In Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, Andrew Solomon introduces the intensely intimate and complex stories to follow, by defining two terms. Vertical identity: “Attributes and values [that] are passed down from parent to child across the generations not only through strands of DNA, but also through shared cultural norms.” Horizontal identity: [When] “someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents…” This is a book that brings together the divergent stories of families with biological children whose horizontal identities fell…well, very far from the tree. The whole business of being human is a messy endeavor. But it’s noteworthy that if you tease out the concept of identity from the larger concept of humanness, identity is what is ultimately defined in direct or indirect relation to family. Some parts of who we are exist because of who loves us and how, and other parts exist despite who loves us… and how.
This is why I’ve always been deeply curious about adoption. Not because I’m confused by how a parent can love a child who isn’t biologically related, but because I’m fascinated by how the soup of identity is molded when there is no biologically shared, common language (an absence of vertical identity). I’m using very broad strokes here, of course, but this curiosity is somewhat akin to trying to figure out whether what you’re drinking is the water or the wave. It’s more complicated than nature or nurture (because it’s nature and nurture) and less easily definable. In my travels through the peripheries of communities of adoptees, I have informally gathered that an overwhelming majority of people who were adopted were perfectly “fine” until they discovered their true origins. With the knowledge that they were adopted, usually gained around the start of adolescence, their entire concept of identity is rattled (and, in most cases, shattered). Of course, the obvious reason is that when even one of the truths–previously thought to be inalienable– that are the foundation of identity, is threatened, the whole thing comes crashing down. And yet. Is it really that fragile, I wonder. What is it that compels adoptees who have had idyllic childhoods to nonetheless go in search of birth parents? All things being equal, why does not knowing the body through which you passed in order to enter this world feel like a “missing piece in [your] soul”? I suspect that to answer by simply using the known tenets of biology is the same as defining love as “a powerful neurological condition”. It’s true… but it doesn’t feel like the whole truth.
This is where community comes in, I suppose. It is such a singular experience, being an adoptee, that to find oneself in a community of people who share that horizontal identity, is often a source of great relief and joy for many. Humans’ chief complaint in life is loneliness. Despite the great value we place on individuality, we’re always seeking others who are like us. Whatever it is that happens to identity when the rug of where-I-come-from is pulled from under it, it seems to find solace in company.
Secret Storms is a book written by two people who were able to heal. Who, for reasons no one can fully know, were among the lucky (very) few who reunited, worked hard on a relationship that depended a great deal on forgiveness and empathy, and have a beautiful connection to this day. This is rare. What isn’t rare is that their story is out there to inspire relief and joy in others. Because I’ve yet to read both sides of the story of a failed reunion, or a story about the fruitless search for a birth family or child who was given up for adoption, I suspect there is a great need for them. Many people search their whole lives and find nothing, while many more find what they search for and are deeply disappointed. Because whatever it is that happens to identity at the moment of learning the truth, one can only imagine what happens to it when the truth turns out to be a tragedy. This is why The Adoption Reunion Stories Facebook page, and many networks like it, are so important. They are forums, virtual communities, where thousands of people get to share their truth, a lot of which is the kind not found in inspiring books…and find solace in company.