Damaged Lives: Notes on Adoption and Subjectivity

At the moment, I keep thinking — no doubt needlessly — about how a book about adoption, written by yours truly, could be perceived in the wider world. I have this anxiety, as I sink my teeth into it, that the end product might be appear, superficially at least, like a book that has been written with a very specific reader in mind — an adopted reader. In truth, I want to write a book about adoption that will be of interest to anyone.

I am left with a strange desire to start the book with a quick “hold on a minute…”. Something like: “If you have happened upon this book and assumed, at first glance, it was not written with you in mind, I would implore you to think again…”

The central premise of the book is that adoption is not an overtly specific topic, of interest only to those who identify with the central experience it implies. The adopted child is, instead, a quintessential subject, albeit one neglected for its apparent specificity despite the ubiquity of its cultural appearances.

Think about it. How many of your favourite characters in three millennia’s worth of cultural artefacts centre around orphans, adoptees, or fostered kids, all adrift from their roots? 

There are hundreds of them. 

There’s Moses, Oedipus, Hercules, Aladdin, Peter Pan, Oliver Twist, Pip from Great Expectations — probably a dozen Dickens characters, come to think of it — Harry Potter, Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Worf from Star Trek, Eleven from Stranger Things, Tracey Beaker, the kid from Goodnight Mister Tom, Star-Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy, Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, the young King Arthur with his sword in the stone, that devil child from The Omen, the baby in Rosemary’s Baby, Pinocchio, Mowgli, Tarzan — being raised by animals is very relatable for many adoptees so, yes, it still counts… Which reminds me: Harry from Harry and the Hendersons, E.T. the Extraterrestrial,… 

It doesn’t matter how aware of this phenomenon you think you are, there are always new names to add to such a list. Why? Because the adoption story is one of our greatest myths — that is, in a classic sense: the adoption story is one of our defining cultural narratives, foundational to society. And adoption does indeed define us, culturally speaking, albeit often in negative. 

The recurring stories of how families are torn apart and individuals ripped from their roots tells us a great deal about how much value we place upon our families and our histories, but they also tell us how important it is for us to overcome these things and find our own paths. 

To put it bluntly, adoption stories are universal. From the Bible and the tragedies of Ancient Greece via the legacies of slavery and the kindertransport to superheroes, wizards, and stranded aliens, adoption is everywhere. And yet, despite the ubiquity of this sort of story, which houses universal struggles of self-discovery and Self formation, the diffuse pain of an adoptee is perhaps the most singular and misunderstood form of pain culturally available to us.

For instance, I have always struggled to express the grief I felt growing up of not knowing anyone who looked like me, who had a face like mine, to anyone who took for granted a family resemblance — that is, the vast majority of people. Conversely, I have found it just as difficult to express the surreality of seeing and recognising myself in the face of another for the first time, as an adult, rapidly accelerating through a phase of cognitive development otherwise skipped.

Nevertheless, I am grateful to have experienced both of these things. Not many adoptees can say the same. Many want to and may even have the opportunity to do so but they do not know how to approach the situation. And so many, like me, will begin to consult the relevant literature.

It is my hope that the book I’m working on will be beneficial and of interest to both kinds of reader. However, to write a book about adoption, as a reader of books about adoption, feels a bit like being conscripted into an eternal war; an unending battle to be heard. As you slot the latest motherly memoir back on the shelf beside you, before you sit down to write your own, you begin your inevitable mantra: This is my adoption book. There are many like it, but this one is mine…

Countless books have written over the last century or so that contend with this strange confluence of singular experiences — what I’ve referred to elsewhere, borrowing from Nancy Newton Verrier, as “the primal wound” — easing the adoptee into their own journey of self-discovery, untangling the knotted subjectivity they have been lumped with, deeply flawed as a result of their familial displacement, but doing all they can to make themselves feel whole — either again, or perhaps for the first time.

On my own journey, and in preparing to write my next book, I have been reading a lot of them. It is a veritable cottage industry. So much reading has not made me a cynic… yet. Every journey described and committed to the page is moving, in its own way. There is no doubt about that. Nevertheless, as with self-help books of any kind, they all end up giving more or less the same advice. 

The sad truth is, once you’ve read one adoption book, you’ve read them all. The details might all be different but the general thrust never really changes. We still gobble them up though, whether we are adopted or not. There will forever be a market for stories of abandonment and reconciliation, search and discovery. Nevertheless, one can start to feel like many of these recounted experiences are akin to having your fortune told — in order to have a high success rate, the author must generalise without generalising.

It is my hope that my book to be something a little different. It will be less a book for the adoptee adrift and more of a book about the gulf between the universal and the particular, the social and the individual. It is, as its working title suggests — One or Several Mothers: Adoption and Subjectivity — a book about adoption and its relation to subjectivity… This are terms I feel I will need to define and clarify as I proceed — I don’t want to alienate anyone at the first hurdle… For now though, at least as I try to find a way to work through this project, in part, on the blog, it may be useful to begin with certain questions — questions I considered when first sitting down to write the first few chapers:

Can a book about adoption reveal a philosophy, an ethics, lingering in plain sight, in popular view, that has not yet been fully understood? Can it grasp at an understanding of subjectivity, legible to both adoptee and non-adoptee, that enriches the picture of human existence for all rather than just the affected few? Can it do so whilst avoiding the narrative cliches, getting down into the reality of an adopted existence without losing its worth for the general reader? 

These questions sketch the outline of a book I longed for when consuming so much adoption literature — a book I could pass onto a friend or family member that didn’t advertise itself as helping the other understand me and any potentially abnormal behaviours and insecurities — which may sound strange but this is a unique selling point for many books on the adoptive experience (useful for you and your despairing friends and family) — but also reveal something to the other that might allow them to better understand themselves. After all, if we are all reading books and watching movies about adoptees all the time, why aren’t adoptees truly reaching outwards rather than inwards? Sharing their perspective rather than asking people to sympathise with theirs? Asking questions of everyone rather than those “just like us”?

These are the questions the book sets out to answer, but this is not to say that it is a book without precedence.

One of the central writers on adoption to feature throughout this book, both explicitly and implicitly, is Betty Jean Lifton. Born in 1926, Lifton wrote many books on a wide range of topics before her death in 2010. Perhaps best known for her children’s books and her writings on adoption, she also wrote a handful of books — some in collaboration with her husband, the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton — on the traumatic legacy of the bombing of Hiroshima on its residents, as well as a biography of Janusz Korczak — the children’s author, pediatrician, and orphanage director from Warsaw who heroically stayed with and died with the children in his charge when they were sent by the Nazis to the Treblinka extermination camp. He chose this fate, despite being repeatedly offered a chance to escape it by members of Warsaw’s Jewish police under Nazi occupation.

Lifton is perhaps the writer on adoption whom I admire most. She did not simply dedicate her life to a niche cause but rather a confluence of interconnected human traumas, from the uncommon to the hyper-specific, exploring the primal wounds and inherited guilt that are not only found diffusely in the adoption records of a hundred governments but in the unspoken intergenerational traumas that connect survivors of atomic bombings to survivors of the Holocaust, and the descendants of slaves to transracial adoptees. None of these experiences is equivalent to the other, of course, just as no adoption story is the same as any other, but the impact of each of these experiences creates a fragile web of relations that do not just define a minority of individuals but instead the very process of modernity in which we find ourselves captured. It is Lifton, then, perhaps more than any author, who has come closest to bridging the gap between the silent trauma of adoption and the intergenerational traumas that haunt the twentieth century. 

It is this gesture, this investigative kernel, that I want my book’s subtitle to refer to, and the philosophical nature of this question similarly warrants some unpacking.

Whilst “adoption” is a word that does not require much explanation, it should be affirmed here that I want use it in its most literal sense. The “adoption” of the book’s title, then, does not only refer to the legal process of taking a child born of another as your own, but a more general process of choosing and being chosen. Children can often find themselves, in this sense, being adopted by individuals, couples, communities, and states. To be adopted is for choices to be made, on your behalf, by another body that exceeds the traditional given “rights” of biological parenthood. But it also refers to the secondary process of adoption that may occur later in life. This is to suggest that to be adopted is to have more choice than most over what one “adopts”. The adopted child, in this sense, may find themselves with one or several families, one or several homes, one or several histories. What makes a person who they are has never been subject to more contingencies.

It is the relations that connect these contingencies that make up an adoptee’s subjectivity, but this subjectivity is by no means unique. It may, nonetheless, provide us with a foundational “subjectivity” to first consider, becoming the revolving door through which any and all persons may find insights of their own. “Subjectivity”, then, more so than adoption, becomes a promiscuous word that requires some further definition. 

The “subject” to which “subjectivity” refers can point to many things. In its original sense, we might think of how a person is a subject in a royal court; how kings and queens refer to their having “loyal subjects”. To be a subject, in this sense, is to be subjected; to be under the control of another; to be a citizen of nation, and to be subject to that nation’s laws.

“Subjectivity” might also be understood as the particularity of one’s own existence. We might talk about beauty as being subjective when we say it is in the eye of the beholder. We might also refer to the particular categories of identity into which one fits. Your subjectivity, in this sense, can be a sense of self, constructed both internally and externally — a sense of self that is produced by one’s own psychological development and the influence of outside (often social and structural) forces.

Here, two forms of subjectivity begin to overlap, which is to say that subjectivity is formed by that which we are subjected to: your sense of self is constructed through your implicit sense of gender, nationality, race, class, where you live, when you live, your job, your social responsibilities, etc., etc. In this sense, “subjectivity” is a concept as relevant to law and politics as it is to psychology, anthropology and philosophy.

When we think of an adoptee, is there an extent to which we can say that their present subjectivity — a sort of collective subjectivity, if such a thing can be said to exist — is damaged? Or, alternatively, stuck in a process of capture or change? Furthermore, considering how obsessed we are culturally with stories of adoption and displacement, might we say that this damaged subjectivity is a quintessential form of subjectivity that can be extended outwards to others? Whilst these questions may be specific, the extent to which our subjectivity is “damaged” or “stuck” has troubled much of modern philosophy and it is to this diffuse sense of rupture that I believe a closer consideration of the adoptive experience can provide insight. 

Take, for instance, Theodor Adorno’s most celebrated work, Minima Moralia. Written during and in the years that immediately followed the Second World War, the German philosopher considered, from the vantage point of that great international trauma, the extent to which a modern subjectivity constitutes what he calls a “damaged life”, making any attempt to consider subjectivity an impossibility.

“Our perspective on life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer,” he writes damningly. For him, it is capitalism that is to blame. Life is no longer worth living “in-itself”, because it must be torturously lived “for-itself” — one way of saying that, under capitalism, we must live to survive rather than live just to live. 

It is for this reason that Adorno argues, from the very beginning, that “considerations which start from the subject remain false to the same extent that life has become appearance.” Life is an illusion, in other words, in which our preoccupation with production and consumption has covered over the fact that modernity is a process aimed towards “the dissolution of the subject, without yet giving rise to a new one,” and so “individual experience necessarily bases itself on the old subject, now historically condemned, which is still for-itself, but no longer in-itself.” He continues:

The subject still feels sure of its autonomy, but the nullity demonstrated to subjects by the concentration camp is already overtaking the form of subjectivity itself. Subjective reflection, even if critically altered to itself, has something sentimental and anachronistic about it: something of a lament over the course of the world, a lament to be rejected not for its good faith, but because the lamenting subject threatens to become arrested in its condition and so to fulfil in its turn the law of the world’s course. Fidelity to one’s own state of consciousness and experience is forever in temptation of lapsing into infidelity, by denying the insight that transcends the individual and calls his substance by its name.

Here, Adorno is already attempting to come to terms with that scar across the modern subject — the Holocaust, as an aberration on the German, Jewish, and global psyche. It is a paragraph that seems entangled in a strange temporality. He is asking: who are we, after such an event? Who are the Germans? Who are the Jews? Who are we all that we could let something like this happen on our collective watch? Perhaps more worryingly, who were we before this event? And what aspects of our fated subjectivities led us to this point? When we become nostalgic for the good ol’ days, for traditional values, for a grounding that existed before ‘all this’, are we at risk of only longing for those seemingly innocuous things that nevertheless led to that. Such questions define the latter half of the twentieth century and every successive crisis only serves to further expose the fact that we are still without a categorical answer to any of them.

There will be plenty of opportunities to explore other figures than Adorno, who have also asked variations on questions such as these, but it is here perhaps, with him, that this central kernel finds its most concise expression. No matter the particular pressures of one’s existence, it is perhaps this challenge to subjectivity that we all feel to some extent in the here and now — the sense that our senses of self are based on certain “truths” that are now out-of-date. And yet, despite possessing a diffuse knowledge of this expiration, we remain trapped in a moment of subjective stasis, where the nature of life under capitalism, and the pressures of its particular brand of conformity, suspends whatever might be straining to come next.

The most visible example of such a stunted shift may be in relation to gender. Since the sexual liberations of the counterculture, in the 1960s and 1970s, we have seen the oppressive norms of gendered existence shift and slacken. Women’s social roles have, in many ways, been transformed — although, in some ways, not nearly enough. Men’s social roles have seen a reciprocal change but one which has, in many ways, led to a so-called “crisis of masculinity.” This is not to suggest that men are the victims of women’s liberation, although this is, of course, the argument voiced from many more reactionary quarters; the issue is, instead, that the social transformation of gender has been suspended for too long. The pieces were thrown up in the air but failed to land in any newly legible configuration, instead finding themselves trapped and suspended in a web of capitalist relations. As a result, our gendered subjectivities, progressing with nowhere to go, have instead become ingrown.

Another example of such a shift can also be found, explicitly, in the experiences of adopted children. At a time when the feminist clamour for social change through the abolition of the family has once again arisen with public discourse — with the reemergence of arguments dating back to the Seventies that reproductive labour should be transformed through new social relations and the latest technological advances — the question that is seldom asked, from this adoptee’s perspective, is what changes to the modern subject might these progressions produce? 

Whilst a potential liberation from gendered oppression is to be welcomed absolutely, the question nonetheless remains worthy of inquiry. Adoptees are, in essence, the living test subjects of such an endeavour. We are often bastards — the displaced products of “alternative” social relations; we are children born of (often inadvertent) surrogate parents; we are subjects that have slipped between the familial structures that foreground those of society more generally. And yet, the primal trauma that defines our lives arguably becomes fuel for neuroses throughout our adult lives precisely because, as Adorno proposes, there is still no subject-to-come for us to embrace. Instead, the adopted child acutely feels their slippage from the biopolitical structure of the mother-son relation and broader family structure.

As ever, a new subject is required. This is not to suspend revolution over some impossible horizon, however. We may find, in our consideration of adoptees, that this subjectivity already exists. What is needed, no less of a drastic task, is for the world to finally change to accommodate it.


  1. Absolutely something I would want to read – excited to hear more about this project.

    Are there any books or a book, about or engaging with adoption, by Lifton that you would recommend?

    1. Lifton’s two books, “Lost & Found” and “Journey of the Adopted Self” are really good. She’s got another one — “Born Twice” — but not bothered with that one yet.

  2. I think this is brilliant. Good luck with it. And I want to thank you for all your writing. I get so much out of all your posts.

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