By Shannon Quist
I’m a writer. I write. It’s what I do. I won my first writing award in fifth grade for a piece that was like my family: happy, static, the model of middle America. But that’s not really where my writing career began.
In sixth grade, my teacher instructed us to write short stories to grade our grammar, but when I turned mine in, she didn’t mark up my commas. Instead, she pulled me aside and said, “Where’s the conflict? Every story needs some compelling conflict.” The significance of this advice was lost on me then, but I would understand it the following year.
Seventh grade was when I stumbled upon some of the more grisly details of my adoption my parents had previously kept from me. Do you want to hear the story? I’m sure you do.
Scholars in cognitive narrative theory (folks who study stories and brains which is as cool as it sounds) agree that our brains comprehend and empathize best when we’re given information through stories. Our brain scans will even light up as if we are experiencing something just by reading about it in a story. That said, imagine what your brain will do when you read mine:
I was a sheltered child who grew up knowing I was adopted, but my comprehension of it was best summarized through a fairytale meta-narrative: the life I’d landed was my happily ever after. That’s how my parents told it, anyway. When I was twelve, I found a folder with my name on it with all my adoption paperwork. My mom came home just in time to see me run to my room to look through the contents and screamed until I gave it back.
Luckily, I stole most of the juicy stuff which was, for a very long time, all I had of my biological history. It was what I read about in those documents that threw me into a deep depression. What was PCP? What was schizophrenia? Why was there no information on my birthfather? Why was there so much shame in my parents’ faces when I discovered these secrets? What did all these things mean, and more importantly, what did they mean for who I was?
That’s when I turned to writing, and this time, I included the conflict. I wasn’t part of a static happy family anymore, but I had conflict, and that’s how I became a writer. That’s the short story, anyway.
And I am a fan of the short story. It gets to the point. The ending is clearly in sight. Makes sense why I’d prefer writing about my trauma in this form, right? Well, that’s what happened. Suddenly, I was writing poems and stories, even little non-fiction pieces that were copy and paste from my life.
But it was in my freshman year of high school that I finally grew into the spot I needed to be. That’s when I was dealing with my very first heartbreak, and it’s when I first came to the metaphor.
According to psychologist Andrew Ortony in his article, “Why Metaphors are Necessary and Not Just Nice,” metaphors help us extend our knowledge when we make connections between things known and things new. Mine came in the form of my broken heart being portrayed as the castle where I lived being destroyed. Give me a break, I was fourteen.
But that was the height of my skill in my self-narrated therapy for a long time, almost fifteen years. I knew that I was capable of better writing, especially the stories and poetry, when I was upset, but instead of seeking help with this, I just rode the waves of trauma on the back of artistic skill. It was an even trade, I thought, heartbreak for art, and I paid it. This was my truth for a long time: I’d write out my poetry, my stories, and then I’d lock up the writing in a diary somewhere.
Nothing significant happened until I was twenty-one years old and headed to rehab. As you can probably guess, I didn’t correctly learn how to deal with my trauma and neither did any of the adults around me so, even with all the writing I did, I found more escape methods from said trauma.
But in rehab, something wonderful happened. I compiled my first Big Book. No, not the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, though that is what the title was inspired from.
I revisited and compiled all the best pieces from all the diaries I’d written, all the essays my teachers had handed back with A’s, and all the poetry and short stories I held in high esteem.
Trashing the things I didn’t want to keep and compiling the things I did was thoroughly healing for me. I addressed the issues more than I initially had when I wrote them, but it was the ordering that helped me the most because after I was done organizing, a plotline and purpose emerged, themes became more clear to me.
According to Dan McAdams, I was rewriting my narrative identity which he defines as: “the internalized, evolving story of the self that each person crafts to provide his or her life with a sense of purpose and unity.” Rewriting my life story gave me a better sense of direction.
By the end of rehab, I had a 400+ page book that signified the end of an era. I was free to put the book on the highest shelf and begin composing the next chapter, literally and metaphorically.
It wasn’t until four years later after I’d been married, given birth to a baby girl, and sat on the cusp of my divorce that I returned to the practice of writing the stories of my life and compiling them. The divorce came as a complete surprise to me, which follows a pattern. Both of the biggest traumas in my life have completely caught me off-guard.
I immediately went to a therapist for support to get me through the divorce with my sanity intact (I couldn’t justify riding out the depression on my art when a child depended on me), but as the divorce came and went, I began to realize that there was more than a mere divorce that I needed to talk about.
I brought my therapist my Big Book and we looked through it together, talked about some of the issues I’d shoved deep down. The most important of them, my adoption and the myriad of ways I’d tried to run from that pain. I returned to writing like never before, this time with purpose and fervor. Soon after we’d worked through some of the issues that showed up regularly in my Big Book, I was asked to work on a project in my graduate program that would study the legal history of Texas adoptions. As I began to finally allow myself to study the legal practice that defined my life, I enrolled in a critical theory class that focused on narrative theory.
As I studied, I realized that narrative and therapeutic practice are two disciplinary subjects that are definitely worth putting together. As I jumped into research, I found that many psychologists and narratologists agree.
I’ll catch you up on the basics. Narrative therapy is a field that encourages people to take control of their stories, often by studying in depth how narrative itself works. Each person’s experience is going to be different because everybody writes differently, of course, but the general idea is to put an order to the story of your life by writing it out.
Some people start at the very beginning and write their memoir chronologically. Some people, like me, jump between the stories and write them out as they’re ready to deal with them in therapy. It’s still difficult for me to put it all in order because of the sheer volume.
Agency was one of the most important reasons narrative therapy was the best path for me. I didn’t have a choice when I found out the scary details about my adoption, and I didn’t have a choice listening to my husband confess that he hadn’t loved me for a long time. Writing about those two things and everything else in between, I am the one in charge of how the story ends. I am in charge of how close or how far I am from the pain when I narrate the story.
The emotional distance I sometimes employ through metaphor allows me to step back from my trauma and analyze it from a distance instead of carrying the weight of undefined pain around. I like to call this practice playing with Dumbledore’s pensieve. It’s helped me get through all kinds of things. And when people read these stories, they build empathy towards me and people who have similar stories. It’s win-win on both ends.
The world becomes a much less frightening place when we understand how our brains work and can identify the power that narratives have in our worldviews. We can learn more about others by reading their stories, and in turn, they can learn more about us. We can heal ourselves by writing our life stories, by folding in rich metaphors that speak our singular truths with room for adjustments in the future as we grow. And where the stories lack, we can embellish. At least, that’s how I do it.
Shannon Quist published her debut novel in 2020, Rose’s Locket, which follows the journey of a teen adoptee trying to write her story and find meaning in her life. She graduated with a Bachelor’s in English Literature from Texas Woman’s University in 2018, with a Master’s in English Rhetoric & Writing in May 2022, and she works at Alkami Technology as a technical writer. Shannon also serves on the board of directors of AKA.
After living in North Texas for 31 years, I had forgotten how beautiful South Jersey was. I remember when I first moved to Texas and told them I grew up on a horse farm, the local Texans and nearby states just could not comprehend that New Jersey had country and farm lands or livestock. Country girl never entered their mind when they learned I was from New Jersey.
They believed the whole northeast was like NYC with sidewalks and high rises. I always felt like they thought I was fabricating my place of origin. In fact, no matter how many times I told my story over the years, most had this suspicious belief gaze. Even though some had never been to the northeast and others only to one area.
Looking back, it astounds me how people can have preconceived ideas about a person or place without knowing anything about the person or the place. It’s all based on hearsay or Hollywood. We know how Hollywood can paint their vision. That’s what happens when we make assumptions. We lump everyone together with our narrow vision. Obviously there are very populated areas in New Jersey, especially the closer to NYC areas. But the whole state is not like that.
With today being the first day of National Adoption Awareness Month, it is a good reminder that not every adoptee has had the same experiences. Not every mother/father who relinquished had the same choices. Not every adoption story follows the same path. Or ends with a happy ending for everyone connected. How could it?
Adoption is a quilt of stories and experiences. And each of those stories change and evolve over time for each person and family. There is no cookie cutter experience.
Please take time this month to not visualize adoption with a singular preconceived lens. Please allow space for those who were directly impacted, whose story has changed in a most profound way to share their story. And know that one person’s experience does not transcend over to another’s.
“There are a thousand stories in the big city.”
“A picture is worth a thousand words.”
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” ~Lao Tzu
“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.” ~Washington Irving
Karen Whitaker, (Member-at-Large) has served on several volunteer committees over the years, through her employers and her son's elementary school. She truly enjoys volunteering and serving. Karen learned more about the adoption experience and the impact when relinquishing her parental rights in 1999. What was then presented as an open adoption - pictures and updates for the first five years - she lacked awareness about what open adoption, or even adoption in general truly meant and the emotional impact relinquishment had on mothers, adoptees, and on birth families. Thankfully, their open adoption grew beyond pictures into a larger, long-distance family, with visits and family vacations over the years. Karen then began researching adoption and connecting with other birth/first/biological mothers to understand her emotional attachment to this experience. She was met with amazing people from the adoption community who mentored and supported her in her journey to healing. Karen advocates for the rights of mothers and adoptees as well as all members in the adoption constellation, for compassion and transparency. As a hard of hearing person, she also advocates for disability rights. When not working or volunteering, Karen is still quite busy being a mom.
Bo is thankful to be included on AKA's blog, in the newsletter, and the adoptee community. Her poem "Junnam Province, My Birthplace" originally appeared in Tinderbox Poetry Journal.
By Dianne Sonnenberg, AKA Board Member & International (First Nations) Adoptee
Headline: Remains of 215 children found buried at former B.C. residential school, First Nation says. Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc say ground-penetrating radar was used to locate remains: Posted May 28, 2021; CBC News
As an adoptee and member of a First Nations community, I grieve for these children and their families, and for all of the lives lost and traumatized in the Residential and Boarding Schools in both Canada and the US.
These schools were created to remove Indigenous children from their own culture and assimilate them into the European-Canadian-American way of life. There were hundreds of these schools across the US and Canada. Tens of thousands of native children were taken from their homes, usually against the will of their families. Incredibly, the last one closed in 1996.
The loss of family and culture has caused unspeakable damage for these individuals, as well as their relatives. Intergenerational trauma will be felt for years to come. As adoptees, we have a deep understanding of the challenges they endure, as many of us have experienced much of this pain firsthand. The value of striving to heal these wounds cannot be overstated. It is the first step toward peace, healing, and reconciliation.
Dianne Sonnenberg serves on the AKA Board of Directors. She is an international (First Nations) adoptee who has been active in the AKA community for several years, after reuniting with her biological family. She is an artist, and also serves on the boards of the Austin Mosaic Guild and the Texas Society of Sculptors.
When I gave birth to my first daughter, the daughter I placed for adoption, I was newly a fifteen-year-old on the heels of a physically abusive relationship with her biological father. I youthfully claimed I would never have more children. To the outside world, I said I didn’t want to parent. My inner voice said I was broken. Despite my declarations, I’ve spent most of my life obsessed with motherhood: what it means, how it looks, who gets to experience it, who deserves it. Still a child really, I swallowed everything Gladney—and anyone else who cared to offer their opinion—told me about adoption. I can’t suss out who said what. Who it was that suggested it would be easier to be unconscious when my daughter was born? Who it was that said my child would not be my child, she could only ever be someone else’s child? Who said I would not be a mother? And if I weren’t a mother, what did that make me? A vessel, I supposed. “There are no illegitimate children. Only illegitimate parents,” is among Edna Gladney’s best known sayings. I was unlawful, illegal, irregular. Further, after my daughter’s birth, the State of Texas would erase me from the page, blow the dirty pink rubber dust away, and put new names on my daughter’s birth certificate. I would cease to exist. As a birth mother, I absorbed each of these things into my identity: my altogether wrongness.
Not everything goes back to the moment when I relinquished my daughter while I was unconscious in the delivery room, but I remember very little before it. In Elizabeth McCracken’s exquisite memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, the author’s friend writes in the wake of a tragedy to say, “‘There is no way for such an event to leave you who you are.’” Relinquishment is one of those events, save for when you are too young to know who you were before. I was still becoming me so placing my
baby wasn’t simply something that happened that changed who I was. In many ways, it became a part of me. It was me. I wasn’t a mother, they said, and though I wouldn’t find the words for this until decades later, I would never not be a mother. An emotional bind of a high order.
My interest in motherhood came out in other ways. I studied it academically from all angles. My first paper in college was about adoption, my undergraduate capstone paper was on motherhood in literature, the first creative writing project I let anyone else read was a messy, inarticulate vision of what other people thought of birth mothers—and neither the piece nor the opinions I believed others held were good. When I received feedback, I realized that what I believed about myself was tragic.
Bear with me as I digress for a moment. Or maybe, probably, this really is the point. I attempt to consider adoption from myriad angles. I think about this bind—the mother-not mother conundrum, the inexplicably confused identity—often. Most especially when friends and acquaintances who are adoptees talk to me about how things have gone poorly with their birth mothers. Sometimes their birth mothers haven’t responded, sometimes things have fallen apart. The words she didn’t want a relationship break open a part of my heart that I thought I’d long since mended. I grieve deeply for every adoptee who has heard or felt this, wishing desperately I could do something, anything to repair it. I can’t help but wonder how much the system is at fault. I think about the woman on the other end, who may have been swallowed whole by this notion that she had no claim to motherhood, that she was illegitimate, broken, deleted. Does she even believe she has a right to call herself a mother? Even if she had more children down the road, her role as a birth mother was almost surely full of erasure.
I am among the lucky. I have had the resources as an adult to dedicate to over a decade of therapy. I have reunited with my daughter and we have a rich relationship, one that I am grateful for beyond measure. I learned to feel good enough about myself to go on to have another child. My gratitude is endless. But I know also that my ability to do these things was thoroughly in spite of what the system offered, and I’ve had to fight against those beliefs for a very long time.
Anne Bingham is a writer living in Austin, TX. She is an ardent adoptee rights advocate and served on the board of Support Texas Adoptee Rights, as well as a long time member of Adoption Knowledge Affiliates. Anne has used her resources, time, and talents educating others about adoption from the birth parent perspective, both on the AKA conference planning committee and as a panelist at past AKA conferences and events. Currently, Anne is the facilitator for the Birth/First Parent Peer Support Group which meets on the second Tuesday of the month via Zoom
Growing up as an adoptee, St Patrick's Day always brought up feelings around my own lack of specific ethnicity information. While everyone was running around with garish green hats and eating green pancakes - declaring that they had Irish ancestry from a grandparent or great-grandparent, I was left wondering, even as a small child, was the ethnicity information I had true? Should I embrace it? How do I embrace it? Would embracing it be genuine since I wasn't with my family of origin?
I wondered not just if I were Irish, but I was left wondering just what it meant to be something, anything, because your DNA made you that something. I remember trying to grasp what lineage meant. The entire concept was mystifying and foreign to me.
So, while it isn't Mother's Day or a birthday - the more recognized adoptee triggers - for me St Patrick's Day was deeper and more problematic. An entire day dedicated to and celebration of family heritage...how could it not be problematic? For each adoptee, these cultural events land differently but don't assume they aren't landing, and landing early. Keep the lines of communication open and, after encouraging conversation, take the time to listen to adoptees, no matter their age.
-Marci Purcell, Adult Domestic Adoptee
“As the adoption industry migrates to social media, regretful adoptees and birth mothers are confronting prospective parents with their personal pain—and anger,” reads the subheadline of a recent article on WIRED.com.
I wouldn’t have expected to see this topic covered in a technology-focused news outlet, but it seems these days that there are few safe spaces for adoptees. Whether it’s subtle tone policing on Instagram about who is qualified enough to speak on issues or the non-existence of adoptee-centered media coverage, we are conditioned to believe our voices don’t matter.
Our pain and anger are not only justified, but necessary to build empathy and raise awareness so we break the cycle.
This country is at the edge of a precipice, reckoning with its racist past and present. With the Black Lives Matter movement and increased awareness around anti-Asian hate crimes, many people seem to be waking up. But the American story is incomplete if it excludes adoptees.
Transracial adoption itself is a clear example of White Supremacy/colonialism in action. It is the result of a system designed to keep certain people at a disadvantage while others thrive. To determine who is fit (or can afford) to parent. Which country or community offers a “better life” for children? Who gets to decide?
And while some of us who were adopted into White families have a certain level of subsequent privilege from our proximity to Whiteness, it doesn’t shield us from experiencing racism or prejudice. It also doesn’t guarantee legal protections and rights.
Approximately 35,000 adoptees are living without citizenship today. On March 4th, Representative John Curtis (R-UT) and Adam Smith (D-WA) introduced the bipartisan Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2021 to provide U.S. citizenship to international adoptees brought to the U.S. as children but were never granted citizenship.
People need to hear the stories of adoptees who have been deported to their birth countries, including Phillip Clay, who ended his life in 2017 by jumping from the 14th floor of an apartment building north of Seoul. Phillip Clay was not alone. A study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics revealed that the odds of a reported suicide attempt were four times greater in adoptees compared to non-adopted people.
We are hurting. Adoptees don’t share our “personal pain--and anger” for amusement; it is to keep someone else from experiencing the same trauma. We can’t afford to wait until people are ready to listen. We must speak so loud and with such frequency, that they hear us regardless.
Stephanie Drenka is a transracial Korean Adoptee. She is the Communications Director for Dallas, Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation. In April 2019, she launched VISIBLE Magazine, an online publication amplifying stories from underrepresented communities. Stephanie’s photography and writing have been featured in Washington Post, Huffington Post, USA Today, and ABC News.
By Lilly Fei (⻜岗)