For 25 YEARS I'VE been an adoptive mother, but not until I read Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience did I discover that my children are "survivors of a holocaust," "lost in a black hole," "inhabiting a subterranean world of fantasies and fears governed by demons," and scared of "choking and strangulation." If Betty Jean Lifton goes on like this she could give adoption a bad name.
Where does Lifton get such grotesque ideas? Partly from personal experience. Lifton herself was adopted and that fact was the "invisible contamination" of her childhood, the obsession of her later years. Now, in her mid-forties, she is still furious about it. The problem with Lost and Found is that Lifton has started with her own unhappy case, piled on similar horror stories, laced it with rage and labelled the product "The Adoption Experience"-which is not exactly truth in packaging.
"'Some Adoption Experiences' might be a valid title," said our 22-year-old daughter when she read it, "But the adoption experience this is not."
Lifton has a disconcerting way of adding two and two and coming with 22. For example, Karen Ann Quinlan and David ("Son of Sam") Berkowitz are in deep trouble. They are adopted. Ergo, according to Lifton, they are in deep trouble because they are adopted. ("Their apparatus was too fragile to make it over the mined roadbed that the adoption system lays for us all," says she.) Karen Ann is "sleeping out the last stages of her search for self"; David has vented his rage on women victims "who may or may not have symbolized the mother he felt rejected by." I tried that out on our 26-year-old son.
"If adoptees were the only ones who felt rejected by their mothers," he said, "how could Freud have made a living?"
Among other flat-out declarations, Lifton claims that "many adoptees . . . choose homosexuality or bisexuality . . . as an alternative lifestyle."
"Where," asks my daughter, "are the footnotes and figures to prove it?"
Lifton's hyperbole and anger tend to drown out some of the sensible points she makes. She's on target when she says we'd be better off without the "Adoption Myth"-that adopting a child is exactly the same as giving birth to a child-or that being adopted into a family is exactly the same as being born in it. It's not the same. It's different. Not necessarily better or worse. Just different. Perhaps adoption adds an extra, interesting, little twist to every stage of life.
As Lifton says, adopted children should be free to search, or not to search, for their natural parents as they choose. Beyond that, I'm not so sure that set commandments-like her "Rights and Responsibilities for Everyone in the Adoption Circle"-will solve more problems than they create. Even when to tell a child he's adopted no longer seems so simple. "Tell early," the experts used to say. "Tell later," they're recommending now. Thus proving the obvious-that good advice is hard to come by. And every adoption is unique.
One new theory that strikes Lifton's fancy is "Open Adoption," in which the natural mother "gives up her baby with the understanding that she will receive periodic information about its development and have occasional visiting rights." That sounds like permanent foster care-and, anyway, who needs an extra set of parents kibitzing on the side?
"The most readable, believable and moving part of this book," says my son, "is the section of adoptees searching for-and sometimes finding-their natural parents. And the happiest result is that it often strengthens the relationship between adoptees and their adoptive parents by alleviating tensions that may have been a barrier between them."
Our daughter agrees. "The case histories made me think about searching," she says. "Maybe I'll do it myself someday."
I, too, found the search and reunion dramas compelling. And so varied-some good, some bad, but all, in a curious way, satisfying-that they refute Lifton's sweeping, unsupported claims about the way adoptees act and think and feel.
At the end of her book, Lifton admits she's not so angry anymore. She says she's "calm about this subject . . . no longer argumentative . . . even philosophic." Well, I'm glad she's feeling better because pouring undiluted rage on paper very nearly swamped the early pages of her book.
"If she hadn't come on so strong in the beginning," says our daughter, "I'd have been more patient with her at the end."
Adoption is a fascinating, mysterious and largely unexplored adventure about which too little has been written. Those who make it past the overstatements and invective could find this thorough-and often maddening-study quite unexpectedly rewarding.