Friday, April 16, 2010

The Suspension of Russian Adoption

The New York Times yesterday reported Russia’s formal announcement to suspend indefinitely all adoptions of Russian children by Americans, this in the wake of the case of Torry Ann Hansen, who reportedly sent her adopted son of just one year, seven year old Justin (Named Artyom in Russia) back to Russia by plane.

I am a little hesitant to comment, in the first place because it feels a little presumptuous, the idea that my own experience as the happy, proud, and blessed father of two children who were adopted internationally – one from Russia, one from Kazakhstan but of Russian heritage – in any way equips me to speak with special authority on this incident or its aftermath. If there is one rule of thumb that one can take from the adoption process, it is that no two cases are alike. Each is the product of several complex, often very painful backstories, as well as a myriad of practical, legal, and cosmic contingencies that no distant analysis can possibly hope to assess. No one following the story of the Hansens (no relation, for the record) through press reports knows nearly enough to assert anything useful or meaningful about who exactly is at fault or what exactly should have been done to avoid such an obviously tragic situation.

To the broader issue of how this story has affected the status of Americans wanting to adopt from Russia, however, I have a number of reactions, all drawn from experience, all offered in hopes of tamping down some of the rasher responses that this incident seems to have elicited.

First, to the extent that Artyom’s case may be seen to expose systemic negligence or cravenness on the part of any of the parties involved -- American adoption agencies, the Russian orphanage system and Educational Bureau that oversees international adoption -- my own experience was that the individuals involved, from the domestic agents, to foreign agents, lawyers, doctors, drivers, translators, social workers, judges, nurses, and caretakers, were almost universally well-intentioned, caring, professional, and dedicated to a degree that I have frankly not seen in any other walk of life. Obviously exceptions exist. Anywhere there is money to be made and people in desperate situations, opportunists will emerge. That does not change the fact that 99% of the people working to bring together adoptive children and adoptive parents are heroes. They are saints and angels walking among us, and I consider the opportunity to have worked with them – though “work” is obviously not the word – to be one of the great privileges, and one of the most humbling experiences, of my entire life.

Like most couples who reach the point of adopting internationally, my wife and I felt ourselves to be in a pretty desperate, defenseless situation, at the mercy of a highly bureaucratic system over which we had very little control. Yet as we wended our way through, and particularly at the most crucial period while we were abroad and committing legally and emotionally to our children (which is actually a pretty good story, you should read it some time), we encountered a level of attention, expertise and understanding beyond anything we could possibly have imagined. It was frankly surreal, the amount of time and care these people brought to our effort, and there is literally not a day that passes that I do not think of them, all of them -- common ordinary everyday people, living in remote corners of the world, in homes of their own with children of their own and problems of their own, who nonetheless, unbidden by anything but the generosity of their spirits, worked so tirelessly to make our family and our happiness possible. God bless them all to the end of their days, and please don’t let this latest unrelated incident tar their efforts or the incalculable good they have done.

That said, anyone trying to put in perspective the Russian response to this incident should know: such suspensions are not all that unusual. They’re pretty par for the course, in fact, which is why one bit of advice that I do give couples considering international adoption is that they need to be light on their feet. International adoption is a constantly shifting landscape. Countries open up and shut down their programs all the time, in part because incidents of abuse, deception, and corruption do occur – no system is fail-safe – and when they do, there exists in most of these countries very active local lobbying groups that are virulently opposed to international adoption, and that are ready to pounce on these stories like tigers.

To a degree, one can understand. There is no greater natural resource than a nation’s children, and one can see how upsetting and offensive it might feel, watching those children being taken away by foreigners on airplanes. If foreign couples were routinely coming to America to adopt American-born children, you better believe there would be organizations dedicated to opposing it, who would be calling it blight on the nation’s character, and who would, like existing groups abroad, attribute the most disgusting imaginable motives to these foreign adoptive parents: accusing them of buying children to put them to work, or to exploit them sexually, etc. etc. These things are said, and they would be said here too if the shoe were on the other foot. So it is that stories like that Torry Anne Hansen’s are seized upon both by nativists, publicity-mongers, and hay-making politicians, as they serve to support the cause and vindicate the worst suspicions of some very suspicious minds.

Fortunately, there also exists in all these countries much saner, more compassionate, less paranoid minds that do recognize the fundamental good of adoption, and who tend eventually to prevail in restoring and improving such programs, contingent upon new rules and regulations designed to redouble the vigilance of the various agencies and parties involved, to make sure that the corruption, deception, and lassitude that invariably creep into any operation is kept to a minimum.

All this, of course, dances around the other question to which such incidents invariably give rise (just go check the comments sections of any related blog-post), and that is: why would anyone want to adopt of a foreign child in the first place when there are so many perfectly good American children who need homes and loving families? I can’t pretend that this is a mindset for which I have a whole lot of time or sympathy. The idea that “patriotism” should be informing a couple’s most intimate decision about how they want to form a family just seems odd to me, a little sick, and frankly un-American. All children deserve loving homes. Any couple or individual who wants to provide such a home to any child anywhere should be encouraged and supported and not have to suffer the insinuation of being somehow elitist or America-hating for the path they choose.

The fact is, adopting a child, whether one does so domestically or internationally, is an extremely difficult thing to do – logistically, financially, and most of all emotionally. In this day and age, most couples who have come to the threshold of adoption have traveled and long and painful road, marked all along the way by failure and heartbreak. They are not picking and choosing options based upon their personal preferences and prejudices. They are being forced to choose priorities among a list of variables – age, gender, medical risk, expense, delay, ethnicity, and nationality – none of which they want to have to consider, but which they must consider in order to proceed towards the elusive goal of becoming parents. What tilts a given couple in one direction over another is likely to be very subtle. I suppose patriotism could be an element, sure (a twisted take on it anyway). So could family background, so could the couple’s age, or the environment in which they live. So could personal medical history, family history, timing, who they know, friends who have had good experience with one route, friends who have a bad experience with another. The point is, it is an unimaginably subtle and complex set of influences that guide an adoptive couple on their path, but what they are looking for, above all, is WHAT WILL WORK. After all that struggling and doubt and false starts and failure, they just want a sign that this is the way is it supposed to be; this is the way that it will be. For some, those signs point to Russia; for others, they point to Korea, or Guatemala, or Ethiopia, or China, or Tennessee, or Florida, or the Foster agency down the block. The hope is that everyone is eventually able to find the path that works for them and for the children; not that they find the path that works for someone else.

And this brings us, finally, to the individuals who have been most adversely affected by this recent decision, and those are the families whose adoptions are still pending, but which have now been put on hold indefinitely. The Times reported that there were 250 such families right now. Again, I’m loathe to make assumptions about the experience of people I do not know, but as one who has walked down this particular road, I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that these people are devastated – heartbroken, confused, angry, and bereft. They had reason to believe that their dream was finally becoming a reality. They had seen the light at the end of the tunnel. The light was an actual person, a child, whom they had already held and promised their hearts to. Yesterday, for reasons having nothing to do with them or those children, that light went dark again. Those children have been wrested from their hearts, and have been replaced by all the doubts and discouragement they have been fighting to overcome since deciding they wanted to be parents.

Obviously, as a rubbernecker, I am intrigued and concerned by whatever motivated Torry Anne Hansen to do what she did. I am concerned for Artyom as well and I wish him the brightest possible future. But I’ll admit it, my deepest concern right now is with the other victims of this incident – the families that might have been and might still be – and it is to them I extend my most earnest and heartfelt prayers, that they find a way to stay strong and determined, be patient, continue to trust their instinct, and find a way to understand: all of these obstacles and setbacks will serve them some day, God willing, as parents.

Friday, January 29, 2010

J.D. Salinger (1919-2010)

Next Tuesday I’m going to start teaching high school seniors creative writing. I guess we’ll find out if J.D. Salinger still means something to kids today. He meant a lot to me.

Whenever I’m asked who my influences are, I’m always a little embarrassed to say, mostly because I’ve never been all that avid a reader of fiction. I’ve done my assigned share, but my answers still tend to be suspiciously stock: I like Nabokov. I like Tolstoy. I read a lot of Steinbeck when I was young. Roald Dahl definitely had an influence. I like some Fitzgerald (not all). Joyce, of course, is a pain in my ass. Sometimes I admit I liked J.D. Salinger.

Why should this be an admission? Because it’s too obvious, I suppose, but the fact is, I enjoyed Salinger much more than any of those others, something his passing yesterday brought into stark relief. He at least is the one who provided me the purest, most unaduleratedly pleasurable reading experiences of my life, and I’m not just talking about Catcher. In fact, that’s the one I’m talking least about. I’m talking about the others, which I place in no particular order, but whether I had Raise High in my hands, or Franny and Zooey, or pretty much any of the nine stories -- or Catcher -- I felt more personally and intimately engaged than I have ever felt with any other author. There was never a single word of struggle between the two of us. Salinger’s wit, his intelligence, and his abiding leeriness of his own intelligence and the intelligence of his favorite characters -- the sense throughout that what makes them so engaging is what spells their spiritual doom -- all of that spoke to me, in my formative years, directly and immediately and to a constant involuntary nod of assent.

And it’s certainly not surprising that this should have been the case. After all, I was known on occasion to come home from boarding school -- to an apartment in Manhattan, no less. We had a tub. I had a sister. I may not have been all that curious about where the ducks go in the winter, but I can see why someone might be. The point is, my reasons for enjoying Salinger were the oldest in the book: I related to him. His settings, his tone, his characters were all the same as I was surrounded by, and so I found in him a friend, an advisor and confidant, someone I liked hanging out with even if all I got out of the exchange was a bouquet of parentheses. They remain one of my favorite gifts.

But Salinger has had a more lasting impact on me as well, influencing me and the course of my writing more directly than any other writer living or dead. To anyone glancing at my output, that might sound a little strange until one accepts that influence can happen in one of two ways. One way is to be influenced toward something: We see something we like; we want to do that, too. (God, how I wish I’d gotten to play jai alai just once) The other is to be influenced away from something, even when that something is something that excites us, stimulates and speaks to us directly (and if the reader is wondering why I spoke of Joyce as being “a pain in my ass,” this too would be the reason.) Sometimes when we encounter art that moves us on that level, our reaction is simply to want to say thank you, to confess that even as much as it inspires us to want to create, what the artist has offered is so good, so true, so absolutely the sort of thing that we ourselves might have wanted to express if the artist hadn’t come along and expressed it much better than we ever could have, we cede that path. We set down our pencils because it would feel presumptuous of us – of me -- to think that I have anything useful to add to what (say) Salinger had to say about the lives and sensibilities of spiritually aspirant, slightly insane late 20th century metropolitan easterners with Buddhist wings and Judeo-Christian shoes who are a little too clever for their own good and know it.

I don’t imagine Salinger would have been comfortable with that reaction to his work. There is something cardinally stupid about it – the idea that honest voices ever compete. I know that and I knew it all along, but it’s not something I can really change at this point, and the truth is, if I could go back and devote myself to a more domestic setting and find a voice to compare with his, I don’t think I would. Salinger, by inhabiting the rooms of my youth as magnificently as he did, opened the window to my imagination and shoved me out, and I’m glad for it. My fiction has taken me places far more exotic than I ever dreamed I’d go – sometimes for better, often for worse. Often the road has been slow and fraught, and Lord knows I have gotten lost from time to time, but for all those same reasons it has been a tremendously rewarding and surprising journey to me – it has been my life -- and I know that I would never have taken it if not for the man who died yesterday.

That said, it should be said that he, in his Zen-like wisdom, having ousted me, also invited me back in – to the room where I drink my coffee, I mean -- and I knew that too when I set out. Cruelly, he left us all mid-sentence, depriving us the pleasure of knowing what becomes of that voice as it grows into its middle and later years. But to me that was a kind of gift as well, the knowledge that if, in my middle years, I should choose to climb back in the window, at least I needn’t fear his shadow. There will be space, and I intend to take it, yes I do I swear I will I swear that was the plan all along.

My only hesitation is in knowing that he never actually did stop writing. The now famous safe is there with the manuscripts inside. If it turns out that what he’s done in the mean time is even a fraction as valuable and funny and human as what he left us some fifty years ago, then that is another path that I will happily, gratefully cede.

May it be so, and may your immortal soul rest in peace.