Monday, 25 June 2012

My Planets: a fictive memoir

Guest blogger DR DAVID REITER tackles the vexing problem of adoption and identity

An early photo taken just after I was adopted
from the Jewish orphanage
Imagine this. You're 50 years old. An only child, from a Jewish family. The people you thought of as your mother and father are dead. Then, in the middle of the night you get a phone call from the other side of the planet telling you they've found your mother. Alive. Your real mother. Suddenly, you become the oldest of seven across two families. All your assumptions about yourself are swept away. 

From Ground Zero, you begin a journey of rediscovery to reclaim your identity. But the truths you gather are relative, subjective. Like speculating on the nature of the universe from the perspective of one planet and then again from another. 

My Planets is in fact a suite of works – a physical book; an enhanced eBook incorporating images, music, sound and video with spoken word and text. Soon, it will be an app and possibly a film. 

Just after the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival, I'll be taking up a residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada, one of the leading New Media centres in the world, to adapt it into a more interactive form. The themes of adoption, loss of and reunification with biological families are themes that touch many people. Yet most of the coverage we get from the media is in carnival mode – people reunited after 50 years of separation, tears of joy, etc. etc... for ten minutes. Few opportunities to engage in a substantial discussion of the effect on those separated by force or circumstance. Just under the thin skin of bravery,  for the sake of the media scrum, lies the truth. The ambivalence. The incurable sense of loss. Self-doubt. And so forth.

For separated Jewish children of my generation, there were no counselling sessions, no thought of psychological impact. You were just expected to get on with it. Many weren't even told they had been taken from their biological parents and adopted out – or in my case placed in an orphanage for the first two years of my life. But even for those who were told, there could be problems, too. The context in which the truth was delivered, and revisited after that, could be damaging, especially in a mixed family where some siblings were 'natural'. The sense of otherness, of being welcome as a concession rather than a given, could take its toll. Ironically, it dovetailed very well with the lessons we received about being Jewish in a Christian and often alien world.

Most of the scenarios that warrant media attention dwell on the positives. How the adult child, nervous at first, is embraced by the biological parent as though the separation had happened only yesterday. And with the reunion comes a New Life, building on the positives earned through the persistence of the search. There's seldom discussion of the negatives. The guilt felt by the biological mother who surrendered her child, often under duress. Problems within the adoptive family. In my case, my adoptive father, with whom I was very close, died when I was only eleven, leaving my adoptive mother to support me. She couldn't handle it alone. Her mental fibre was weak, and the relationship became destructive. How do you discuss something like that with your biological mother in the first conversation you have during the reunion when she asks – fearing the worst – how your life had been as an adopted child? Do you tell the truth and risk the worst, knowing she's been wracked with guilt all her life? Or, as you've done for your whole life up till then, just internalise it?

The My Planets project uses the metaphor of the planets as a means of creating some distance between the rawer aspects of adoption and reunion, moving the personal into a more universal space occupied by parallel worlds, realities. Themes of conflict, for example, are dealt with in a Martian 'reality', providing a more measured view. Mythology can act for adults as fairy tales do for children – appealing to the unconscious, playing out the themes on neutral ground.

During and after my residency at Banff, I plan to have an active Wordpress site for the project, where I'll invite people in to respond to the project as it's being composed. My hope is that the Project will be dynamic, a work in progress, for some time. Perhaps it will never be finished. Hopefully it will give rise to other works and to a constructive exchange of ideas that allows for visible healing in its participants – and greater understanding from those who have been touched indirectly by the themes involved.


  1. Hey David sounds like an amazing journey you are embarking upon...I wanted to bring your attention to a ork that covers (some) similar grind by an old family friend of ours...Joanne Jowell. Her book is called On the Other Side of Shame, but unlike yours, hers is not a directly personal journey

    Best wishes and hope we stay in touch
    Immanuel Suttner

  2. ps forgive the typos I blame it on a mac keyboard