“You Owe Me”: Indebtedness vs. Gratitude

As trafficked people, we may describes ourselves as having the strange status on the one hand as inferior—as something deemed by others a tradable commodity—and on the other hand as superior—as something so hyper-desired that it permits human beings (us) to get treated as a tradable commodity.

Having read a number of posts and responses here that attest to adopted persons’ experiences of this simultaneous hyperinflation and devaluation—my use of economic terminology is wholly deliberate—this links, it seems to me, to that insistence on our indebtedness to the people who bought us.

As a group especially positioned to notice this sort of (monetized) indebtedness, what were the effects of this monetization of relationship in your life? More broadly: how did this kind of openly or tacitly stated “you owe me” play out differently for you, especially as compared to nonadopted siblings or peers you knew? And how did it not?

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5 thoughts on ““You Owe Me”: Indebtedness vs. Gratitude

  1. The following supplies my (an) answer to the above question.

    These days only the most compromised tools and most dogmatic bigots insist on a natural inferiority of woman as a justification for their tacit or factual subordination and enslavement to men according to patriarchal values—patriarchy being an arrangement of a social world around the needs and values of (adult) men first and foremost. This does not mean women have no value; it means, rather, their inherent value gets calculated according to male values and needs.

    By contrast, an assumed inferiority of and enslavement of children in a similarly patriarchal subordination remains not merely invisible as such and thus unchallenged by most people but also still difficult to conceive of as not natural. For instance, if one may imagine with little effort men and women standing toe-to-toe and eye-to-eye and at least plausibly insisting to one another, “we are equal” (whatever “equal” exactly means), for children—especially younger ones—to stand toe-to-toe (eye-to-eye seems out of the question thanks to height differences) and to insist “we are equal” seems either absurd or so far-fetched as to border on some sort of fictional fantasy.

    The basic objection to using this word enslavement (ignoring the disingenuous claims of love on the part of adults) comes from the insistence, “But children are helpless and need taking care of.” More accurately, adults who begot them have a legal responsibility for that selfish or accidental event, but beyond that, the notion that children “are helpless” doesn’t usually bother to distinguish between children who have lived for a matter of weeks from those near their eighteenth birthday. In cultures with initiatory practices, at least the explicit divide between not getting taken seriously as a human being (because you still have the status of “child”) and becoming taken seriously has a formal, cultural acknowledgment. Not so in our culture(s).

    One of the most primeval obligations of this enslavement—or, if you simply cannot bring yourself to call it by its name, then “this status of not being addressed as a human being”—involves acknowledging and even paying homage to an indebtedness.

    In their reassessment of Mead and Fortune’s studies of culturally constructed gender roles in Papua New Guinea, Errington and Gewertz (1987)[1] open the main part of their study by observing, “Chambari men and women experience the world through a set of non-Western cultural premises concerning the nature of indebtedness and the nature of power. The primary debt is for physical and social existence itself: individuals are indebeted to those who have engendered them” (17). Biblically, this appears as the fifth commandment, and one may survey the (English) literature of the eighteenth century in particular to see as perhaps its most prominent theme or trope the endlessly reiterated gesture of filial obedience and submission, by sons and daughters alike.

    Errington and Gewertz undertake their reassessment of Mead and Fortune’s work because they discern an overemphasis on the role of women, in part arising from Mead’s well-intentioned desire to provide for the Western world an alternative to the typically dominating (patriarchal) view of relationship between men and women. In this, of course, she had no regard for the status of children. Errington and Gewertz, acknowledging at the outset the perils of bringing one’s own perspective to anthropological work, nevertheless appear to fail to own up to their own well-intentioned desire to provide for the Western world yet another alternative to domination (of men by women or women by men), finding instead that the Chambri simply don’t dominate one another at all. At the same time, in the index to their work, I find one reference to “child-care, “ one reference to “childishness” (transition to adulthood), and four references to “illegitimate children” (two in footnotes, two not)—which I take as a sign that Errington and Gewertz also do not bring into focus the “natural slaves” in the study they revisit and add to.

    In Lerner’s (1986)[2] Creation of Patriarchy, she considers briefly that children may have experienced slavery prior to women, but then dismisses the point—principally because her concern (as a woman) rests most of all with establishing the context of the plight of women under patriarchy. Whatever the nobility of this goal, we may call it an ugly piece of realpolitik that the enslavement of children figures as a mere scapegoat for the construction of her argument.

    The adopted child (transracially so or not, but perhaps more acutely precisely for that) may stand more pre-oriented to detect this kind of duplicitous move, and perhaps even more so to the kind of apotheosis of indebtedness indulged by Errington and Gewertz, the bible, and eighteenth-century English literature. The adopted child, of course, knows this apotheosis specifically as the demand for gratitude along with the travails inflicted when we fail to offer up our obeisance. And I can’t help thinking that Errington and Gewertz’s immediate and all-encompassing resort to the notion of indebtedness—as the fundamental category they first present in this “non-Western” world of Papua New Guinea—reflects exactly the mistake they want to seem keen to avoid: of bringing their own (Judeo-Christian) perspectives to a (non-Western) different setting, even if filial obedience may exist as a premise or dominant assumption in Chambari culture or otherwise cross-culturally. That doesn’t make their emphasis correct, but only relevant within the limited framing that an assumption of the inferiority of children makes by constructing it as “natural”. But whether culturally Judeo-Christian and Papua New Guinean adults share the conceit and the chauvinism that children warrant designation as inferior “by nature,” we may read this insistence on indebtedness, which Graeber (2011)[3] more recently has overextended and anachronized (it seems) into a master metaphor for human culture generally, as a reflection of the (childhood) trauma left by enslavement on those adults.

    In this respect, the adopted child has one major advantage over the nonadopted: having been trafficked, the adopted child stands to more clearly understand that any sense of enslavement’s trauma (from childhood) does not originate in them, but in the fact and social practice of adoption itself. Certain metaphysics of India notwithstanding, no one asks for life, but for the nonadopted child to berate her (biologically originating) parents on that point has an air of absurdity about it—or, rather, the lines of force typically involved in such child-to-adult criticism will often make it seem that way. Not so for the adopted child. Many of the platitudes of parental power-abuse (“I brought you into this world; I’ll take you out of it”) remain unavailable to parents in the adopting context. Thus, we (the adopted child) can take the higher moral ground, even as our adopting parents and the whole of culture with them join together to beat us to death with a baseball bat—that won’t negate the higher moral ground.

    Nonadopted children find themselves faced (typically) with having to excuse for themselves the trauma not of childhood per se but of childhood enslavement without realizing that’s what it consists of. Hence, those who fantasize that childhood represents an idyllic period may compensate for the enslavement of it by denying its reality, while others (like psychoanalysts in particular) who see childhood as the source of all ills mistake the adjective—in “childhood enslavement”—for the noun and thus the condition. This outlook itself, which alternatively idealizes or utterly demonizes “childhood” shows the confusion involved in trying to address the trauma of childhood enslavement insofar as it gets linked to childhood itself. One of the great breakthrough moments in this comes, precisely, in “forgiving one’s parents”—if only as a separate peace born of despair because otherwise life drags on (painfully) with no end to the despair. But whatever value this forgiveness for oneself, it becomes key, because in it gets laid the groundwork for the reproduction of the very crime committed against children, when the grown child (selfishly or accidentally) breeds and (literally) reproduces her or his own site of trauma. And so the cycle continues.

    My adopting parents acquired me at five days old; phenomenologically, they “are” my parents. So I write this, for adopted people as an adopted person, but one who received an essentially nonadopted dose of childhood enslavement. As he adage goes, the happiest slave doesn’t know he’s a slave, and countless children around the world who find themselves in the condition of slavery may have happy childhoods—for some reason, I always think of Nabokov first and foremost as someone who had an idyllic childhood. Similarly among some adopted people—perhaps they adjusted, perhaps they assimilated well, &c. The issue involves not what my personal experience consisted of; I have to make sense of my own life and you yours, of course. But on the level of the social, just as the human trafficking of adoption makes it an extremely dubious practice at the very, very best, we cannot and should not let any sentimentality or separate peace we elaborate obscure the fact that the condition of enslavement in childhood warrants calling out as such.

    The adopted child stands in a particularly well-suited place to recognize and launch this critique. And if the feminist critique exposed one massive flank of implicated in the fundamental injustices of patriarchy, then the juvenist critique my stand to expose the entire underbelly of patriarchy and all of the rest.

    [1] Errington, F, and Gewertz D (1987). Cultural alternatives & a feminist anthropology: an analysis of culturally constructed gender interests in Papua New Guinea. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press

    [2] Lerner, G. (1986). The creation of patriarchy. New York ; Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    [3] Graeber, D. (2011). Debt: the first 5,000 years. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House.

    As trafficked people, we may describes ourselves as having the strange status on the one hand as inferior—as something deemed by others a tradable commodity—and on the other hand as superior—as something so hyper-desired this permits human beings (us) to get treated as a tradable commodity.

    Having read a number of posts and responses here that attest to adopted persons’ experiences of this simultaneous hyperinflation and devaluation—my use of economic terminology is wholly deliberate; an experience that leads to that insistence on our indebtedness to the people who bought us.

    As a group especially positioned to notice this sort of thing, what were the effects of this monetization of relationship in your life and in the life of others around you? Asking this another way: how did the openly or tacitly stated “you owe me” play out differently for you compared to nonadopted siblings or peers you knew?

    These days only the most compromised tools and most dogmatic bigots insist on a natural inferiority of woman as a justification for their tacit or factual subordination and enslavement to men according to patriarchal values—patriarchy being an arrangement of a social world around the needs and values of (adult) men first and foremost. This does not mean women have no value; it means, rather, their inherent value gets calculated according to male values and needs.

    By contrast, an assumed inferiority of and enslavement of children in a similarly patriarchal subordination remains not merely invisible as such and thus unchallenged by most people but also still difficult to conceive of as not natural. For instance, if one may imagine with little effort men and women standing toe-to-toe and eye-to-eye and at least plausibly insisting to one another, “we are equal” (whatever “equal” exactly means), for children—especially younger ones—to stand toe-to-toe (eye-to-eye seems out of the question thanks to height differences) and to insist “we are equal” seems either absurd or so far-fetched as to border on some sort of fictional fantasy.

    The basic objection to using this word enslavement (ignoring the disingenuous claims of love on the part of adults) comes from the insistence, “But children are helpless and need taking care of.” More accurately, adults who begot them have a legal responsibility for that selfish or accidental event, but beyond that, the notion that children “are helpless” doesn’t usually bother to distinguish between children who have lived for a matter of weeks from those near their eighteenth birthday. In cultures with initiatory practices, at least the explicit divide between not getting taken seriously as a human being (because you still have the status of “child”) and becoming taken seriously has a formal, cultural acknowledgment. Not so in our culture(s).

    One of the most primeval obligations of this enslavement—or, if you simply cannot bring yourself to call it by its name, then “this status of not being addressed as a human being”—involves acknowledging and even paying homage to an indebtedness.

    In their reassessment of Mead and Fortune’s studies of culturally constructed gender roles in Papua New Guinea, Errington and Gewertz (1987)[1] open the main part of their study by observing, “Chambari men and women experience the world through a set of non-Western cultural premises concerning the nature of indebtedness and the nature of power. The primary debt is for physical and social existence itself: individuals are indebeted to those who have engendered them” (17). Biblically, this appears as the fifth commandment, and one may survey the (English) literature of the eighteenth century in particular to see as perhaps its most prominent theme or trope the endlessly reiterated gesture of filial obedience and submission, by sons and daughters alike.

    Errington and Gewertz undertake their reassessment of Mead and Fortune’s work because they discern an overemphasis on the role of women, in part arising from Mead’s well-intentioned desire to provide for the Western world an alternative to the typically dominating (patriarchal) view of relationship between men and women. In this, of course, she had no regard for the status of children. Errington and Gewertz, acknowledging at the outset the perils of bringing one’s own perspective to anthropological work, nevertheless appear to fail to own up to their own well-intentioned desire to provide for the Western world yet another alternative to domination (of men by women or women by men), finding instead that the Chambri simply don’t dominate one another at all. At the same time, in the index to their work, I find one reference to “child-care, “ one reference to “childishness” (transition to adulthood), and four references to “illegitimate children” (two in footnotes, two not)—which I take as a sign that Errington and Gewertz also do not bring into focus the “natural slaves” in the study they revisit and add to.

    In Lerner’s (1986)[2] Creation of Patriarchy, she considers briefly that children may have experienced slavery prior to women, but then dismisses the point—principally because her concern (as a woman) rests most of all with establishing the context of the plight of women under patriarchy. Whatever the nobility of this goal, we may call it an ugly piece of realpolitik that the enslavement of children figures as a mere scapegoat for the construction of her argument.

    The adopted child (transracially so or not, but perhaps more acutely precisely for that) may stand more pre-oriented to detect this kind of duplicitous move, and perhaps even more so to the kind of apotheosis of indebtedness indulged by Errington and Gewertz, the bible, and eighteenth-century English literature. The adopted child, of course, knows this apotheosis specifically as the demand for gratitude along with the travails inflicted when we fail to offer up our obeisance. And I can’t help thinking that Errington and Gewertz’s immediate and all-encompassing resort to the notion of indebtedness—as the fundamental category they first present in this “non-Western” world of Papua New Guinea—reflects exactly the mistake they want to seem keen to avoid: of bringing their own (Judeo-Christian) perspectives to a (non-Western) different setting, even if filial obedience may exist as a premise or dominant assumption in Chambari culture or otherwise cross-culturally. That doesn’t make their emphasis correct, but only relevant within the limited framing that an assumption of the inferiority of children makes by constructing it as “natural”. But whether culturally Judeo-Christian and Papua New Guinean adults share the conceit and the chauvinism that children warrant designation as inferior “by nature,” we may read this insistence on indebtedness, which Graeber (2011)[3] more recently has overextended and anachronized (it seems) into a master metaphor for human culture generally, as a reflection of the (childhood) trauma left by enslavement on those adults.

    In this respect, the adopted child has one major advantage over the nonadopted: having been trafficked, the adopted child stands to more clearly understand that any sense of enslavement’s trauma (from childhood) does not originate in them, but in the fact and social practice of adoption itself. Certain metaphysics of India notwithstanding, no one asks for life, but for the nonadopted child to berate her (biologically originating) parents on that point has an air of absurdity about it—or, rather, the lines of force typically involved in such child-to-adult criticism will often make it seem that way. Not so for the adopted child. Many of the platitudes of parental power-abuse (“I brought you into this world; I’ll take you out of it”) remain unavailable to parents in the adopting context. Thus, we (the adopted child) can take the higher moral ground, even as our adopting parents and the whole of culture with them join together to beat us to death with a baseball bat—that won’t negate the higher moral ground.

    Nonadopted children find themselves faced (typically) with having to excuse for themselves the trauma not of childhood per se but of childhood enslavement without realizing that’s what it consists of. Hence, those who fantasize that childhood represents an idyllic period may compensate for the enslavement of it by denying its reality, while others (like psychoanalysts in particular) who see childhood as the source of all ills mistake the adjective—in “childhood enslavement”—for the noun and thus the condition. This outlook itself, which alternatively idealizes or utterly demonizes “childhood” shows the confusion involved in trying to address the trauma of childhood enslavement insofar as it gets linked to childhood itself. One of the great breakthrough moments in this comes, precisely, in “forgiving one’s parents”—if only as a separate peace born of despair because otherwise life drags on (painfully) with no end to the despair. But whatever value this forgiveness for oneself, it becomes key, because in it gets laid the groundwork for the reproduction of the very crime committed against children, when the grown child (selfishly or accidentally) breeds and (literally) reproduces her or his own site of trauma. And so the cycle continues.

    My adopting parents acquired me at five days old; phenomenologically, they “are” my parents. So I write this, for adopted people as an adopted person, but one who received an essentially nonadopted dose of childhood enslavement. As he adage goes, the happiest slave doesn’t know he’s a slave, and countless children around the world who find themselves in the condition of slavery may have happy childhoods—for some reason, I always think of Nabokov first and foremost as someone who had an idyllic childhood. Similarly among some adopted people—perhaps they adjusted, perhaps they assimilated well, &c. The issue involves not what my personal experience consisted of; I have to make sense of my own life and you yours, of course. But on the level of the social, just as the human trafficking of adoption makes it an extremely dubious practice at the very, very best, we cannot and should not let any sentimentality or separate peace we elaborate obscure the fact that the condition of enslavement in childhood warrants calling out as such.

    The adopted child stands in a particularly well-suited place to recognize and launch this critique. And if the feminist critique exposed one massive flank of implicated in the fundamental injustices of patriarchy, then the juvenist critique my stand to expose the entire underbelly of patriarchy and all of the rest.

    [1] Errington, F, and Gewertz D (1987). Cultural alternatives & a feminist anthropology: an analysis of culturally constructed gender interests in Papua New Guinea. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press

    [2] Lerner, G. (1986). The creation of patriarchy. New York ; Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    [3] Graeber, D. (2011). Debt: the first 5,000 years. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House.

  2. For me it became the the crux of a broken relationship. I left my adoptive parents, my adoptive family and walked away I have not looked back in over thirty years – well I’ve had my collar felt quite recently when a member of the family who adopted me tried to silence me from speaking my own thoughts and expressing my personal views on adoption. But beyond that I have not looked back. And I have no desire to rake over the coals of the past.
    Indebtedness was a used as a criticism, as a tool of emotional blackmail, as means to punish and belittle me. Though I do have to say thirty/forty years ago in the UK the thinking about race, ethnicity and identity were totally different – there wasn’t any. It was pre multicultural and the dominant culture and default racial setting was white. What I find more unacceptable are the born again supporters of adoption and adoptees who waive the ingratitude and indebtedness cards in your face if you dare question the righteousness of adoption and the good that it does. They will hear no ill of adoption. It’s adoption at any cost. The fact that we as adoptees are somehow inferior in this skewed world view and that Western values; as it is invariably from Western countries that many of the transracial, inter-country adoptions take place. That somehow we have been saved from a fate worse than death. That we should be grateful for having been allowed into the exclusive club. That actually in my experience usually want to boot you out at the first opportunity.
    As for non adopted kids and how they felt I can’t really comment as I had very few friends because I was different with a capital D. But from observation I would say that the stigmas glasses, mental slowness, body size etc most kids do grow out of so those markers or sticks used to beat children with disappear and are no longer of use. But if you’re adopted it never goes away like the colour of your skin. You can’t change that

  3. I’ve been thinking a lot more about the construction of “childhood” as a function of economic/political need, especially now that I’m in a place where child labor evidently exists and the notion of “childhood” most definitely belongs to one particular class, one with the luxury and privilege to provide it.

    I’m saying this as if I mean what is happening here is “inferior” to a “Western” notion of things, when I mean no such thing. It was only recently that “childhood” and “teenager” became valid temporal life markers within cosmopolitan bourgeois society; and it seems more and more that “leisure” lifestyles are basically ways of extending this “childhood” throughout adulthood as it were.

    So the idea of enslavement is indeed interesting, and likely vestigial to current ideas of such childhood. I would only posit it a bit more expansively, since laws concerning children within the Anglo-Saxon legal realm are based on a context of property. Furthermore, the nuclear family limits the claims to such property to immediate parents. Any comparisons with other cultures must take this into account. I’m hearing more and more within the Arab/Turkish domain of children who were “given over” to parental siblings who could not have their own children, for example.

    I would then separate the reality from the inverting mythology, meaning, we might all agree on the idea that adoption in most all contexts is a “second-best” solution, which I think will be proven once “Third-World” surrogacy really catches on (read: falls below the price break point). The inversion of this gives us the “you were chosen” myth, which is more an effort to resolve the anxiety of pawning off second-rate goods for “the real thing”.

    I’ve seen the dossiers of children in my orphanage who were “returned”, like damaged goods, most of whom deceased soon thereafter. So I’m not sure there isn’t an equivalent to “I brought you into this world…”; in fact, it’s even easier to do, as witnessed by the abandoners, child traders, and disruptors who regularly are praised in the media for the “selflessness” in making such a “difficult decision”. This decision would be illegal for them concerning biological children.

    It is this ease of disruption, or the threat of a second rejection that for me is most haunting. The blackmail of it was never stated out loud, but it existed in my mind. The desire to please and make good on my “promissory note”—the initial investment—was ever-present in my psyche. It prevented me from searching/returning much earlier in my life, and is the basis for much in the way of regret.

  4. Reblogged this on The Life Of Von and commented:
    “The adopted child stands in a particularly well-suited place to recognize and launch this critique. And if the feminist critique exposed one massive flank of implicated in the fundamental injustices of patriarchy, then the juvenist critique my stand to expose the entire underbelly of patriarchy and all of the rest.”

  5. Madonna’s paternalistic expectations of gratitude from the source country, as seen by the president of Malawi:

    Granted, Madonna has adopted two children from Malawi. According to the record, this gesture was humanitarian and of her accord. It, therefore, comes across as strange and depressing that for a humanitarian act, prompted only by her, Madonna wants Malawi to be forever chained to the obligation of gratitude. Kindness, as far as its ordinary meaning is concerned, is free and anonymous. If it can’t be free and silent, it is not kindness; it is something else. Blackmail is the closest it becomes.

    Enough said. Those poor kids. [link to full text of presidential decree]

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