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.