“Secret Histories, Public Policies” at MIT 2010

From April  28 to June 2, organized by a committee chaired by Sally Haslanger, the Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture held its third conference, this time at MIT on the theme of “Adoption: Secret Histories, Public Policies.”   Over the three and a half days of the conference, there were 85 diverse speakers from eight countries, six films shown, mostly by their filmmakers,  and over 200 registered attendees. We estimate that 300 people attended at least one of the sessions free to the public.  Scholars from a wide range of disciplines presented work, including: American studies, Asian-American studies, creative writing, cultural anthropology, education, English, history, law, philosophy, postcolonial and diaspora literatures, psychiatry, religious studies, social work, cultural sociology, women’s studies, in addition to artists, writers, filmmakers, performers, and activists.

More important than numbers is the excitement that the conference created, as testified in recent emails from participants. For example, Joyce Maguire Pavao, of the Center for Family Connections, in Cambridge, Mass.,  called it “Amazing, stimulating, and passionate,” Frances Latchford, from York University in Canada, said, “The best conference I have attended for years,” and John McLeod,  from Leeds University in the UK, wrote, “It was truly a life-changing few days for me–I’ve returned home with loads of new ideas and thoughts for my book project, with much to reflect upon as an adoptee, and having made some new friends (such as yourselves).  I’ve been attending and speaking at conferences for over 16 years but I’ve never been to one as important as (y)ours.”

Keynote speakers began with Ann Fessler, showing film in progress, A Girl Like Her, which contextualizes her book The Girls Who Went Away with visuals from “family education” and popular culture films of the 1950s. Lynn Lauber read part of her memoir in progress about her experience as a birthmother and her relationship with her daughter. Anita Allen discussed the issue of disclosure of children’s possible mental health vulnerability to potential adoptive parents. Deann Borshay Liem showed her new film, In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, about her search in Korea for the woman whose identity was exchanged with hers by their orphanage in childhood. Memoirists Karen McElmurray and Meredith Hall and political theorist/activist Kate Livingston spoke on a plenary panel on birthmothers’ experiences.  Another plenary on secrecy and policy included Elizabeth Samuels analyzing the contracts birthmothers signed (showing they were not promised any rights), Adam Pertman discussing sealed adoptee records, and Naomi Cahn discussing secrecy in assisted reproductive technology. On the plenary panel about gays and lesbians and adoption, Sheila Tobias focused on homophobia, while Marla Brettschneider focused more on the costs to African-American women of the increased access gays and lesbians now have to adopt children from foster care, and John Raible discussed issues for transracial adoptees, especially the increase in their already heightened public visibility from being in a same-sex-couple-headed family.  At the Friday evening plenary,  Martha Gelarden and Adam Lazar, mother and son, told a multimedia story of their  meeting and their collaboration. Ned Balbo and Rosemary Starace read flash fiction and poems about adoption. Craig Hickman read the letter that persuaded a judge to give him the file of his records from birth, foster care, and adoption. And Lisa Marie Rollins gave a condensed version of her performance piece, ‘Ungrateful Daughter,” about growing up transracially adopted.

The first day’s films not shown by keynote speakers but chosen from people responding to our call for proposals began with Sheila Ganz’s Moms Living Clean, a documentary in progress chronicling the experience of six single mothers in an innovative treatment program rehabilitating them from addiction. Jean Strauss showed For the Life of Me, which explores the impact of sealed adoption records by focusing on adoptees in their 50s and 60s trying to locate their original family–some in Massachusetts, where records have recently been unsealed. Judith Durey’s multimedia installation provided verbal and visual meditation on   her search for her Welsh birthparents and family. Then came what was for most present the most problematic event of the conference. Ann Somers showed two films made by the Preparation Center for International Adoption, where she works in Ghent, Belgium, A Man without Culture is like a Zebra without Stripes and Proud of Us (the latter unscheduled). She  described these films in her proposal as part of “a trilogy about openness, grief, and living with differences in adoption.”  This did not prepare us for what the films were actually like. Zebra includes interviews with black birthmothers in South Africa and shows them handing their children over to white families;  the fact that birthmothers and adoptive families meet and  letters are exchanged might make some see the relationships as open, but all contact is through the agency and it is stops when the children are two years old. Proud of us interviews adoptive families in Northern Europe; children complain about racist insults at their schools and no one takes it seriously. The films are enlightening about the fact that problems persist in international adoption, even in programs that consider themselves progressive; the irony is that they were intended as good publicity and (according to the film website) an example of best practices in keeping with the Hague convention. We have included on the film link in our conference website a disclaimer to indicate that scheduling “A Man Without Culture”  does not mean that we endorse the practices shown in it and its companion.

Jean Strauss and Sheila Ganz have showed films previously at our conferences, to general enthusiasm. Judy Durey, who lives in Australia, was a totally new discovery. She provided a cv and several proposals, but they didn’t come close to describing the impact of her installation. Because of its multimedia nature and the fact that it was not previously formatted for American technology, it would have been very difficult for us to preview it. Though some in the audience may have found it confusing, accepting this was a successful gamble. The Belgian films were described more briefly on both the proposal and the website. These too would have been difficult to preview. We felt that our attendees would be interested in seeing a film focusing on birthmothers and that this film would increase our international awareness. These films are indeed enlightening about the fact that problems persist in international adoption, even in programs that consider themselves progressive. We do not believe that we should have stopped the film when we could see that we would not want to endorse its practices, as at least one person thinks we should have. Nor do we believe that we need to pre-screen every film we show. We might, however, be more careful about films that are in effect advertising for an adoption agency. And this experience has alerted us to the desirability of giving speakers, especially those from other cultures,  some orientation about attitudes of likely attendees at the conference.  However, when, for example, there is a large difference between understandings of race in two countries, there may be no way for preparation to be infallible.  In any event, we will be inevitably providing a range of viewpoints at the conference, and  we hope that something can be learned from the divergences.

ASAC’s conferences are  unusual in the variety of perspectives that they bring together, including a range of academic disciplines,  a spectrum of personal  viewpoints, a variety of professional orientations, and different kinds of activism.  This leads to excitement and intellectual expansion, and sometimes also to conflict about issues that are close to people’s hearts.  Nevertheless, most of the speakers and attendees who filled out evaluations or communicated with us were exhilarated by the conference in general and felt that they learned from the range of viewpoints.

 Marianne Novy