The Adoption Post I Should Have Written (Thanks, Lainey)
When Aimee Louise Sword was sentenced this week, I hastened to write about the online uproar over yet another bad adoption story. Sword, a mid-thirties birth mother in Michigan, is going to jail for having sex with a teenage birth son. She should be. There is no doubt she committed a crime.
Yet I felt disturbed enough about the response to the story—predictable outrage and contempt, but also way too much tee-hee titillation—"now that's a family reunion!" read at least one tweet I caught—to do my own commentary, which ran on Open Salon's cover yesterday.
Why did I feel so compelled to write about Sword?*
It wasn't because she was a "hot" topic or part of popular keyword searches. And it sure wasn't because I, as an adoptive mom, want to be affiliated with this story. It's just the opposite. I think a lot of adoption advocates don't want to touch this steaming hunk of sensationalism with a billion-foot pole.
Still, I woke up this morning knowing that the original post, driven by my disgust at the online barrage, only hinted at my real discomfort.
At her hearing, Sword admitted she didn't understand why she did what she did. Her motives were irrational and complicated. So if you continue down this road, as perhaps others in the adoption community are quietly doing in their own heads, you come up with one very hard-to-admit possibility:
That in giving away her infant son, something profound broke inside Sword. That when a woman surrenders the child who grew inside her body, this may always feel like an irreparable loss.
This is not the popular view of adoption, at least as promoted by mainstream stories, many of which are written from the perspective of adoptive parents. Yet there are plenty of birth parents who write about what a loss this is, in memoirs and blogs. Adult adoptees, too, often speak of a life-long feeling of rejection sparked by the knowledge that their first parents gave them away.
Let me emphasize that generalizations are just that. Not all adoptees feel rejected in this way. Not all birth parents feel wrecked by such a loss or even regret the decision they made to give away a child for adoption. Often the adoption story has a happy ending.
But not always, and in writing off Sword as merely crazy, craven, or mentally ill, we adoptive parents avoid looking at that hard little ethical conundrum at the center of it all. Sword did wrong—but why? She's easy to condemn, but I believe a little soul-searching about her motivations is in order, especially for those of us who are adoption advocates.
Think of the hard-core alcoholics you know. Think of anyone who's mentally ill and wreaks havoc in a family. Think of Whoopie Goldberg recently defending Mel Gibson on The View, improbable as that seems.
If it happens in your family, you may hate the offender, you may despair, you may kick him or her out—and you'd be right to. Yet you'd also carry with you (or at least I do) the reasons why that person may be so weak or unable to help him- or herself. It's not an excuse for criminally-damaging behavior. It's just knowledge of how sad and shaming the causes can be, the kind of knowledge that drags down other family members with guilt.
How one musters the quality of mercy depends so much on personal circumstances. But to look for mercy even in the worst of behavior seems to me to be the ethical thing to do, if not the spiritual thing. I don't mean forgiveness for unspeakable acts. I mean recognition that evil walks among us, that it can be pedestrian and so often a close, close thing.
Dave Cullen's Columbine powerfully musters such mercy for all involved in that iconic school shooting. Of the two shooters, one boy was later diagnosed as a psychopath, but the other was not. The boys' parents apparently made mistakes that any of us might have, as did school officials and the local police.
Cullen, a journalist who covered part of the breaking story himself, may show the least mercy for press coverage of the crisis. Yet even there, it's clear that the complex social and psychological motivations that result in heinous acts can take years to understand and convey with any depth.
I doubt Sword's story will get a full-on investigative treatment, and there are good reasons why it shouldn't. It's not Columbine. It's freakish. It's already faded from the wires—and that in itself might be merciful for her family.
Her story may best be conveyed in a fictional account, in which enough of the messy stuff can be siphoned off to reveal how haunted such a character is.
Mercy, sympathy, compassion, knowledge of life's complexity, a sense that some people really do lose. That's in short supply in the public discourse these days. Disturbing subject matter like incest, teenage suicide, or school shooting sprees often evokes the kneejerk: outrage and inappropriate laughter. Just the other day, my son was very troubled by a rack of 2011 "Bunny Suicides" calendars. "Why would anyone think that's funny?" he asked.
A good question, and one I can't answer beyond saying that media of all kinds model a limited array of responses to complicated problems. I'm still in awe of David Simon's HBO series The Wire, with its ability to show the haunted nooks of ghetto kids and cops on both side of the Drug War. What matters is a writer or TV director summoning sympathy—or at least understanding—be it for gangbangers or mothers who badly hurt their own children.
In my earlier post, I noted that birth parents were not controlling the public narrative of Sword's story. I hinted at why this is a problem but focused my ire and unease on the press, because it's such an easy target. I'm not letting the press off the hook now—I doubt I ever will—but I will acknowledge that the discomfort I feel is about more than that.
It's about a search for mercy for all the many lost ones, the many who are enraged or hopeless or desperate, the many who are broken—the many birth parents, for instance, who may have made decisions they later regretted.
It's a difficult place to live as an adoptive parent, and I can't always stay there. But I do try not to look away.
* This piece was sparked by a comment to my original post from Lainey, who asked me to explain why I was adding to the feeding frenzy over Sword. As Lainey wrote, "How on Earth does your own story differ from what you object to? I'm confounded?"
I was going to write another comment this morning, then just decided to do this post. Thank you, Lainey, for holding my feet to the fire. They may still be on fire, but I appreciate being pushed to think about my own response.