Torry Hansen & the Adoption Disruption Narrative; Getting Better, Still Needs Work

By Deputy Editor Thea Lim

By now you have probably heard about Torry Hansen, a Tennessee woman who put her adopted son Artyom Savelyev alone on a plane back to Russia with only a letter saying that he was violent and that she no longer wished to parent him.  Late last week Russian authorities froze adoptions until a new agreement that better protects Russian children can be negotiated.

Savelyev’s story is particularly excruciating, but adoption disruption stories in general create discomfort and confusion, because they contend that adoption (like monogamous life partnership or parenting or college or working life or many other life milestones that are supposed to be wholly good) is not the simple story it’s painted to be, where a magnanimous middle class Westerner scoops up an orphan caught in the jaws of global poverty, and they all live happily ever after.

Obviously the dialogue forced by adoption disruption is good, insofar as it complicates and makes more sane our sanitised notion of adoption.  But when it elevates and highlights the needs and feelings of the parents over the children, it becomes clear just how much we need to cleanse our understanding of adoption.

I personally think that Hansen behaved horrifically – not because she disrupted her adoption, but because of how she did it.  Yet the extreme nature of her actions has forced much recent dialogue about the uglier side of adoption that we’d rather ignore; and for that I’m glad.  For example, the fact that adoption has turned into a baby trade, in a global economy where poor families in the Global South give up children to wealthy families in the affluent West — read Michelle Goodwin’s article on adoption as cottage industry here.  It also makes us recognise that adoption is messy and complex and family fit is not gifted from above – it has to be worked on.

The stomach-churning high drama of ex adoptive mothers like Hansen and Anita Tedaldi, confronts the expectation that adoptees be empty vessels just waiting to be filled up with their adopted family’s love; an expectation that wreaks havoc in the lives of adopted children, many of whom are already reeling from the loss of their birth family and birth culture.   Is this expectation present in all adoptions? Of course not.  But what we are concerned with at Racialicious is the adoptions where it is present, and the latent racism that lies inside it.

The lack of interest in the back stories of adoptees – or the lack of awareness that an adoptee even has a back story – seems manifest in the 9 missionaries who kidnapped Haitian children for adoption, or Jane Jeong Trenka’s heartbreaking story. Trenka now advocates for adoptees like herself whose papers were fudged to make their adoptions legal, while their birth parents were led astray.   And this lack of interest is also responsible for the rifts that form between transracially adopted kids and their birth parents, where white birth parents are completely unprepared for the fact that their kids have a totally different racial and political experience of the world.

The expectation that adoptees be empty vessels is of a piece with the way racism and xenophobia thinks about foreigners and especially foreigners of colour – foreigners are always more simple than us, and it does not cross our minds that they are independent beings with their own stories.  And they always need to be rescued by Westerners, preferably white ones with money.

One of many articles to collapse out of Savelyev’s tragic story is a piece by KJ Dell’Antonia, boldly titled “I Did Not Love My Adopted Child.”:

The stories adoption agencies include in their material, the books, the blogs—even the very signatures of the parents on adoption forums (“mom to DD Mei Mei, joyfully home since 2007″) all speak of an experience that’s supposed to be wonderful. Your child is “home,” his or her orphaned life has ended, your respective travels are over, and you have been united into one big forever-family. Even the politically correct terminology surrounding adoption insists that once it’s legal, it’s a done deal—your child “was” adopted (not “is”), and now you are its mother, amen. We do not want adoption to be a process; we want it to be a destination—and that makes us even angrier when it doesn’t work out that way. Torry Hansen betrayed her son, and she betrayed our belief system. We were willing to accept him as her son, and she wasn’t, which makes her the villain.

This is not really anyone’s fault. Humans seem to have an overwhelming need for a tidy narrative, which in adoption almost always butts up against the uglier reality…What’s next is for the rest of us—jaded but experienced adoptive parents and the adoption professionals who surround us (often adoptive parents themselves) to stop relying on adoption education and social workers to convey the darker realities of attachment disorders, institutional delays, and post-adoption depression and start talking about them ourselves.

As long as we keep insisting that the typical adoption narrative is one in which a family comes home to joy and laughter and a happily ever after, cases like Hansen’s will give fuel to the alarmists who insist that all adoptive parents are naive and unprepared.

Dell’Antonia makes multiple sensible points, and her article exists to make the point that we have a faulty conception of adoption, unlike Anita Tedaldi who just wanted to tell us about this really bad thing that happened to her.

But from this excerpt, it becomes clear that Dell’Antonia’s focus is on the pain and suffering of adoptive parents more than it is on those of the children.  Which brings us back to my original issue with the way adoption disruption narratives are handled;  if they clarify and as such better our understanding of adoption, then good.  If they lament and wallow in the parents’ pain without humanising the child…not so good.

Ultimately Dell’Antonia as an adoptive parent, aligns herself with Hansen, not with Savelyev — not that you necessarily have to do one or the other, but bottom line: Dell’Antonia doesn’t align herself with Savelyev.  And this upsets me because we should be telling adoption disruption narrative first and foremost for the sake of the children, not the parents.  Because out of the the two parties, it is the child who is vulnerable and needs protecting. Isn’t that the  founding principle of adoption?

But Dell’Antonia wants the “typical adoption narrative” to be fixed in order to clear the rep of adoptive parents.  It is not articulated that she wants the narrative fixed in order to secure safe and loving homes for adopted children.

The language used by Dell’Antonia and many adoptive parents talking about attachment issues seems just plain harmful. In the above excerpt she uses the word “it” to refer to an adopted child (yes, nitpicking, but still).  Earlier in the article,  speaking of her own fraught adoption experience, she says this about her adopted daughter:

It got better—it’s still getting better; we work daily for our happy ending. Well-meaning is a term that takes a beating, but Hansen (and I) obviously meant well. With some crazed exceptions, few adoptive parents go through this process intending to do harm. The problem is that harm has already been done. Even the best adoptive parent is just the clean-up crew.

Apart from the fact that intentions really don’t matter (How many people do you know who were hopelessly screwed up by well-intentioned parents?), what about the heartlessness of referring to your child as a disaster site that requires a “clean-up crew”?

Make no mistake, I am not saying that these stories should not be told.  As I have said, I can see plenty of benefits derived from their telling.  I am not saying that adoptive parents shouldn’t talk with adoptees about the difficulties along the way.  Probably all parents should do this.  In life in general I think we would all be happier and saner if we could speak honestly and compassionately about how we fail our loved ones and they us.

But writing “I did not love my child” in a public forum – especially when we are talking about children who already have abandonment and attachment issues? That just seems unnecessary and irresponsible.

Dell’Antonia says Russia is seeking vengeance, not trying to improve the lives of adopted children.  And it is true that due to the Russia adoptions freeze, many children and families are now in limbo.  But the callousness and vitriol used by some adoptive parents to describe their adoptions speaks of its own kind of vengeance: things did not fit their dream of parenthood, and now these parents are acting out, often with terrible consequences for their children who may one day read these articles.  To write in such a way suggests that these parents are not as invested in the rights and humanity of their adopted children, as they are in their own.

Writing about Anita Tedaldi and her adopted son D., I suggested that adoptees’ stories and privacy are bulldozed by their parents in a way that fits a familiar script:

If [Tedaldi] thought of D. as human, would she be telling everyone who wants to listen the story of how she rejected him? The fact that D. might one day come across these articles and interviews of herseems like reason enough for Tedaldi to freakin’ shut up.

But she doesn’t.  And the print/TV/internet circus around Tedaldi accepts this dehumanisation because in the age of Angelina and Madonna, this is how we have learned to treat transracial adoptees.  D. is just another news item about a body of colour who needs to be rescued by white people.

But it’s not all bad news.  I was very relieved to find this article on Salon by Martha Nichols, which I think is one of the first remotely mainstream articles I have read that really tries to contextualise “difficult adoptee behaviour” in terms of the back stories of adoptees, many who have travelled thousand of miles and gone through terrible experiences prior to landing in their new home:

A distorted look at “the inside story of adoptions that go horribly wrong” aired on ABC’s “Nightline” Friday, including videos taken by parents of children having “meltdowns.” (Click here for the accompanying article.)

This prompted developmental psychologist Jean Mercer to debunk some myths in a Psychology Today blog. She rightly castigates “Nightline” for running home videos without questioning the parents’ interpretations. In one case, shortly after a pair of Russian sisters had been adopted, the older sister wanders around her American home in tears, clutching a blanket, and crawling under furniture. As Mercer notes,

“[T]he parents seem to have regarded it as such bizarre and unacceptable behavior that it needed to be recorded because no outsider would believe it.

“But what do we actually see in this video of a child who has been in the adoptive home for about a week? Let me just inquire how similar it might be to your own behavior, if you had been taken by very large people who spoke a different language, put on an airplane with little comprehensible explanation, and taken far away to a new house, new food, new ways of doing things? Would you be grateful?”

…Whether Artyom is really psychopathic and violent is unclear. Even if it were true, shoving him onto an airplane is at the very least an act of ignorant desperation. Giving him an American name when he was already 6 years old indicates a lack of awareness and empathy. The Hansens — not to mention those parents supplying videos of their children for “Nightline” — appear to have little understanding of what it means to suddenly land in another culture.

…Loss experienced by young children can be profound and impossible to process rationally. The fact that my mother was hospitalized when I was 6 still sits in my soul. Sometimes I believe my own loss has helped me to understand my son’s; other times, I think that all humans walk alone.

Like Goodwin’s, Nichols’ article also delves into the socioeconomics of adoption, and it is worth a full read.

I hate reading adoption disruption stories.  I am not an adoptee but these stories undo me, as they do many of us, for whatever reason: because we are adoptive parents, because like these adoptees we have our own heartbreaking immigration stories, because we have mixed race families, because we are parents, because we are children.

But I am willing to read them and even encourage their publication, because I believe that told the right way, they can ease situations like Savelyev’s by demonstrating to wouldbe adoptive parents who are dangerously starry-eyed or uninformed, that adoption can be complex and difficult.

But I am sick of reading adoption narratives that apotheosise the parents’ suffering and sacrifice the children.  One of those is too many.

Photo of Torry Hansen’s backyard from the AP