avatarMelissa Corrigan


The View From Over Here

Adoption from the perspective of the adoptee

Photo by Anete Lusina

I sit back against the wooden slats, confused, withdrawing from the child in front of me.

“Why does she act like that? What’s wrong with her?”

The stern brunette woman shoots me an angry glance as she turns the child by the shoulders, and I feel confusion and shame.

I just wanted to play with him. I just got excited and knocked over his blocks. I didn’t mean to.

Of course,’ I think, ‘this is why you won’t get adopted.’

This situation was not an over-eager puppy up for adoption. It was me, in kindergarten, when I was a foster kid in rural upstate South Carolina in 1987.

Taking a classic yellow bus to school was one of the most exciting developments in my young life. At the age of 5, my brother and I were on our eighth foster home.

School offered the promise of normalcy and consistency that we craved in our young lives. I was already reading; my social worker told my adopters that I basically taught myself to read when I was around three years old. At preschool age, I was eagerly reading cereal boxes, shampoo bottles, and whatever magazines I could find.

Just as language opened up an entirely new world to me through reading, school would open up an entire social world to me along with the formal education in reading and writing that would give me the keys to unlocking my strength.

That is, if I could stay at the same foster home, and thus the same school, for any substantial length of time.

Big mouth and bigger attitude

My brother, who is sixteen months older than me and diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and I stayed together. Our social worker was adamant on that front.

While Miss S. was frequently visibly scatterbrained and overworked during her less-than-frequent visits, she was kind and earnest, and she took everything I reported to her seriously.

When I was touched inappropriately and could barely communicate it (my very first memory is of a sexual assault that must have happened when I was around three, and a shortly following memory is of relaying this information to my social worker), she acted swiftly and removed us from the home.

I remember a late evening at a McDonald’s and watching her having a heated conversation at the payphone outside before we drove hours into the dark to a foster placement on the other side of the state in Charleston, SC.

I also remember when that foster parent, an active duty Navy sailor, held my brother’s palm to the burner of the electric stove in the kitchen of the military housing and my brother ran away for over 24 hours, prompting the call to the social worker again. They found my brother huddled behind an HVAC unit somewhere in the neighborhood clutching his burned hand and rocking, rocking, rocking, and we climbed in her beat-up old sedan with the little plastic bag of our possessions and set off into the dark again.

I told her everything.

And I stood up to those terrible adults, even in my very earliest memories. I recall more than one slap to the face for getting in front of my brother and taking it for him.

I’ve never been a meek, submissive type. Ever.

So when I was placed with a strict, conservative Christian couple, my fate was already written.

Breaking a strong-willed child

It became clear very quickly in my adoptive home the way things ran. My female adopter ran the roost. Although the term narcissist is thrown around frequently nowadays, I tend to suspect she’s the real deal.

She used all the tools of the trade — guilt, manipulation, gaslighting, and outright verbal and physical abuse — to ensure everyone under her roof complied with her.

I’d been raised in mostly rural foster homes in the foothills of Appalachia. I was used to being barefoot and outdoors, messy hair and tanned skin. This was not an acceptable way for a little girl to be, apparently, as I was summarily stuffed into dresses, put in a room painted and carpeted pink, and given delicate porcelain dolls.

While other little girls may have found this all to be a dream come true, I found it to be just suffocating. It wasn’t me.

We were also expected to immediately comprehend and behave appropriately in multiple church services a week when previously we’d only stepped foot in a church during the summer Vacation Bible School. Sitting still for an hour or more can be difficult for the average six-year-old; add all of our previous life experience, trauma, the itchy uncomfortable dresses, and the sheer newness of all the church stuff and we were totally out of our element.

So yeah, I wiggled and I complained.

In public, she’d try to discreetly verbally address me, but at home, her discipline, especially with me, was getting increasingly violent. At one point, a few years into the adoption, I was exhausted after a long session of ‘physical discipline’ and she looked down at me, her face beet red and her hair all askew, and her eyes had a shine in them and she looked positively triumphant as she declared, “I will break your will!”

I realized at that moment, at that young age, that she had absolutely no desire to love me, to have a relationship with me, to know me as a person — all she wanted was to conquer me and add me to her host of sycophants. My adoptive father was a dutiful enabler, and even my brother had learned that complying with her every suggestion was the path to peace with her.

This battle of wills continued right up until I became a legal adult. I never did become a person to her. I was a failed dream, a disappointment of the most embarrassing kind. She had some fertility issues; they’d sadly lost one child mid-pregnancy and she was unable to conceive again.

I can’t ever speak to their motive or reasoning for adopting a sibling set, one of whom was disabled, but knowing them as I now know them, I can only conjecture it wasn’t the purest or most noble of motives.

First of all, they became instant saviors in the community. Taking not one but two poor kids out of foster care, and one disabled! My god, she’s a saint!

It became silly to me to watch her perform in public, and I wondered why no one else thought her overly dramatic humility act was clearly not sincere. It was so over the top. She looked like a stage performer to me. She certainly wasn’t the person I lived with every day. The saccharine sweetness when she spoke to the ladies of the church, who lapped it all up eagerly as they appointed her as Chair of the Women’s Circle and nominated her for Layperson of the Year.

Sometimes I would recall this person as she was dragging me by my hair, and she probably did think I was actually crazy as I laughed, laughed recalling her pious preacher’s wife act, while she was screaming at me, spittle flying from beet-red face, an arm raised in mid-strike.

If only the Women’s Circle could see her now!’ I’d think.

If only anyone could see the reality of my life.

The invisible masses

The thing about being an adoptee is that you have to melt into this family and play the role, all day, every day. Your life becomes being this thing, this grateful, dutiful ‘child’ to people just months ago you didn’t even know.

Any questions or pondering about your ‘real’ family were either quietly shut down or made them angry. I made the mistake of saying “real family” once and my female adopter burst into tears and yelled, “We are your REAL family!” as if I had mortally wounded her with my words.

In fact, in any situation in which I tried to express my feelings about any of it — the adoption, my biological family, my heritage, my identity — she would make it about her feelings with some big display of anger, weeping, or a passive-aggressive silent treatment.

It became clear through the years that I literally had no right to my own identity; not only the information like my mother and father’s names, but even just my own personality, likes and dislikes, preferences. Everything in that household catered to her. Her tastes, her preferences, her likes and dislikes. To rock the boat meant absolute chaos and swift retribution.

And so I moved through my adolescent years, like an automatronic doll, going through the motions, checking all the right boxes — honor roll, Beta Club, marching band, choir, orchestra, service clubs, church youth group— stifling much of what makes me… me.

As I became a legal adult, I finally walked away and struck out on my own.

I was homeless, I was scared, but I wasn’t trapped there anymore. I took jobs waiting tables and bartending, working multiple jobs to be able to get an apartment, pay my utilities, and eat. I joined the military after 9/11 and began pulling myself up and making a life for myself.

And as the years got between me and that household, as my mind matured and I began having life experiences with all kinds of people, it began to dawn on me just what a horrific experience I had lived through.

I would tell a childhood story I found pretty routine or normal, and the faces of the people in the room would be horrified as a hush fell. More than once, I had a concerned friend say something along the lines of, “Hon, that’s not okay. That shouldn’t have happened to you.”

Then when I became a mother, I began deeply examining a lot of the abuse, and the layers of abuse, I endured in my childhood as I struggled to free myself, as a mother, from the tentacles of the conservative Christian way of raising children that relied on ‘spare the rod, spoil the child.’

As I freed myself, I became even more aware of the abuse and the ramifications of the abuse well into my adult life.

The whole time, I was surfing the first waves of the World Wide Web, searching for my mother, to no avail.

Years passed. Years. I would go through periods of trying to ‘make nice’ with my adopters, mostly to maintain some kind of relationship with my brother, but it was becoming more and more difficult to pretend to be okay with people who actively abused me and allowed me to be sexually abused in their home for years, especially with no conversation addressing it and no semblance of an apology for their behavior.

Once again, I was supposed to just eat that.

As social media took off and Facebook became an integral part of almost everyone’s daily life, I was discovering communities of people I’d previously not had much contact with: other adoptees.

I knew a few others as a kid, but whole community groups dedicated to adoptees only were a new thing for me. As people began posting their lived realities in those groups, I began to truly understand how fucked up it all was. First of all, my story was not unique in many ways. The abuse, the control, the forced gratitude, the expectation to ascribe to conservative evangelical Christianity, the sexual abuse — there were so many common themes it really became overwhelming.

I had to pull back a bit. It was pushing my social justice buttons that thousands and thousands of people had been subjected to systemic abuse, trafficking, and identity theft, and all at the hands of their state governments and for-profit adoption agencies, right out in the light of day.

This was a decade ago, long before any news outlets began covering the stories of adult adoptees and shedding light on the problematic practice of adoption. Had I called a news outlet with this “story” in 2010, I would have been told to be grateful I was adopted at all and hung up on.

It’s still a bit mind-boggling to me the sheer volume of people we are talking about. It’s difficult to pinpoint numbers, as even the CDC’s reports state that private adoption numbers [through agencies] are unknown as they were not required to report like state government agencies.

But just the CDC’s numbers are pretty sobering. Between 1970 and 1987, the year of the report I was able to find, 1,081,000 [non-related] children were adopted.

A million children severed from their cultural heritage and biological family lines.

A million children who had their names changed, and identities altered, without their informed consent.

A million children who lost ties to not just their parents, but grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even siblings.

A million children, of whom I am one.

Instead of providing resources so that struggling parents could keep their families intact, children were removed from low-income parents and placed in adoptive homes, many of whom received… get this… a financial stipend.

Why were the child’s parents not offered the stipend?? If the biological parent couldn’t afford to care for the child and the adopter stepped forward and said, “I can,” why did they need a stipend?

Unless… unless the popular Christian televangelists were telling their massive audiences to adopt, adopt those poor babies out of foster care and adopt them to build an army for Christ! Onward, Christian soldiers!

Unless infertility became not a curse by God but an “opportunity” to adopt a poor child. Who knows God’s will for their lives better than white saviors?

And through the pervasive infiltration of Christian evangelical ethos that was worming its way into every facet of politics and government, adoption became this vehicle to build those armies for Christ, using state agencies to do so.

At the very least, it was an abject failure of our government to preserve the identity, heritage, safety, and dignity of over a million children.

Now those million children are adults, and we have some thoughts.

We have voices now, and for many adoptees, the adopters who kept them silent all these years are beginning to pass on to whatever reward they deserve, freeing their tongues from their prisons for the first time in decades.

The institution of adoption as it exists in the United States of America is immoral, unethical, and harmful. There is no logical argument around that.

Even if a child is endangered by their parents, guardianship can provide a legal adult caregiver for the child without changing their name and hiding their identity and heritage from them. No one needs to make up a fake birth certificate or change names. The dignity and autonomy of the child can be preserved, if that were of any concern to the US government.

It really boils down to this: are you ready to listen to us? The millions of adoptees who are trying to tell you about the reality of adoption having lived it?

Are you ready to contemplate that the way adopters and social workers and for-profit adoption agencies and lawyers and judges and legislators have approached the role and function of adoption in our society, a way that hasn’t changed in over six decades, could be flawed? Could need review and revision and a major overhaul?

Because from over here where I sit, having lived it, adoption needs reform.

We did not get dignity or voices as children.

Please give them to us now.

My name is Melissa Corrigan, and I’m a freelance writer/thought sharer/philosopher in coastal Virginia. I am a mom, a wife, a veteran, and so much more. I deeply enjoy sharing my thoughts and receiving feedback that sparks genuine, respectful conversation.

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