I spent most of this week working with Ellen Herman’s 2008 book, Kinship By Design (The University of Chicago Press), and quoting it extensively through my tumblr/twitter/facebook feed. The tumblr feed is really just a place for note taking (it allows the option of feeding quotations to twitter/facebook—where people actually pay attention, as opposed to my tumblr–or not), but I came to realize that I was using it as a performance. What I’m performing remains open to interpretation.
When reading I don’t usually take as many lengthy citations as I did from Herman’s book. Up front I should say that it’s the best history of American adoption I’ve yet read (and I’ve read a few). More often than I feel comfortable admitting, I found myself wishing I’d written the passages I cited. I feel chagrined that the clarity and surety of her voice, in declaring the obvious about adoption, is something that I’ve not been able to accomplish in my writing. My writing still remains, too often, contingent, uncertain, overly polite, careful about upturning apple carts, no matter how urgently then may need upturning.
But my yearning for a more effective prose style, for greater courage in stating the obvious is not at the heart of my performative impulse. I was coming out (again) as adopted. And I was / am wrestling the problematics of being shaped by invisible identity, an identity that’s publicly a cipher until I rhetorically establish it. While it may have been an obvious, if oblivious, dimension of my family life growing up, I no longer traverse the world with older parents to whom I hold no resemblance. Unlike being queer, certainly another shaping feature of my identity, being adopted has no adult signifiers. It offers no boyfriend with whom I might publicly hold hands; it has no coded gesture or style. Yet, everything about how I traverse the world, interact with others, and know myself is shaped by it. Although I know it’s a futile endeavor, sometimes I just want this part of my experience to be acknowledged and seen. I want, perhaps, through public declaration, to be able to integrate this facet of myself in the way I’ve integrated queerness.
The gesture is also about knowing or assuming knowledge. There are so very few things I know for sure, but one is that adoption—no matter how good your intentions—is unknowable except to those who have been adopted. A corollary to this is that nine times out of ten those who haven’t been adopted will assume they know what it is to be adopted, and all-too-readily proffer one jack-awful cliché or another. I should also qualify this by admitting that what I know about adoption is limited to my own experience of it. There’s definitely a possibility of solidarity amongst adoptees, but it can’t be taken for granted. The problem of claiming this space, as an adoptee, as someone unknowable outside of my experience, is that it risks alienating the very people from whom I’m seeking acknowledgement. I know that psychology suggests that I need to find acknowledgement and wholeness in myself, which I won’t deny, but I also need acknowledgement within a social sphere. My adoption, all adoption, is a social construction—forged in the crucible of public judgment—and social acknowledgement of my difference, not in the sense of deficiency, but in the sense of plurality, feels critical to the realization of my (still all too elusive) sense of self.
I’m, finally, also aware that learning is a social process. We don’t integrate knowledge unless we see it as having value in our social interactions. Seeing these things reflected in the experience of others enables me to understand them in myself.
So I perform my identity. Again.