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The Danger of a “Single Story” in Adoption

I remember the day that my parents rearranged the furniture in the bedrooms of my childhood home.  I was a teenager and complaining about moving furniture on a hot summer day.  As I sat alone on the blue carpet of the once-guest-room-now-office, my gaze paused on a gray filing cabinet that had been moved from my parent’s room.  Oh, I thought.  I’ve never looked in there before.  I decided to be adventurous.  The very first drawer I pulled open was full of forest green hanging files with manila envelopes bearing labels with my mother’s beautiful script.  “Amanda’s School Records,” “Amanda’s Medical Records,” my eyes froze on the third folder.  “Adoption.”  I felt excited, ashamed, and rebellious all at once.  Can I look inside this folder?  I can and I would.  There must be something they didn’t tell me about my adoption.  It’s ridiculous to think it’s even possible they were only told the little bit that we know.  There has got to be more.  These thoughts never entered my consciousness until that moment.

I pieced through the file.  Letters and information from the agency.  A decree of adoption.  Some of my parents’ medical records.  And there it was.  A one-page, obviously censored narrative about my life and family pre-adoption.  I read the paper at least a dozen times before realizing that I already knew everything on it.  They really had told me everything they knew.  I felt terrible for doubting them.  I felt a sense a sense of hopelessness, This is all that there is.  I was a girl whose entire ancestry going back to the dawn of time, whose very entry to this world, and whose first five months of life before being placed for adoption were reduced to nothing more than a single story that someone else cut up and pieced together.

The girl with a single story, I had become what many adoptees become.  The unwanted baby who was at least wanted by somebody else.  The person who was lucky and grateful after narrowly escaping abortion.  A girl with an invisible past–a past that did no matter.  This is what my peers and society around me knew about adoptees.  This is what I came to know of myself.

Ten years later, I unsealed my State-held adoption files.  As I pieced through the contents of the manila envelope, my eyes froze on a familiar looking piece of paper.  There it was, a copy of the same agency narrative that I had read that day in my parents’ filing cabinet.  Only it looked different this day.  Was I seeing it with different eyes, with a new perspective on life?  No.  It was longer and there was a staple at the corner indicating that the text carried on to at least a second page.  This was the uncensored version of that same agency narrative.  The full version of the single story of my pre-adoption life and family history that was never intended for me to see.  I had only been given an abstract of it.

Of course, when I did genealogy and then later reunited, my one story turned into hundreds, and thousands, and even millions of stories.  I had ancestors that fought in the revolutionary war, that came over on the May Flower, and that were rumored to be descended from Charlemagne.  I had an original family that celebrated my birthday each year.  A family that had always counted me among the children and grandchildren.  I had a mother who had indeed wanted me.  I had a better picture of the circumstances that lead to my surrender.  I was no longer a girl with a single story, the girl who was unwanted or “rescued” from something.  I was an adult who had been given the opportunity to review the facts, multiple stories, of an important part of my life.  I finally became empowered to make sense of my own reality within adoption.

The other day, Harlow’s Monkey posted this article/video to their Facebook page capturing a magnificent speech delivered by novelist Chiamanda Adichie.  She begins by telling a story of the drafting of some of her very first books.  Being exposed only to American and British books, Adichie began writing her own books, complete with crayon illustration, at the age of seven.  The characters of her books were white and had blonde hair and blue eyes.  Her characters enjoyed pastimes and ate food that she had never herself experienced or eaten.  Because American and British novels were the only books in her library at the time, to her, this became what a “book” was.  This became to her the single story of what it meant to write a book.

Adichie explains “the danger of a single story” in her speech.  “So that is how you create a single story.  Show a people as one thing and only one thing over and over again and that is what they become.”

When only one story of adoption is told, what have adoptees become to others?

Perpetual children.

The “unwanted” children.

People “saved” from something.

People who narrowly escaped being aborted.

Grateful children.

Lucky children.

Children without a past and without a history.

We are many people with many stories.  But to some, we are people with a single story.  The single stories that sound like the dominant story get told the most.  People pick through our stories and accept the ones they like and discard the ones that we don’t.  People value us based on how they perceive our stories.  Sometimes all people want from us is a story and not our expertise on adoption.

Her speech is not about adoption but about stereotypes in general.  I highly recommend watching the clip.

About Amanda (22 Articles)
Amanda serves the adoption and foster care communities through individual and family clinical work, group work, writing and presenting, and policy advocacy. Her writing and presentations reach broad audiences through multiple books, magazines, news and radio interviews, and conferences, and she has engaged legislators at the state and congressional levels. Her writing and work focuses on the experience of being adopted, intersecting social justice issues, and adoption community centered & initiated movement toward positive change. Amanda is a Yahoo!Voices featured mom activist and is listed in the Top 20 Adoption blogs by Adoptive Families Magazine.

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