Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Road to Hell....

When I was still teaching, I came up with an idea for a course on evil and got so far as writing up a proposal and sample syllabus.  I'd include things like Lance Morrow's book on evil, selections from Dante's “Inferno,” and the memorable Robert Mitchum film “Night of the Hunter,” which has to be one of the most chilling movies of all time.  Robert Mitchum plays an itinerant Bible-thumper, who murders the mother (Shelley Winters) of two young children.  Because the children hold the key to a  secret treasure, or perhaps simply because he enjoys tormenting them, the preacher-man pursues the terrified, fleeing brother and sister in an extended chase sequence that rivals anything in “The French Connection” and does it without flash or speed.  In fact, it is the languorous pace that increases the sense of menace.  Every time the children believe they've reached a place of safety and begin to relax, they hear the preacher, riding his horse like an apocalyptic embodiment of death, whistling “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” the old-timey hymn that on Mitchum's lips becomes an obscenity.  Eventually the children find sanctuary with an elderly widow (Lilian Gish), who stops the diabolical preacher with a blast from her shotgun.  When the police arrive to carry the miscreant murderer away, Mitchum spirals out of 
control, dancing and gibbering like a galvanized puppet, impotent, thwarted, and enraged.

What is evil?  This is perhaps the elemental human question and the hardest one to answer.  Can evil be understood?  Is it always apparent?  How relevant is intention?  I  have wrestled with these questions all my life and don't expect to find definitive answers, but I have concluded that there is a difference between being evil and being wrong.  One of the thorns in my side since David's birth has been my mother's role in his adoption and her abandonment of me during that crucial year.  She didn't physically abandon me.  She and Dad helped me find a place to live and were in continuous contact with me.  My dad had never been a demonstrative man, yet I never doubted his love for me.  When I was little, my mother was more overtly affectionate, patient, and available, and I adored her, so when she withdrew her affection I felt I was standing alone in a chill wind.  With my pregnancy I found myself on an ice floe, not because my mother was angry but because she was devastated.  It was her pain that undid me.  

My own definition of evil is causing pain to another human being.  Because it's impossible to live without ever hurting other people, we are all evil to a degree.  Being free from evil is not virtue; recognizing and acknowledging the evil we carry inside is.  Hawthorne knew this perhaps better than any American writer, and his “Young Goodman Brown” vividly demonstrates what happens when there is a failure of understanding.  For over forty years I fought against the idea that my mother was not the saintly soul I had always believed her to be but , beneath her persona of gentleness and gentility, an essentially selfish woman.  There was in my mind a huge cognitive disconnect  between the mother of my childhood and the mother who could not accept my son.  I was angry, but I didn't want to be.  What I felt was guilt—for hurting her mainly but also for knowing that at at a deep level I was very angry with her.    One of the doors that opened when I found David was the door to that anger, and it rushed out with a force that astonished me and increased my feelings of guilt even more.  

I felt guilty because I couldn't forgive her.  The wisdom of the ages tells us that in order to be whole, we must forgive.  We must be told to forgive by preachers and psychologists because forgiving is so difficult to do.  If it were easy, we wouldn't need telling.  But knowing what you should do and being able to do it are two very different things.  Forgiveness is not a tap that you can turn on at will.  Just as repentance requires sincerity, so too does forgiveness.  Keats wrote that if “poetry doesn't come as easily as the leaves to the trees, it had better not come at all.”  Forgiveness, too, has to arise organically from the heart.

Whether I will ever be able to forgive my mother—or myself—remains to be seen, but I believe I have found a way to find my way back to her, not in this life, as she is long dead, but in my own mind.  She was not evil.  She was wrong.  My beloved grandmother was not evil for believing the “peculiar institution” of slavery was not altogether a bad thing, but she was wrong.  I am not evil for eating meat, but I am wrong, and someday, I am convinced, people will look at old photographs of supermarket meat counters and shudder.  My parents, the social workers, the doctors and lawyers, the adoption agencies of the past were not evil, but they were very, very wrong.  Perhaps I am evil to continue eating meat, knowing as I do that killing sentient animals is cruel, but that is an argument for another day.    What I want to draw attention to here is the evil of adoption, which is nothing less than human trafficking tricked out in a pretty bow.  (Of course, there are exceptions, which is where arguments about adoption always seem to go.  What about abused children?  Older children?  Orphans?  Every case is different and must be considered individually, but generalizations can and should be made.)  

The literature is filled with studies of adoptees and the psychological effects of growing up like a cuckoo in a sparrow's nest, and if you are a social scientist these studies will speak to you.  What moves me are not statistical analyses or longitudinal studies but stories about individual human beings.  It has always been through stories that human culture and value have been preserved and transmitted, whether they be Old Norse sagas, parables from the Bible, or contemporary novels.  We need the stories of adoption if we are to be enlightened about the harm it does.  Now that I am approaching my seventies, I am able to look back at my own story and see with clearer eyes the effects adoption has had on my life and the lives of my children.

I came of age in the 'sixties, when the overriding issues of the day were Civil Rights and the Vietnam war.  Ever since those shopping trips to Youngstown, I had been appalled by the injustice in making African-Americans into second-class citizens.  When Martin Luther King, Jr., led the march on Selma, I was with him in spirit, and I engaged in more than a few spirited arguments with those who believed that gradualism was the answer to injustice, including my mother.  

The barbershops in Greencastle in those days were segregated; blacks had to go to Terre Haute to get their hair cut at black-owned barbershops, even though there was a black barber who cut hair in the Student Union at DePauw.  A group of citizens decided to petition the local barbershops to accept black customers, and one merchant even went so far as to mount his own personal boycott by letting his hair grow until everyone, not just white men, could avail themselves of a barber's services.  I was secretly pleased whenever I saw this man downtown or at church, dressed like the respectable businessman he was in a suit and tie, with his hair down to his shoulders.  One Sunday the petition was available for signing after the service, and my dad signed both his and my mother's names.  I seldom heard my parents argue, which may be one reason I remember this occasion so well, for when we got home my mother let my dad know in no uncertain terms that he should NOT have signed her name on that petition.  Maybe she simply felt it wasn't his place to sign for her, but I know that what really bothered her was appearing to support an anti-segregation initiative.  My mother was born in Indiana, but her mother came from a Virginia family that had once owned slaves, and her southern sympathies never dimmed.

Unlike the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that seemingly affect primarily the soldiers who fight them and their families, the Vietnam war was an intimate part of every American's life.  The draft swept many young men into the military, and drawing a low number in the draft lottery was a relief of giant proportions.  Students were exempt, but every male on campus knew that if he flunked out or quit, he'd likely find himself on a long flight to Saigon.  In those days there were only three television news channels, and each one presented a nightly review of the day's “body count.”  Graphic images of wounded and dying soldiers crouching beneath whirring helicopter blades haunted my dreams, and there were many times when I couldn't bear to watch the carnage and had to leave the room.  Like others of my generation, I will never forget the iconic photographs of the naked Vietnamese girl running from the napalm that was burning her or the officer firing point blank into the head of an enemy prisoner.

It was 1971.  Bob had lost his teaching job at the Philadelphia College of Art, and we had moved back to Greencastle from rural Pennsylvania, where we had finally married when Tanner was five months old.  The first time my parents came to visit us there, my mother asked first thing to see the marriage license, as if she couldn't trust me not to lie about something so significant.  Now we were back, living in my parents' garage, back to square one.  I got a part-time job in the Alumni Office at DePauw, and Bob rented a studio space  on the second floor above a downtown bar.  Before long I got a teaching job at one of the county high schools, and Bob stayed home with Tanner and painted.  I believe I was always meant to be a teacher, like so many members of my family, but I found riding herd on teenagers hard going.  I didn't have the stamina for it, and I hated having to be a disciplinarian.  I liked many of my students, my colleagues, and our wonderful principal, but I missed Tanner.  By the time I got home at the end of the day I was so tired I had little left for my family, and I resented having to work while Bob got to spend so much time with our son.

The idea of adoption entered my mind when we moved into an apartment next door to a DePauw professor and his wife who had two small children, a little girl Tanner's age and an adopted bi-racial baby boy.  Then we met a family that would become important to us in many ways.  The Basquins lived in Franklin, a town not unlike Greencastle but without a university.  Peter owned a successful business, and his wife, Kit, owned an art gallery where Bob showed his work.  They too had two children, a little girl about Tanner's age and a baby boy they had adopted from Korea.  The first time we went to dinner at their house and I saw little Peter Lee, I felt as if something had broken open inside me.  

There was a documentary shown on television around this time about adopting Vietnamese children.  It opened with a scene of a Black-Vietnamese toddler and a voice over saying, “This little girl is healthy, adorable, and in big trouble.”  The “dust of life” is what offspring of American soldiers were called by the Vietnamese.  These children, obvious because of their lighter or darker complexions, were generally rejected by the mother's family.  In a country where family ties mean everything, these children were castouts with no place to go, or so we were told.   Another memorable scene showed an earnest young American social worker, pleading with a Vietnamese mother to allow her youngest child to be adopted by an American family.  The baby would be removed from a dangerous war zone and would have opportunities impossible in Vietnam.  The mother cried and cried but in the end she relented and gave the young American her baby.  When I saw that, I understood that the mother was making her sacrifice so that her child could have a better life.  Hadn't I done the same thing myself?   Some family had given my baby a “better life.”  Now I could do the same for another mother's baby.  I had a debt to settle with the universe and needed to balance the scales.

We went through the Holt Adoption Agency in Oregon, founded when Henry Holt, distressed at the plight of  orphans after the Korean war, had begun bringing thousands of Korean children to the United States for adoption by American families.  The Basquins had gotten Peter Lee through Holt and wrote letters to the agency on our behalf.  Holt had expanded into Vietnam, and we decided to try for a mixed-race male infant, as they were supposedly the hardest to place.  I wanted a baby rather than an older child, and I didn't care what color it was.  If boys were harder to place than girls, then a boy was what I wanted.  I knew my limits and didn't want to take on a child with a disability or one that had been institutionalized for a long time. 

 I wanted a baby.  I admired the French for guaranteeing the offspring of their soldiers in Indochina a French education and felt America owed a debt to the children our soldiers left behind.  Their children were truly innocent casualties of this war.  I never marched in anti-war parades or stood at candlelight vigils , but I knew I could love a child.  I was a good mother to Tanner and I had love to spare.  Rather than add my voice to the thousands protesting the war, I would take one child and transform his life through love.  I knew I was filling the hole left by David, or trying to, but it would be many years before I'd realize what I had actually done.  I say “I” because, though Bob was all in favor of adopting, it was my idea and my passion.  It's obvious to me now that I had deeply personal reasons for adopting a baby, and I can't help wondering whether Bob had similar reasons.  I'd have to be a mind reader to know, so I won't speculate.  
I only ever saw my mother cry twice, once when I was able to get out of bed for the first time after becoming very ill with nephritis when I was ten and once when we told her we were adopting a black baby.  In those days, home studies didn't involve anyone except the prospective parents.  It took us 13 months, start to finish, to get Dabbs, and we didn't tell my parents—or Bob's—until shortly before we were told to go to O'Hare airport in Chicago to pick up our nine-month old son.  I didn't need my mother to spell out how she felt; I knew.  But to her credit she was always kind to Dabbs, and when we were forced to live in my parents' garage once again—this time with three children—she would get up with him before the rest of us were awake and read him stories.  Once Dabbs had arrived and my parents met him, my father told me privately that he was proud of what I'd done.  

One of the many reasons I feel guilty about my parents is because they were so generous to Bob and me when we needed help.  Twice Bob lost his teaching position, and twice we had to move into my parents' garage.  I now know how difficult this must have been for them.  They were comfortably retired and  I showed up yet again in a crisis.

We'd only had Dabbs for a month when Bob was offered a job in Guelph, Ontario, teaching art at the university.  I resigned from my teaching job, and we packed up and moved at the end of the summer.   The house we found to rent  belonged to the retired president of the university.  We got it for a good price because he wanted to rent to someone on the faculty and since Bob was an artist he figured we'd take good care of the contents of the house that were included in the rent: furniture, dishes, everything we could need.  This was fortunate for us, as we had nothing but our clothes and some children's books and toys.  Bob liked to make a clean getaway, and every time we moved, he'd insist we leave everything behind and start from scratch.  It was cheaper than hiring movers, our stuff wasn't worth much anyway.  I was sad to give away the handmade-by-Swedish-craftsmen rocker that had been given to us, but it went, along with a couple of antique pieces we'd picked up for a song.     

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