Adult Adoptee: Jennifer Lauck's Memoir
A discussion of Jennifer Lauck’s memoir.

I love the idea of an online community book club, especially an online community that shares the same interest, albeit from different angles.  I jumped at the chance to participate in this discussion of Jennifer Lauck’s memoir Found. Since a lot of you that will be reading this are my regular blog readers rather than book tour participants, a bit of explaining and a short summary of the book is in order.  The Book Club participants are divided into three groups, each posting a blog on one of three days. Each group is given a different list of questions, and each blogger chooses three to discuss.

To say that Jennifer Lauck had a hard life would be a gross understatement–this is the third memoir she has written on her troubled childhood.  This poor woman was literally overwhelmed with life traumas. She was adopted in 1963  at birth by Bud and Janet.  At the time of the adoption, Janet had a fatal illness, but wanted a daughter.  Bud was already burdened with a dying wife, a young son, and mounting financial debts. From a very young age, Jennifer felt very different temperamentally from her parents and brother and burdened by the idea that she was in the family to save her mother from death. She learned of her adoption from a taunt by her brother shortly before her mother died when she was seven. Her father died of a heart attack one year later, but not before he married the most wicked stepmother since Cinderella’s. Wicked Stepmother abused Jennifer and her brother until they finally were sent to live with separate relatives. Richard and Peggy, distant relatives, adopted the teen-aged Jennifer in order to get her social security payments. Her brother kills himself as a young adult.  Oh, and along the way, she was sexually abused a couple of times, starting when she was six.  It seemed there were no adults in this child’s life that ever truly cared for her or protected her.  It made for a heart breaking read. Needless to say, she grew to be a troubled woman, struggling with a sense of self and unable to form lasting relationships.

Lauck seeks answers and healing in many ways, including marriages, near fanatical devotion to various spiritual pursuits, and parenthood.  Ultimately, she found the primal wound theory, and concluded that her lifelong inability to form relationships and lack of self-worth were due to her original separation from her birth mother. “Infants are unable to regulate their own emotions; they need their mother’s response to their cries to teach them mood normalization. And the infant doesn’t wait for any mother, she waits for her birth mother—the one with which she shared a hormonal connection while in utero. Any other caregiver is rejected.”

She searched for and found her birth mother, but had a troubled reunion for many reasons, including her neediness (her word) and her birth mother’s tone-deafness (my word) as to how to meet these needs.  Her desperation to know and be known by her biological mother is almost physically painful to read.  In truth, neither Lauck nor her first mother were prepared for or supported through the reunion, so no fault can really be assigned, other than perhaps to the therapist who encouraged the search without first preparing Lauck and suggesting ways to support the birth family.  Even though the reunion was strained, Lauck believes that meeting her birth mother helped heal some of her wounds.

I need to add here that I am more than a little uncomfortable commenting on someone else’s truth. Who am I to question or even have an opinion of someone’s personal story that they had the courage to share so publicly.  I decided to drop out of the Book Tour for this reason, but realized that I’d be letting the organizer down since I had taken one of a limited number of spots.  So, let me start by saying that my hat is doffed to Jennifer Lauck for putting pen to paper to explore her life and allowing us to learn along with her.

Now to the questions I’m supposed to discuss. Keep in mind that other bloggers will be talking about other aspects of the book, so you should definitely follow the link at the bottom to get a better understanding of the whole.  I am going to group my responses, rather than answer each question individually.

  • Did the detachment, anger and loss in the author’s voice at times made you question your own pursuit of a child that will not be genetically linked to you?
  • Lauck argues that “the primal wound” affects all adopted children and reunions with first parents should be encouraged in most if not all cases.
  • On pp 17-18, Jennifer talks about a baby searching for her mother after being born. How did this sensory-rich passage strike you? What thoughts did it trigger about the role you play in adoption?

What struck me most about this book in relation to the questions above is why Lauck attributed her lifelong problems solely on the loss of her first mother.  Couldn’t her inability to form healthy relationships be caused by the tragic death of her adoptive mom when she was seven, or by the fact that she was likely never fully parented by Bud and Janet since Janet was terminally ill and Bud was likely drowning in his responsibilities.  Although I realize this wasn’t Lauck’s question, I certainly wondered if her emotional development would have been different if adopted into a healthy loving family. Could her problem have been caused by the lack of any consistent loving care after the age of seven?  By the abuse from her stepmother? By the sexual abuse at age six and as a teen?  Of all that happened to this child, it seemed incongruous to me to select one event on which to pin the blame.

The whole primal wound argument has always seemed too simplistic to me. Humans are complex beings—there are few direct line, single factor causes and effects, especially in human psychology. How a person reacts to any big life event depends on many, probably hundreds, of factors. And we all have our own potentially big life events: for some it’s adoption, for others it’s a depressed mother, or a single mother living paycheck to paycheck, or the death of a parent, or an alcoholic father, or a divorce, or parents who constantly fight. And some unfortunate souls, like Lauck, get hit with more than one.  For most of us, our lives are a mix of positive and negative big events. How we respond to each, and which one leaves an everlasting imprint is individual.

But then who am I to question what helped this gifted writer heal.  Throughout the book, I was hoping and praying that she would find some peace, both for herself and for the people in her life.  If she believes that her problems stem from being separated from her birth mother and found healing through meeting her first mom, then good for her. My problem is when she extrapolates outward to all adoptees.

The passage referenced in the last question above is one example.  Lauck says she searched for her birth mother from the moment of birth.  “I would have also listened, intently, for the timbre of her voice; I would have tested the air for her scent; I would have reached out to make contact; and I would have salivated in anticipation of her milk.”  Beautifully written and evocative of Lauck’s lifelong longing for love.  But then she says:

“What is not commonly known—although it is common sense–is that within moments of separation from the mother, a newborn will experience outrage, panic, and eventually terror. Within 45 minutes, studies show a baby will go into shock and lose consciousness. Once the baby awakens, she will use her senses to search for her mother again and if the mother isn’t there, the baby goes through the same process.”

She presents this information as if it is a universal scientific truth and a sensible one at that. I question both assumptions.  I’ve never seen any research that would support such a conclusion.  If she is referring Dr. Harry Harlow’s famous experiments on maternal separation that he conducted on rhesus monkeys in the 1950s, I think she missed the point.  While Harlow’s study found that the baby monkeys needed contact to thrive and preferred a soft, more life-like surrogate (terrycloth coated wire frame to a wire frame surrogate), he did not find that the monkeys needed contact with their biological mothers.  In fact, Harlow was rather revolutionary in the 1950s by pointing out that a primary caregiver could be anyone, including the father.

Throughout history, babies have been removed from their mothers for hours after birth with apparently no ill effect and certainly not shock and unconsciousness.  Mothers who have a general anesthesia for a Cesarean section often don’t hold their baby immediately after birth.  If a problem is suspected with the infant, doctors, rather than the mother, are the first to hold the child often for hours or days.  Throughout much of the 1940s through1960’s, most mothers who delivered in a hospital were drugged and often didn’t see their children until many many hours after birth, with the infants spending most of their hospital stay (often up to 5-7 days) in the nursery being cared for by nurses rather than their mother. While I’m not suggesting that any of these circumstances are ideal, I do think that if separation from a biological mother for more than 45 minutes causes a baby to lose consciousness, we would all know about it.

Now it is possible that Lauck was being metaphorically rather than literal in order to extend her experience to others, but therein lies what I see as the fundamental fallacy in this book.  In the author’s experience, she believes that the act of separation from her biological mother left lasting and deep scars to her psyche. I have no reason to doubt her.  But I do doubt the next step in her logic– that ALL adoptees are permanently and deeply scarred by the very act of adoption.

At the end of the book, she agrees for the first time to chaperone her daughter’s school field trip. She’s spent a lifetime avoiding being around children because her childhood experiences made her nervous around kids, including her own. She is assigned two children to drive, a 9 year old Asian boy and a 7 year old East Indian girl.  She suggested they all listen to the book The Kite Rider on tape and the kids readily agree.  She is surprised that they are so well mannered and polite and agreed so readily, nothing like her own children.   As they listen to the story, she is stunned that they don’t ask her questions and share their outrage at the injustices of the story with her, a complete stranger. But then she realized why they were so reticent to open up in contrast to what her own children would have surely done.  “I looked from child to child and they are so very familiar to me—these kids are adopted.”  She concludes that suffering was nothing new to them; they were older than their years.

I can think of no better illustration of the hubris of over-generalization.  Almost all children behave better and are more compliant with adults they don’t know, especially when not in the company of friends. Few children share their deep feelings or tough questions with strangers.  From my experience, this reticence is part of all human nature, and has nothing to do with how children joined their families or with separation from their biological mother.  Adopted children and adults are not a species apart and are not all the walking wounded.

Those adoptees that carry the wounds of separation deserve to have their pain recognized, and the adoption system needs to address ways to lessen the potential for this wound.  Open adoption is a step in the right direction, as is opening sealed records.  More effort to provide alternatives for families to stay together is another important step.  In the endnotes Lauck says that a child should not be taken from a mother due to her economic struggle, her age, or her education. She’s right. It’s not good for mothers and it’s not good for kids.

It’s equally important to recognize that many adopted person do not carry this “primal wound”, or if they are wounded the cut doesn’t go so deep. They are relatively happy, relatively well adjusted people, not so different than their non-adopted peers.  Who is and who is not maimed is likely dependent on temperament, how soon the child is adopted, life experiences, specifics of their adopted families, and a host of other factors that we may never know.  Adoptees are a wonderfully diverse group, and they deserve better than any automatic diagnosis.

You can read more of my thoughts on The Primal Wound on this blog post.

To continue to the next stop of this book tour, please visit the main list at The Open Adoption Examiner.

Thank you Lori Luz for organizing this book tour. If you have not read Lori blog where she talks about life and living and loving in an open adoption, you’re missing something. Add her blog, Write Mind, Open Heart to your list of weekly blogs to read.

Image credit: ashley rose