Monday, November 16, 2009

My Fathers' Daughter, by Hannah Pool

One of the things I enjoy most about getting together with other adoptive families (such as at Families Like Us events) is swapping adoption stories. Frequently I tear up as I hear other's stories, and I love telling the story of my family's adoption of Zippy. I don't hear as many stories about meeting birth families. One of our friends took their daughter to Haiti a few months ago to meet her birth family. We had a sweet time with Zippy's birth mother in June. (Read about it here.) My Fathers' Daughter tells the story of Hannah Pool's reunion with her birth family. She provides a valuable resource for adoptive families, particularly those who adopt internationally or transracially, who wonder about the whirlwind of emotional issues in such a reunion.

Ms. Pool, a writer for The Guardian, was born in Eritrea. Her mother died in childbirth, and her father placed her in an orphanage. The orphanage had record that both parents had died, and placed Hannah as a baby with a white couple who was then living in Eritrea. A short time later, they moved back to Europe, and Hannah grew up in England. In My Fathers' Daughter (note the placement of the apostrophe--a significant detail that is easy to miss), Pool recounts the story of discovering that her father was, in fact, still living, and her subsequent trip to Eritrea to meet the family of her birth.

There is much to love in her story. A professional journalist, Pool tells a wonderful story, providing details and background that draw in the reader. And what a rich story she tells. She skillfully and beautifully conveys her feelings upon learning that her birth father is alive, upon meeting him and other family members, upon seeing the bed on which she was born and her mother died, and more. After a lifetime of feeling disconnected from her home country and birth family, she finally connects and feels a sense of belonging.

In one moving passage, Pool anticipates meeting her birth father and Eritrean relatives for the first time, after a lifetime of being around no one related to her by birth. It's about "being able to look in a mirror and know you have your father's eyes and your mother's lips," about knowing medical history, looking at nieces and nephews and wondering what your own children will look like, knowing if you will likely be fat, thin, tall, short. (99-100) Every adoptee must have the same kind of questions at one time or another. I am reminded of a time when (my very white wife) Kelly and (my African-American son) Zippy were cheek to cheek, looking in the mirror. Kelly asked Zippy if he thought they looked alike. Without missing a beat he said yes, the whites of their eyes are the same!

One of Pool's most pressing questions for her Eritrean family is why they placed her in the orphanage. Her feelings of rejection run deep. For "normal" families, "the thing that remains the same is the sense of belonging, that families are permanent. The almost invisible confidence that comes from knowing no matter what happens, your parents will always be your parents. No matter how often your adoptive family tells you they love you, no matter how much you believe them, for the adoptee there is always the knowledge that a parent can decide they don't want you anymore, sign a few forms, and wash their hands of you. . . . It's tattooed on your psyche: love is temporary." (88) This passage rips at my heart. Pool doesn't say much about her adoptive family, but what she does say is very positive. She worries that they will feel betrayed by her tracing her birth family, but they support her at every step. I don't see a justification for her insecurity about their love for her. I hope and pray that as Zippy grows, he will always know that there is nothing temporary about our love for him. I hope it's tatooed on his psyche that Kelly and Chloe and Elliot and I and all of our extended family love him unconditionally.

Pool goes on to say that most adoptees wish they were never adopted. "Even though I know more [adoptees] than most, I have never heard the words, 'I'm glad I was adopted.' . . . We all wish we hadn't been put up for adoption." In Pool's case, she knows that in Eritrea she would have faced hunger, drought, displacement due to war, likely early death, and if not, then national service at the front lines, possible genital mutilation, an arranged marriage, and children in her teens. "But . . . I still wish I had never been adopted." (102-103) Later, while visiting family in the rural village where her father lives, she confesses that she envies her nieces. "[T]hey have something I have never had. They are slap bang in the middle of a normal, happy Eritrean childhood. . . . I am jealous of their few uncertainties." (220) Despite their poverty, Pool longs to be a part of their life, to share their lifestyle. Maybe Zippy will look at his birth family's life one day and think the same things. Maybe all adoptees think such things. But I believe and hope with all my heart that he will say "I'm glad I was adopted!"

I can't help but think that Pool would feel differently about adoption and the course of her life if she had a foundation of faith. She wears her atheism on her sleeve. For instance, upon learning that her father was really alive, she feels a deep sense of gratitude without an object. "It's times like these when it would be handy to have a religion. If I believed in a god, I'd have someone to thank, and it's be nice to have someone to thank. As it is I'll have to settle for my own version: my father is alive, thank f--- for that." (24) Later, upon meeting her extended family, they all thank God for her coming. She does not quite know how to respond to all this religious sentiment. "I want to say Lufthansa brought me here, not God, and if he was so great, then why did God separate us in the first place? . . . I want to say that God is a load of baloney . . . and that anyone who thanks him for anything is a fool. I want to say that I came here, me, on my own, without help from a divine being. . . . I want to say God didn't take me away, you gave me up." (112)

A couple of other notes, not so related to adoption. Pool, and African woman who grew up in a white family in a majority white culture, has some interesting insights into race and feminism. The first time she heads out on the street in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, the attitude of the people surprises her. "Everyone looks so comfortable, so relaxed, walking around as if they own the place. So this is what black people look like when they are not having to constantly look over their shoulder, or justify their presence." (63) She relishes the times when people take her for a native Eritrean, not standing out the way she does at home at London. Those of us white families who have adopted children of other races should bear in mind the potential alienation and isolation they might feel in majority white culture. Her experience here reminds us that spending time among people of his or her own race can provide a huge boost in confidence and acceptance of his or her identity.

Upon returning home, the disparity of wealth between the first and third worlds bothers Pool, just as it does many Westerners who visit developing countries. Only with her, it is much more personal. "It is one thing to spend a fortune on shoes and bags without a second thought; it is quite another to do so when you know your sister and her family would not survive without food aid. I found it hard enough to read or see reports of drought, potential famine, and possible war before I went to Eritrea, so what will it be like now that I can put names and faces to the statistics?" (265)

Despite some of the negative comments about adoption and Pool's blatant atheism (and the self-centered, materialistic, libertine attitudes that result), My Fathers' Daughter gives wonderful insight into the struggles, questions, and insecurities of the international and/or transracial adoptee. Her colorful storytelling, honest emotional revelations, and probing self-reflection make this a highly recommended read.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Protect and Defend

The most succinct way for me to describe the Vince Flynn's Mitch Rapp series is this: if you like the TV show 24, you will love Mitch Rapp. Rapp works for the CIA, but in reality he is the United States's best weapon against terrorism. Like Jack Bauer, he has little patience for bureaucracy and indecision, and is willing to push the limits of laws and propriety to see that justice is done.

Protect and Defend is the eighth book in the series. The tenth book, Pursuit of Honor currently sits on the NYT bestseller list. (I haven't read that one yet.) I listened to #9, Extreme Measures, on CD; I had never heard of Flynn but saw it on the shelf at the library. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and now I have read or listened to 1-8 in the series in order. Each stands independently, but I enjoyed seeing the characters and relationships develop over the course of the series. Again, the similarities to 24 are striking. Any of these novels would make a great season of 24. In fact, lists Vince Flynn as a consultant on a few episodes of 24. (I just discovered that it's also saying a movie version of Protect and Defend is in development!)

Protect and Defend finds Iran working secretly on a nuclear weapons program. An Israeli spy, who has been embedded for years at the facility, pulls off a brilliant piece of sabotage, completely destroying it. Of course, Iran blames the US and begins throwing around accusations. They even sink one of their own ships and try to pin it on the US to drum up international sympathy. Rapp's boss and close friend, CIA director Irene Kennedy, arranges a clandestine meeting in Iraq with her Iranian counterpart, hoping they can work out a means to defuse the situation. Unfortunately for Irene, too many people knew about the meeting, and they use it to set up her abduction. Rapp, not content to let diplomacy get her back, leads a rescue effort that. . . . Well, I don't want to give too much away!

Flynn pulls no punches--politically correct he is not! I know as much about real life in the CIA and international espionage as I do about fixing my daughter's hair--that is, nothing! But Flynn writes convicingly, with lots of realism and detail. I guess these books would not be considered great works literature, destined to be included in the next version of Harvard Classics, but Flynn tells a great story, keeping the reader up at night eagerly turning the pages and waiting impatiently for the next book to be published. Read and enjoy!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Moll Flanders

Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders is one of those books the title of which I have heard for years, but didn't know anything about. Defoe most famously wrote Robinson Crusoe, considered to be the first novel in the English language. I don't guess I've ever read that one, either, but I have a feeling it would read about like Moll Flanders, a first person narrative without much story, just a very long string of events.

Moll certainly did not lead an ordinary life, nor was her life an easy one. She was dealt a sorry hand, having been born to a criminal in prison. Her mother was subsequently deported to that prison colony called America, and Moll goes to live with a wealthy family as a servant. So far, so good. A rough start, but an opportunity to benefit from being in a wealthy household. As she serves the family, she sits in on French lessons, dancing lessons, music lessons, picking it all up as well as the children of the household. Favored by the family, she could have let them lead her into a pretty respectable life. In fact, one of the sons falls in love with her and wants to marry her. Problem is, she has already been "acting as if married" with another brother. Thus begins her series of bad choices on bad choices that she follows through her life. For the 21st century reader (or viewer of soap operas) there's nothing particularly new here. I kept looking for some good plot development or moral lessons, but didn't find it. I want to wish her a good life, but she kept exacerbating her situation.

If you want to get a picture of life in England in the early 18th century, and don't mind all the soap opera drama, this will satisfy you. It presents detailed descriptions of domestic life and class relations during that time. You might also find some historical insights, for instance the use of Spanish gold as currency in colonial America. (Shortly after I read this, I listened to a podcast about U.S. monetary policy. The speaker referenced the use of different currencies in colonial times and the early U.S., including Spanish coinage.)

All in all, dull, dull, dull. There have been several movies made of Moll Flanders. Maybe one of them extracted a core of plot and made it more interesting. (Wow. That makes me sound really shallow. Guilty.)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Still reading

I started this blog over 2 years ago, wrote about a few books, then quit. I've read lots of books since then. I may not have a lot to say, but I'll start saying something here, again. Like I wrote in my first post, my interests range pretty widely, so there's no telling what will end up here. I am a Christian, a dad, a libertarian, a former teacher, a financial professional, a seminary graduate, and a lover of a good story. Much of what I read is somehow connected to one or more of those categories, but not necessarily. Enjoy!