Sunday, April 21, 2013

Bad Seed Vs. Blank Slate: Why Must Adoptees Be One or the Other?

I suspect that most adoptees are conscious of a tension in adoption ideology -- an undercurrent that is rarely raised to the surface but is present nonetheless. In the eyes of others, we are often viewed as either "blank slates" or "bad seeds." At different times in history, one view or the other has prevailed. When my adoptive parents brought me home, during the baby scoop era, they were told I was a blank slate. The prescription: raise me as their own and nurture would prevail. But during a recent online conversation with some adoptee friends, many of whom were of the same era, it became apparent that the blank-slate doctrine was not universally accepted, even in our time period. All of us had experienced the situation of having false, prejudicial assumptions made about us because of our supposed inherited "bad character." And then there are the adoptive parents I've conversed with who have changed their views over time. They speak of how they once bought into idea of the blank slate, believing nurture and love would prevail, but then the child grew up differently than expected -- began to struggle and make bad choices, spiraling into dysfunction beyond the parents' control -- and they realized they'd been sold a false idea. Clearly, the adoptee must have been flawed from the start, in a way that nurture couldn't correct.

You may think I am exaggerating, but this is the world that I walk through. On the one hand, I have encountered people who insist that biology is nothing and upbringing determines all. On the other, I have heard people say that they would never consider adopting because "you don't know what your going to get."  If you are an adult adoptee reading this, I'm curious if the world has sent you similarly conflicting messages.

Image: Idea go at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
So, what am I? Who am I?

Adoptee identity is complicated. I was formed by my genes and my upbringing, and by countless other influences. I am a woman of a particular race who was born at a particular time in history. I was shaped by books and teachers. I am the geography of my upbringing and my travels. I am the friendships and relationships I have formed -- all the people I have loved and lost and even left.

And I am an adoptee. I was separated from my biological mother at birth -- that was my welcome to the world. I was raised as daughter by people to whom I am not genetically related. I was a participant in a system that was supposedly acting in my best interest and yet sought neither my input nor my consent, even when I was old enough to give (or deny) it.

I am the mid-life adult women, just now finding my voice and trying to make sense of all this.

Blank slate? Bad Seed? No, it is so much more complicated than that.

20 comments:

  1. So very true...Either / or...and at the end of the day those attitudes still exist within adoption - they are simply covered up with flowery language. You know I like Ted Talks a lot - Steven Pinker does a talk on the Blank Slate Theory - it's really good - I posted it quite a while back if you search my blog, but am sure it is still on Ted - you'd like it.

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  2. Thanks! Yes, I've seen that Steven Pinker piece and it is excellent, imho. Yet the debunked theory still persists ...

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  3. My brother and I are both adopted. Interestingly, I got the "blank slate" identity and my brother (adopted 9 years later) the "bad seed" identity. Probably because I was overachieving, obedient and always seeking acceptance and my brother was kind of wild and rebellious. Our mom has said she knew his birthmom was on drugs or had some other problem. One day I asked how she knew, since she had little information about his birth parents and no information about drug use. She said she "just knew" and "what else could explain it". I love my a-parents, but they are sadly misinformed about what it means to be adopted even though they adopted. In that same conversation, I tried to explain a little about attachment etc. and my dad said, "what can a newborn baby know?"

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  4. What an interesting and well written post - thank you. As the mom to two adopted children (as well as one biological child) we were asked a surprising number of times before we adopted if we were sure of what we were doing because 'we never knew what we were going to get.' I found that offensive and mentioned that, if true, the same could be said about our biological child. My two who were not born from my body are such a complicated compilation of so many variables...and they are wonderful just as they are.


    Thanks for shedding light on this issue.


    Ruth

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  5. I really like this post . . . interestingly, neither blank slate or bad seed were spoken in my family; however I got the messages loud and clear that my mom was disappointed that I was not more like her (still receiving these messages in fact). I believe the "you never know what you are going to get" says alot more about the person saying it than it says about an adoptee. IMO, they are saying that they believe any child they could create, would be superior to any child they would adopt. Sad so many closed minds.

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  6. I was adopted around the same time as you and I have had both beliefs applied to me by others. And as an adoptive parent to a 10 year old, I still hear that from other people when discussing my son. Drives me crazy!

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  7. You describe what I have read in countless books and articles. Adoptees go one of two ways, overachiever or messed up. When there are two adoptees in the family it tends to be one of each. My older brother struggled and I overachieved. Neither is more healthy than the other in my opinion.

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  8. To use some different language, you're naming the "false binary" of adoption. I've always found that people who rely on false binaries are trying to avoid the complexity of situations and the hard work of thinking about things that might force them to change or simply examine their assumptions.


    As an adoptee, I often found that bad seed and blank slate had a cousin -- good boy. Whenever I exhibited characteristics my parents couldn't understand or didn't like, I was the bad seed (my mother would sometimes say, "you weren't raised this way"). Whenever I expressed needs regarding my origins, they told me that I was a blank slate and that they raised me as if I was their real child (and I should be grateful). Whenever I complied with their expectations, I was a good boy (and they were all too happy to take credit for my achievements). Obviously, these ways of explaining adoptee behavior are in service to adoptive parent's needs -- and allow them to side-step accountability for their self-awareness, decisions, and level of engagement in parenting.



    For adoptees, it is a no-win situation.

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  9. Your paragraph that begins "Adoptee identity is complicated" is striking. Really makes me think about what forms anyone's identity -- we really can't separate any one strand and it's folly to think it possible.


    I'm now reading Corie Skolnik's "Orfan," thanks to Laura Dennis' recommendation. So many reasons to love this novel, one being that the main character is neither a bad seed nor a blank slate. (I highly recommend this book).

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  10. No one thing makes us who we are. Great post!

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  11. Really appreciating the comments on this post! Thanks everyone!

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  12. Seriously, it's a choice. At some point in our lives, we become adults and it's up to us. 100%!! I have a brother who has this 'bad seed' mentality...and has brought on most of his issues HIMSELF. ... i am so sick of it...

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  13. sounds like typical sibling stuff....

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  14. In the family I was raised in it felt like 3 camps...my parents, my sister and me (both kids adopted). I did not feel connectedness to them like I see among my children. I even see our child who is adopted struggling outside her other 3 siblings (because she is the baby in part but also because she is adopted)...and I so get all the issues and know she may not ultimately feel like she is connected to us even though I know I am an attuned parent. Some things you just can't fix.


    Then I meet my original dad, half sister, aunt and cousins and only have one conversation with my half brother over the phone. And you know what...CONNECTION. Not only was it connection, but with my dad it was connection with little effort on both our parts...it just was. He loved me, I loved him...bam.


    I know not everyone shares my experience, but my original family gets me in ways the people who should know me best, the people who raised me, never will. It's not their fault and it certainly is not mine. I kind of feel like an unwilling participant in an experiment that looked like it would be successful on the surface. But it was not successful and for me it feels like biology trumps nurturing, hands down.

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  15. I do think it's fascinating :) I know from my doing my own work that part of my compliancy comes from a fear of rejection - I've seen that play out in my relationships with others too. I know many people, both adoptees and non-adoptees, have a fear of rejection, but mine is primarily related to being adopted.



    I agree - forgive and live life, although sometimes easier to say and harder to do.

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  16. I can relate entirely. I was the youngest of 3 adopted (all of unrelated to one another and to our parents). I always noticed my friends who were like little wolf packs within their own families. Our family was nothing like that. There was love, but there was also strife, anger and frankly we were NOTHING alike. This story is being written. As for my own children, (biological) I never knew just how much we we would all fit, all look like. Our personalities are so similar. My b-mom and I were reunited at 34 years old. We celebrated our 8th anniversary of being reunited last week, and I will just say this: I am now whole.

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  17. THIS. We weren't a family, we were just five people who lived in the same house. The only time I've spoken to my "brothers" since my adoptive parents died was at their funerals. I don't even know where they live anymore--and sadly, I don't really care. It's the same for them. We barely know one another.

    I was alone my entire life. Fifty years. I realized that THAT was what changed in me when I found my mom. I've been following the unfolding reunion story of a young Korean adoptee via her Twitter stream, and yesterday, she wrote that she finally doesn't feel alone. Her mom lives in S. Korea, she lives here in the USA. They have no common language. And yet, finding her mother=no longer alone. Her realization prompted mine--it was profound. I knew there was a change; I just couldn't articulate it. Now I can.

    An unwilling participant in an unsuccessful experiment. Yes. It makes me very angry.

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  18. I'm just making sense of it all at mid-life and wondering if I ever truly will. I have more questions than answers the more I find...

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  19. As an adult adoptee, I so agree that adoptee identity is complicated. I
    have found a safe place to process my adoption journey and I am a facilitator in the All-Adoptee Growth Group…we welcome all adoptees to join us as we begin a new "boot camp" on the yahoo group... http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ALL-ADOPTEE/ ...for adoptees of all ages to work through the book Sherrie Eldridge and BethWillis Miller co-authored, “Under His Wings...healing truth for adoptees of all ages,” together, chapter-by-chapter...we would love for you to join us!. It can be purchased for $10 on Amazon at this link: http://ow.ly/kotLq

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  20. I'm a step parent adoptee, so I lost half of my original family but never really dealt with the bad seed analogy. It's really funny, because I met my dad in high school. In college, I realized that we liked the same articles. He had the same magazines on his coffee table that I had picked up to read on the plane coming to visit him. Now, after years of contact, I realize that how we make decisions is the same. We use a similar process to evaluate information and come to a decision. There is obviously a big genetic component to who I am. But I'm also affected by environment. My "blank slate" was marred by the actions of adults who put me through trauma that I shouldn't have had to deal with. Who I am is a combination of my genetics, the experiences I've had, how I've dealt with those experiences, and the choices I've made. I'm an adoptive parent now. My daughter right now is a combination of her genetics and the experiences she's having. As she grows, her choices as well as how she responds to the actions of the adults in her life will also become part of who she is. She is not a blank slate any more than I was. And I'm trying to be understanding of her birth parents, respecting and appreciating them as people, remembering that I'm writing on her slate but they've already written, and both stories are an important part of who she is. She isn't one or the other. She is all - both genetics, experiences, responses, and choices.

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