Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture (ASAC). “Adoption: Secret Histories, Public Policies.”
April 29—May 2, 2010.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA
As the title suggests, this year’s ASAC conference—the third of its kind—set as its task to investigate and uncover the often intimate, yet complex and at times conflicting, relationships between the hidden and the revealed, the private and the public, and the personal and the political within domestic as well as international adoption discourses. The conference attracted a large number of delegates from all over the world—mostly attendees with a personal affiliation to adoption (i.e. adoptive parents, birthmothers or adoptees)—who were given the opportunity to come together, discuss, express their viewpoints, disagreements and pursue common causes.
The conference began with a full day of documentary screening, which was followed by three days with panel sessions and paper presentations—including testimonies from North American birth mothers who voluntarily or non-voluntarily had relinquished their children; papers on open vs. closed records; discussions on biocentrism and hetero-normativism in connection to adoption; legal and practical matters related to adoption in North America; and debates about the impact and significance of transracial and domestic adoptee literature.
The screening of Ann Fessler’s nearly-finished documentary A Girl Like Her, based on her book The Girls Who Went Away from 2006, offered an insightful and considered narrative of American women who had fallen victims to the adoption system in the time before abortion was legalized—a lesson in the history of domestic adoption in the US as experienced by unwed mothers. The film’s exclusive focus on the American context implicitly, however, left one wondering whether—or in what way—the gradual and eventual recognition and acceptance of the plight of unwed mothers, and their children, led to a decrease in the number of domestic adoptable children in the US over the years, and subsequently, as a consequence, an increase in the number of intercountry adoptions; a possible hidden connection between US unwed mothers and third-world unwed mothers which remains as yet to be fully explored and mapped. The latter issue was, in a more general sense, characteristic of most contributions during the conference—either a clear focus on domestic- or international adoption discourses; and to a lesser extent attempts to grapple with these discourses’ intimate connections in the post-war global climate.
Another popular and well-received screening was Deann Borshay Liem’s critical documentary In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee. The film outlined the trajectory of a girl—Cha Jung Hee—whose identity the adoption agency had given to Deann Borshay Liem when she was adopted and sent to the US, presumably to cover up the absence of the real Cha Jung Hee. Through the search for Cha Jung Hee, Liem explored a strange and intriguing story about biological ties, the randomness of identity, re- and displacement, and about the—at times ethically dubious—role played by adoption agencies. As such, In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee critically exposed the extent to which accidental events, misspellings, intentional or unintentional errors, and forged or missing documents frequently determine lives and families within the adoption triad; and what significance this randomness means for these people.
Whereas a large number of panels dealt with personal stories, personal involvement—a few also engaged in discussions of the more general ideological and theoretical frameworks used in connection with birthmothers, adoptees. Frances Latchford (York University, Canada) proposed the idea that parenting and the right to parenting depends on a person’s material work, and she furthermore argued that many birthmothers have as yet to recognize and fully understand the implications of the hetero-normative paradigm in which they have been caught. This, she suggested, might lead to birthmothers who choose/chose to relinquish their children being liberated from experiences of social shame and stigmatization as a consequence of their choice. Hosu Kim (City University of New York) discussed the appearance of a Korean online community of birthmothers, arguing that this forum could be seen as an alternative model and space for motherhood, which, in a similar way to Latchford’s argument, would potentially undermine the coercive paradigm of normativity, which initially had forced them to relinquish their children.
The focus on agency, voice and legitimacy was further elaborated by Eli Park Sorensen (University of Cambridge) and Mark Jerng (UC Davis) in their analyses of adoptee literature. Some of the questions raised and discussed during their panel included to what extent authenticity might be relevant in adoption discourse, and how these texts may be read and understood as counter-narratives to dominant, public histories. Jennifer Kwon Dobbs (St. Olaf College) received praise for her reading of intimate and incisive poems from her forthcoming book on Korean birthmothers and international adoption. From a rather different angle—but with equal vigor and skill—Kim Park Nelson (Minnesota State University) explored the notions of horror and motherhood in contemporary popular horror films, illustrating the various meanings of horror respectively for adoptive parents, adoptees and birthmothers.
Although the range of topics had attracted many leading scholars within the field of adoption studies, there was a notable lack and acknowledgement of the significance of race throughout the conference, with the notable exception of a few papers, such as John McLeod’s discussion of transracial adoption in the UK. At a time when our global world almost on a daily basis witnesses unfortunate or suspicious transracial adoption cases—most recently instances involving Russian children sent to the US, and back to Russia again—the conference would probably have benefited from including more papers like Liz Raleigh’s, in which she argued that the discourse of adoption must in part be understood in terms of a neo-liberal marketplace. A renewed focus on the latter would move the contemporary discussion of adoption further along a continued critical trajectory, especially in the light of the emergent realization of the ethical and political connections between adoption and alternative reproductive technologies, which a couple of papers explored during the conference. Overall, the most important contribution of the 2010 ASAC conference in Boston was perhaps its dedication (and tribute) to North American birthmothers, their struggle and resilience. As such, the conference raised great hopes for constructive future discussions across the spectrum of opinions, divisions and disciplines within the heterogeneous, but lively, field of adoption studies.