different kind of hero on a different kind of
In so many of the myths I knew in childhood, the Hero rides bravely into a vast crimson-fingered dawn toward the unknown. Because the Hero has been raised by birth kin and nurtured by reassuring catechisms, he grows up in a sweet meadow of answers; the only quest or questions for him lie beyond the boundaries of this taken-for-granted Eden. The magic of this kind of myth was always lost to me.
I understand now that the reason is that reality is reversed for people raised after closed, sealed-record adoptions, inseminations or egg donations. We are not raised in a sweet meadow of answers because the answers, rather than being entrusted to our Elders, are sealed and guarded by outsiders: social workers, court clerks, adoption lawyers, clerics and even infertility doctors. Thus we have inside, in the place of Eden, a frontier of questions so taboo that many Adoptees dare not explore it. It is taboo because society's laws forbid us from seeing the sealed records and names that hold the key to our mysteries. It is taboo because we ourselves may be afraid of the Truth that we might find there, afraid of being turned away by our birthmother, or afraid that the parents who raised us will misinterpret our curiosity as betrayal.
I began looking in literature, in history, and in myth for other Adoptees who could serve as archetypes for me. Eventually I found them in abundance, hidden in plain view. The most famous were the twinned founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, improbably raised by a she-wolf, and Moses, raised by the daughter of the same Pharaoh who had originally ordered the death of all male Hebrew infants like Moses!
In both versions of the tale of the Adoptee, the rescuer who becomes their protective adoptive parent could have been their most dangerous enemy. That they did not implies to me that there is something conciliatory in the universe (God!) that leads people to do good despite traditional strictures of race, class, and in the case of Romulus and Remus, even species. (Similarly, the married, middle class couples who might be expected to most object to unwed motherhood and illegitimacy are the ones most likely to become adopters.)
Adoptees begin their quest when they finally venture back to their origins. Romulus and Remus begin it when they return from the wild to the world of humans. Moses embarks on his quest when he hears the voice in the burning bush calling him away from Midian and back to Egypt, the land of his birth, adoption and childhood.
Like Moses, I returned to "Egypt" only after becoming a parent and after living in a foreign country, Japan, that emphasized a shared history and "race" as the basis of its polity. (Immigrant countries like the U.S.A., on the other hand, are similar to adoptive families in their being bonded by affection and ideals, not blood.)
I wanted to celebrate the process of an adult adoptee's (or immigrant's or convert's or spiritual seeker's) Search and Reunion. Sometimes, of course, the end of a Search does not lead to a Reunion, but to a different Resolution. I blended the biblical story of Moses with commentaries on it from the Talmud and my own insights as an adoptee. At first recollection, the story of Moses may sound like an adoptive parent's worst nightmare: A Hebrew baby is adopted by the Egyptians only to grow up and kill the Egyptian Pharaoh. Then he runs off with the Hebrews, never to return to Egypt. But there are lesser-known commentaries that lend the story depth and compassion. For example, according to the Oral Tradition, Moses brings his adoptive mother (and other Egyptians who opposed slavery) with him when the Hebrews flee Egypt.
When my research was done, I wove the Moses adoption story into the weft of a working haggadah and started planning a seder. The most obvious goal was to share the story of Moses the archetypical Adoptee with other adoptees who were engaged in a Search. I had three other goals as well.
One was to raise money for legislative reform. Other people in New Jersey had been donating their own money, unasked and unacknowledged, to this cause. But now that the National Adoption Reform lobbyist, who wanted to maintain secrecy, had targeted our state with a budget several times our own, we had to start fund-raising efforts. I requested a minimum donation from anyone who planned to attend the Adoption Seder (and many people gave more than the minimum).
I also reserved time at the end of the evening for representatives from various regional groups to introduce themselves. The networking that resulted contributed to a four-state brainstorming session later that year when activists from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut met to discuss legislative goals, court challenges, fundraising and other practical issues.
Finally, I wanted to prepare a rite that would bring us all together, people who had had good reunions, people who had had bad reunions, people who had had none. I wanted the mourners to acknowledge the celebrators and the celebrators to acknowledge the mourners. I wanted everyone to realize that because each quest is different, we make a very human mistake when we extrapolate from our own experience to make blanket statements about adoption and reunion as a whole (a tendency that bogged down a lot of other group meetings). I wanted everyone gathered at the adoption seder --social workers, lawyers, adoptive parents, birthmothers and adoptees -- to hear at least part of the story of the Egyptians and the Hebrews from the other perspective.
The New Jersey Coalition for Openness in Adoption hosted the first annual Ecumenical Adoption Seder in the social hall of Temple B'Nai Or in Morristown, New Jersey. There I displayed essays, meeting announcements and sign-up sheets for members of the adoption groups that came. The gathering included three dozen adult adoptees, adoptive parents, birth mothers, significant others and social workers from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Each participant brought with them an object that represented part of their adoption story.
We sat at a table set with six foods, each representing part of the story of Exodus/Adoption. We each took turns reading from my oh-so-painstakingly researched haggadah. But the most memorable part of the evening then, as it has been at every adoption seder since, was the part that was left un-scripted. That is the part called tsafun or the Search.
At the beginning of all seders, someone breaks a matzah in half and hides part of it until the Search, tsafun. This keeps the interest of the children because at tsafun they get to search for the hidden matzah and the first one to find it wins a prize. At the adoption seder, we used adoption terminology for the Search. Instead of hiding something we "relinquished" it and someone playing social worker "placed" it where it remained hidden until tsafun. Instead of matzah, we brought objects that represented our adoption story.
After the Search, we went around the table and explained what our symbolic object was. I brought a photo album filled with pictures of members of my birth family and the pressed flowers and hand-made prints my birth mother sent from her home in Europe.
Many other people brought photographs, too, and one otherwise law-abiding birth mother brought a picture of her son she cut out of a yearbook in a public library. He had died several years ago only a few months after trying unsuccessfully to contact her, yet the adoption agency and his adoptive parents refused to tell her the nature of his death or to share pictures of him.
Another birth mother praised her son's parents and said the success of his adoption is one of the things that always keep her feeling optimistic.
One adoptee, Father Tom Brosnan, brought a black and white picture of a biological uncle who not only shared the same first name, but was also a member of the priesthood.
An adoptive mother showed the home-made adoption announcement they sent out after winning a five year battle to adopt their foster son.
Many people brought poems they had written about adoption. One birth mother brought two notebooks of poems.
Someone brought a drawing of a birth mother floating Moses' cradle out into the bulrushes.
One adoptive mother brought a picture of her own mother who had encouraged her to adopt in the first place.
One adoptee stood up and said that adoption had been a blessing and her reunion with her birth parents now made her feel doubly blessed.
Another adoptee whose search had been nothing but false leads and dead ends, introduced her biological daughter. Through her daughter she found some of the continuity and sense of connection she could not find through Searching.
And there were two sets of new adoptive parents who had come just to hear what adult adoptees and birth mothers had to say.
When I first wrote the haggadah, its tone was much angrier. I began it with a section called Ametz chametz, a Hebrew rhyme for "adoption garbage" and in it I listed the Jewish purity laws that discriminate against adoptees. For example, according to the purity laws, children who are born as the result of adultery cannot marry someone with the last name Cohen or Levi (descendents of the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem). The adopted child of a Cohen or a Levi, even though they bear that last name, is not allowed to recite the priestly blessing at prayer services that the biological children of Cohens or Levis can. But I dropped the Ametz chametz section because I felt that if someone were going to feel alienated from organized religion, it would not be because of these arcane and often ignored religious laws.
More seriously, I found it hypocritical (and still do) when adoptive Jewish parents who are proud of their 5000-plus year history are surprised to hear that adoptees want to know their history, too. This criticism can apply to parents of any ethnic group because adoptees do not have a strong connection to the ancestors of their adoptive family. The issues just get more confused when a particular ethnic group also represents a religion. Other examples would be Russian Orthodoxy or Greek Orthodoxy. While a Chinese adoptee can certainly be a Jew (and there were Jewish communities in China for centuries), she can never be, for example, an ethnic Eastern European Jew.
It was when I was in the midst of drafting versions of the Moses narrative as an angry adoptee's haggadah that I discovered that the author Betty Jean Lifton had done something similar by using Oedipus as the archetype of her adoption writings. First she relieved him of the burden of serving as a Freudian archetype of incest pathology and then revealed his story for the adoption legend that it is. Here is my synopsis of the re-examined myth of Oedipus, as culled from her Twice Born: Memoirs of an Adopted Daughter and Lost & Found, the Adoption Experience:
When Queen Jocasta was with child, her husband King Laius was warned by the Oracle at Delphi that he would be killed by the son that she was about to bear. Fearful, the king had the infant exposed and left hanging by his pierced heels from a tree on a mountaintop.
The baby was rescued by shepherds who took him to King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth to raise as their own. Although the child's bloodlines were shrouded in mystery, the royal couple took him in because they were unable to conceive. Ashamed by their own barrenness, they feigned that he was flesh of their flesh and kept his adoption secret from the court. In the version of the story presented by Sophocles in Oedipus Rex, we are to believe that Oedipus did not suspect that he was adopted.
Then, one day, a drunken man at a banquet taunted him with the truth. When Oedipus confronted his parents, they lied, still assuring him that he was their own flesh and blood. Even the Delphian Oracle would not reveal to Oedipus that he was adopted, although it did confirm the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Thus, in an apparent attempt to avoid committing patricide and incest, Oedipus flees to another kingdom.
Of course, along the way, he meets an imperious stranger (Laius) at the crossroads near Thebes, whom he slays. He then marries the widow, Jocasta. Finally, at the end of the play, realizing who they are, a remorseful Oedipus blinds himself. The myth becomes a morality lay, teaching us that secrecy in adoption is bad and that if only Oedipus' adoptive parents had not kept his adoption a secret from him, the tragedy could have been averted.
At another level, Oedipus may have suspected all along that he was adopted (as some adoptees who have not been told they were adopted do). After being confronted by the drunken man at the banquet he may have set out on his journey in order to discover the truth of his origins. An angry young man, he may actually have felt a flicker of recognition before sinking the knife into Laius and merging with Jocasta. He knew what he was doing --he was taking revenge for his abandonment.
In the earliest versions of the Oedipus myth (of which Freud, who was not a scholar of myth, may have been unaware) Oedipus is not blinded by his later discovery of the truth. Instead, he sees better and continues on as king.
It is not surprising that when B.J. Lifton read my adoption haggadah, the part that most caught her interest was where Moses killed the Hebrews' Egyptian foreman. She commented, "You see, Moses was an Angry Young Man like Oedipus." That may be true early on, but his anger was more than just a self-indulgent acting out against his own sense of personal loss. It was righteous wrath against the institution of slavery. As a freeman, on the advice of his father-in-law Jethro, Moses develops a disciplined system of judgeships to maintain peace among the Hebrews. His revelation at Mount Sinai was the Torah, the bible filled with stories of history and commandments to ensure justice. Moses, like other prophets, was angry at times but his methodical recording of history and commandments is too sophisticated to be the work of a hot-tempered youth.
There is only one thing I would add to Lifton's retelling of the Oedipus tale. Perhaps Oedipus received the gift of awareness shared with Moses, Romulus and Remus. It was Oedipus' inquisitiveness as a searcher, his awareness, that enabled him to save a city from destruction by solving the riddle of the Sphinx -- just as he solved the riddle of his origin. You may remember that riddle: what walks on four legs in infancy, two legs in its prime, and three legs in old age? The answer was humanity. Humans crawl on four legs in infancy, walk upright in their prime, and use a third leg, a cane, in old age.
Being adopted (like growing up between two faiths or two countries) gives you a different take on life; maybe Oedipus' different perspective allowed him to see answers that others could not. But there are two riddles Oedipus has not resolved:
Why is it that some people who would dearly love children cannot birth them, while not all those who can birth them want to keep them or treat them well?
Why is it that some people who could dearly love to know their blood kin and ancestry find this knowledge is forbidden to them, while others who have all this take it for granted?
To these we can only repeat, each year, "May Elijah answer the questions that your quest cannot."