Adoption Healing: A Book Review
       From the Journal of Korean Adoption Studies

Review by Jane Jeong Trenka

Some books are so good that you can even forgive your friend for “borrowing” your copy and never giving it back. Adoption Healing … a path to recovery by Joe Soll is one such book.

Adoption Healing, a self-help book, has been passed around among the adult internationally adopted Koreans who have returned to South Korea, and who indeed rely on self-help while living in a country where gaining access to services in their own languages is difficult.

This book is the gift that “lifers”, Korean adoptees who have returned to Korea, give to one another after the initial fun of Seoul wears off and we are left with the hangover of too many late nights in Seoul’s student and foreigner districts, too many ruined intimate relationships or none at all, limited employment opportunities, and the mix of hope and despair that comes from living in a country where we are no longer recognizable to Koreans as Korean.
Our foreign mannerisms, shattered tongues, and imagined histories have been known to elicit pity and shame from South Koreans. How we are portrayed and perceived, and how we want to be portrayed and perceived, therefore, becomes a heated topic of conversation. How must we appear in order to get what we need — whether recognition from the South Korean government, acceptance in society, or more personally fulfilling reunions? Should we try to appear “successful” and “well-adjusted” or even “angry and ungrateful”?

These kinds of one-sided false selves have their roots in the adoptee’s understandable fear of abandonment, Soll tells us as he gently guides us into living more “authentic” lives. He explains that adoptees’ inner worlds are shaped by mixed messages that force them “to choose between the socially unacceptable reality they experience and a distorted, but socially sanctioned, interpretation of their reality as determined by others.” “This book,” he writes, “is about the realities of adoption and the realities of the inner world of the adopted person.”

Hope for Individual Change

Soll — a licensed social worker, psychotherapist, and American domestic adoptee — simply and concretely describes the adoptee’s inner world in 26 concise chapters. In each chapter, he gives examples of “Myths” and “Facts” about adoption, a summary of the information in the chapter, an exercise to write or do mentally, and a grounding “Experience of the Moment” designed to be read after the exercise. Always with the whole “triad” of adoptee, natural parents, and adoptive parents in mind, Soll ends the book with appendices that include lists of “What Adoptees Do Not Wish to Hear” and “What Natural Parents Do Not Wish to Hear,” and “What Adoptive Parents Do Not Wish to Hear.”

Readers of Nancy Newton Verrier’s The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child will be familiar with some of Soll’s fundamental beliefs about adoption, beginning with, “The mother-child relationship is sacred and the separation of the mother and child is a tragedy for both.” Soll considers thus “primal wound” to be the first trauma. He considers the second trauma to be the verbal acknowledgment to the adoptee that she is adopted. (It’s likely that many transracially and internationally placed adoptees, older adoptees, and children adopted into families where there were older siblings present, did not need to be told by their adoptive parents that they were adopted.) He considers “fracturing” to be the third trauma.

Fracturing is an acronym for the simultaneous feelings that the adopted child is surrounded by: Frustration, Rage, Anxiety, Confusion, Terror, Unrest, Regret, Inhuman, Neglected, Grief.

Fracturing occurs at the “age of cognition,” usually around six to eight years old. At that time, adoptees are able to start thinking about their own adoptions. They do so in the face of conflicting messages, for instance, “Happy birthday! / This is the day you were surrendered.” Faced with unresolvable messages that cannot be integrated into her reality, the adopted child will resort to her own logic about her abandonment. If not validated, the child represses horribly painful emotions, after which she is actually unaware of such emotions and suffers a “psychological death.”

“It is much healthier to deal with truth,” writes Soll, and indeed he puts every painful card out on the table: “It’s normal for adoptees to be in crisis during adolescence.” Adoptees, because of not knowing their origins, finds it difficult to imagine themselves getting older. They have more difficulty maintaining healthy intimate relationships. They have a harder time than non-adopted people finding careers that suit them. “Many people who appear happy are just (unconsciously) hiding pain.” He likens the material in his book to an emotional root canal – painful, but necessary.

“I am not happy about what I have written here, but it needed to be written” writes Soll, but, “it needs to be recognized as knowledge that can help heal those already hurt and help prevent some of the hurt for those who may become involved in or impacted by adoption.”

As a self-help book, Soll’s description of adoptees’ inner worlds, while not exactly feel-good material, gives adoptees and the people who care about them a lot to consider and reflect upon. I was personally surprised by the power of Soll’s simple affirmations and visualization exercises. Like another reader, I found them to be a little weird at first, but I soon realized that they are very worthwhile. One exercise I particularly liked is this:

    Light a candle and then let the flame represent the burning desire to have something that doesn’t exist anymore, like wanting to go back and this time be raised by your natural mother. When you are ready to stop wanting something that is impossible to happen, blow out the flame that holds you back from living your life, that burns you with a desire for the impossible.

Hope for Systemic Change

The book offers help like this on an individual level, and also suggests systemic changes in the practice of adoption. To start with, all members of the “triad” suffer huge losses — whether infertility, the loss of a child, or the loss of the mother — and these losses should be truthfully addressed instead of whitewashed with either platitudes (“You were chosen.”) or completely denied (“Get over it.”). As far as specific recommendations on policy, Soll includes the following:

1. Every effort should be made to keep children with their birth families, followed by the extended family.
2. All adoptions should be “open,” meaning regular visits should be held with the natural mother throughout childhood and adolescence, even if the visits have to be supervised.
3. Children should keep their names and heritage.
4. Adoptees should have periodic psychological development “checkups.”

In short, Soll is a big fan of speaking the truth and dealing with reality. He is completely in the camp of open records. “A reunion should preferably take place before puberty,” writes Soll, saying that a reunion between the ages of six and eight can help prevent the “fracture” and even bring adopted children closer to their adoptive parents. He sees closed records as a symptom of the lack of respect for adoptees, natural parents, and adoptive parents.

Implications for International Adoption

Soll’s work seems to be mainly addressed to American domestic adoptees, but it also has huge implications for the system of international adoption, considering that many adoptive parents choose international adoption over domestic adoption for the very reason that they do not want to have contact with a natural mother. Natural mothers of international adoptees are at the time of this writing almost hopelessly separated from their children by geographic distance and hidden paperwork. If adoption agencies took Soll’s advice to heart — keeping adoption records open and reuniting adoptees with their natural mothers for regular visits in childhood, for the benefit of the child — would there be so many international adoptions?

What Soll proposes to be necessary for a healthy adoption culture would make international adoption even more dreadfully expensive and inconvenient for adoptive parents. If all members of the triad were guaranteed contact, agencies would be forced to give accurate social histories of children. Honesty would be enforced. Perpetrators would be caught. Governments would have to freely give out visas to non-white people, often impoverished, from non-Western countries or countries of  the global south. People would have to see natural mothers as real people — not whores or saintly human gift-givers. Natural parents might get to speak, and the literature on international adoption would have to include their voices. Adoption agencies would have to find a way to help bridge differences of language and culture in ways that are personally meaningful, instead of encouraging adoptees to relate to their cultures of origin as tourists and consumers.

The financial cost for international adoption agencies to heed Soll’s advice is incredibly high and may even be destructive to the system of mass international adoption itself. But the human cost of not heeding his advice is even higher. It is simply the reality of today, reflected in the high rates of suicide, incarceration, and mental illness amongst adoptees, as well as “disrupted” adoptions.

Additional Challenges for International and Transracial Adoptees

Soll, however, does not specifically address the additional challenges that internationally and transracially adopted people face, including racialized violence in their adoptive countries and the language barrier if they are reunited. Many internationally adopted people, who as of now have little hope of reunion with their natural families, may be reunited instead with their original countries and culture. (The “mother country” is routinely proffered to adopted Koreans as a substitute for the actual mother.)

Yet we also need a way to cope with feelings of abandonment by entire countries, governments, and cultures. Extending Soll’s ideas about individual reunions between mother and child to social groups, it’s possible to guess that what is behind the drive by some adoptee groups to represent themselves as purely “Successful!” to the Korean public is actually the fear of a second abandonment — not by a mother — but a country. If they could see who we really are, in all our complexity, would they still love us?

In the midst of so many internationally and transracially adopted people of color checking the “white” box on U.S. demographic forms — lying to themselves and creating a false self for the world to see — adoption agencies should seriously consider whether they are helping adoptees lead “authentic lives.” When the adoptee is denied the opportunity to lead an authentic life because of enforced secrecy and lies, it impoverishes not only the adoptee, but also the natural mother and the adoptive parents.

Reality and Recovery

In The Will to Change, bell hooks summed up why people impacted by adoption need to heed Joe Soll’s advice —  no matter how uncomfortable, inconvenient, or expensive: “Anyone who has a false self must be dishonest. People who learn to lie to themselves and others cannot love because they are crippled in their capacity to tell the truth and therefore unable to trust.”

Adoptees’ lives, emotional health, and even our ability to love our parents are entangled with the very policies and conditions that created us. What have those conditions been? Overwhelmingly, those conditions have been filled with lies – our own lies, family lies, agency lies, government lies.

For those adoptees working to make positive changes in these very adoption policies that shaped our lives, it is essential to tell the truth, both personally and politically,  to ourselves and to our loved ones. For all adoptees, it is important to acknowledge our complex realities so we can live in a joyful way, so that we can make conscious decisions and, as Soll says, fully experience the world, not just exist in it. Joe Soll offers us paths that we may explore on our journey toward healing, health, recovery, and love.

This is an important book for adoptees, adoptees’ partners and close friends, natural parents, and adoptive parents. Soll’s straightforward approach and clear organization makes it possible to do the emotional work without being burdened by a text that is too long or laden with jargon. Parts not of interest can be easily skipped over and returned to later. An added bonus of this book is that the writing is simple enough to be understood by people whose speak English as a foreign language.

Although it has been nine years since it was first published, Adoption Healing deserves continued and widespread recognition. After all, as librarians say, “Every book is a new book until you have read it.” May you enjoy your copy, and pass it on.