Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A time for every season

 The Oct. 22 issue of  _The New York Review of Books_ contains a review by Freeman Dyson of Brandon R. Brown's new biography of Max Planck, the distinguished German physicist who mentored Albert Einstein and gave the world quantum theory.  At issue is the choice Planck made to remain in Germany and continue his work under Hitler.  Einstein made a different choice and moved to America.  In 1970, Dyson's Princeton colleague Albert Hirschman published _Exit, Voice, and Loyalty_.  When a person is involved in a large enterprise, be it a government, an industry, a war, or something similarly huge and potentially problematic, he has three alternatives: He can exit and leave the enterprise; he can remain involved but speak out against it; or he can remain loyal and keep silent.  Einstein chose exit when Hitler came to power; Planck chose loyalty to Germany.

Anyone who has lived beyond adolescence has at one time or another had to make the choice to leave, protest, or collaborate.  My generation faced its critical moment with the Vietnam war.  Many young men chose exit and withdrew to Canada; others protested against the war and some were prosecuted as draft dodgers; still others hated the war but went to fight in it anyway.  As a young female college student, I found it easy to oppose the war without risking anything; however, not all choices are made against such a large-scale background as war, the tobacco industry, or massive-scale agriculture, to name just a few.  My own moment of truth came in 1968 when my personal situation jarred dramatically with the expectations of family and society.  Unmarried and pregnant, I had a life-altering choice to make.  Exit, I suppose, would have involved having an abortion.  I quickly rejected that option, not that it would have been easy to arrange that procedure in the days before Roe v. Wade.  I was quite literally silenced.  When I revealed my condition, the first things my parents said was, You mustn't tell anyone about this.  When you can't tell the truth about yourself and are forced to lie (keeping the secret of my firstborn son for over forty years was a lie of omission), your voice is made irrelevant and your autonomy eroded.  That left "loyalty," which in my case meant giving up my son for adoption.  I "collaborated" with my family's wishes and the social mores of the time and made the sacrifice. 

Today when natural mothers like me speak out about their loss, they are often told to get over it.  It was your choice, and you signed the papers, so now you have no right to complain.  But like veterans against the Vietnam war, our voices carry special weight.  A soldier who has lost buddies in a pointless national venture may have been complicit in the action that took their lives, but surely he has the right to point out the injustice.  A young draftee had about as much choice as a young unmarried woman in the 1960s who found herself pregnant.  I, for one, don't fault any young man who was called up and went to fight any more than I fault a young woman whose only available options were adoption or shame and ostracism. 

I don't know if Max Planck ever felt any guilt about the choice he made.  In 1946 the Royal Society of London held a celebration to mark the 300th birthday of Sir Isaac Newton, and the only German scientist they invited to attend was Max Planck.  The members gave him a resounding standing ovation.  Did that reception obviate the guilt he might have felt at his collaboration with Hitler and his cruel racial laws (Planck had dismissed Jewish scientists from his university)?  Should we revere Planck for his contributions to science and his loyalty to his fatherland or should we condemn him for choosing country over conscience?  So often it's only in retrospect that the correct choice becomes obvious.  Most Americans would agree that Einstein made the right choice in fleeing Europe, but did Anna Akhmatova make the right choice by remaining in the Soviet Union when others writers and intellectuals were leaving?  Max Planck's son Erwin protested loudly against Hitler and was hanged for his pains.  Was his the better choice than his father's? 

So often in life we are faced with decisions whose outcomes we cannot know until it's too late to reverse course.  It was over forty years before I realized the real consequences of my decision to relinquish my son.  Anyone making a difficult choice must believe in the moment that she is doing the right thing.  Few people would deliberately make what they believe to be the wrong choice, and the ease or difficulty of the choice is not the issue.  I made a very difficult choice that I believed to be the right one only to discover decades later just how disastrous it had, in fact, been for both me and my son.  Even though I understand that my situation in 1968 was untenable, I still feel residual guilt for setting in train a lifetime of events that were predicated upon that decision, some fortuitous, some catastrophic.  I would like to think that Planck felt some guilt over his decision to go along with Hitler and his minions, but perhaps he felt justified in remaining a faithful German to the end.  I can forgive him for his choice, but I could not forgive him if he felt no guilt.  Every serious decision comes with a cost, and there is no way to avoid paying it.  At least there shouldn't be.

After four years of reunion with my son, during which time I've had to rethink many long-held assumptions and endure  tremendous emotional upheaval, I am sometimes tempted to exit the discussion of adoption that swirls around the internet if not yet in the mainstream media.  I get tired not just of my own feelings but of the grief so very many natural mothers and the anguish expressed by many adult adoptees, particularly because of state laws prohibiting their access to their original birth certificates.  I would like to exit the fray and make a separate peace, but silence is a kind of collaboration, and I can no longer collaborate with the adoption industry and must continue to raise my voice against it.  I know this blog won't reach many readers, but I'd be remiss if I didn't add my cry to the chorus of protest that needs to be heard and acted upon.