Secrets, complications, and long lost families

A new series of Long Lost Family started in the UK this week. If you’ve never seen it, its format is easy to explain: members of the public contact the show asking for help in tracing estranged relatives, the show’s researchers track them down, and – if they consent to meeting up, and being filmed – there’s a reunion. It’s a hugely popular show, and I know lots of people love it, but it makes me uneasy. The situations that Long Lost Family focuses on are varied: an absent father, a brother who moved away, an aunt who emigrated and stopped getting in touch. But many of them involve adoption, and that’s where my squeamishness comes from.

There’s no doubt that Long Lost Family does an important job in helping people to search for birth relatives, and in making its audience aware of how such searches can be carried out. In doing so, it honours the importance of family connections, and helps to break down the sense of shame with which adoption was once surrounded. The adoption stories it features centre on people who were adopted during the ‘classic’ era, when adoption was widely seen as something to be kept secret. There was the stigma of illegitimacy, the stigma of being infertile, and the belief that children who were adopted as tiny babies somehow – shockingly – ‘didn’t need to know’. It wasn’t until the passing of the 1976 Adoption Act – described by a journalist in the Daily Mirror as ‘one of the most important pieces of legislation involving children since we stopped sending small boys up chimneys’ – that adopted people had the right to access their records, or even their original birth certificates. Their past, and their parentage, would no longer be a mystery to them. They would, potentially, be able to trace their birth parents, and be reunited with them.

To us nowadays, the idea of denying people information about their own lives seems so fundamentally unjust that it’s hard to believe how controversial this aspect of the 1976 Act was at the time. Yet there were many people who argued against it. Some pointed to the thousands of birth mothers who had relinquished their children in the belief that they would remain anonymous. The agony aunt Marjorie Proops wrote of the ‘terror’ and ‘torture of discovery’ experienced by women who had given up babies for adoption many years previously and gone on to create new lives for themselves – ‘women who have believed for years that their secret was safe and their past forever buried’. The desire to search was also seen by many as ‘ungrateful’ to adoptive parents. One woman interviewed by the Daily Mirror in 1975 was told by a solicitor that she should be ashamed of herself for wanting to know who her birth parents were. There must have been thousands of people who put the feelings of their adoptive families above their own desire to complete the jigsaw of their personal history.

Long Lost Family goes all out to tug at the heartstrings, with soulful piano music and cliffhanger endings to each segment that keep you watching even though you feel slightly icky for doing so. The people who appear on it will all have given their consent, and they will have access to counsellors to help them process the difficult feelings that surround searching and reunion. Many of the searches it carries out don’t actually make it to television, because they are deemed too sensitive or complex for public airing. The issue I have with the programme lies more in the image of adoption that it conveys to the viewing public. As I’ve said before on here, there’s still a widespread belief that adoption involves newborn babies relinquished by women who have no other options. There’s also a sense that reunion is a straightforward happy ending, the natural conclusion to a story of separation. Who wouldn’t want to believe that what is lost can always be found? So in turn, there’s a feeling that search is an inevitable part of being adopted, that all adopted people will one day want to trace their family of origin.

Nowadays, adoption is different. That means that reunion is different, too. For one thing, the whole idea of only finding out the truth about your past when you’re an adult – that scene in the social worker’s office, beloved of so many reunion narratives – simply shouldn’t happen. All adopted children should know, in as age-appropriate a manner as possible, what their story is and why they can no longer live with their birth parents. Many will have ongoing contact with birth relatives, whether via letter or face-to-face, and many will have conscious memories of their lives before adoption. For another, children who have been taken into care as a result of abuse or neglect might find the idea of reunion extremely traumatic. Even if birth parents’ circumstances have changed, the emotions involved will still be incredibly complex. It’s not as simple as sliding that last piece of the puzzle into place.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Brenda Blethyn in Secrets and Lies: awkward.

People who know me well will know that I can bang on for ages about the way adoption is represented in popular culture. One of the most powerful representations of search-and-reunion that I’ve seen is in Mike Leigh’s 1995 film Secrets and Lies. Itscentral character is Cynthia, played by Brenda Blethyn, ‘a sad-looking middle-aged woman’ with a low-skilled, low-paid job making cardboard boxes in a factory. She lives in a shabby rented house, drinks cheap whisky and is permanently on the verge of tears, stuck in a life that nobody would want. And then, one day, she receives a phone call from Hortense, a young woman who has found out that Cynthia is her birth mother. Hortense is an optometrist, an intelligent, middle-class professional who is happy, contented and successful. Her adoptive mother has recently died, and she has decided to seek out her birth family. It initially seems that Cynthia has forgotten all about the daughter she gave up for adoption, but then, as the reality dawns on her, she is ‘horrified and terrified’. She hangs up, and vomits in the kitchen sink. Eventually, she agrees to meet Hortense, but there is another shock in store. For Cynthia is white, and Hortense is black. When Cynthia and Hortense meet, outside a London Underground station, they walk past each other several times before Hortense finally approaches Cynthia. (Cynthia’s shock is heightened by the fact that Blethyn had not met Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who played Hortense, until this point: she did not know that her screen daughter was going to be black until this scene was filmed.) Their first conversation, in a café, is shot in a single take of over seven minutes. They sit uncomfortably, side by side, and the frequent pauses draw attention to their awkwardness. It’s a scene that gives the lie to all those narratives of happy reunions, the jigsaw finally being completed. Leigh’s message is that reunion is not a one-off event: it’s a complicated process, with steps backwards as well as forwards, that needs to be worked at.

I’m aware that it’s often difficult for adoptive parents to talk about the relationship between children and their birth parents without seeming possessive, or defensive, or reluctant to engage. It can seem as if there’s a binary choice involved, as if searching for birth parents necessarily involves a rejection of adoptive parents. I think some adopters do see reunion as something they’d rather not think about, something that’s so far in the future that it might never happen, and that’s wrong. The social worker who did our initial visit nearly seventeen years ago now – an adopted person himself – said that searching and reunion was something that adopters needed to consider right from the beginning of the adoption process. And roots are important. Look at how many people use websites like Ancestry.com to trace their family trees: online genealogy is a multi-million dollar industry. People wouldn’t do this if a sense of their past didn’t matter. I’ve known for years that one side of my family was part-Irish: what I didn’t know, until I started searching online, was that my great-great-great grandfather was one of the hundreds of Irish people who came over from County Mayo during the famine of the mid-1800s to work in the cotton mills of Lancashire. Finding this out gave me a sense of rootedness, a feeling of where I came from. These things matter. Why would we deny them to our children?

The issue of searching and reunion has been made even more complicated, in recent years, by social media and the fact that young people can now do their searching alone, in their room, without telling anyone they’re doing it and talking through the issues it might involve. Our children shouldn’t feel that they have to do this on their own. Reunion is something that adoptive parents need to be prepared for, so that their children know that wanting to search is okay and that they’ll be supported if they want to do it. And it shouldn’t be up to the child to make the first move. As adoptive parents, we need to raise that possibility ourselves.

So I’ll be viewing Long Lost Family with a wary eye, aware that reunion isn’t all hearts and flowers. It’s messy, and painful, and difficult. But I’m not sure any television programme could ever do justice to that.

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