Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Five Categories of Adoptees Missing from the "Vocal Minority"

I occasionally run across a comment on the Internet that goes something like this:

It's important to remember that the adoptees who write and speak out about problems in adoption are a certain type of adoptee. They don't represent the typical adoptee in the general  population who is perfectly happy with having been adopted and for that very reason is less likely to speak up. I know plenty of adoptees who are just fine with adoption as it is. These folks in the vocal minority don't speak for them. 

Image courtesy of sippakorn /

Ah yes, the "vocal minority" dismissal. It's a slippery one for sure, in part because there's an element of truth to it. I completely agree that no one adoptee or group of adoptees speaks for all of us (and neither, I should add, does any one non-adoptee who knows a few adopted people). On the other hand, the assumption that all of the less vocal adoptees are quiet because they are fine is problematic. Here are some other types of adoptees in the quiet group:

1) The early-phase adoptee who does not yet acknowledge adoption issues

Adoption processing is a lifelong journey, and many adoptees go through multiple phases during their lives. The adoptee who insists that he or she is "just fine" at age 20 may tell a completely different story at age 40 or 60 or 93. (See 93 Years Old & Still Wondering "WHO AM I?")

According to Adoption-Reconstruction Phase Theory, in the first phase of adoption processing "there is no overt acknowledgment of adoption issues." But that can change with time.

As Amanda H.L. Transue-Woolston acknowledges in the article linked above, "Theories and models don't describe everyone, but they're important to learn as a basis of understanding people and the challenges that they face." Amanda also writes, "The five phases resonated with me personally and were meaningful to every adult adoptee that I shared them with." They certainly resonate with me. Do they resonate with every single adoptee? Not likely. But it is important to remember that many of us who are now part of the so-called "vocal minority" were once textbook phase-one adoptees.

 2) The loyal adoptee

The other part of phase one in Adoption-Reconstruction Phase Theory is this: "The adoptee has a sense of obligation and gratitude toward the adoptive parents." Here's an illustration:
The facilitator handed out small slips of paper. On each, a quote from a young transracial teenaged adoptee. Their voices were being heard one by one, out loud and anonymously. It was moving, powerful. As some parent said, “It was as though these children were in the room.” 
Then, the facilitator asked, “How many of you know what adoption loyalty is?” Sadly, only five hands floated upward. Here, parents were hearing for the first time, things their children most likely would never feel comfortable telling them. Out of loyalty and love, these children and I have kept these feelings and thoughts to ourselves. I never wanted to hurt my mother or father with the worries and confusion of being so racially different from them. -- MotherMade
The tremendous silencing power of adoption loyalty should not be underestimated. It kept me silent for years, and it silences many others still.

3) The adoptee who fears criticism, rejection, exclusion, etc.
Adoptees that speak out about their experience have often been met with a wall of criticism, accusing them of ingratitude against the families that have "saved" them from their abandoned state. -- Tuey Mac

Tremendous courage is required for an adoptee to speak openly. -- Deanna Doss Shrodes
For many adoptees, it's not a simple matter to find one's voice. Personally, when I encounter the vocal-minority dismissal I often think, Do you have any idea what I've had to climb over to get to this place? It took courage and time for me to get to the point of speaking and writing things that contradicted the adoption-positive narrative that I knew was expected of me. As I see it, the amazing thing isn't that only some adoptees speak out; the amazing thing is that any of us do at all, given how much pressure many of us experience (from the time we are born) to fulfill someone else's vision of what our lives should be and represent.

I suspect that every adoptee who speaks out publicly has been contacted privately by an adoptee who says something along the lines of "Thank you for saying what I can't yet say." I know it has happened to me, and I've heard other adoptee writers mention this as well. And then there are all those adoptees who show up in adoptee-only forums saying thing like "I'm so glad to have found this space where I can speak openly to people who understand. I can't talk about these things at all to the non-adopted people in my life." There are many reasons for silence that have nothing to do with being "just fine."

4) The "Adoption Doesn't Define Me" adoptee

There are adoptees who simply don't want "adoptedness" to be a major part of what others see in them. These are the adopted people who sometimes say things like "Adoption doesn't define me" or "I was adopted" (in contrast to "I am adopted"). And you know what, this is a perfectly acceptable choice. All of us, adopted or not, have complex multi-part identities, and we all make choices everyday about which parts to emphasize and share with the world and which parts to keep private.

When I was younger, I tended to downplay the significance of adoptedness in my life, dismissing the subject as quickly as possible whenever it came up in conversation by saying something like "Being adopted is just part of my life; it's all I've ever known but I don't really think about it much. It's no big deal." Looking back on that time in my life from my current vantage point, I can see that adoptedness was a powerful influence, but my desire to be perceived as "like others" was so strong that I couldn't admit this even to myself, let alone to others.

For me, this was another one of those things that changed over time, but for other adoptees the desire to remain "unmarked" remains strong. And I don't judge them for that at all. We pay a price for going public. Adoption activism and "vocalism" can overshadow other parts of one's identity. Not everyone wants that.

5) The burned-out activist adoptee
I will preface this by saying that I had promised myself I would give myself a long break from writing about adoption, for psychological-becoming-physical health reasons; the past 10 years have taken their toll, and I need to take a step back. -- Daniel Ibn Zayd 
Few people would accuse longtime activist Daniel Ibn Zayd of being silent on adoptee issues, and in fact his self-imposed respite turned out to be short-lived. But his comment about the psychological and physical toll of adoption activism is noteworthy. It's brutal out here. Daniel is not the first vocal adoptee I've encountered expressing a need to take a step back for reasons of self-care and self-preservation. Some retreat temporarily, as Daniel did; others leave the field forever.

[Added February 13, 2014: Please click here to read Daniel's response.]

So there you have it. I've listed five types of silent (or relatively silent) adoptees, albeit with some overlap between the categories. Others can probably add to the list. The point is this: adoptee silence has multiple forms and causes. Please do not use that silence to dismiss or belittle the voice of those who do speak out. 


  1. Well said...and sometimes it takes an life event to take the jump into speaking up...

  2. So true. Many of us have "that moment," after which silence is no longer an option.

  3. My moment was when I was found by my natural family. I was so traumatized that six months after being found in 1974 I signed up for a Family Dynamics class as a new Freshman in college and by that Dec was writing in my college's city's newspaper. At age 19. That winter, I read The Search for Anna Fisher, and began writing for my city's newspaper one year after my reunion began. I've taken several breaks, some lasting from six months to several years. Each time coming back full strength. Great article.

  4. So thankful for these truths being spoken.

  5. This post is such a home run. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  6. Thank you for writing this. I was told I was adopted very shortly before my wedding. I did not have the requisite bandwidth mentally to process this and prepare for marriage in the same mental space. So I chose to be what you would describe as phase one. 20+ years of writing "I don't know" on medical history forms, not being able to truly say what I might be genetically passing to my children, and a well intended but none the less hurtful comment from some who told me while my wife was ill - "We don't know what happens to your people as they age" - finally drew me out of my "OK with all that" reluctance to investigate. Thanks to the Good Lord and some very helpful people - I can now fill out those forms, know what happens to "my people", and have met my biological Grandma, and two sisters and a brother (half siblings). AWESOME...and something that was never a complete picture - but rather a broken puzzle I simply chose for some time not to solve is much more complete. Oddly so am I....which is why some of us talk to others especially other adoptees. Why must people assume that this equates to anything negative. It IS NOT a lack of respect or gratitude, It IS NOT an effort to embarrass others, we are not seeking monetary gain. We just want all the pieces that make up that puzzle to be put together so we can see the picture when everyone else has the puzzle box.

  7. " I often think, Do you have any idea what I've had to climb over to get to this place? It
    took courage and time for me to get to the point of speaking and
    writing things that contradicted the adoption-positive narrative that I
    knew was expected of me. As I see it, the amazing thing isn't that only
    some adoptees speak out; the amazing thing is that any of us do at all,
    given how much pressure many of us experience (from the time we are
    born) to fulfill someone else's vision of what our lives should be and

    This resonated so much with me. Thank you for writing such a thoughtful article, Rebecca.

  8. Thank you, David, for sharing your story. I know what you mean about the puzzle. I am very happy to have found "my people," too!

  9. Excellent post, Rebecca! Ditto, ditto, ditto...

  10. This blog is perfection!! Thank you for writing it! A fellow loud-mouthed adoptee :)

  11. So beautifully written with compassion for all. Thanks, Rebecca. You know too well how difficult it has been for me. But I am taking those little steps forward.

  12. There are so many great insights in this post -- a lot to be considered. I appreciate how you highlight that adoptees will be at different places at different times in their lives.

    I think there is a similar misconception about birthparents. There are birthparents who are a voice on the internet. There is also a large group of birthparents who don't tell their stories.

  13. I've been through every point in your list. I've been through denial, fear of rejection, to being burned out. Then I'll get triggered by something and delve back into adoptee land. The biggest problem for me was lack of social cues on adoption trauma. I found an online adoption forum by accident and even then it took me months to understand it all. Dealing with the abuse from my adoptive parents was so much easier, as there are social cues, books etc I can learn from.

  14. There are probably many, including my mother, who have no clue what happened to them was bad. My mother was forced into giving me up by her mother and my father, she was single. That was her 'crime'. They, like most adoptees, just accepted it as 'that's how it was back then' and believed they deserved it. That's what kills me the most. How these women were led to believe they didn't deserve their babies, I can't imagine what it must be like to live with that.

  15. Fabulous post, as always, Rebecca. Though my daughter and I had our problems, god knows, she shared with her mother at a very early age her desire to know her family of origin, starting with me. It made her life just a little bit easier. If only more people could understand silence hurts everyone.

  16. Excellent article! Gonna share. Thank you. :)

  17. An excellent explanation. Worth saving and sharing!

  18. Great article! I have saved it and will be sharing it every time I hear, "I know someone who was adopted and they are "fine." I run a pro-choice FB page and I hear that garbage nearly everyday!

  19. So, your dawned if you do, dawned if you dont? Sort like if you arrive early for your psychiatric appointment you're anxious, if your late, you're controlling, if on time, too compliant.......I realize not everyone arrives at 55 and is okay with being adopted, but I am, and that is as okay as well as not being okay! Don't ask everyone to fit into your box. We don't all fit.

  20. I am 'donor' conceived and blog at Anonymous Father's Day facebook page. I've been following these issues for over 14 years now and trust me when I say that the 'donor' conceived activists/community are experiencing the exact/identical kinds of challenges. Thank you SO much for putting this out there! This is so true!

  21. Of course it's okay, and nowhere in
    this post do I say that it's not. To the contrary, I quote Amanda H.L.
    Transue-Woolston saying, "Theories and models don't describe everyone."
    I've made that point that we shouldn't assume that _all_ non-vocal adoptees are
    fine, but that doesn't imply that _none_ are. I wrote that "the adoptee
    who insists that he or she is 'just fine' at age 20 may tell a completely
    different story at age 40 or 60 or 93." Note the word "may"! I
    don't say that all adoptees _will_ tell a different story as they age, not do I
    say that there's something wrong with those who don't. There's a reason why this
    post isn't titled "The 5 categories that ALL adoptees fit into." Some
    adoptees have read this essay and said, "Yes, that's me!" If you DON’T
    see yourself in these categories, then the post clearly isn't about you, and
    there's no reason to assume that it is. The only person who I have "put in
    a box" in this post is Daniel Ibn Zayd, and I have apologized to him specifically
    for categorizing him in a way that he does not agree with.

  22. Thank you, and yes, I agree that there is significant overlap in the issues faced by adoptees and donor-conceived individuals.

  23. As a donor conceived adult - my bio father is an anonymous sperm donor, I want to thank our adopted brothers and sisters for paving the way for us! Many DC's found our truth as adults. Many DC's still wish to find our bio parents, but can't. There has been great progress in recent years, especially with open adoptions. I'm hoping more of the same will happen for the cryo generation!

    I'm in the process of adopting a child. I hope that I'm going to be able to provide the child with as much information as possible on her bio parents. I know the journey won't be easy, but is it ever? Hoping I can raise a bright, happy child who knows exactly who she is.

  24. Well here is the thing about the silent minority - if there were an election to equalize the rights of people (all ages) whose bio parent or parents did not raise them (including but not limited to adopted people) - and ONLY people not raised by one or both bio parents were allowed to vote, where would the silent majority be then? How would this silent majority of perfectly happy people separated from their families vote on the issue of equalizing their own rights to those of people whose bio parents raised them?

    The silent majority content with lesser rights would loose. Being happy with the people that raised them does not necessarily equate with absolute contentedness with the current legal state of affairs which is horribly unfair and unequal and that just can't be argued away. It's the truth.

  25. Ah the buzzwords -- "minority," "negligible" number of, "statistically insignificat" and other "selective definitions."...National Councill for Adoption's former Director, Bill Pierce, called us "that small noisey group," yet he kept files on us, monitoring our activities, according to his archived. documents. News flash -


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