Secret Histories, Public Policies, the 3rd international conference organized by the Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture will be held April 29-May 2, 2010, at MIT. All four keynote addresses are free and open to the public.
Three UNH faculty members will present at the conference.
All in the Family
A conference about adoption, Secret Histories, Public Policies, brings together academics and artists to look at the impact of adoption on our culture.
For most of the 20th century, adoption in the U.S. was shrouded in secrecy. It’s been a long journey from the days when a young woman was “sent away” to have an illegitimate child to now, when a joyful “coming home” adoption announcement is sent to family and friends.
The “secret” is out—for the most part.
How do secrecy, openness, and confidentiality affect the health and well being of adoptees, birthparents, and adoptive parents? What is the role of public policy in shaping their experiences? How do these parameters work differently in transnational adoptions?
Filmmakers, writers, and performance artists will delve into these questions alongside scholars in the humanities, philosophers, legal scholars, and political scientists at a conference, Secret Histories, Public Policies. The conference, co-organized by Charlotte Witt, UNH philosophy professor, will be held from April 29 to May 2 at MIT.
“I hope people will come and explore with us ways in which adoption has impacted our culture and vice versa,” says Witt. “The viewpoints will be diverse. Many of the presenters, including myself, know some aspect of the adoption story firsthand. To encourage a broader audience, we’ve made all four keynote addresses free and open to the public.”
In the U.S. today it is common practice for the birthmother to select the adoptive parents from a portfolio of waiting families. For birthmothers of previous generations this ability to choose is remarkable.
Ann Fessler, a professor of photography at Rhode Island School of Design, will screen her new film, still in production, A Girl Like Her. Fessler’s film explores the gap between the private experiences and public images of single women who became pregnant in the three decades leading up to the feminist movement in the early 1970s. Between 1945 and 1973, the year of the Roe v. Wade decision, an unprecedented 1.5 million women surrendered babies for adoption due to enormous family and social pressure. The film features voice over interviews with women who lived through that experience. Some estimate that today there are close to six million adoptees in the U.S.
Several writers whose work examines their experiences as birthmothers will also present, including Meredith Hall, who teaches memoir writing at UNH. Hall’s best-selling book, Without a Map, chronicles her extraordinary journey from banished birthmother to a reunion, 21 years later, with the son she relinquished.
In an interview for the A Room of One’s Own Foundation, Hall speaks about writing her story: “The message of shame…was pervasive, powerful, and so insistent, it has taken me decades to recognize it and be able to name it…once I started to speak these stories, women started to come out of the air and say, ‘I had a child. I have never told anyone…’” Read an excerpt from Hall’s book, Without a Map.
Open or closed
In the world of domestic adoptions, most experts agree that there is no going back to the highly secretive world of previous generations. During the last 20 years, the trend in adoption has been toward openness, ranging from mediated contact to regular visits between adoptive and birth families.
Several sessions are devoted to the challenges faced by birth and adoptive parents. Determining the adoption’s degree of openness is one of their challenges.
Anita Allen, the former ethics columnist for O Magazine, is a professor of both law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. The mother by domestic adoption of two mixed-race children, Allen’s writing is both frank and personal. In previous writings she has taken on the question of open adoptions and also the ethics of mixed race families. She is the author of Privacy Law: and Society and Why Privacy Isn’t Everything: Feminist Reflections on Personal Accountability. President Obama has just appointed Allen to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. Allen’s keynote address will be “Adoption and Mental Health: Realism, Risk, and Responsibility.”
Who can adopt?
In the introduction to their anthology, Adoption Matters, co-editors Witt and Sally Haslanger, professor of philosophy at MIT and director of the MIT Women and Gender Studies Program, cite the National Adoption Clearinghouse, which states that children who are harder to place—due to age, race, or disability—are designated for “lower-ranked” homes. Such homes include unmarried couples, single parents, lower income, and lesbians and gays.
Speaking to that challenge, Marla Brettschneider, UNH professor of political science and women’s studies, will present a paper, “Costs of Increased Access in Adoption.” Other presentations include “Agency at the Agency? Adoption and Structural Homophobia” and papers concerning adoption for lesbian or gay families.
The great increase in international adoptions has changed the face of adoption making it both more visible and more commonplace. While exact adoption statistics are difficult to find, Witt and Haslinger quote The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute: between 1971 and 2001, U.S citizens adopted more than 265,000 children from abroad, the large majority (more than 156,000) being from Asia. Usually, these adoptions are closed. The questions raised by international adoptions range from immigration law to matters of family identity and resemblance. International adoptions also highlight the economic aspect of adoption, cultural variation in conceptions of family, and the rights of children to their original culture and language.
The conference will have papers concerning adoption practices in countries such as Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, England, Ethiopia, Korea, Northern Ireland, Russia, Vietnam, as well as many others.
For the adoptive child questions about parents, family, and identity are inevitable.
The adoptee’s search for identity resonates throughout the conference. Their narratives are riveting. One such story concerns Deann Borshay Liem. In the 1960s just before being adopted from a Korean orphanage by an American family, Liem’s identity was switched with another girl named Cha Jung Hee. Liem was told to keep the switch a secret, then sent to America. Now a renowned filmmaker, Liem went back to Korea to find her double. Liem’s film about her journey, In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, will preview at the conference and broadcast nationally on PBS this coming fall.
What comprises identity? How significant is biological parentage? Does the experience of being part of a family contribute more than some determinists think? In her paper “Family Values: Biology, Normativity and the Family,” UNH’s Charlotte Witt cautions against the assumption that children who are not biologically related to their parents lack an adequate sense of self.
“Family resemblances arise in a web of family relationships,” says Witt. Such resemblances can “skip generations” or “extend sideways” across the family tree. That laugh or trademark family thriftiness are just as important, or perhaps even more so, to an individual’s sense of self as shape or eye or hair color.
“The significance of family resemblances to a particular child’s sense of self can vary from individual to individual,” says Witt.
The conference, Adoption: Secret Histories, Public Policies, creates a special opportunity to reflect on what it takes to create strong, resilient families.
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