By Martha Nichols
The Ethics of Adoption Writing
When my husband and I adopted a baby son in Vietnam in 2002, I never imagined I’d have to explain to our little boy eight years later why another adoptive mother had returned a child. But last April, that’s exactly where I found myself, along with everyone else who watched the sad saga of seven-year-old Artyom Savelyev unfold.
In early April 2010, Artyom was put on an airplane alone by his American adoptive grandmother and flown back to Moscow. He was accompanied only by a note written by his adoptive mother Torry Hansen, a single nurse in Shelbyville, Tennessee.
According to the Associated Press, the note said that she’d been lied to in Russia about the boy’s difficulties: “After giving my best to this child, I am sorry to say that for the safety of my family, friends, and myself, I no longer wish to parent this child.”
The why of a news story like this will always hook us. But as an adoptive parent and writer, it’s become a far more intimate ethical struggle for me.
Within days, I had written an Artyom commentary that appeared on the cover of Salon: “Adoption Fearmongers Take Over.” My focus was on the sensationalized news coverage, including a Nightline report about “the inside stories of adoptions that go horribly wrong.” Yet as the week of Artyom stories roared on, other adoptive parents began confessing their difficulties with problem adoptees, often in specific detail and splashed all over NPR, national TV, and the Internet.
It’s an old conundrum of memoir writing: What right does an author have to reveal private details about the lives of other family members—especially their children? My standard for writing autobiographical nonfiction has long been that I must make myself more vulnerable in print than any relative or friend I write about. So far, I believe I’ve hewed to the ethical side of this personal contract.
But it’s also true that a year after Artyom’s flight back to Russia, I’m doing less writing about my son—or, to be scrupulously accurate, the nature of my writing about him has changed. His views of adoption, in particular, do not seem mine to share...
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Editor's Note: The full text of this piece appears in the April 2011 issue of Talking Writing, in which the theme is "Too Much Truth? The Ethics of Memoir Writing."