativism but for the sake of humility. Maybe there’s a fine line between those two, humility and relativism, but it’s better we learn to walk that line than destroy one another (or ourselves) with constant, arrogant certitude.

In the same way that the church, for my friend, was a place of both salvation and condemnation, or – for me – was a place of both scandal and redemption, I suspect rather than being caught up in stories of ‘either/or,’ all of us are really caught up in the ‘both/and,’ having to carry around the worst and best of the decisions that made us who we are – regardless of the institution or background or issue at hand. To accept that our religious (if not all) institutions are going to be both their own worst enemies at times and their own redeemers at others has been to remind me what the metaphors of crucifixion and resurrection are supposed to mean in a way I might not have understood before. That is, we’re constantly battling that cyclical struggle, the “tension of the opposites,” and the way forward lies in that acceptance and in the recognition that we must hold those in tandem, at least for some time, before rushing to reject them outright in the polarized mantra our society so wants us to chant without critical thought or self-awareness. That is what my friend has done so far in remaining a part of a church he recognizes should be ashamed for its response to homosexuality, and it’s what I am trying to do as I contemplate my biological and adoptive origins and their relationship to the Church.

Facts about the Mental Health of Adopted Children, or why there should be a social worker behind every family

Reading a (somewhat dated) paper on theological ethics, I came across some interesting adoption facts and thought I would share; citation below.


“In order to ascertain the fate of children who are adopted, the National Institute of Mental Health funded the Search Institute, a Christian-based institution in Minneapolis, which then completed the largest study of adopted families ever done in the United States. The report, entitled Growing Up Adopted: A Portrait of Adolescents and Their Families (Benson et al. 1994), has been widely praised. This study looked at 715 families who adopted infants between 1974 and 1980. Conducted in 1992 and 1993, the study included adopted children who ranged in age from 12 to 18 years. The families were randomly selected from the records of public and private adoption agencies. The report indicates that:

• the self-esteem of adopted children compares favorably with that of a national sample of adolescents between 12 and 18;

• adoption is accepted by most adopted children with relative ease, with only 27 percent indicating that adoption “is a big part of how I think about myself;

• being adopted typically does not complicate adolescence, a finding that contrasts with previous studies that took their sample from clinical contexts and from adoptions in which the child was beyond infancy at the time of adoption;

• adopted children are as deeply attached to their adoptive parents as are their non-adoptive siblings;

• adoptive families have considerably lower rates of divorce and separation than do biological families, creating a relatively stable context for the child;

• adopted children have slightly higher psychological health when compared with national norms for all adolescents;

• transracial adopted children (mostly of Korean birth mothers in this study) do as well as their counterparts in same-race families, although the fact of being adopted will never recede into the background in transracial adoptions.

“The authors add that “[e]ven in the best of families, some adopted as well as non-adopted youth lose their way. When this happens in adoptive families, there is a tendency to blame adoption. … To finger adoption as the culprit when a child experiences a lack of health fails to do justice to this complex interplay of factors”(Benson et al. 1994, 8).”

Source: Post, Stephen G. “Adoption Theologically Considered.” The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Spring, 1997), pp. 149-168.


While these facts are somewhat dated and only account for adoptions from birth, they raise the question, “Why would adopted children have it ‘better off’?”

One reason may be, plain and simple, that adopting families are probably a little older than the average family, therefore more experienced and more mature. But I’d push it farther than that. Because of the bureaucracy, paperwork, financial burden, and careful vetting process by different agencies or by the government, adoptive parents are forced to confront and ask questions about why they want to be parents that other families with birth children may not begin to really ask until their children are born (or if they do, they only get about nine months or so to really consider what’s coming, whereas adoptive parents must sometimes plan and wait three to seven years). That waiting period undoubtedly carves out a certain degree of determination and intentionality within adoptive families. Although, of course, none of this is to suggest birth families aren’t good families, only that the birth family doesn’t undergo the intensive review process adoptive ones must endure.

Thus, adoption is all about making a deliberate, voluntary choice. All parents who wish to parent are confronted with that choice, but adoptive parents decide early on what that choice means and whether they are capable of fulfilling it. And more important, they often have a social worker looming over them from the beginning deciding whether or not they’re as ready as they think they are. To be perfectly honest, I think every family should be “vetted” before they can have (and keep their) children. But that’s probably some radical thinking, and at least in America, our society is far too individualistic to ever accept that. If the government tried to provide families with social workers, people would be screaming, “The government doesn’t get to decide what I do with my children,” to which I would respond, “Birthing a baby doesn’t make that child your child. Only loving and nurturing it does.”

I’d use that logic to change the world if I thought anybody would buy it.

Making the Best Choice, a closer look at international adoptions

CNN has been publishing several stories about adoption lately. The most recent is an interesting piece on South Korean adoptions highlighting where several adoption agencies have lied about the identities and ages of birth parents to make a child seem more appealing to foreigners wishing to adopt. There is such a stigma in South Korean culture around unwed mothers that far too many adoptions contain false information from birth parents trying to hide the origins of their children. So, naturally, Korean activists are now coming forward to try to invoke change. One in particular, an adoptee named Jane Trenka, is fighting to end South Korean international adoptions altogether as a means to curve the stigma around unwed mothers. To quote from the article,

“The best option is always for a child to be parented by his or her birth parent,” she said. “Then domestic adoption, and only then intercountry adoption.”

That makes slight sense if you’re coming at this issue solely from the perspective of the birth parent and what that parent may feel is ideal. But what if you approach this issue from the perspective of the adoptee?

The best option is not necessarily always for a child to be parented by his or her birth parents. Such a notion is heavily dictated by our ongoing obsession with genetics and blood-relation. The best option for a child to be parented is that a child is parented by someone who will love and nurture that child. That should always be the trump card. If a biological parent is incapable of making those provisions for the child, then they are not the best choice for the child, plain and simple. And sometimes, that’s obvious even before the child is conceived. The notion that blood-relation is the ideal creates a second-class citizenship around adoptees and implies that what they got was somehow “second best.” Or third, Trenka would argue, if the adoption was international. I would ask why domestic adoption trumps international adoption. I suspect Trenka would feel that children should remain in families of the same race, and that notion is just bigoted. We as a society must shed the idea that kinship is only built on blood. Kinship is a social construct. Parenting language has to be earned. It is not given by God. It is not guaranteed by blood.

There are, I’m sure, many issues that need to be tackled surrounding international adoptions, as there are any adoptions. Some of these activists are probably making really positive headway on those issues. After all, the stigma surrounding unwed mothers, has to be dealt with not only in South Korea but everywhere. And yet, no adoption agency or government should ever work under the assumption that the “best option” is for a child to be with his or her birth parents. The starting question should always be, “Who is most capable of loving and nurturing this child?” So, while a birth mother may be the first person to ask that question, that alone won’t make her the ideal parent. And mothers who put their children up for adoption often do so because they understand how they might answer that question and understand up front that they are not the “best choice.”

Game of Bastards

So, the HBO miniseries, “Game of Thrones,” has grown increasingly popular over the last three seasons. The show – a spin-off from a book series, for those who are unfamiliar with it – is a bit like Lord of the Rings, except instead of chasing down the one ring, it’s a story of multiple houses vying for power to be King of the land of Westeros, a mythical island not too dissimilar from England.

I’ll spare you the details of the show as best I can, but at the very least, I’ve come to notice as I watch that it is obsessed with blood relation and kinship. In fact, in the pilot episode, we meet the “bastard” Jon Snow, and a noble-born dwarf named Tyrion Lannaster says to Jon“Let me tell you something, bastard: never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”

Since that first episode, I’ve gotten the impression that Tyrion’s words are central to the entire show. That’s because everyone in the show who isn’t a bastard likes criticizing bastards, and everyone else is a bastard or at least has questionable origins. The show seems to obsess over the question of what makes a person legitimate (or not). The characters who acknowledge their bastardy very often play the role of the underdog (pun intended), and though they don’t always come out as winners in the show, you are left with a soft spot for them, especially for Jon Snow, the show’s most notable bastard.

I think I want to give just a little more information just to show how obsessed “Game of Thrones” is with this topic, or rather, just how obsessed fans are who watch the show. Case in point, in the series online wiki, a fan forum which documents characters, towns, and everything you ever wanted to know about the land of Westeros, there is a page dedicated to explaining bastardy. The page explains some of the bastards in the show, and it goes one step further to explain that, in the Westeros mythos, bastards take different names from their biological parents, even if they are acknowledged by their biological family. Thus,

Flowers is the bastard name in the Reach.
Hill is the bastard name for the Westerlands.
Rivers is the bastard name in the Riverlands.
Pyke is the bastard name on the Iron Islands.
Sand is the bastard name of Dorne.
Snow is the surname for bastards north of the Neck, generally referred to as the North.
Stone is the bastard name in the Vale.
Storm is the bastard name in the Stormlands.
Waters is the bastard name of Dragonstone and the Crownlands.

Finally, the wiki page goes on to say that “bastards are born from lust and lies, grow up more swiftly than other children, and their nature is wanton and treacherous,” though I’m not sure the show illustrates this point well, even if characters in the show hold a similar stereotype of bastards. You get the idea.

I think there’s several questions that have been raised for me as I watched the show, but this blog isn’t really about “Game of Thrones.” It’s about what “Game of Thrones” says about our culture, about our own obsession and interest in blood relation. We seem to talk around issues of adoption, blood relationship, and kinship constantly, without ever really offering any sort of meaningful, critical commentary about what all that means to us, and that concerns me. So, I wanted to ask a couple of questions that relate to the show but are ultimately about our own culture. Here goes:

1. Does “Game of Thrones” perpetuate, inadvertently or not, negative stereotypes or a second-class citizenship of “bastards”?

As exemplified by Tyrion’s words above, the show seems to offer a positive message about legitimacy ultimately. And yet, I’m not sure the uncritical mind walks away with that message. You know, if you’re a 14 year-old watching MacGyver in 1990, you aren’t thinking about the fact that dear old Angus, in avoiding gun use, is constantly making a liberal commentary on gun control. You’re just thinking it’s cool that MacGyver blows stuff up. Thus, I worry that a kid (or even a twenty-something) comes to the show, hears the word “bastard,” thinks it’s cool that everybody in the show hates on the idea of illegitimacy and then perpetuates those stereotypes in later conversations with friends.

I suppose you could argue that the show is offering a commentary on a kind of mythical medieval period, so we shouldn’t dwell on what it says about us, but as consumers and the audience at hand, the show is very much about our own society, a society where we – sadly – still look down on those born out-of-wedlock. The difference is that, in the show, it’s blatant: everybody knows who is and isn’t a bastard. It’s connected to your name, so as soon as you say, “I’m so-and-so of the house of Stone,” your bastardy is unveiled. I think that’s an intentional effort to allow the show to make its commentary on kinship, because for our own culture, bastardy is an invisible shame, a slur people use often without knowing who they’re insulting. And, to be fair, insulting someone’s legitimacy isn’t as common as racism or homophobia. So, too, it’s far more subtle and tends to play out more in the way we value or understand the construction of the family or in the way we look down on people who come from “broken homes.” I’ve written extensively about some of the examples of this happening.

2. What are we to do with the term bastard?

Along that line of thought is the issue of the word “bastard” itself. It’s a hateful slur, and in recent years, it’s a slur that’s not always been connected to someone’s legitimacy. To the contrary, it’s a term that’s been used most often to demonstrate when a person is being a jerk. But to someone who has questionable origins, the original connotations of the term don’t go unnoticed. We no longer say to the queer community, “Oh, I meant ‘faggot,’ as if to say he was just being uncool.” Instead, we recognize that term to be off-limits.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about the term “bastard.” Some groups, like “Bastard Nation” have picked up the terminology and embraced it the same way “queer” has been embraced and given a positive connotation. This practice of reclaiming language fits squarely in line with Tyrion’s advice to “wear it like armor.” It’s a smart way to empower the powerless.

And yet, I still don’t know whether “bastard” is more like “faggot” or whether it’s more like “queer.”

But I do know that the concept of illegitimacy should have already died out when medieval periods like the one portrayed in Westeros advanced into the modern era. Today, we know that kinship is a social construct. There is no such thing as an “illegitimate” child. That is, there are no longer laws on the books that make a child unlawful, to get to the heart of the definition and etymology of “legitimacy.”  While there may still be illegal acts, like rape, that can bring children into the world, the children themselves no longer have to carry the shame and stigma of their parents actions; although, if they do, it’s because out society thrust that shame upon them, not because they thrust it on themselves.

That is, if indeed bastards “grow up more swiftly than other children, and their nature is wanton and treacherous,” it is because of the way society hammered it over their heads that they were somehow different from, say, children of blood relation. And that is very much a societal construct, one we should have already tossed to the side.

Perhaps that is what makes a show like “Game of Thrones” so compelling. In all its blood, sweat, tears, and sex, it forces the audience to ask what makes us human. And the answer seems to be that our family, regardless of whether we are noble, blood-born, or baseborn (i.e. a bastard) isn’t what makes us human or good or special. Sure, our beginnings can give us advantages and disadvantages, as far as we allow the world to define those, but who we really are is defined by our everyday decisions, and far too few of us figure that out because of the lie we are repeatedly told that we are our parents’ children and nothing more.

That is the difference between carrying your past around like a weight on your shoulders and wearing it like armor.

 

Making Kin, or why every family must adopt

If you were to ask folks how you go about creating a family, the most common answer would almost certainly have something to do with marriage and sex.  Sure, there are other ways to start a family, like adoption, but given that adoptions only account for between 2-4% of American families today, it’s no surprise that most answers to how families are made would have to do with sex.  That’s how most people start a family, after all.

There’s one big problem with this, however.  Sex makes babies, but sex doesn’t make relationships.  Relationships take work.  They require commitments and responsibility.  They require communication and attention.  That’s true of all sorts of relationships from friendships to dating to marriage, and it’s also true of parent-child relationships.

That may not sound like a shocking statement.  Of course relationships take work.  But think for a moment about the fact that nearly every relationship you’ve ever had, outside of family, had to be earned.  Many people, certainly not enough of them, sought to build trust before they moved from a serious relationship to the commitment of marriage.  Even in friendship, people gain and lose friends all the time, and often, those relationship statuses hinge on things like loyalty and reliability and reciprocity.  You get to choose your friends and dating partners, and you are likely to base those decisions on positive qualities.  In fact, the only exception to this I could come up with was co-workers, but even those relationships hinge on certain expectations.  You might not be able to get rid of a terrible co-worker as easily as you wish you could, but your co-worker still has responsibilities, theoretically, that they must fulfill in order to keep their job.

So, what makes the family different?  What makes the parent-child relationship automatic?  Blood-relation?

The reality is this: we’ve been socialized to believe that if a baby comes from your womb (or your spouse’s womb), that automatically forms kinship.  The baby becomes your child for no other reason, really, than the fact that it shares your genetics.  Of course, sharing genetics can be a powerful bonding factor.  When a mother goes through the task of carrying a child to term, there exists the genesis of a bond even before the baby is born.  And yet, genetics, blood, or carrying a child to term cannot guarantee how “motherly” that mother may be to the child.  Nor can it guarantee how present or active a role “Dad” will take.  If it did, we wouldn’t need a foster care system.  And with 35% of American children being raised in single-parent homes, we have to be careful about suggesting that biology or genetics make it more likely that the bonds of kinship are secure.   They may be for one of those parents, but not necessarily for both.

So, if blood doesn’t make you family, what does?  I think it’s worth noting that the word “conceive,” a word often used during pregnancy to denote family-making, shares synonyms with words like “imagine” or “think” or “understand.”  I would add “choose” or “adopt” to that list.  And I’m not talking about legal adoption.  Sure, legal adoption is, certainly, one way to start a family.  But think about what legal adoption symbolizes: it is a process by which a person voluntarily accepts, by choice, to take on the responsibilities of parenting.

Not every parent has to go through that legal process.  But every parent who wishes and deserves to be called a parent – a mother or a father – has to voluntarily accept, by choice, to take on the responsibilities of parenting.  Or to say that more simply, if you want to be a parent, you have to “adopt” your kid.

That still may not sound revolutionary.  So, I’ll close with a story to shed some light on what I mean:

Let’s say, growing up, Billy Bob had a set of terrible biological parents.  They performed the menial responsibilities of parenting: they fed him, clothed him, gave him shelter.  But Billy Bob was never really accepted.  Occasionally, he was beaten by a drunk father.  At other times, his mother teased or harassed him in an abusive way.  Now that Billy is all grown up, his parents come around occasionally, making demands of him, still treating him like a second-class citizen rather than their son.  Billy has every right to stand up for himself, most would say, but he doesn’t.  His reason?  “They’re my Mom and Dad.  What am I supposed to do?  Get rid of them?”

Biology too often answers Billy Bob’s question with a firm “No.  They’re your parents, and unfortunately, you’re stuck with them.”

Adoption answers the question by asking, “Did they earn the right to be called your parents, the same way all other relationships have to earn their keep?”  To be fair, different people may answer that question differently.  Perhaps their role in feeding, clothing, and sheltering Billy Bob is enough reason for him to feel the need to reach out and give way to their demands.  But the point is, Billy has a choice.  That’s what adoption puts on the table.  And the harder Billy clings to the narrative that blood relation is what makes you kin, the less likely he is to realize that he does, in fact, have a choice on who he calls his parents.  Divorcing himself from the family is not easy, just like kicking a bad friend out of your life isn’t easy, but holding a family to stricter standards of what it means to be family – essentially forcing them to adopt you – could deeply redefine kinship in a powerful and positive way.