By Martha Nichols
The Ethics of Adoption Writing
When my husband and I adopted a baby son in Vietnam in 2002, I never imagined I’d have to explain to our little boy eight years later why another adoptive mother had returned a child. But last April, that’s exactly where I found myself, along with everyone else who watched the sad saga of seven-year-old Artyom Savelyev unfold.
In early April 2010, Artyom was put on an airplane alone by his American adoptive grandmother and flown back to Moscow. He was accompanied only by a note written by his adoptive mother Torry Hansen, a single nurse in Shelbyville, Tennessee.
According to the Associated Press, the note said that she’d been lied to in Russia about the boy’s difficulties: “After giving my best to this child, I am sorry to say that for the safety of my family, friends, and myself, I no longer wish to parent this child.” *
The why of a news story like this will always hook us. But as an adoptive parent and writer, it’s become a far more intimate ethical struggle for me.
Within days, I had written an Artyom commentary that appeared on the cover of Salon: “Adoption Fearmongers Take Over.” My focus was on the sensationalized news coverage, including a Nightline report about “the inside stories of adoptions that go horribly wrong.” Yet as the week of Artyom stories roared on, other adoptive parents began confessing their difficulties with problem adoptees, often in specific detail and splashed all over NPR, national TV, and the Internet.
It’s an old conundrum of memoir writing: What right does an author have to reveal private details about the lives of other family members—especially their children? My standard for writing autobiographical nonfiction has long been that I must make myself more vulnerable in print than any relative or friend I write about. So far, I believe I’ve hewed to the ethical side of this personal contract.
But it’s also true that a year after Artyom’s flight back to Russia, I’m doing less writing about my son—or, to be scrupulously accurate, the nature of my writing about him has changed. His views of adoption, in particular, do not seem mine to share.
That’s not to say my son won’t appear in some of the autobiographical essays I’m now working on. But I intend these for print, not online publication. I’ve grown wary of how tempting it is to garner brief accolades for revealing gory details online. The insta-publishing of blogging gives writers no time to reflect on the ethical boundaries they might be crossing. And online stories, factually incorrect, sometimes venomous or callous, keep popping up on Google long after they should be buried.
Adoption used to be considered a dirty little secret, one best kept within the walls of the immediate family.
Since the 1970s, however, academic researchers, adoption professionals, and adult adoptees have all challenged the merit of keeping the details private—and rightly so. These challenges have led to the domestic open-adoption movement, growing activism by adult adoptees to gain access to sealed birth records, and a new zeitgeist in which, at the very least, adoptive parents are encouraged to talk openly about the facts of an adoption with their children from a very young age.
For many of us in the post-2000 adoption community, the notion of adoptees growing up with no knowledge of their origins and without a right to ask may seem as absurd as Harry Potter’s nasty Muggle relations, who reluctantly took Harry in after the baby wizard’s parents were killed.
Early on in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, his aunt lies to him, saying his parents died in a “car crash.” Harry learns “the first rule for a quiet life”: Don’t ask questions.
Harry is not strictly an adoptee in his Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia’s house; he’s the poor orphan, fostered by his remaining biological relations. Yet as sharp as J.K. Rowling’s satire was when the Harry Potter juggernaut took off in the late 1990s, the idea still lingers of adoptees in American homes with no idea where they come from. The image of the abandoned orphan searching for his or her true identity pops up again and again in contemporary movies and children’s books.
What makes the public airing of real adoption stories so complicated is that adoption practice is now receiving far more scrutiny, especially in the international arena. You could say that the media barrage sparked by Artyom and other disrupted adoptions has led to a necessary public discussion about how society cares for abandoned children—whether in Russia, the United States, or any other country.
But when everybody from Angelina Jolie to Lisa Belkin of the New York Times generates controversy over adoption—and thereby boosts Web traffic—I have to question whether this complex topic is getting the discussion it deserves.
As Barbara Melosh points out in her 2002 history of American adoption, Strangers and Kin, adoption has become more of a flashpoint than ever because it reflects larger trends:
Many people experience contemporary life as fragmented and atomistic; as families, too, falter and fail, we seem to have no secure place. Adoption confronts us with the realities of loss and limitation that attend every human life.”
That makes adoption the perfect jumping-off point for all sorts of stories, fictional and otherwise. Yet the call for openness in adoption practice and policy “is a telling barometer of the ambivalence surrounding contemporary adoption,” writes Melosh. And it raises ethical flags in the midst of a huge media transformation online, especially when personal stories are given too much weight.
The problem here isn’t just the rise of Oprah and other TV talk-show hosts who encourage guests to spill the dirt. Whatever you think of tearful celebrities revealing their struggles, the subjects of these confessions are adults. They are allowed to tell their own stories, even if those stories are highly edited.
The trouble comes when the story involves children and the only ones speaking for them are adult caregivers or clinical professionals.
News stories about families and children have always sparked chatter around the water cooler or over backyard fences. But when a story about a child like Artyom breaks online, and thousands of opinions about it swirl across the Internet within hours, it’s as if all that gossip has been transcribed and broadcast.
Unlike the town gossipmonger, an online commentator can hide behind “Anonymous.” And the text of such unattributed comments, attached to everything from personal blogs to articles in the New York Times, lives on and on.
When Adoptive Parents “Confess” in Public
In the hands of a skillful writer, shocking revelations about family life add to the problem of Internet immortality. Before Artyom came Anita Tedaldi, who in August 2009 wrote a personal account about why, after eighteen months, she could no longer parent a small child she had adopted internationally.
Her story, “My Adopted Son,” appeared in Motherlode, under the imprimatur of the New York Times and Lisa Belkin, the well-known journalist and contributing writer at the Times who runs the blog.
Tedaldi’s piece is beautifully written. Many commenters raged against a mother who would give up her child, but others found her admissions about the difficulties of caring for a special-needs boy to be brave. That was my first response, although at the time I was also troubled by what she didn’t say. For example, Tedaldi writes:
[W]hile it was easy, and reassuring, to talk to all these experts about D.’s issues, it was terrifying to look at my own. I had never once considered the possibility that I’d view an adopted child differently than my biological children. The realization that I didn’t feel for D. the same way I felt for my own flesh and blood shook the foundations of who I thought I was.”
This appears quite self-revealing; given these circumstances, Tedaldi is probably right that this child has gone to a better home. Yet does she really believe it’s easier for a mother to bond to a biological child? Or is it just her? She skirts a hard answer, which leaves this complex question in readers’ minds without illumination.
Tedaldi’s account is framed as a sorrowful confessional that she makes in order to help other adoptive parents. She changes some of the details and calls her son by an initial, all acceptable practices for protecting privacy in literary memoir writing. Yet because she had previously written about the adoption in a far happier frame of mind on her own blog and elsewhere, other bloggers were able to unearth details about her child and spread them virally around the Internet.
Belkin was outraged that such personal details had been exposed, prompting her later to post “Protecting Your Child’s Privacy” on Motherlode. Yet Belkin’s discussion about the ethics of parental memoirs has far less bite than a reader’s email comment she included:
In light of the post by Anita Tedaldi I have a suggestion for a future topic: parental blogging and how it might affect the kids. What’s going to happen in 5 or 10 years (depending on the age of the kids) when they learn how to use Google and find what their parents have been posting about them for the entire world to read?”
Now that so many parent bloggers are broadcasting personal details, this is the real question. And adoption ups the stakes. There are always at least three sides to this story—birthparent, adoptee, and adoptive parent—but all sides don’t have equal access to the press. In most news accounts and memoirs, the voice of adoptive parents dominates. By the time adult adoptees are doing their own blogging and getting book contracts, parent writers have long made their mark and done their own spin. **
The nature of truth is squishy here. The hyper-reality of good memoir and feature writing can illuminate our understanding of life. But such writing by parents can easily become self-congratulatory, too, and it can shove aside the messier accounts of children, who are not necessarily the grateful, well-adjusted narrators we want them to be.
“I Did Not Love My Adopted Child”
When the disturbing story of Artyom first came off the AP wires last April, Belkin again leapt into the public debate. In “Shipping an Adopted Son Back to Russia,” just after the story broke, she threw down a gauntlet to readers:
Tedaldi sought counseling and advice before she made her decision, and then she found the boy a family where the mother was a social worker trained in helping children with attachment disorders. Even so, most of you excoriated her, calling her selfish and cruel. I can only imagine what you think of a woman who puts a 7-year-old on an 4,858 mile, 11-hour international flight alone.”
Responses poured in, many calling Artyom’s adoptive family “despicable” or “inhuman,” on her blog and others. In asking for instant responses, Belkin followed one of the blogosphere’s conventions: pose a question and let the fur fly.
There’s much to be said for the role blogging plays in sparking a lively public debate, especially in an era when mainstream media can and should be challenged. But when writers do no more than pose questions in blog venues like Motherlode and rapidly reported news articles, they are stirring the pot of conventional wisdom rather than providing the interpretation of a good journalistic feature. ***
When print journalists can’t move fast enough to answer the why of a story like Artyom’s, commentators of all stripes leap into the gap. It’s easy to dismiss those who know nothing about international adoption. But as with the Tedaldi story, adoptive parents began to fill this gap with their own tales, offering sympathy for adoptive mother Hansen (who has yet to speak in public, except in court, about what happened). ****
KJ Dell’Antonia’s “I Did Not Love My Adopted Child” in Slate exemplifies the spin given this stream of adoptive-parent testimonials. Either in features in which they told their stories to reporters, or in confessional blog posts, adoptive parents rushed to admit their own travails with older international adoptees. Dell’Antonia writes:
[W]ithout taking away anything from what her adopted son was suffering, I understand, deep in my bones, what Hansen must have been going through when she bypassed all other emergency options and put that child on a plane. In the same way that women who’ve experienced post-partum depression understand mothers who kill themselves and their infants, I get it. There, but for [fill in saving grace here], go I.”
Her piece is, in fact, a restrained account of the difficulties she first had bonding with her three-year-old daughter from China; she makes clear she loves her child now. But the misleading headline will have the longest life and biggest impact on the Internet. The media focus turned to exposing more of adoption’s dirty secrets so that other parents don’t make the same mistake. The voices of adult adoptees, who were also blogging about Artyom and focusing on his pain, rarely surfaced on TV news shows.
Meanwhile, Dell’Antonia’s headline got her an interview with NPR’s Neal Conan on Talk of the Nation (“Mom Confesses She Did Not Love Adopted Daughter”). Conan asked her, “Very briefly, are you worried that your daughter will one day read this piece…?’” Dell’Antonia answered, “I certainly, absolutely have thought about that.”
The interview ends there. I wish we could have heard more, because I’m sure Dell’Antonia had more to say—and because not long after, my son accidentally spotted “I Did Not Love My Adopted Child” on my computer screen. Here’s what I later published on my blog:
We then spent a half hour snuggling on the couch, him fighting back tears, me saying I would never leave him, that what happened here was wrong.
“When I asked him what he thought I should write about that headline, he snapped right back: ‘Say it’s creepy and scary.’”
There’s at least a bit of truth in every personal telling. Some believe everyone should have their say. Yet when we assume there’s a free market in personal stories, as many do in the blogosphere, we ignore who has the power and means to speak.
“Secrets define the boundaries of intimacy,” Melosh writes in Strangers and Kin. “As adoption rights activists argued, secrecy does have the power to destroy; what they did not acknowledge is that secrecy is indispensable to social life.”
You do not know my family, I imagine my son saying to the computer screen a year ago. He didn’t actually say that, but I can still picture him directing his anger at all the virtual writers and talkers who didn’t know us then. Yet even here, I may be stepping over the line, attributing my own perspective to a child who had his own ideas—and still does.
You do not have a right to know, I would add now to all those prurient onlookers who chattered on about Artyom—who no doubt would like to know far more about my son than he’s ready to tell, regardless of how many online sites and TV hosts and experts claim that this form of outing is good for our collective souls.
The very notion of “family” shifts over time for adoptees. For many, learning about their birth families happens as they grow older and gain access to more information. So how are young adoptees, who almost always grapple with who their families are, supposed to respond when they see callous comments about adoption in a public space? At the very least, this must feel blindingly unfair.
A year later, Artyom Savelyev may seem like no more than a footnote, one of those media storms that fizzle within weeks. Yet I’m more convinced than ever that the bad history of secrecy in adoption doesn’t justify violating a child’s right to privacy.
As a parent writer myself, I know these aren’t easy boundaries to maintain or police. But far too many commentators seem to have forgotten that adults aren’t the only filters for children’s experiences. We can and should be filters for our own. But when what we have to say may influence how a child later tells his own story—or actively hurts him—we parents have lost sight of the ethical high ground.
* Many news stories were based on the initial Associated Press report. For example: Kristin Hall, “Grandmother: Boy Terrified Adoptive Kin,” Seattle Times, April 10, 2010.
** In the last ten years, an increasing number of memoirs by white adoptive parents about adopting internationally have appeared, including investigative reporter Jeff Gammage’s China Ghosts. A smaller number of memoirs by adult Asian adoptees (such as Jane Jeong Trenka’s The Language of Blood and Fugitive Visions) counter such parental visions with more complicated identity struggles. As for international birthparents, their side of the story is rarely heard.
*** In response to the Artyom story, in-depth features about why adoptive parents might feel desperate enough to return a troubled adoptee followed later in print. Sarah Kershaw’s long feature in the New York Times, “In Some Adoptions, Love Doesn’t Conquer All,” provided a more nuanced view but appeared a week after the initial blog salvos.
**** To date, Torry Hansen hasn’t been charged with a crime, although she remains embroiled in a legal battle with her adoption agency (WACAP), the National Council for Adoption, and Russian authorities over whether she should pay child support for Artyom. For the past year, he has been a foster child at a state-run orphanage in Russia. See “Russia Awaits Rich Ruling on Hansen,” a recent article in the Shelbyville Times-Gazette.
- Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, originally published as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997. (Scholastic, 1998).
- Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption by Barbara Melosh, Harvard University Press, 2002.
- “Adoption ‘Truths’: Be Careful About What You Say in Print” by Martha Nichols, Athena’s Head, April 19, 2010.
Martha Nichols is Editor in Chief of
This article is based on a presentation Martha made last year at the conference “Adoption: Secret Histories, Public Policies,” held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from April 29-May 2, 2010.
It also draws on previous posts by Martha such as “Uh-Oh, Mom’s a Writer: The Ethics of Memoirs About Kids” and “An Adoption Mess Gets the Today Show Treatment.”