Survivor, not Victim
An interview with Trace A. DeMeyer, author of One Small Sacrifice: Lost Children of the Indian Adoption Projects
By Von Coates
• In your life was there a pivotal event that changed you from being a victim of adoption to a survivor?
Trace A. DeMeyer: That is a great question because lots of people won’t recognize there is a definite shift from victim to survivor.
When laws restrict opening adoption records, these policymakers make us victims. There are many adoptees ready to know their family name, meet relatives and have reunions, but cannot because of adoption laws. Other adoptees, lulled by gratitude, may fear upsetting their adoptive family, and may not see themselves as victims of a corrupt unjust system.
The adoptee moves from victim to survivor when they decide to break the law, when they decide to regain and restore their own identity, and get their name. That’s a giant leap forward.
My becoming a survivor happened in stages, in a sequence of events. As a child I grieved. I promised myself as a teenager that I would find answers but it looked impossible with sealed records in Wisconsin. I felt overcoming my low self-esteem was first. In my 20s, I realized there would be “emotional processing” I’d need to do, slowly, over time. Opening my adoption records was very important in 1978 but troubling since I had no help to locate my parents. This was before the internet. I also had to face reality that I might not find them or my parents might not be willing to meet me. I never met my mother Helen which felt like a second rejection in the 1990s. I was 40 when I met my father Earl in 1996. Reunions (or not having a reunion) take time to process. Over the years, other adoptees were great teachers for me since there are no guidebooks for dealing with adoption trauma. There is so much to understand, obviously.
Writing my memoir, remembering everything again and adoption research changed me most – like a light bulb went on. I started to see adoption as an industry and a measure of control over a mother’s maternity and placed orphans in a state of emotional disgrace. Recognizing adoption as an institution, one that has outgrown its purpose, one that is damaging for mother and child, was perhaps my biggest transforming moment.
• You say in your book, that adoption involves many traumas, not just the one of the loss of a mother. Many of the things that happen to us, the damaging relationships, breakdowns and illness result from those traumas. How do we move from being vulnerable, to strength and survival?
In my book, I mention four distinct traumas for adoptees and I know there are more. Adoptee and natural parents are vulnerable to the billion dollar adoption machine that still manipulates us. I felt manipulated. Restricting us from meeting, laws which prevent our meeting, then add a dose of shame, judgement and misunderstanding, all deeply affects and even harms adoptees. I do write about this in depth in “One Small Sacrifice.”
Adoption is very isolating. Many adoptees like me suffered in silence. I see many adoptees create stories for their missing parents. If they do not know the truth, and never meet them, adoptees can stagnate emotionally and get trapped in illusions, lies and excuses. That is a very hard way to live. It’s very difficult to tell an adoptee what to do, or how to heal and overcome this vulnerability. I took small steps on my own and finally realized that there was only one solution – find the truth.
A closed adoption is the ultimate act of disruption. Because of my disgrace and orphan-status, I was not living emotionally well. I was not empowered as a human since the very act of adoption removed my identity. I made a decision to not live this way or accept the fantasy-land my adoptive parents and adoption industry created for me. I had to open my adoption, period. I would not give up.
It took me a long time to see how I failed myself with very troubling decisions and blamed Helen my birthmother for misery I had as a child. I fought the idea of being a disgrace. I fought feeling rejected by Helen when I finally found her. I fought very hard to heal myself, know myself and release judgment. Even as a teenager, I thought it was ridiculous to be expected to live a fantasy and project gratitude.
Finding the truth and meeting relatives moves you from feeling vulnerable to empowered, from victim to survivor.
• Christian missionaries have been instrumental in damaging and destroying the lives and cultures of many First Peoples all over the world. Have you questions for those people and what would you like to see happen?
I recognize that many Europeans were escaping religious persecution when they came here to Turtle Island, to what they named the United States; then they became our persecutor and prosecutor. So who was the real savage? Even now the conqueror has not taught the truth about the days when Indigenous people were killed without mercy or herded onto reservations. Tribes are still not honestly portrayed in recounting numerous wars. Native people, with their own spirituality, were cruelly and inhumanely judged. Even now, the American colonizers do not apologize for their “Acts against Indians” which affected generations of families and children.
Christianity was a tool of the colonizer and used as justification for our removals to reservations, for removing children to boarding schools and some of us being adopted in non-Indian families. If their intent was to Christianize us, civilize us and educate us, I see that it happened and we are still living under their dominance and control. I don’t blame Christ for their actions but I see missionaries as his devotees who are unaware of their depraved behaviour and how they continue to treat us, even how it affects us to this day. If they could imagine what we have gone through, would this change their attitude? I think it would.
I would ask missionaries to meet with us and witness the effects of colonization. Poverty is still destroying the Indian family and religions are still trying to civilize Indigenous people. Don’t try and change us, help us.
• If you could change adoption what would you do with it?
I would teach young people that all babies are sacred and separating mothers from babies is not an option, not a good idea. Children are highly sensitive, even in the womb. We don’t want any more hurt children. I’d teach them how and why a closed adoption is painful. I’d teach them that an unintended or unplanned pregnancy is not good for mother or child or society.
I would permanently end closed adoptions. It was a very bad idea and an experiment that failed. Its bad effects are still being felt. If someone wants to raise a child, become their legal guardian and not their adopter. Respect for life begins with young people. They are the ones to make future decisions.
• First Peoples have appropriate healing ceremonies for their lost ones. Others are far removed from consciousness of the source of pain and suffering of adoptees and mothers. Is reference to the lost ones as ‘the stolen generation’ and ‘the forgotten ones’, a helpful step in beginning the slow move forward to healing?
We need to remember Indian people didn’t create poverty yet we still have to live with it and under it. Poverty is still oppressive on reservations and it’s been a long struggle for those who remain there. There are some tribes who barely manage to care for their people, depending on their location and food supply.
For generations, tribes used kinship adoption, keeping a child within the tribe and not separate them from their culture, tradition and language. That way the child lived with relatives.
Tribes never forget their lost children, not at all. They grieve for them until they can return. Many of the elders realized the need to call back the lost generation, children lost to adoption and boarding schools. Tribes have ceremonies called the Wiping the Tears for these families and children who suffered. Tribes successfully petitioned for the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978 but they must be attentive since certain states have violated this act and some children are still being lost to adoption. Yes, Americans recognizing we were stolen children would help. If they knew, it would stop future attempts.
• Your people have lived as prisoners in your own country, do you see adoptees as prisoners in the lives they have imposed on them?
Yes, definitely. If you remove a child from its tribal family, you are creating a hardship for both. If you remove any child from its mother, both are trapped in a prison-like reality, alienated from each other, each shamed by disgrace, and never allowed to reunite because of laws. Who could ever call this a good idea?
Yes, it’s true that some mothers cannot afford to raise their child. If that is the case, then her community needs to help her. Relatives need to step up to help.
It’s also true that some natural mothers do not wish to meet their child. If that is the case, an adoptee still deserves their original birth certificate, their adoption documents, their father’s name and the right to meet other relatives and siblings, if they exist.
• Adoptees have the task of survival if they chose it. In an adoption such as mine, that is a relatively simple task, compared with that of a transnational adoptee or a transcultural adoptee who has lost everything that creates identity and connection .While all trauma is difficult, it seems there may be many layers of trauma and loss to be dealt with and many new things to be learned, such as a language that would have been a mother tongue, for those adoptees. Do you think there is any awareness of this damage of adoption in America?
I think Americans are waking up. There are thousands of books on how to adopt but very few by adoptees. I read a few recent memoirs and was glad to see them getting such good reviews. One comment I heard from my readers is that they will never look at adoption the same way again. That was a powerful compliment.
Last November I wrote a blog called “I See Dead People.” Here is the link: http://splitfeathers.blogspot.com/2010/11/i-see-dead-people.html. My blog compares child abduction to child adoption. For some Indian mothers, it feels exactly like her child was abducted. I know Indian adoptees who wanted desperately to escape their adoptive family. So I asked people who adopt children to understand that adoptees have feelings they cannot describe or display. I asked them to assure the adoptee they will meet their natural parents someday. I also asked adoptive parents to request the adoption legal proceedings. If an adoptee knows they will have access to truth, names and answers, it’s better for everyone involved. I really believe we need to respect the adoptee more than we have. I wrote One Small Sacrifice to help everyone understand this loss, living as a lost child. I want people everywhere to comprehend the hostility and acts against Indigenous people. I wrote it for First Nations adoptees attempting to find their tribe and family. Yes, we do lose our language, our culture, and stories when we are removed by adoption. That can be changed if laws change. It is never too late for a reunion in Indian Country.
• If an adoptee is already enrolled and claimed by their own people but does not know it, being ‘saved’ by adoption would appear to be redundant and superficial? Care to comment?
Saved…. I do hear that word used when it comes to First Nations adoptees. As an adoptee, I see our people condemned and not saved. Some saviours demanded we convert to their god and soldiers made us give up our lands. Next there are adopters who had no idea they were a part of the Indian Adoption Projects and its intended genocide and assimilation. I’m sure they would be appalled at the numbers of children who were put up for adoption to be saved. We can’t undo this history, but we certainly need the truth to be told, once and for all.
If an adoptee can access their adoption file, they can return to their tribe and enroll to receive treaty rights, if they are eligible. Some do find out they were enrolled as children, before they were taken and adopted. There will be a period of adjustment for any person to return to their tribe and reservation. Many are doing it now.
• In living our lives as older adoptees who have done the work for survival, is there a hopeful message for younger adoptees who are at different stages of recovery?
I would tell them to get counselling focused on their adoption and trauma. There are medical terms related to us, such as severe narcissistic injury and reactive attachment disorder. They need to start early. It was vital for me to tell my entire story in a safe setting in group therapy, with complete and total honesty. When younger adoptees need emotional support and help with stress, they need to demand it. If trauma is not treated, it can manifest as very serious emotional illness. There are grim statistics concerning adoptees who commit homicide and suicide.
• You are planning your next book to be a telling of the stories of others, by others. How’s it progressing?
My second book is called Split Feathers: Two Worlds. (It became TWO WORLDS: Lost Children, book 1 of 4) I have asked First Nations adoptees to write about their adoptions and experiences in reunion. I am excited about this project. It's our making the rounds with presses.
• As an older adoptee I have long believed no experience is wasted, everything is learning and progression. How does that sit with you?
I could not have said it better myself, Von. Yes, our adoption experience was a hard test but we passed with flying colors.
The late Von Coates (an adoptee) lived Down Under in Australia.