Reading Adoption: Family and Difference in Fiction and Drama

Reading Adoption: Family and Difference in Fiction and Drama

by Marianne Novy

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Reading Adoption: Family and Difference in Fiction and Drama by Marianne Novy

Reading Adoption explores the ways in which novels and plays portray adoption, probing the cultural fictions that these literary representations have perpetuated. Through careful readings of works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Barbara Kingsolver, Edward Albee and others, Marianne Novy reveals how fiction has contributed to general perceptions of adoptive parents, adoptees, and birth parents. She observes how these works address the question of what makes a parent, as she scrutinizes basic themes that repeat throughout, such as the difference between adoptive parents and children, the mirroring between adoptees and their birth parents, and the romanticization of the theme of lost family and recovered identity. Engagingly written from Novy's dual perspectives as critic and adult adoptee, the book artfully combines the techniques of literary and feminist scholarship with memoir, and in doing so it sheds new light on familiar texts.

Marianne Novy is Professor of English and Women's Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She is author or editor of numerous books, including Imagining Adoption: Essays on Literature and Culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472115075
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 09/23/2005
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

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Reading Adoption
Family and Difference in Fiction and Drama


By Marianne Novy
The University of Michigan Press
Copyright © 2005

University of Michigan
All right reserved.


ISBN: 978-0-472-11507-5



Chapter One Reading from an Adopted Position

Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. -Adrienne Rich

How do we get our ideas about what adoption means? Whether we grew up in an adoptive family, adopted children ourselves, relinquished them for adoption, know people who did any of these things, or not, we live in a world in which adoption is represented in In her recent book But Enough about Me, Nancy Miller discusses the interplay of identification and disidentification she feels when she reads memoirs. This book grows out of a similar interplay I feel when reading literature dealing with adoption.

Most of the adoptees in canonical literature, fairy tales, and folklore, Winter's Tale is less famous and has a happier ending, but it also shows the adoptee leaving the adoptive family behind after meeting birth parents. These plays have rarely been discussed in terms of adoption, but how much did the cultural knowledge of their plots, and similar ones, contribute to the fear of many adoptive parents that their family won't survive contact between adoptee and birth family, and indirectly to the laws sealing adoptees' birth records? Or, in the case of The Winter's Tale, encourage the dreams of adoptees that meeting their birth family will tell them who they are?

Once I identified with these plots. For years I believed that my adoption had barred me from the people who would understand me most. Now I both identify and disidentify. In fact, finding my birth mother made me appreciate my adoptive mother more and see what I learned from her, though I also According to the language used in folklore, most popular speech, and most literature up until recent times, I have now found my real mother and been rejected by my real father. But that is not what it feels like. I need to use different language, and so does our culture. This is why terms like birth mother and birth father have been invented.

Being adopted is a passive situation. Looking for birth parents, by contrast, is a choice. And so is deciding not to look, when it is indeed a decision and not the default result of sealed records and family discomfort. But what the adoptee finds out about them, or experiences, if lucky enough, in meeting with them, provides another situation of choice, though not a unilateral choice in a vacuum. How much, and in what way, can the adoptee identify with them? How much will they become an active part of the adoptee's life? How does knowing them affect how the adoptee sees or relates to the adoptive family? Where does the search belong in the adoptee's narrative of her (or his, but many more searchers are female) life story? By juxtaposing my story with the literary narratives, I want to emphasize the roles of narrative and choice in self-construction, and also to suggest something of the great range in the possibilities for adoption plots.

This is a book I wish I could have read when I was younger, and a book I wish my literature teachers in high school, college, and even graduate school could have referred to when teaching literature dealing with adoption. It is, for one thing, a book through which I hope to mitigate for other people the aloneness that some still Adoption practices have changed in many ways since my childhood, but there are still many people uncomfortable about the adoption in their life story. One kind of evidence of this discomfort on the part of some adoptive parents is the fear of adoptees' contact with birth parents, which contributes to the practice of sealing records. In this book I hope to diminish this fear by analyzing some of the literature that has transmitted it. I think this book can, in many other ways, help adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth parents to understand their lives. I also want to present literary examples as equipment for thinking about adoptive family construction and adoptee identity in a way that could be useful to people considering any kind of family construction or identity.

An analogy may be useful. Since the 1960s, feminist critics have pointed out that many literary plots identified women's destiny as either marriage or death, that many fairy tales encouraged little girls to look forward mainly to a happy ending with Prince Charming. These plots were part of a cultural pressure that channeled most female expectations into a single track. However, some writers began to turn aside from these plots as other possibilities opened up for women. While factors such as economics were undoubtedly influential as well, writers both influenced, and were influenced by, different female behavior. At the same time, other feminist criticism looked back at the literature of the past to In this book I discuss adoption literature in an analogous spirit. Using adoption as a lens, I see patterns previously unnoticed. I point to adoption plots that have been the dominant cultural influence, but also to elements in literary works that complicate them. I point to works that deliberately rewrite such traditional plots, indicating possibilities for new life stories. And I occasionally tell how my own life influences my reaction to literature, sensitizing me to the fictionality of certain plot elements, such as the search that ends with finding true identity in one's birth family.

Truth and Fiction, Reality and Pretense

This book is about how adoption has been treated fictionally, in novels and plays. But it is also about the contrast between, on the one hand, considering adoption itself as a fiction in the sense of pretense, or constructing it as something that should imitate the traditional biological family as closely as possible in appearance, in the so-called "as-if" family, and, on the other hand, considering it as a different but valid way of constructing a parent-child relationship.

Truth and fiction, reality and pretense-these oppositions are impossible to escape in considering the literary and historical treatment of adoption. Not only does literature sometimes use the term real parents, but also adoption has repeatedly been called a fiction of parenthood. The classic use of this term in analyzing adoption is in Henry J. S. Maine's Ancient Law (1861). This book is distinctive for the view that "without the Fiction of Adoption which permits the family tie to be artificially created, it is dif Adoption plots often move toward an end that defines what is to be considered the true family of the central character. The longer literary tradition is behind the idea that adoption is a fiction and the biological family is real, as in the Oedipus story and Winter's Tale. But in novels such as George Eliot's Silas Marner, Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, Lucy Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, and Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees, the ending is the confirmation of adoptive parenthood. Silas Marner and The Bean Trees make very explicit points of defining parenthood by behavior rather than by biology. The move toward acceptance of nontraditional parenthood in these novels parallels the argument made by many anthropologists today that, rather than distinguishing fictive from authentic kinship, we should say that all kinds of kinship are fictive, because all institutions are constructed by social agreement. But Silas Marner and The Bean Trees present the redefinition of parenthood as not a conclusion arrived at by retheorized scholarship but as an emotional victory for characters marginalized in their societies.

In my childhood, during the postwar baby boom and era of assimilation of the 1950s, the association of adoption with pretense was at its height. A friend of my mother's wore a series of differently sized pillows when she was in the process of adopting a baby, so that everyone would think she was pregnant. This was the exaggeration of the "as-if" model, which dictated that adoptive parents should be a heterosexual couple of the right age to conceive the children they adopt, with some physical similarity to them. I was adopted according to this model. Still, I would never consider my mother just a pretend mother.

In the homes of most adoptive families and their friends, it is obvious that adoptive parenthood is real to anyone who uses that word. However, many people still call birth parents "real parents." For part of our society, parenthood has been redefined to focus on behavior rather than on biology; part cling to an older definition, and others would say that the redefinition should be expanded to include the possibility that a child can have more than two parents. The United States today is divided in its understanding of motherhood, fatherhood, parenthood, and corresponding issues of family, kinship, and identity.

Custody Battles and Adoption Plots

That division was particularly evident in 1993, when a two-year-old girl known as both Jessica DeBoer and Anna Schmidt was the center of a custody battle between the DeBoers, who had raised her and wanted to adopt her, and the Schmidts, her genetic parents, to whom she has now been returned. In this case, Jessica/Anna's birth father, Dan Schmidt, had not been informed of his parentage, and so was not given a choice about her relinquishment for adoption. After her birth mother, Cara, told him the child was his, and they got married, the Schmidts sued the DeBoers for custody. In the extensive media coverage, which involved both a Newsweek cover story and a long article in the New Yorker, many writers reflected not just on this case but on other adoptions that the authors experienced or observed. It was in this year, not just because of this case but partly because of the public interest it revealed, that I decided to try to bring into this conversation the literary history of adoption, as I read it in relation to my own life.

Jessica/Anna's contested parenthood resembles in some ways the situation at the heart of novels by George Eliot and Barbara Kingsolver that I will discuss later in this book. Both emphasis on parental behavior and emphasis on heredity have a long history, and have changed their forms at times during that history. Janet Beizer has argued that today the increased emphasis on genealogy in the United States (the second most popular hobby and the second most searched-for subject on the web) is a reaction to the increase in adoptive and other nontraditional families. Each view of parenthood has left its trace in literature dealing with adoption, which then reinforces that view and its social, political, and psychological effects.

Adoption has figured importantly in literature for a number of reasons. Adoption plots-like contested custody cases-dramatize cultural tensions about definitions of family and the importance of heredity. Representing adoption is a way of thinking about the family, exploring what a family is, that is at the same time a way of thinking about the self, exploring distance from the family. As Freud discussed in his theory of the family romance, for most people-nonadopted people-the fantasy of discovering that they were adopted and can be reunited with a different family elsewhere is a way of dealing with negative feelings about their parents. So is the fantasy that they are orphans who are happily adopted by someone else. And so is the fantasy that they are outsiders who belong in no family at all. Adoption narratives can also help consider family issues from a parent's perspective. I have a daughter (by birth and nurture) who is very different from me. Liz is a risktaking athlete, and I am a physically cautious scholar. I barely glanced at the sports pages before she was in them. In a novel that focuses on an adoptive mother's difficulties in dealing with a child from a different culture, I see a reflection of my life with my teenager.

European and American culture has typically used three mythic stories to imagine adoption: the disastrous adoption and search for birth parents, as in Oedipus, the happy reunion, as in Winter's Tale, and the happy adoption, as in Silas Marner. These stories are myths, even though they conflict, because they act as paradigms to shape feelings, thoughts, language, and even laws about adoption, and to reflect deep cultural beliefs about family. In the two versions of the search story, the birth parents are clearly the "real parents." In the happy adoption story, the birth parents may exist in memory, but no matter how important this memory is, as in Oliver Twist, it does not constitute a living complication to the reconstructed family. What all three have in common is the assumption that a child has, in effect, only one set of parents. To many readers, this will still seem like an inevitable axiom. But for others it is not so obvious. These narratives provide conflicting interpretations of the DeBoer/Schmidt story, my own story, and other stories of adoption. For Jessica/Anna, for me, and for many others, all three narratives are inadequate.

Although these are the dominant paradigms through which our culture has tried to imagine adoption, much literature complicates them considerably, as this book will show. Even the works I mention have more dimensions to their analyses of adoption. Some texts follow these dominant plots; others, however, look at them obliquely, examine their cost, follow their characters after their supposed end, or play off against readers' expectations, explicitly dramatizing deviation from them. One of the purposes of the book, indeed, is to emphasize how much variety is possible in imagining adoption, even though many of the same conflicts recur in different contexts.

(Continues...)

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Table of Contents


Reading from an Adopted Position     1
Oedipus: The Shamed Searcher-Hero and the Definition of Parenthood     37
Adoption and Shakespearean Families: Nature, Nurture, and Resemblance     56
Adoption in the Developing British Novel: Stigma, Social Protest, and Gender     87
Choices of Parentage, Identity, and Nation in George Eliot's Adoption Novels     121
Commodified Adoption, the Search Movement, and the Adoption Triangle in American Drama since Albee     159
Nurture, Loss, and Cherokee Identity in Barbara Kingsolver's Novels of Cross-Cultural Adoption     188
Afterword: Locating Myself as an Adult Adoptee     215
Other Adoption-Related Fiction and Drama     235
Notes     241
Select Bibliography     277
Index     283

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