by Sandy Musser
for Radical Change
Presented at SAGAS
Secret Adoption Grief Art Show
November 3, 2000
Since the birth of our nation there have always been individuals in the forefront of their movement who were known as "radical." What exactly does it mean to be radical? In checking with Webster, we find that the word has two primary meanings - revolutionary and fundamental. Synonyms of revolutionary are nonconformist, rebel rouser, ringleader, but also activist and reformer. The word fundamental means such things as basic, essential, innate, original and constitutional - certainly these terms are appropriate to our discussion here today.
Think about it - were it not for radical leadership, slavery would still exist and women would still not be allowed to vote. William Lloyd Garrison began his personal attack on slavery in 1829 when he called for 'gradual emancipation.' But only two years later, he published the first issue of The Liberator and called for "an immediate end of an immoral institution." Yet 126 years passed before Rosa Parks dared to test the waters of racial equality fueling the Civil Rights movement of our century. Susan B. Anthony another one of those radical individuals, along with 15 of her friends was arrested on November 5, 1872 for daring to go to the ballot box, but it would be another 48 years following her arrest before the 19th Amendment was finally passed allowing women the right to vote.
It was sometime during the early 80's that I first recall someone referring to me as a 'radical.' I also remember feeling uncomfortable with that label because it seemed to have such a negative connotation. But it was during the late 70's that I had become committed to the cause of adoption reform at any cost. So the radical label was apparently correct. It was November 5, 1993 when I walked through the gates of a federal prison for daring to challenge our adoption laws. Why was I sent to Prison. Because I refused to plead guilty to the government's ridiculous charge of "conspiracy to defraud the government of confidential information:" and because I turned down their plea bargains. Early on, I had made a conscious decision that I would not be deterred by the threat of prison because I was so passionate about my beliefs.
Prior to being processed into the general population, I was placed in solitary confinement. I only mention that fact because I'm extremely claustrophobic and because I was denied medication during those three days. Needless to say, I was a basket case by the time I got out of solitary. Did I question myself as to whether it was really worth what I was going through? Yes, I did - in fact I had lots of time to consider that question. Did I suffer emotionally - I can assure you that I did! But do I have any regrets about my decision to stand my ground? No, I don't! What are you passionate about? What changes would you like to see and what are you willing to do to make them happen? What I'm going to share with you today may seem radical, but if it resounds within your heart and spirit, then I pray that you will commit yourself to radical leadership. Either way, I hope you will keep an open mind and hear me out.
Organizations and institutions rise and fall - they rise because they fulfill a purpose for a specified period of time and when the need for them no longer exists, they fall. The institution of adoption, as we know it, started its rise in the 40's, rose steadily during the 50's, 60's and 70's and then began a decline during the 80's and 90's. Many of us now living at the beginning of the 21st Century realize that an institution so riddled with secrecy and lies has no place in our society. There comes a time when a foundation is so decayed that it becomes necessary to tear it down rather than to try to build upon it. I believe that time has come. I can hear some of my old former cronies now saying "she wants to throw out the baby with the bath water." They're the same ones who believe the foundation of this institution can be "fixed", that somehow it can be improved upon and made better and stronger, but I propose to you that a crumbling, broken infested foundation cannot be fixed nor can it be repaired.
The reason is this - the major crack in the substructure is not whether adoptees should be entitled to their information (that goes without question - of course they should!!) or it's not in trying to determine how many hours should pass before a mother can sign a surrender paper (there aren't enough hours to justify a permanent separation of mother and child). So the major crack in the foundation is the way adoption has been and continues to be constructed. What do I mean by the 'construction of adoption?'
Adoption has always been a charade using a game we all used to play when we were kids - the game of "Let's Pretend" - for instance, to the mother we say - 'let's pretend' you never had a baby; then you can go on with your life, start a career, and put all this behind you like a bad dream; to the adopters we say - 'let's pretend' that this child you're adopting was "given away" because he/she wasn't wanted and even though this child comes pre-packaged with their own unique genetic makeup, let's just pretend that adoption will wipe it out; and then when the adoptee gets older and starts asking the "Who Am I" question, we tell them to pretend that their ancestral roots which include their entire cultural, medical and social history really don't matter - those basic God-given innate constitutional rights just aren't important enough to break the almighty 'sealed record!'
This game of 'let's pretend' allows the adoption service providers using the legal system to carry out the charade. Here is the crux of the entire charade - it allows ASP (adoption service providers) to falsify/doctor legal documents and thereby sanction the legalizing of lies. Then they take the true and accurate information and hide it under the cloak of secrecy - all the while stealing and robbing the child of its constitutional birthright to know their roots, their culture, their entire history. We are then forced into the position of playing the game by their rules. When you, the adoptee, as a grown adult, request your own basic information, once again they hide behind the secrecy laws which they themselves created, put into place, and now, even in this age of enlightenment, continue to staunchly defend.
We need to stop the pretense so inherent in adoption. By its very nature and language, the entire process is full of pretense. Let me cite just a few examples from two of the many adoption documents - the final decree states "as if born to the adoptive parents now and forevermore" allowing the charade to begin. But more outrageous is the surrender paper which still uses the term "abandoned!" Can you think of anything worse than for a child to feel or be told that they were 'abandoned' by their own mother - or for a mother to feel she abandoned her child? I left the hospital that July day in 1954 with empty arms and a broken heart and the memory of my daughter never ceased, and though I was told to forget, I never did. I can assure you that I never believed I was abandoning her, but that's what the paperwork would have us believe. Was I in dire straits at the time - definitely! Do I wish there could have been another solution - absolutely! Was it a last resort and I finally "surrendered" - yes! But hardly abandonment! The real truth of the matter is that no mother wants to 'give away' her child. It is not the norm nor is it a natural act. In fact, it is probably one of the most unnatural acts known to the human race and, sadly, we are one of the few countries in the world that encourage mothers to give away their babies and endorse the taking of young children from poor families.
How did an institution supposedly built upon love and compassion for children become a billion dollar business requiring professional intermediaries and legislated rules and regulations to make it function? My friends, it's an outrage. The time has come for us to end this charade. We need to have a vision that no child has to be permanently separated from their family of origin - their birth kin. Now hear me out on this. I'm not so naïve that I don't realize there are times when a child needs to have other caretakers (formerly called guardians), but when it becomes absolutely impossible for a child to remain with the family of origin, then let us at the very least establish a way for them to maintain their family ties. And let us NOT eradicate their family name - it's who they are! Many of you are probably thinking that these are lofty, idealistic or unrealistic ideas, but if we are really pro-family, then we've got to begin some-where. It's so important to remember that we don't just remove a child from a mother or a father; when a child is taken, they are taken from an entire family of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents - their whole root system.
The trauma of separation from one's family of origin is one of the most agonizing traumas we suffer as human beings. I am reminded of Louise, a 56 year old searching adoptee who told our support group that on the way home from a former meeting, she began to think about her mother 'out there somewhere' and suddenly the tears began to flow and she began to cry. Over and over again, she cried "Mommy, Mommy, where are you?!" I remember her look of embarrassment as she was telling us about it, but everyone shook their heads with complete empathy and understanding as to what she had experienced. Yes, the loss is so great that we could all well relate.
Then there was Elizabeth. Elizabeth was a mother whose words have been ringing in my ears since she first spoke them 24 years ago. She said "My social worker told me to get on with my life, to go to college get a degree and 'make something of myself.' I did just as she suggested because I had no other options open to me, but it didn't take me very long to realize that what I had done was to trade my child for a PhD and I've never gotten over that awful realization. I've regretted my decision ever since."
And finally there was Nora, an adoptive parent who pleaded with The Musser Foundation to locate her adopted daughter's mother. In her letter to us, she wrote, "My daughter is in so much pain. It breaks my heart to see her struggling with who she is and it doesn't seem fair that she would be denied this basic information" She went on to express how she hoped we would be able to locate her mother in time for her daughter's 21st birthday. She wanted to provide her with the information as a gift. We did complete the search, but not in time. Sadly, her mother had passed away just a short time before. She was totally devastated and is still dealing with the awful grief that is experienced when the search ends at the grave. Friends, time is always of the essence.
The trauma of separation caused by adoption affects all of us for all of our lives. Statistics have proven over and over again that our jails, our mental health facilities and our treatment centers are filled with those who became separated from their family of origin at an early age. And they're filled with rage. The repressed anger that results from the trauma of separation is, I believe, the most toxic emotion known to man. Traditional, closed, sealed, secret adoption has got to stop. Too many lives have been devastated in its wake.
So what needs to be done? We need to be creative as we search for new programs to help our young families remain together - we need to do everything we can possibly do to prevent the loss of separation from ever occurring in the first place. As Hal Aigner, author of Adoption in America stated using a medical analogy - "adoption healing is wonderful, but the better path in not to contract the disease."
While I was in prison, and soon after the 60 Minutes Show aired, I received a commendation from The Giraffe Project, a legitimate non-profit organization (www.giraffe.org) that encourages risk-taking. The Giraffe Award is presented to individuals who are willing to 'stick one's neck out for the Common Good.' I can tell you with pride that it's one of my proudest awards.
For the first time in this new century, I've decided to once again stick my neck out. Because giraffes have such long necks, they always see the "bigger picture" - the bigger picture is that someday no child will have to be separated from their family of origin. I'm hoping that those of you who also see the bigger picture will want to become giraffes and join me. If so, would you send me an e-mail and let me know.
On this cool Friday in November 2000, seven years to the day that I went to prison for adoption reform, I am calling for the abolition of adoption. As we go forward into the 21st Century, let's end this charade once and for all, and allow this archaic institution to fade into obscurity and become a 'thing of the past.' In doing so, we will truly be proponents for family preservation.
© November 2000, 2001