Book Review: Flip the Script: Adult Adoptee Anthology

Book Review:

Flip the Script: Adult Adoptee Anthology

edited by Diane Rene Christian, Rosita Gonzalez and Amanda Hi Transue Woolston

reviewed by Marie-Claude Provencher


“I am tired of longing and reaching out for connection where there is none to be had.” So writes Pact’s own Susan Ito in “Enough,” her essay about adoption featured in Flip the Script: Adult Adoptee Anthology (An-Ya Project, 2015).

Born as a movement that is now several years old, Flip the Script arose from the desire of adoptees to take charge of the narrative of National Adoption Month. The dominant narrative each November is largely about the joy of adoption, most frequently relayed by adoptive parents. This dynamic book of essays, poems, lyrics, and art is a collective response to the traditional views of adoption, and a reclaiming of the adoption experience by the truest experts: adoptees.

I feel it is important to state here that I am a white adoptive mother to two African-American sons, as well as mother to a white daughter born to me. This matters because this vantage point influences (limits?) my understanding of the adoptee experience. Even as I hope to get a slight preview of my own kids’ futures, I always approach any sharing by adult adoptees of their experiences as unearned gifts. Given this context, it is with a strange mixture of gratitude for adoptees’ work, respect for their resilience and generosity, and guilt for my participation in this adoption business that I am reviewing this anthology.

Flip the Script presents a wide mix of opinions and views about the common experience of adoption, and while there are varying perspectives here, none of them are neutral. They all begin with the premise that adoptees’ lives start with birth, not adoption. This is a crucial difference from the traditional narrative that allows acknowledgement of birth families and birth culture, thereby making space for the feeling of loss, search, finding community, advocacy, and, in the end, resilience. Every contributor to this anthology—including Ito and other Pact community members—demonstrates how they manage to make sense of it all.

Many writers share their sense of not belonging, of feeling very different from and lonely in their adoptive families. Those who were adopted transracially stood out because of race, but also felt like they could not talk about adoption for fear of causing their adoptive parents pain. They also feared being shut down by them. “I learned very quickly it was better not to mention my biological mother,” writes Anna Cavanagh in her essay, “Liberating Perspectives: Acknowledging the Realities and Experiences of Adopted People.” Cavanagh illustrates the ways in which adoptees are often compelled to deny parts of who they are and how they feel.

In her powerful piece, Catherine Johnston shares the experience of parenting an adopted child as an adoptee herself. Johnson pulls no punches as she describes her own evolution in thinking. She invites readers into her childhood thinking on adoption (“When I was very young, adoption made me special”), takes us through her teen years when she was grateful for lack of a genetic connection to her dysfunctional family (“Adoption became my protective shield”), to her young adult years when she met her birth mother (“It turned out that being adopted wasn’t really a free pass from intergenerational dysfunction after all”), and finally through the adoption process and becoming a parent.

Other contributors to this anthology searched for birth parents, had reunions, or went on a homeland trip to visit where their lives had begun. In the poem “I Know This Face,” Lucy Chau Lai-Tuen writes:

This face will never see myself in my mother’s eyes….

Dreams of reunion ….

I have travelled unaware with the pain of accumulated years ….

Has my Mother passed?

Not knowing the language, customs, or people of Korea, Katie Hae Leo felt like a tourist in her own land. She writes about the perception of not being a “Korean Korean,” and describes that the exhilarating experience of returning to where she was born did little to resolve the feeling of not belonging.

April Dinwoodie of the Donaldson Adoption Institute writes of the importance of connection to community, especially for children for whom this can be transformational. This is a recurring theme across much of the work in this book. And, too, many of the writers are critical of the adoption industry. Perhaps the clearest explanation of the industry of adoption and advocacy comes from Wendy M. Laybourn who describes adoption as  “a politicized, racialized, historically-situated, and power-relation laden identity.” She says that adoptees “bear the marks of imperialism, colorism, colorblindness, commodification, and consumerism.”

Flip the Script is not just a book of writing. It includes art created by adoptees that beautifully complements the text and underscores the complexity of adoption. Photos of tree trunks growing on barren land, taken by Mei-Mei Ellerman, are particularly striking, as the stark images clearly contrast with the traditional mass media depiction of adoption as a win-win for everybody. Ellerman also wrote the dedication at the beginning of the book that sums it all: “Each writer and artist has discarded layers of expectations upheld by societal norms, directly or indirectly supported by adoptive family members or self-imposed. While in search of our true selves, our authentic being, we have wrestled with issues of identity, racism, lack of self-esteem, rejection, loneliness, otherness, trauma and the very definition of ‘being adopted’ or ‘adoptees.’”

The overall message I take, as an adoptive parent, is that although adoption can include love and belonging, it also hurts. Our children frequently feel isolated and need community. How they learn to live with the hurt depends on how well they learn to cope. Some find outlets such as writing, performing or advocacy; some don’t make it to adulthood. It takes resiliency and awareness. I can’t protect my children from the hurt of adoption, racism and adoptism. I can prepare them though and, most importantly, listen. To them, and to the adult adoptees who are willing to share with us again and again. We are the ones—not our kids—who made the decision to adopt. It’s time that we, too, flip the script. Let adult adoptees teach us.

Marie-Claude Provencher is the white adoptive mother to two African-American sons, as well as mother to a white daughter born to her. She has been an active member of the Pact community for decades.

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