work: biological father

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The Biological Father is a project that focuses on the rights and identity of adopted adults. It is a fictional autobiography in word and image. I've never met my biological father (or mother, for that matter) because I am adopted. Adoption laws and adoption culture are strange. They're defined by people who have not experienced being-adopted and are intractable. As a society, we condone these laws which keep adopted people's biological identities essentially concealed. It's insipid. I'd even go so far as to say I think it's a human rights violation. These paintings are double self-portraits. Each depicts father and son at various ages.

Coming out as "adopted" is akin to coming out as "gay." In both cases, those who dont share your identity find the information to be simultaneously titillating and socially awkward. Most people, in order to conceal their discomfort, reflexively offer predictable and patronizing cliches to establish their sympathy for your plight. If they dont offer this sort of pap, it means that they are conservatives, and then the fun really begins. I've started to believe that Freud was right and that we only learn meaningful things by looking at the places where normative structures break down. Sure (I already hear the naysayers) you can learn something from positive role models, but hot damn, nothing, and I mean NOTHING, beats dissecting a tantalizing pathology. Which is why I believe that the not-adopted find adoptees so fascinating.

It starts young. As children, the subject of adoption is right up there with sex and drugs. It's probably because kids have an intuitive understanding that adoption is an outcome of sex and often interwoven with recreational substance use. It's a natural for whiling away tedious playground hours. As a matter of fact, I learned about being adopted by making fun of the neighbors adopted children. Apparently, my mothers deep commitment to secrecy about adoption couldnt abide the possibility that my sister and I might make the neighbors lives living Hell through a constant whispering campaign. Adults often view adoption in another way, albeit one that is equally pernicious. Adoption means someones infertile, the sex isn't working or perhaps the recreational drug use has fried some essential systems. Indeed, one can almost hear the whispers, "let's hope the home study is thorough." The other point of view, which we might call the conservative point of view, is defined by the urge to deny adoption as a psychologically loaded process. For example, the other day, in the course of everyday conversation, I told someone that I am adopted. The reaction was predictable. "You know, I have a friend with an adopted child who's the same age as my son and parenting is just parenting. After the birth there's no difference between adopted parenting and...parenting!"

Why the awkward stumbling around adjectives that define not-adopted parenting? Can it be that our impulse is toward the word "real?" Or is it that we just don't have a language for biological parenting? It's like the language around "straight" people. It's so unsatisfying. It tells us nothing about heterosexuals. "Gay" at least implies that the sex might be fun which might explain why so many straight people are threatened by queer folk. "Adopted" immediately conveys something about a person and defines the terms of their parental contract. Yet, we havent found it necessary to define or label biologically conceived, delivered, and raised children. The entitlement of biological families is too deeply engrained to consider that there might be options to its normative location within our society.

Unlike straight people, the not-adopted aren't threatened by the adopted. Indeed, some not-adopted children spend a good part of their adolescence fantasizing that they are adopted. If a mistake is made, if a not-adopted person is asked if they are adopted it's not considered an insult or something about which they need be concerned. At worst, its a reference to their mismatched eye or hair color and that probably just means that Mom had a thing for the mailman. Wheres the shame in that? Indeed, the not-adopted only fear the social awkwardness of talking about adoption with adoptees.

The adopted are probably to blame for this phenomenon. So many of us have made such a public spectacle about "searching" for our biological parents that it's only natural that there's a perception that all of us are obsessed with biological patrimony. As an adult I cant mention that I'm adopted without someone asking (it's always within the first minute or so) whether I've "done the search." This has been especially true since I've started to interrogate the idea of adoption through father and son self-portraits.

I won't be coy and deny that I haven't thought about searching for my biological parents. As an adopted adolescent the alienation one feels from parents doesn't inspire just fantasy about biological disconnection, you have ammunition. Every time they say "no," you can believe, really believe, that your biological parents would allow you to drive across country with your stoner friend who just got his license on the sixth attempt. After all, my biological parents didn't get to be the royal family of some marginalized, yet economically vital European state -- say Monaco, Luxembourg, England -- by avoiding reasonable risks!

The last time I considered undertaking the search I was in therapy trying to develop a strategy for coming out to my parents. That's code for saying that I was trying to sort through all the shit that had transpired with my parents over the previous 26 years. It pains me to admit this, but I started to talk about searching for my biological parents with the same ardor I had as a teenager. Being smart and probably bored, one day my therapist said, "I dont mean this to be a judgmental question, but I have to ask it. What makes you think having two sets of parents will resolve anything youve been talking about?"

We all experience jarring moments of insight. They allow us to re-align our understanding and to proceed in a new way. Suddenly I had the working knowledge that I didn't need more parents, I needed fewer. As I don't have homicidal tendencies, my quest has had to take an unpredictable path. For me, this has meant constructing an operative, fictional autobiography of my biological genealogy. At a certain point, in this quest, I decided to start to explore the nature of my adoption at the source. Since my parents are reluctant to talk about anything that might establish or recognize the relationship between us, I grabbed the opportunity to talk with my sister about it in one of the rare moments weve actually talked to each other as adults.

I do know a few things about my biological parents. I know that they were "students" when I was born, that they are, perhaps, Scottish, English, German or Irish. My parents are sketchy on this point they didn't commit such details to memory, as they never thought these facts would be important. Apparently, the social workers of the 1960s believed that one's ethnicity, if generally aligned with the adoptive parents, would switch to that of the adoptive family. Northern Europeans, in this line of thinking, all look alike. Finally, I'm told that the biological parents gave me up for adoption because they "loved" me. More about this last point later.

I reasoned that if I was able to gather some intelligence about my adoption that my sister might have some, too. Indeed, I was able to gather a few bits about her adoption, so I reasoned she might have a few more clues about mine. What I didn't consider in this plan is that my sister hadn't really talked with my parents since she was twelve-years-old and that my information had been leveraged in my early twenties.

From the start, our conversation was troubling. In my quest to better understand my origins I had made a commitment to myself that I would avoid no possibility and that I would not judge myself by the possible nature of my conception. Therefore I was perplexed when my sister seemed distressed at the idea that her biological mother might have been a prostitute. I thought to myself, "Cool. Now that would be a story to tell at cocktail parties!" When I gently conveyed my sense of interest in this line of reasoning, my sister started crying. I hadn't anticipated that the moral nature of one's biological parents might be inferred to have bearing on my virtue. I've since been told that this oversight was insensitive.

In retrospect I shouldn't have been so surprised by my sisters puritanical line of reasoning. This became clear to me one day when my mother and I were walking on the beach. We were talking about her distress over the nature and tenor of her relationship with my sister. My sister had a troubling adolescence and her early adulthood wasnt quite up to my mother's standards either. This breach in family life had been a favorite preoccupation of conversation for about 12 years and was probably the leading factor that kept me from ever moving back to my parents house once I went to college. Sometimes in family drama you are an active participant, sometimes you are an observer, sometimes you straddle the line. I've always been a straddler, mostly because I've never been satisfied with what's on either side of the line. As a straddler, you are a semi-observer and can sometimes see things that are oblivious to those mired in the distress off either side. Knowing this was an obvious point in the breach between my parents and my sister, but curious as to my mothers possible reactions, I asked, "Do you think it has something to do with her being adopted?"

There was a pause in the conversation as my mother considered this. I thought, in my overly-psychologically-influenced head, "Yes, I've gotten through to her. Were making progress." I don't know how I do this, but sometimes in a split second I can create an entire conversation in my head. I can construct a line of reasoning, establish a premise for each conversant, walk through possible permutations, and establish a new consensus between the parties. It's this genial outcome that generally gives me the first clue that the logic I'm constructing is deeply flawed. Most confrontations, if they don't come to blows, end with a grudging agreement to disagree. Consensus is rare. Even rarer is the idea that people can genuinely influence other people's opinions. Which is why I shouldnt have even fantasized that my mother might be affected by the boldness of my question and I shouldn't have been surprised when she relied, "You know, you may be right. Maybe it's just bad blood."

I have never been particularly good at pulling back, using objectivity, or thinking about what might be the best course of action when confronted by something that pisses me off. Some people think me to be a good negotiator, levelheaded, diplomatic, but they have never seen me angry. My mother has seen me angry, she knows what makes me angry, so she shouldn't have been surprised by my response when, after a startled pause, I said, "So, does that mean you are ready to disavow your influence on my accomplishments? After all, they're only by virtue of my good blood."

I'm not sure whether my mother thinks me arrogant or just a prick, but moments like this have given her ample reason to assume either position. Yet, I think the whole matter of adoption, at its best, invites people into a consideration of the very nature of human relationships and that if you're not ready to engage the hideous difficulty of your relationship to other people you should opt out of this particular game. Parenting isn't neutral and when you chose to become a parent, as all adoptive parents do, one has to consider the affect that children will have on your life. One can't have children to have their lives affirmed; children by their nature are challenging, children change lives.

It would be easy to infer from all this that I feel some injury on the part of the institution of adoption. The truth is that I don't and that I am grateful to have been adopted by the parents that I have. I do believe that my parents have been injured by the institution of adoption and I have some considerable anger about that. Instead of being brought into what's possibly a transcendental process, they were sold a bill of goods. They were trapped within a discourse that's sole virtue is putting the not-adopted at ease. They were told that adoptive and biological parenting is the same. They were told that they should keep the fact of adoption secret. Their fears about their own fertility were confirmed by this discourse and in being told they were no different from biological parents they were able to infer the judgment that is implied in the very distinction.

For me, adoption has become something of a curiosity. I'm curious about my biology especially in the ways that everyone makes such a big deal about it. The biological father isn't about me whining that I don't know my biological parents. Indeed, it's meant to be an entry point into considering the relationships between biological families and, by extension, a meditation about relationships (deep, intimate, meaningful relationships) that we can form outside the realm of biology. In truth, it's an attack on the notion of families and the damage that tribal units render on this world. Families are not unqualified. We're to believe that securing the family unit is the savior of our declining society. Indeed, I think the unraveling of families is an instinctual move. I think we are looking for meaningful relationships and trying to unshackle ourselves from the bounds of the biological family. Perhaps when that kind of choice is available, biological families will have to consider their intentionally. They will have to understand that biology isn't entitlement. Imagine discourse on race, gender and sexual orientation that starts from that frame. The inevitability of ethnic and nationalist conflict would be challenged too --, as would our self-satisfaction with culture. After all, what does it mean to be a 3d generation Irish-American when youve grown up in a Connecticut suburb and never been to the island? Does claiming that identity mean anything other than appropriation?

So, the biological father is about considering our relationship to biological identity and the discourse that is created by biological determinism. It's this idea/question that really fascinates me. I think the power of painting to provoke, to change things comes from this subjectivity. It defies the nature of "research and engages individuals in the process of constructing meaning. It may have language and discourse of its own, but it might also be able to defy those boundaries better than other languages. It might yet defy the idea of expertise and inspire people to step out of their fear of being inadequate, not smart enough, powerless. It might inspire people to engage with the world.

Finally, having never met anyone to whom I'm biologically related, I'm fascinated by the idea that a human soul can look into another's face and see oneself reflected back. Talk about a freaky idea...