knowing you’re forgetting: the orphan’s heartache

Most intercountry adoptees reading on the internet are gen x’ers or millennials.  Very few are baby boomers, because we were the first to have been subjected to this social experiment en masse, and

we are aging.

And, if the rest of older adoptees are like me, we are exceptionally (acquaintances might even say irrationally) afraid of dementia.

It occurred to me, while reading the following article at Aeon magazine, that the description of what it’s like to experience dementia sounded terrifyingly familiar.

On my good days, I can almost pass for a normal person. On my bad days, I feel like I cannot find myself… I don’t know who I am and what I am going to lose next.’

It sounded like something we intercountry adoptees have already experienced in the past, when we were turned into orphans and sent to new countries with confusing cultures and people we did not resemble: the process of aging clouded our memories at the same time forced assimilation quickly erased our former identity. There was not only the loss of the world as we knew it, but a sense that we had lost ourselves. We have referred to the forgetting of our early, formative pasts as amnesia, and we have referred to our assimilation as a kind of death, but could it be more like dementia, as we were painfully aware we had forgotten something very important? As it slipped through our fingers never to return?

What, exactly is our self?  Our identity?

British philosopher Derek Parfit in books such as Reasons and Persons (1984), argues that identity and memory come from the same place: a psychological connectedness and continuity maintained inside our heads. Selfhood hinges on our ability to order memory, and connect a set of experiences to form a coherent autobiography of who we were and how we became the person we are now. The theory has implications for dementia, because dementia destroys the temporal binding that sustains our identity.

This is probably the most common way we look at our identity, and Lord knows we know all about temporal binding being destroyed.  But what if we were to look at it as Heidegger would: that our identity is not contingent on memory, but through our body moving through the world?

I like how this article suggests that there is some inviolable identity that persists despite the loss of confirming memories.

My mother-in-law’s narrative of herself has narrowed. It now draws heavily on her experiences as a young girl evacuated from East London during the Blitz. The story of that foundational moment is endlessly repeated because it still says something vital about her, as if she is saying defiantly: ‘Here I am, and look at the life I have had.’

I like the strategy people are employing dealing with dementia these days, and I like the idea of embedded identities which have not succumbed to extraordinary forces, even if that identity seems amorphous.  I don’t want to get hung up on a memory lost anymore.  I want to seize the day, even if I have to start over every day.

Granted, this attitude in no way negates my outrage over the record of my history being obliterated.

But, philosophically, I’d like to ask my fellow adoptees to consider deeply what identity is, and whether or not it’s really something we can really lose.  Thank you in advance for what I hope to be a lively discussion.

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8 thoughts on “knowing you’re forgetting: the orphan’s heartache

  1. Like a ship without an anchor, the orphan has no option but to forever move with the winds… The orphan moves, but not knowing from whence s/he came, has no port to call home.

  2. I want to believe that we have blood memory and if we are deeply quiet, our ancestors can communicate with us, no matter where we are or no matter how far we are from “home…” – I have decided for me that I am home, where I am now, whereever that home is… Wonderful post!

  3. Picasso said: “I don’t develop. I am.” But clearly ( at least to me) , he was talking about a contingency, a certain confluent energy within the Self -not his “Identity” per se – he’s talking about his ‘genius’ if you will- I always referred to myself to myself in the third person when I was a kid- especially in the early grades: “that Plotczyk boy” – that was my ide tity – the rest was lacuna- a big, empty obtuse hole- nothing going in; o thing certainly coming out.

  4. So much to think about here, thank you, and also for the replies so far. I appreciate too the corporal/materialist premise, because the “body moving through this world” has become for me a useful paradigm….

    But taking a step back. My adoptive father passed away in 2011 (God rest his soul) after a years-long bout with Alzheimer’s or dementia, we’re not sure (he would not get tested). I think about the difficulty for him to remember things, and especially the time when he did not recognize me after reacting badly to anesthesia after heart surgery.

    That was a strange moment. His recognition of me was our “connection”. When this seemed to disappear in an instant just like that, I was left completely at a loss as to how to react. It still haunts me for a variety of reasons….

    But there’s something else I wanted to discuss along these lines, which is “willing” and “unwilling” forgetting. As adoptees, we spend time trying to remember what is forgotten for us, as stated above. But also as adoptees, we sometimes are reminded of this “memory” as Lara/Trace describes.

    I bring up the concept of “will” because if I think about it, my father spent his entire life trying to forget. He tried to forget his immigrant roots, his extremely humble familial past, his Irish heritage, his connection to place. So his illness at the end of his life was like an unwilling forgetting on top of a willful one.

    I’m working on a series of posters now for a documentary film [link to web site] [link to trailer] on Lebanese adoptees in Scandinavia. In Arabic it is called “الذاكرة : مجهولة”, or “Memory: Unknown”. This comes from the practice of writing “Mother/Father: Unknown” on our identity papers. After 10 years here (and DNA evidence) some of these “forgotten memories” have resurfaced. I’m not quite sure how to process them. But they do give me insight as to identity. And this is comforting, albeit painfully so.

  5. There are three things I particularly react/respond, but would rather reply, to here.

    Here’s the first.

    Identity is an argument, not a thing. As an argument, it is something I state the premises of and then offer the arguments and warrants (the cultural acknowledgments as to what constitutes a valid basis for an argument) for. Of course, the pressure of culture will shape, even browbeat, me into starting my argument from (1) a position I don’t even want to argue but see no alternative to, or (2) I can’t see an alternative to because cultural pressure has already indoctrinated me. People who are gay, but daren’t come out of the closet yet, provide an example of identity as culturally pressured argument. My “being” may have no human naming about it, but my “existence” (identity) is always only an argument. (You could reverse “being” and “existence” if those words seem backward in the usage I’ve made).

  6. Second:

    Ex post facto, I can claim a continuity of identity. In fact, per my first reply, I do exactly this when I assert whatever sense of identity I’m asserting.

    But the idea that identity portends “a psychological connectedness and continuity maintained inside our heads” cannot be universal. Jung described, and I have lived, the experience of more than one personality “in my head”. Jung calls these complexes, and they are usually not fully formed personalities, but they have appetites, desires, &c., that do not necessarily accord with what my “I” wants. This was extremely clear when I was trying to quit smoking. Something else–not “me”–kept lighting up cigarettes and my “I” was baffled and demoralised by that experience. Addicts may well recognise this.

    What Jung describes is how these complexes can occupy one of our most preeminent complexes, the ego. The ego is simply the part of our being where the “I” that “wills” calls home. The complex that says, “I do this” is the one called the ego. But the ego can be complex-occupied; traditional societies call this “demonic possession”–and our own language still recognises this when we say something like, “What’s gotten into you” when someone is acting strange.

    So, my “I” had to take the blame for lighting cigarettes, so to speak. That was the “coherence-making” gesture, but it actually created incoherence for me. Again, I found it baffling and demoralising. The drunk who blacks out and hits someone with her car on the way home will have to bear the legal brunt for that act, but experientially, she (literally) wasn’t there.

    I do not intend to say that these complexes are the “blood memory” that lurk above and beyond our human wanting and desiring; these complexes may be more “elemental” than the ego, at times, but that doesn’t make them logically prior in some sense. Complexes may be older than the ego, younger than the ego, or may be transcendental to the immanence of consciousness entirely (i.e., are issuances, visitations in Mark Plotczyk’s sense, from the Unconscious).

    Rather, what this all points to is that identity at the “blood level” the “body” level, the “prior to memory” level, is already plural and discontinuous. It’s like looking out and seeing a field of corn, with cows, chickens, goats, dirt, river, trees, other people, and then we simply stipulate, that is, the ego declares, “This is /my/ farm”.

    Once again, identity shows itself as an argument, not a thing.

    But lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I offer this description not as an either/or. Maybe only some people have an experience that matches what Jung describes by complexes–for them, identity (the Self, not the self) cannot be continuous and non-plural, but can only be declared continuous by stipulation and fiat. For other people, maybe a single “entity” orders experience and that single entity warrants the designation “identity”.

    However that may be for some, for those who understand the experience described by Jung’s complexes, it is also the case that each complex has “a point of view”; each orders memories according to its own understanding and history. The ego, associated with “I” may claim to dictate to provide the “real” history of identity, but in fact, each complex (however rudimentarily) can compose its own history as well. The addict-complex, that wants to keep using, for instance, will find any excuse in the past to keep using. I quit smoking once for 17 days and rewarded myself with a cigarette (only nine years later I finaly quit for good). Certainly my “ego” does think rewarding myself with a cigarette is the right response to no longer smoking, but that’s the rationale my addict-complex used. Successfully.

  7. Can you lose identity; can you lose an argument?
    So, the answer must be yes, although what one loses is the conviction around the premises of the argument. You lose the rationale for living (continuing to act) in light of the premises of the argument.

    About the opposite of dementia, and echoing somewhat Daniel’s question about the “opposite” of a ghost–a “visitation” still seems (thank you Mark Plotczyk) a good word.

    At one point, I spun out an enormous lie, about how I had a younger brother (a genius, who never spoke, but seemed to respect me, maybe only me), who committed suicide. My adoptive parents were traumatised by this, and began an explicit campaign to expunge him entirely from memory. My actual younger brother and sister went along with this. (This all happened, I claimed, sometime around adolescence for me.) Naively, simply because I admired my dead brother as much as I did, I saw his suicide as heroic, or at least morally correct (a genius couldn’t make an error of judgment), and I simply failed to go along with my adoptive parents’ wishes. So they institutionalised me, where I was heavily treated with psychiatric sedatives and whatnot until I finally succumbed and started going along with the notion that I’d never had a brother who killed himself. Because of the medication, of course, I could only very dimly remember any details at all about the whole thing. Like, I couldn’t remember how he actually killed himself; I couldn’t remember how old he was at the time. And my parents, in any case, had removed all pictures, traces, &c., and my own younger siblings had become complicit in the fiction (that he ever existed at all). I was the only one who (had ever) persisted in the crazy notion that I’d had a little brother who’d killed himself.

    In making up this lie, I built in the story’s uncertainties so that I could not be caught in an inconsistency later. If I said he was 13 one time and then 11 another time, that was because I didn’t really have a direct memory of ANY of it. And if you called my parents and said, “Did you have a younger child who committed suicide,” my adoptive parents would think you were nuts. &c.

    Why mention all of this? Because while wholly fictional (I assume), telling this story had an immense emotional charge for me. At the beginning, when first telling it, I could start crying–which wasn’t something I did easily in general. I had started by disclosing the story as something “I’d never told anyone” (literally true, but I meant the gesture in all seriousness as well, as a gesture of faith in the one I was lying to; however contradictory that might seem). I thought about turning it into a novel, but then I resisted that idea: if I’d never told anyone before, and had only told a couple, why “share it with the whole world” (even though it was striking me as a “really good story”). I still wanted to keep it to myself. The second person I told did not appreciate it enough, and I found myself regretting that I’d told him. So I went out of my way to make it impossible for him to “possess” the story.

    By that time, I’d had to confront the unnerving and weird possibility that the story really was true. But whether literally true or not, it certainly had all of the force of a founding myth.

    So, my (or “a”) foundational moment for me isn’t found in my past, like that woman in the Blitz. Just like historical fiction is set in the past but still (anachronistically) reflects the present, or science fiction is set in the future, it’s entirely obvious that this “origin myth” played out only in the immediate present.

    In this case, the “past” is a rhetorical gesture. It is the gesture that makes my fiction credible. In other words, I have to set the story in the past, simply because of the duration of time involved (from whatever age my brother killed himself through the period of my time in the mental hospital). But the story I was articulating (for myself, as much as for my listener)–or, in other words, the rhetorical gesture of “the past” works on the storyteller as much as the storytolder–was happening only in the present.

    This is not merely to say that the past doesn’t exist; rather, we relive it in the present (hence, memory is “re”-membering). My statement that “the past is a rhetorical gesture” could be said to hold for everything we call memory. The difference is, however my remembering distorts some actually experienced past experience, the “memory” of my brother’s suicide never actually happened, so it is a “membering” not a “remembering” I suppose.

    It is certainly interesting to me that the rhetorical gesture of the past is so compelling, so convincing, that I started to wonder, “Did this really happen”?

    In any case, I am not saying that all memory is self-deception. Actual past events occur, and then we take an orientation to them (accurate/distorting, remember/forgetting, willing/unwilling as we do), but these do not always need to be the foundational experiences. This is Brent’s “good fiction” although I would say it is indeed productive of a sense of (a part of) identity, and not a “fiction” in a dismissive or pejorative sense. But one may also have an identity in the future as well–the future is also a rhetorical gesture. Many people who aspire to heaven have their sense of identity planted in the future. The early Soviets and Chinese, working toward a socially better world, very much had their identities planted in the man or woman of the future.

    In all of this, I am advocating against the notion of monolithic or single-valued approaches to identity. I’m not saying my experience disproves other experiences. (I would claim that Jung’s complex theory can subsume Parfit’s approach.)

    On a strictly personal note, any analysis about my myth and how it relates to adoption would be welcome and interesting to me.

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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