Friday, December 18, 2009

No More Lost Souls: An Adopted Person’s Response to “Find My Family”

By David Biddle for Adopt-a-tude

This is Adopt-a-tude's concluding review in a series about the ABC reality show Find My Family, which first aired in the United States this past November. Each episode involves the reunion of an adoptee with his or her birth parents. Click here to watch recent episodes.

Find My Family pushes different buttons for adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive families. These differences emerged in the comments to adoptive parent Lisa's post this past Monday. In our second post on the topic, Claudia spoke about the show from a birth parent's perspective. Now David weighs in as an adult adoptee.

We'd like to invite the whole adoption community to keep talking and debating together about the issues raised by this show.

What I hate about reality shows is that the stories are often contrived and artificial. You name it, Survivor, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, The Longest Race, Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, reality and the human experience give way to gross-out, gamesmanship, and goofiness.

Find My Family is different. There’s real human drama on display here. There’s no question that the footage of adoptees and birth parents learning the truth about long-lost kin is one-take, real stuff.

I can only imagine what watching this show feels like for the millions of adoptees out there still searching for—or at least wondering about—their birth parents. As a successful searcher (we found my birth mother six years ago), I think watching Find My Family does a good job of getting across to viewers the deep emotional issues that adoptees confront as adults in the world.

It has a simple premise: the hosts introduce adopted adults, interview them about their need to find their birth families, and then perform a search for the long lost. Once the object of the search is located, the hosts interview that person as well. The final meeting between the two lost souls—and, believe me, you get a hefty dose of what it means to be a real-life lost soul when you watch this show—is then filmed. Let the hugs begin.

Find My Family is definitely a full box-of-tissues tear-jerker. You cry when you listen to the story of why the adoptee finally decided to begin a search; you cry when you understand how frustrating a search can be with all the dead ends; you cry when the show’s hosts, Tim Green and Lisa Joyner (adoptees themselves), deliver bad news and good news; you cry—sometimes uncontrollably—in the reunion scenes; and you cry during the final scenes as the adopted cavort with newly found siblings and parents in lush parks or quaint middle-class American kitchens.

I may be biased, but in my opinion the adoptees and their birth parents in Find My Family are capable of showing natural emotion on a level that makes even the best actors look like they’re getting paid millions of dollars to be fakes.

Without a doubt, placing the reunion search detective story—that’s exactly what it is—on prime time is an interesting move for a major network like ABC. And it comes at a perfect moment in history for those of us adoptees who believe that we should have more rights to identifying information and our original birth records.

Groups like Bastard Nation and Adoptee Rights are growing more and more militant as states continue to control access to information that might lead adoptees to their birth families. It is very likely that this issue is going to be highly charged in 2010. Adoptee Rights is organizing a national demonstration set for July in Kentucky at the Annual Summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

There is no question that the stars of this show are the adult adoptees. Their birth parents are also heroes. The defining moments of the hour come when the adoptees walk up a special hill towards the “Family Tree,” a real tree under which the birth parents (or a sibling) wait. Watching that lost soul climb a long hill towards the answer to life-long questions is powerful, even if the symbolism is a bit heavy.

One quibble I have is that adopting parents don’t have a very big part to play in these tales. We get to meet some of them, but they certainly don’t get center stage. It’s easy to see why, since the drama and existential struggle of adoptees and the parents who had to let them go is so profound.

But still, I’d like to hear at the end what the adopting mom or dad thinks when the child they raised and loved all those years has found a new mom, dad, brother, or sister. Adopting parents are often as emotionally invested in the reunion search as their adopted children.

Obviously there’s some contrivance built into how the hosts tell these stories. Details are sometimes dropped in for dramatic effect. The settings tend to be highly beatific; the film crew is definitely looking for a Hallmark™ feel to scenes (and, not surprisingly, Hallmark is an advertiser on the website). The show’s participants are often perfectly coiffed, wearing heavy makeup.

I only bring this up because what is so appealing about Find My Family is that the producers can’t choose actors or even attractive amateurs. There are only so many people who are adopted and willing to have their stories told to the world on TV. As such, the “stars” are completely real people—your neighbors, co-workers, or classmates.

This is important, because the identity issues adoptees go through are really not that much different than what anyone goes through: Who am I really? Where did I come from? Why do I feel all alone?

In many ways, all people are orphans in the world. We grow up. We leave home. We have to deal with life as solitary agents. Adoptees just have to face that their entire lives.

Find My Family, of course, portrays only the successful and positive stories of reunion searches. For every wonderful, loving re-connection the show depicts there are at least as many—and probably more—searches that don’t end well. I’ve heard too many tales of weird scenes with birth families, and sometimes the trail can lead to graveyards, mental institutions, and other depressing conclusions. Perhaps Fox should one-up ABC and consider offering something along those lines in 2010.

But despite the flaws, Find My Family does an excellent job of getting across to America what it’s like to be an adult adoptee. Here are some recognizable statements in the first few episodes from my own life and the lives of my adopted peers: “I’ve always had to deal with abandonment issues.” “I felt trashed.” “This is the look of Complete!” “Oh my God, he looks like me! This is so weird.”

In the end, this show is going to empower a lot of adopted folks and at least their birth moms to stand up and be counted as examples of fortitude and grace. In this age of high-profile divorces, celebrity adoptions, and philandering heroes, Find My Family is an antidote to the cynicism and edge that continue to seep into our lives.

Call me old-fashioned, but if I’m going to let TV enter my life, I’m more interested in plot and character development than I am in being entertained. I’ll take hugs, kisses, crying for joy, and everyday people pouring out their hearts on camera any day over people who make fools of themselves pretending they’re important.

TV should be an adjunct to our individual quests to figure out what life is all about, not an escape hole. Find My Family admirably provides the former, and in this way is truly life-affirming.


Mei-Ling said...

"I'd like to hear what the adopting mom or dad thinks when the child they raised and loved all those years has found a new mom, dad, brother or sister."

When I told my mom I wanted to search, her response was:

"Absolutely. I always kept the expectation that you might one day want to search."

Not all adoptees consider their biological parents to be a new "mom" or "dad." Some do. Some don't. But then, here's where it gets tricky - how can a person have and/or love two moms?

That's up for the adoptee to define. And then someone will surely comment, "Well, it should be obvious; the MOM is the one who raised the child! It's insulting to imply another mom can suddenly jump into the picture."

Newsflash: there was another mom right from the beginning. There was always another mom before the papers were even signed, before parental rights were terminated. Legally that mom is not recognized as a parent, but emotionally? She does not stop loving her child just because she signed some papers. A mother's heart doesn't work that way.

SocialWrkr24/7 said...

I posted my thoughts from a social worker's perspective on my blog here:
and here:

But in response to Mei-Ling's comment - I find it interesting that we ask how a child could love more than one mother. Doesn't a child love both their mother and their father? And sometimes a child loves their step parents?

We always tell kids that their parents have enough love for all of their children - but why don't we think that kids have enough love for all of their parents?

Mei-Ling said...

"I find it interesting that we ask how a child could love more than one mother."

I know - I've seen that sentiment expressed SO many times in rebuttal on adoptive parent blogs...

Martha Nichols said...

I've always liked the title of the Amy Bloom story "Love Is Not a Pie." In other words, there are more than a few discrete slices to go around. I'm an adoptive parent, and it's never made sense to me that there can be only one kind of maternal connection with one woman. One of the adults who's closest to my son is his godmother, a dear friend of mine, who he calls "aunt."

It's always seemed to me that one of the potential blessings of being part of an adoptive family is that love can grow beyond boundaries in ways you never expected. We tell my son that he has four parents, and although this is a hard concept for a child to grasp, it feels like trying to make it "easier" or "simpler" to understand--or supposedly reassuring children that "nobody will ever love you as I do"—is just not truthful.

Martha Nichols said...

P.S. SocialWkr24/7--I really liked your response to "Find My Family" on your blog. I'm adding your site to our blogroll. Perhaps you could do the same for Adopt-a-tude?

Trace said...

The truth is: we do not "belong" to our adoptive family; we have our own ancestry and our own name and our own biological parents and no amount of pretending will ever change that. Blood is loud. The myth that adoption industry paints is babies are blank slates. We are not. The show is doing wonders to explain primal pain and orphan trauma being separated from our birth-kin. My book ONE SMALL SACRIFICE explains my long journey back to my tribal ancestry and family. There will always be adoption until people realize the pain and confusion it creates for an adoptee.

SocialWrkr24/7 said...

I will absolutely add Adopt-a-tude onto my blogroll - thanks for adding mine! :)

Lynn Assimacopoulos said...

My new book called "Separated Lives" is a true story about the adoption of a baby boy and years later a friend taking him on a fascinating but uncertain journey to search for his birth parents. It is available from Dorrance Publishing (in Pittsburgh, PA), Barnes & Noble and
Author: Lynn Assimacopoulos