So much to learn about adoption

August 05, 2001|By Adam Pertman

NEWTON, Mass. - It doesn't happen as often as it used to, but people still periodically tell my wife and me, in voices modulated to express unmistakable empathy: "Oh, I'm sorry you couldn't have any real children."

Or they ask whether we know anything about our son's or our daughter's real parents. Occasionally, they even say things like that in front of our kids.

I've grown so accustomed to such well-intentioned ignorance that, too often, I don't even try anymore to explain the potentially corrosive effects on children of grappling with the notion that either they or the adults raising them aren't real - clearly meaning, in this context, that they are somehow inferior. It doesn't make us grownups feel great either, by the way.

Odd as it may seem, those are the kinds of thoughts that filled my brain as I watched Steven Spielberg's new blockbuster, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. And I promise you they flooded into millions of other viewers' brains, too.

That's because the adoption-related undercurrents running through A.I. are as powerful as they are poignant to the tens of millions of us whose lives are touched daily by this wondrous, complex, poorly understood institution of adoption.

Early in the film, for instance, the lead character (a human-looking, emotion-enabled robot named David) tries to ingratiate himself with his would-be mother by awkwardly testing his behavior and boundaries with her. Thousands of adopted people, those who first lived for years in foster care or orphanages, will see more in these scenes than just a machine checking out his operating systems. They will see their younger selves, struggling to figure out how to win the hearts of the strangers who are deciding whether to give them permanent homes.

A.I. evokes many comparable analogies and insights.

Some are transcendent. They will instantly resonate with most of the adoption community but, alas, probably not with other moviegoers who could benefit from their lessons. After all, it's not a long leap from the isolating taunts David endures because he's a "mecha" (mechanical) to the alienation thrust upon children for generations because they live in a culture in which the words that describe them - "you're adopted" - are used as an insult.

Other aspects of the movie offer less obvious but equally important lessons about adoption and, by extension, about the attitudes and practices of the society in which the institution plays an increasingly pervasive role.

Perhaps most pointedly, one of the central themes explored by A.I. is whether we human beings can truly love children we do not create.

It is a complicated, profound question that the film artfully universalizes by creating a future in which everyone is forced to limit procreation in order to conserve resources. But it's not a theoretical subject for the millions of women and men who confront it every day because we are infertile.

This is not a movie about adoption, of course; it's a science-fiction/fantasy that means mainly to explore such timeless imponderables as what constitutes humanity and the nature of isolation.

But Mr. Spielberg, an adoptive parent, either deliberately laced his film with some of the important concerns of his personal life or else introduced them subconsciously, which in a way would illustrate even more dramatically how influential a role they play.

Yet I would guess only a minority of viewers have an inkling of the degree to which these interesting, edifying issues run through the movie - or through the everyday lives of their relatives, friends and neighbors.

Which is precisely my point.

Adoption grew up as a covert, shame-tinged institution. It is improving rapidly in most ways, but people generally remain so ignorant about it - it's very hard to learn anything about secrets - that they can't always see the totality of the picture they're looking at, even when it's on a big screen.

If they could, they'd already understand the potent impact of a word like real. And they'd come to a movie like A.I. better prepared to address the full spectrum of provocative questions that it poses.

The answer to the one about whether we human beings can truly love children we do not create, incidentally, is "yes." Absolutely.

Adam Pertman, a free-lance writer and speaker on family issues, is the author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming America (Basic Books, 2000).

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