Recently, renowned adoptee rights activist BJ Lifton received notice that her services were no longer needed at the Shedding Light on the Adoption Experience V Conference scheduled for September 15-16 at Fordham University in New York City. In an email sent under the signature of conference organizers Joe Soll and Karen Wilson Buterbaugh, Dr. Lifton, was informed that her refusal to expunge the offensive “B word” from her vocabulary had earned her the jackboot as Saturday’s keynote speaker.
Now, what in the world is the “B Word.” Bastard? Bitch? Buggery? Bovine?
No. Hardly that interesting.
“Dear Presenter: Just a reminder that it would be a kindness to use the term “Mother” or “First Mother” as opposed to the ‘birth” prefix. (An increasing number of mothers of adoption loss experience these prefixes as oppressive.) Thank you! See you soon, Joe“
This was news to her. Dr. Lifton, who has known Joe Soll for decades, says when she accepted the invitation to speak at the conference she was not told of the special language requirements. If she had been informed, she would have turned down the invitation.
When she objected to the language directive, Soll cluelessly replied,
“Please don’t use the word. ….what does it cost not to use it?”
Three days after receiving her initial language instructions and his initial reply, Dr. Lifton sent a strongly worded email to Soll telling him she would not change her terminology. She had no problem if women wanted to refer to themselves as First Mothers or anything else, but she didn’t want their language inflicted on her. She reminded Soll of the provenance of “birthmother“ (which I’ll cover later) and that it is the accepted popular and professional term for women who have surrendered a child for adoption.
On August 27, she received this reply:
“Your negative response to our request not to use the “b” term was discussed by the co-sponsors. Since you only want to use “your language” at the conference, I’m sorry to inform you that the conference committee has decided it would not be appropriate for you to make any presentation.
“Adoption Crossroads and our co-sponsor Origin branches do not approve of the use of the “B” term in any way as it has come to be a pejorative.
“I’m sorry you won’t be part of the program.
Joe and Karen
Thus, Betty Jean Lifton, activist, therapist, author of Twice Born: Memiors of an Adopted Daughter, Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness and, Lost and Found: the Adoption Experience, who has probably brought more people into adoption activism and reform in the US than anyone, was shown the door by a band of word Nazis. No matter how galling it may be, BJ should thank the Bastard Goddesses to be out of this mess. I note with pleasure that she’s got a full speaking schedule booked for the rest of the year and into the next.
Of course, all of this is Greek to the normal adoption observer. What’s going on?
THE B WORD
For reasons known only to them, the Adoption Language Police–Special Victims Unit, insists that the “oppressive” term “birthmother” was invented by social workers (or even worse–writer Pearl Buck). They like to say the word “triggers” (a favorite psych term) “negativity” and even “trauma.” Some word nannies like to depict “birthmother” as a HumVee gone wild, crashing pregnant unmarrieds into the nearest adoption mill. According to them, the B Word is so magical, that if it didn’t exist neither would adoption. Die Birthmother! Die!
(NOTE: Nobody has raised a whimper about “birthfather”)
“Birthmother” may have been used occasionally in the dark past, but it was CUB (Concerned United Birthparents) with much thought, sensitivity, and debate that coined the term in the 1970s as an alternative to “natural mother“ or “biological mother“ the accepted terms of the day Emphasizing “birth“ and linking the event to women and their surrendered children, “birthmother“ became a term of empowerment. The long term effect is that “birthmother”–through dedicated but non-coercive use, (ie, nobody sent out storm troopers to enforce the usage) became the commonly accepted term for mothers who surrender their children for adoption. It was rare, early victory for adoption reform that gave a name and voice to the previously invisible.
This doesn’t mean that language can’t and shouldn’t evolve and reflect contemporary thought. When writing about adoption I like to move around language, using what looks good syntaxically or how I feel at the moment as my criteria. And as an occasional language wonk myself I want adoption language to grow with the times–but through preference and diversity, not top-down mandate like the Know Nothing attempt of the “Shedding Light” facilitators to ignore history and beat people into language submission through threat of exclusion because they (the facilitators) admitedly hate adoption.
Sometimes “birthmother” is used inappropriately and is co-opted, but so are a lot of other words. The real issue, though, isn’t the word “birthmother” or any other word somebody does or doesn’t like. The real issue is the ability of individuals to self-identify and self-define–to use language with which they are comfortable without being bullied or kicked out of the clubhouse. Bastard Nation took a lot of flack for reclaiming the word “bastard,“ but we have never insisted that everyone use it or go home. What would be the point? Adopted persons can call themselves whatever they like, though personally, I’m irked by adults who refer to themselves as “adopted children.“ But if those “adopted children” want to work for adoptee rights or send us a check, that’s fine by me. I don‘t know one “birthmother“ who demands that all other “birthmothers” define themselves as “birthmothers.” Some prefer “natural mother or other terms or no term at all, but don‘t turn themselves inside out if somebody uses a different word. What the adoption- hating word purifiers would say about birthmom Jackie Patrick Fox’s use of “birthslut,” a term that drove Bill Pierce nuts, I can only contemplate. Watching the adoption haters and NCFA on the same team could be fun.
But to get back to the subject… A lot of intransigent adoption fill-in-the-blankers reject their own history and the women who came before. They reduce the politics of adoption to a silly symphony of politically sensitive words that nobody outside of AdoptionLand gives a rat’s rear end about or even understands. At the end of the day, the language insurgents divide adoption reform along the semantic lines of us against them, guaranteeing that the real issues of adoption rot remain untouched. Bill Pierce couldn’t have done a better job!
Ironically, the other Dr. Lifton, BJ’s husband, the distinguished psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton, is a specialist in cultic behavior and totalism Without delving into his work here (go here for excerpts) I’ll simply point out that his Eight Criteria for Thought Reformation, includes language control, what he calls “loading the language” in which complicated issues are reduced to thought-stopping cliché. that members are required to accept. Those who refuse to wash their brains of individual thought are excluded and expunged, what Lifton calls the “dispensing of existence.” BJ Lifton, who has insisted on using her own language has been dispensed with.
Of course, I don’t think for one minute that organizers of Shedding Light on the Adoption Experience V are smart enough to get this. And they are certainly not smart enough to start a cult. But what they have done is create a public event that excludes pubic discourse.
Shedding Light on the Adoption Experience V is sponsored by Joe Soll’s Adoption Crossroads, Origins USA, Origins Australia, Inc, Origins Canada, and the Washington Square Institute for Psychotherapy and Mental Health. It is subtitled, “An Educational Conference about Realities: The Lifelong Effects of Adoption and the Need for Family Preservation.” A member of a private email list I’m on announced that the event is for people “traumatized by adoption.” Nothing on the conference webpage says that. Adoption can and has been beneficial for many. But adoption, especially as it is practiced in the US has lots of unpleasant lifelong effects: loss, grief, anger, and lies. The rot needs to be addessed and redressed. but not by obcurist language bullies who outside of the deepest recesses of AdoptionLand make no sense.
The Adoption Crossroads circle (excuse the mixed metaphors) and Origins et al are openly anti-adoption and adoption-hating. I respect much of the work Origins has done and I have friends active in the Origins organizations. The anti-adoptionists are sincere but many are politically naive and dangerous in their belief that they can “abolish adoption”–a politically suicidal position out of touch with political and social reality. They are inordinately interested in revising their personal narratives (usually via therapy) with tales of babies stolen by an all-encompassing adoption industry conspiracy. They think in universals but personalize their grievances. Mothers suffer from PSTD (and if they don’t they’re in denial.) Adoptees ooze “primal wound” (and if they don’t they’re in denial.). Adopters are thieves and kidnappers (and if they object they’re in denial). Social workers are moralistic “social wreckers.” All mothers naturally love and want their babies. Dads are seldom mentioned except as bad guys. There is little or no personal responsibility for past actions. Anger is focused on individuals, not the system. No one has a happy or beneficial adoption experience. For the adoption haters, adoption is framed as individual victimization, generally without a class, historical, political, race, or gender context. Certainly some parents (I’m including men) and adoptees were and continue to be victimized by adoption industrialists. The industry with its handmaid, the state keeps adoption lies and secrets going. Interestingly, in the adoption hating scheme, self-identified victims are expected to study and analyze their individual victim status (not a bad idea). But instead of using that analysis as an impetus to develop a viable political critique and blueprint for individual transformation and class change through rational thought and political action, they are encouraged to linger in their victimhood, their pain accelerated by therapeutic fantasies of womb crawling and adoption abolition–to imagine a sort of Golden Age of Mother and Child that has never existed for anybody ever. It doesn’t take a Freudian to see what’s going on here.
You’d never know any of this though from the conference promotion which comes across as typical touchy-feely adoption conference fare, top-heavy with psychological medicalized issues, therapists, and theraputic jargon. Some of the panels sound downright interesting and would be credible in another setting. No language requirements are listed. No threats of exclusion posted in the program. I didn’t see any warnings about “oppressive language” in the call for presenters months ago. Too bad! It could have saved plenty of people genuinely interested in adoption change their time, airfare, and reputations.
Several big names show up on the conference roster who I doubt would appreciate being regarded as “anti-adoption” or “adoption haters.” Scheduled to appear as keynoters are feminist historian Rickie Solinger, author of Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v Wade and Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the United States and Ann Fessler, author of The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v Wade, a current non-fiction adoption best seller about the B Word. Perhaps as academics they are accustomed to being cudgeled into political correctness and naturally bow to dictate, but I doubt it. Isabel Andrews from Adoption Jigsaw is coming all the way from Australia. Dr. David, Kirschner, developer of the adopted child syndrome murder defense is slotted to discuss “What We Can Learn from Adoptees Who Kill.” (there but for the grace of God….) Another speaker, Edward Albee, (r) arguably America’s greatest living playwright, is scheduled on sit on a panel, “Adoption and Creativity,” with Ann Fessler and writer Carol Schaeffer. Albee’s four major adoption plays, The American Dream, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, A Delicate Balance,and Three Tall Women with the “minor” adoption plays Zoo Story, Tiny Alice, and The Play About the Baby inform more about adoption than any activist or academic could hope to accomplish. It’s doubtful the dreaded B Word would slip from Edward’s lips, but has he been ordered to keep his trap shut anyway? (Full disclosure: Edward Albee is one of my great literary heroes and I feel protective of him.)
As of today, four panels/workshops have been cancelled. Since I don’t have an original schedule, I have no idea who the participants were. It would be interesting to know if they bailed over language purification issues. Are they aware that BJ Lifton has been dispensed with due to her inability to conform? Does Fordham, a major Catholic University and certainly not anti-adoption, know what’s going on? Where do the Washington Square folks fit into this? I even wonder how much input the Origns folks have had in this language debacle. Have people of good will been suckered?
A LOST OPPORTUNITY
Since language is such a big deal with the anti-adoptionists, the conference could have been a good place to discuss language development, the tactical importance of language, and the critical need for autonomous thought, self-ownership and self-identification in adoption. After all, isn’t that what adoption reform is about? Of course, that can’t happen when “traumatic” words can’t even be said aloud. The whole thing is remindful of the strictures on the Internet newsgroup alt.infertility where posters a few years ago were required to put warning words like “pregnancy” and “baby” in their thread titles lest over-sensitive readers become distressed when stumbling upon the posts.
The anti-adoptionists and adoption haters are the flip side of the National Council for Adoption–even down to correct adoption terminology thuggery. Where NCFA has never met a baby that wouldn’t be better off adopted, the anti-adoptionists have never met a baby that would be better off not adopted. They‘re on each end of the spectrum– the lunatic fringe. The only difference is that NCFA has the juice and friends in high places to get their agenda across. Anti-adoptionists have only daydreams.
A closed system is a scared system. Nancy Verrier and David Kirschner have spoken at Bastard Nation conferences (Our primal wounds didn’t bleed, but we didn’t shoot each other either.) Bill Pierce was once an invited speaker at an Amerian Adoption Congress conference. I’ve attended the annual NCFA conference. There was no Chicken Little pecking in our ears.
Once again, the issue is not a war against new or politically correct language. The issue is the attempt to stop the free flow of ideas and idea exchange through language control–telling others how to think and define themselves. There are positive ways to put new terms into the public vocabularly. Pushing people around and exiling them isn’t one of them.
The disinvitation of BJ Lifton trivializes the entire adoption change movement. It trivializes our history and accomplishments. It trivializes what BJ and so many others have dedicated their lives to: the humanization of adoption.
We salute BJ Lifton for her integrity and unbowed head.
ADDENDA: As I as finishing this blog, BJ was un-disinvited from the conference. I can speculate why, and I’m sure you can, too. BJ politely turned down the offer.