Thoughts on Wake Up Little Susie by Rickie Solinger

This past month, I finally got around to reading Wake Up Little Susie by Rickie Solinger, a book that has been highly recommended in the adoption community. The book’s focus, though, isn’t adoption, but rather the ways in which unmarried pregnant women and girls were dealt with in the United States between 1945 and 1965.

I want to say two things about this book. First, the information it presents is important for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of women’s rights in this country. It was eye opening for me to learn how political and social policies have determined two separate fates for black vs. white women who have deviated from accepted norms. I came to Susie knowing that, in most cases during this time frame, white unmarried pregnant women and girls were convinced to relinquish their babies for adoption while black women and girls in similar circumstances kept and raised their own children with the help of their families, but I did not know why that was the case or how the system was designed to punish those black women at every turn.

Having myself been born to an unmarried white girl in the late 1960s, I was most familiar with the narrative expressed by the women interviewed by Ann Fessler for her book The Girls Who Went Away. Solinger’s book, however, reveals how social support systems across the country aimed to diagnose women like my mother as psychologically impaired and then rehabilitate them via whisking their babies off to respectable, married couples, thereby satisfying two goals: supplying infertile couples with children who could blend into their white families and providing a means for fallen women and girls to become eligible again for marriage and respectability.

Black women and girls were not offered this same chance at rehabilitation. They were deemed to be immoral by nature, and were therefore required to deal with the consequence of their immorality. Services that might have helped them in raising their children were denied to them, because officials decided that to offer assistance would be akin to encouraging illegitimate pregnancies. Thus, the trope of the welfare queen took hold, due largely to a desire within the white establishment to keep black mothers, and, by extension, all black people, in their place. In reality, most financial assistance to single mothers went to white women, because authorities created onerous roadblocks to keep black women from receiving aid. Black women were also denied space in maternity homes or the option of offering their babies for adoption.

What can a woman in crisis do except to utilize the options that are available to her? What better way to control women than to limit their options.

The more I learn about this period in US history, the more obvious it is to me that control of women’s health and financial options has been used repeatedly as a means of trying to shape our society according the vision of white men in power (and the women who go along with them), without too much concern for the individual people or families affected by those political decisions. And this continues today. We see the current administration attempting to cut back or eliminate services related to sex education, birth control, and women’s health, services that have been in place now for several decades and that have been successful in reducing unplanned pregnancies and enabling women to make informed choices for their own lives. There are people in positions of power in this country right now who want to take us back to that time when women had very little say in what happened to their lives because they had so few options when it came to giving birth or raising children. We cannot allow them to force us back there.

The second observation I want to make about Wake Up Little Susie concerns its format, the actual written words in the book. As I said, this book has been highly recommended, however it was clearly written for an academic audience. Solinger’s research consists of studying a slew of sociological studies along with historical documents. Even when she quotes individual women affected by the policies she’s describing, those quotes are taken from previous studies in which the women were interviewed, so it feels as if the women’s voices exist only in service to answering the academic question that’s been put forth. This is not to deny the relevance of Solinger’s work; her synthesis of all this information is still quite valuable, as I’ve already described.

But, here’s the thing. The way the information is presented is so dry and so academically worded that I fear many lay readers would not have the fortitude to stick with this book long enough to fully grasp the enormity of the very important conclusions Solinger reaches. We need researchers and historians like Solinger, but we also need creative writers and other artists who can find ways to better communicate important information like this to a much broader audience. I believe the key to real change in this country lies in raising the awareness and understanding of a broad swath of regular, everyday people.

Everyday people in large numbers demanding change is what makes things happen. It’s up to those of us who first recognize the need for change to figure out how to communicate that need in a way that many others will feel in their bones. Action requires passion. We must inspire in order to effect change.

Broken

The other day, I had a meltdown. Someone said words that opened up a place deep inside where I feel as if I’m nothing. The words that were said weren’t the problem, nor was the person who said them the problem. The problem is that a very long time ago, I experienced pain that left me with a significant wound. Over many years, after much work, I have managed to stitch the wound closed and it has scarred over, yet sometimes that seal is pierced, causing the pain that remains in that place to leak out again. I feel that awful pain again, and when this happens, it takes some time once more to restitch the wound closed.

Those familiar with adoptee literature will understand what I mean when I call this a primal wound. My particular injury resulted from multiple traumas, but the concept still applies, as the wound was inflicted before I was old enough to consciously understand or process what was happening. There is no memory I can access to clarify what I’m experiencing in those moments after the scar is torn open. For many years, I did not know why I react the way I do in certain situations. I only knew that I hurt, and I wanted the hurt to stop.

As a young adult, I began to think of myself as broken. There were so many days when I hurt, so many hours I spent crying, so many times I felt angry or afraid or wished my life was different that I knew I couldn’t be normal. Something had to be wrong with me, because other people didn’t feel this way all the time. Other people didn’t struggle with the simplest human interactions the way I did. Other people didn’t overreact all the time.

But I didn’t want anyone to realize how abnormal I was, how broken, so I did everything I could to hide it. I tried to fake my way through relationships. I tried to keep most people at arm’s length so that they would never learn how messed up I really was. The result? I felt deeply lonely, and that pain of feeling as though I was nothing, as though I was worthless, increased.

I became seriously, physically ill, and I ended up seeing a psychologist, which turned out to be life changing, even though I never once discussed with him how worthless I actually felt or what I suspected might be the source of that feeling. I was afraid even to allow a trained medical professional see how broken I actually was. I feared how he might diagnose me. I feared that I would be shunned—rejected—even by him.

Still, over the course of a year and a half, based only on his knowledge of my physical illness and stress in my life over work and romantic relationship issues, he managed to teach me a new way of processing my thoughts. Rather than circling endlessly in my head about how I wished my life had been different, I began to think about how I could improve the life I actually had. He helped me begin to realize that I was in control of my own life.

That was twenty years ago, and still, I just recently had a meltdown. Over the last two decades, I’ve continually sought to learn more about how to redirect my thought process in a positive way and how to steer my life in the direction I want it to go. And slowly but surely, I have discovered how to pursue joy in my life and, most importantly, how to allow myself to be loved. I’ve had to let myself be seen, and that includes letting those who love me in on the secret of my brokenness.

Yes, I still think of myself as broken, because that wound of mine will never entirely go away. No matter how thick the scar tissue grows, my self cannot be restored to what it was before the injury. To think that we can somehow ever be completely healed in the sense of being put back together as we once were is unrealistic. That’s the kind of thinking that led me to become trapped in my own head when I was younger, yearning for something that could never be.

I no longer think of magical healing as the answer. Instead, I think about learning to live with the scar. Here’s how that looks for me right now: When my meltdown began, for several minutes all I could do was feel the pain. And it was a real, physical pain right in the middle of my chest. I couldn’t stop my tears and I felt myself getting angry, because anger is often how I protect myself. But then, I called on my conscious mind to ask the question, “What’s going on here? Why am I feeling this way?” It takes a lot of practice to do this in the moment, and I don’t always succeed, but this time, I did. And because I’ve done the work of getting to know myself over these past twenty years and being honest with myself about why I am the way I am, I knew the answer. The scar had been torn open. I felt worthless again.

And here’s what I also did that’s so important. Later that night, because I could still feel the pain, because it wasn’t going away and I was having trouble stitching the wound back up, I made myself say out loud to another person what was going on inside me. I allowed my brokenness to be seen. And when my confession was met with compassion from that person, I was able to stitch the wound shut again, able to function the next day and to feel joy again.

None of this is easy. And it is absolutely unfair. It’s not our fault that we were wounded, yet we must do the difficult job of treating the wound. No one can stitch it up for us. What people who love us can do, though, is show us the compassion we need to get better, but they can only do this if we allow their love in, if we allow them to know our brokenness in the first place.

Which is why I’m writing this today—to say, yes, I’m broken. This is part of who I am. And that’s okay.

The Words We Use: National Adoption Month 2018

Lexicon: the vocabulary of a language, an individual speaker or group of speakers, or a subject. (Merriam-Webster)

I wrote my book An Adoptee Lexicon, in which I discuss forty-five terms that are significant to me as an adopted person, because I want to have a conversation about the words we use surrounding adoption, especially those simple words we come into contact with on an everyday basis, those words that float right past non-adopted people but stop us dead in our tracks.

I began by compiling a long list of terms related in some way to adoption. Then, during each generative writing session, I picked a word from the list that held energy for me, set a timer for twenty minutes, and wrote longhand in a notebook nonstop until those minutes were used up. Later, after many weeks, I began fine-tuning what I’d roughly sketched out and adding the facts and statistics I wanted to include to augment my own thoughts. I didn’t write about every word on my original list, and I didn’t end up using every word I wrote during those generative sessions.

What I ended up with was part memoir, part poetry; a little bit history lesson and a little bit political commentary. The resulting book uses my own experience as a jumping-off point to consider the social policies that shaped adoption’s past and will influence its future. This interpretation of those words from my list that made it into the book is all mine, though not necessarily anyone else’s. That “an” in the title is deliberate and doing a lot of work for such a small, typically overlooked word: this is only one–not every–adoptee’s lexicon.

How do other adoptees react to the words I chose to explore? And what about all those words on my original long list that didn’t end up in the book? I’d like to invite adopted people to join me in conversation during November, which is National Adoption Month (NAM) (also referred to as National Adoption Awareness Month or NAAM) here in the U.S.

In the spirit of the brief bursts of writing I did to begin An Adoptee Lexicon, each morning in November I’ll post a word on my Twitter profile and Facebook page for adoptees to consider and respond to. You can follow along and participate using the hashtag #AdopteeLexicon. Please also tag your responses with your other favorite adoption- or NAM-related hashtags, and please do respond with video or images or songs or whatever creative thing you can imagine if the written word doesn’t move you. Please do take the conversation to your other favorite places on the internet as well, though I’ll probably stick to Twitter and Facebook myself. I hope that my daily posts will serve as your creative catalyst.

Let’s make this an adoptee-centric, judgment-free NAM conversation where all viewpoints are respected. And please, if you’re not adopted, just listen. There are other forums where non-adopted people can express their views on adoption. The #AdopteeLexicon conversation is intended for adoptees only.

 

What’s It About?

Thanks for asking.

Lyrical and informative, An Adoptee Lexicon is a glossary of adoption terminology from the viewpoint of an adult adoptee.

Contemplating religion, politics, science, and human rights, Karen Pickell, who was born and adopted in the late 1960s, intersperses personal commentary and snippets from her own experience with history and statistics pertaining to child development and the adoption industry. The collection of micro essays is presented as an organically ordered glossary, along with a robust list of sources and suggested reading as well as an alphabetical index, creating layers of association between words commonly used when discussing adoption.

Pickell draws connections between contemporary American political issues and the social climate that led to a tsunami of adoptions in the decades following World War II through the early 1970s—a period known as the Baby Scoop Era—and also touches on the complexity of transracial and international adoptions.

Throughout An Adoptee Lexicon, the focus remains firmly on adopted people—their perceptions, their needs, and their right to fully exist in exactly the way non-adopted people do.

Continue reading “What’s It About?”