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Lost Children: The Story of Adopted Children Searching for their Mothers 
by Polly Toynbee.
Hutchinson, 288 pp., £9.95, August 1985, 0 09 160440 0
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In Lost Children Polly Toynbee has, for reasons she never makes clear, interviewed many – she does not say how many – adopted children who, after the Children’s Act of 1975 was passed, set out in search of their biological parents. Her book presents us with nine ‘case-studies’ of children who searched for and found their parents, not always with happy results. Whenever possible, she interviewed the biological parent in order to illuminate the reasons why women give children up and the toll this decision takes. Not surprisingly, she has discovered that women who gave their children up did so for good and pressing reasons and that many of them, even if they did not regret the decision, later lived with a feeling of loss. She also discovered that adopted children who searched for their biological parents had not, generally, been happy in their adoptive homes, and even those who had been happily placed had strong fantasies about who their natural mothers were and what they were like.

Is there anything in this that we do not already know? The family’s purpose is to raise children, and although it is to this task that parents devote most of their energies and ambitions for almost two decades, many children end by believing their parents have failed them, just as many parents believe they have failed their children. In literature as in life, Polly Toynbee notes, parents receive a pretty poor press from their children. Why, then, should she conclude that adopted children are particularly victimised by adoptive parents, when, listening to children complain about their childhood, we would be justified in concluding that all children would be better-off raised by creatures not of the human race: for example, storks.

Polly Toynbee, however, believes that all adopted children suffer from an unusually weak sense of identity. ‘The idea of the importance of blood ties and genes is common to most people,’ she says, ‘and they feel profoundly deracinated if brought up with no knowledge of their blood origins.’ If it is true that adopted children are destined to wander through life seeking themselves (like Oedipus, ‘that poor incestuous parricide’, who ‘might have avoided his fate if someone had told him he was adopted’ – as if Oedipus’s argument with Tiresias and the gods, and his punishment, were caused by separation from blood relations), then Polly Toynbee would be doing society a service by calling its attention to this problem. But she does not and cannot establish the validity of her claim by presenting nine interviews, several of them with children who were not adopted at birth. One of the interviewees was never adopted, never knew anything but institutions and foster care, and others were adopted, not at birth, but when they were old enough to retain shadowy memories of actual parents who cared for them before their adoptive parents, for excellent reasons, took charge of their lives. One interviewee insisted that the impact of the biological mother was non-existent: the newborn, she claimed, came complete with his own character and destiny, and nothing parents did, natural or adoptive, affected it. The interviews presented in Lost Children are too sparse and too equivocal to establish the premise that adopted children suffer a severe loss of identity.

This does not, however, deter Polly Toynbee from recommending that Britain, America, and all countries which permit an adoption order to sever the biological mother from its child, should abandon their current practices and institute forthwith ‘open adoption’ or ‘custodianship’:

Is eliminating the natural mother really in the child’s best interest? It would seem to me healthier for an adopted child to be brought up more like the child of a divorce. Unhappy circumstances have forced upon him a complicated family life – but it is not made easier by artificially cutting away part of that complexity. Just as in divorce, it does not help a child to lose his non-custodial parent, however difficult and painful visits might be, so I doubt whether an adopted child’s life is made easier or better by obliterating his parents and his roots. Wherever possible, the adopted child should keep some contact with his own mother. He should know exactly who she is, in order to know exactly who he is himself.

In other words, adoptive parents should not only be prepared to take in a child, newborn or otherwise, but should also be prepared to take in his natural mother, and presumably his natural father (should he be around), and, by extension, any and all relations of the natural mother. As Polly Toynbee admits, this ‘would be asking a great deal of adopters’. But ‘if it were standard practice, and an automatic precondition for embarking on adoption, I doubt whether many adopters would shrink from the task. After all, there is an acute scarcity of healthy, newborn babies, and those adopters who succeed in being chosen to take one of them know themselves to be extremely fortunate.’ To put it another way, if adopters were blackmailed by adoption agencies, told they either took the child and its friends and relations or no child at all, they would agree to the condition. This seems likely, since barren couples, so desperately anxious to have children, pay other women to bear babies for them, pay lawyers exorbitant sums (in America, one hundred thousand dollars is not unheard of), and import babies from South America and Third World countries. What seems incontestable is that childless couples will do almost anything to provide themselves with a child.

In practice, what would ‘open adoption’ or ‘custodianship’ mean? It would, she admits, make the life of the adopted child and his adoptive parents more complicated: ‘No one would choose to complicate a child’s life unnecessarily. But like the children of divorce, death or other disaster, those children have no perfect option open to them. They have two identities, and it is not helpful to them to attempt to cover up the problem.’ The purpose of the law of the land is generally considered to be the minimising of conflict, the maintenance of law and order. The breakdown in the stability of the ‘traditional’ family has led, as everyone knows, to acrimonious custody battles, to the kidnapping of children by the parent who does not have custody (and, in some cases, by grandparents who decide that neither parent is fit); and has caused fantastic wear and tear on the children. It is not difficult to imagine the possible disputes if the biological mother and the adoptive mother were both active in the same child’s life. One of the ‘lost children’ Polly Toynbee interviewed was the daughter of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in England, and the subject of the recent film, Dance with a Stranger: it is interesting to contemplate what would have happened had Ruth Ellis been pardoned, and then become part of her daughter’s adopted family. Polly Toynbee repeatedly mentions the prejudice, within families and in the community at large, against adopted children, who are regarded as somehow inferior to ‘natural’ children, and she considers this prejudice unfortunate – although she also seems to share it. In the light of this, imagine the difficulty the adoptive family would have in explaining the ‘natural’ mother’s presence to its neighbours. Imagine the heartbreak such a family would suffer in seeing its adopted child identified as the child of a murderess. It is even harder to imagine what the child, identified as the daughter of a notorious woman and as the daughter of an adoptive mother, would make of herself and the world around her. But these complexities are, according to Polly Toynbee, worth it. And one may well wonder why, especially since she herself repeatedly points out that biological parents can rarely bring themselves to say a good word about adoptive parents, whom they regard as ‘predators’ and ‘interlopers’, while adoptive parents have a natural and understandable fear of the biological parent who might easily decide to ‘reclaim’ the child she has given away. Psychologically, biological and adoptive parent seem to be natural enemies. They are fighting over the same prize: the one child. The child, moreover, soon learns how to terrorise its adoptive mother by saying how well it knows that its biological mother would never have punished it, that its biological mother would allow it to stay out late at night.

Polly Toynbee pays lip service to the notion that adoptive parents, like biological parents, need the security of the absolute decree to allow them to bring up their children effectively. But how secure would those parents be if the natural mother was not only a spectre who might reappear, but was actively involved in undermining the adoptive parents’ authority? And this is not unlikely, since, as Toynbee also tells us, many biological parents live to regret their decision to give up their child. And if they were sufficiently unhappy about that decision, would they be able to resist the temptation to seduce the child from its adoptive parents? Wouldn’t society then be flooded, not only by a rash of kidnappings, but a new kind of suit for alienation of affections? Toynbee tells us that disputes which did arise could easily be settled by the courts, their injunctions and restraining orders, or by the adoption agency itself. Is this a cheery prospect? And what about the recommendations of child analysts, the most famous of whom are British? According to D.W. Winnicott, Anna Freud and Melanie Klein, what infants need most is one figure with whom they bond. In the absence of what is often called ‘the primary maternal figure’, the child develops no stable sense of identity, or no identity at all, and in extreme cases can slide into psychosis and even death. In the face of the chaos likely to be generated by open adoption or custodianship, the ‘imperfect solution’ of adoption seems not so imperfect after all.

What is good for a newborn child is not necessarily good for an eight-year-old, an adolescent, or a child who has grown to adulthood. While a grown child might want to meet his biological mother, and might then be capable of making a sensible decision about what is good for him, an infant cannot do this. Important decisions must be made for him. The Children’s Act gave children access to information about their biological parents, but not before they reached 18. Children have been a documented source of confusion since King Solomon. We know that parents, from Biblical times onward, have not been good at sharing their children. It is always possible that society will change and that parents will cease to see their children as belonging exclusively to them. As it is, a family regards itself as an impregnable unit – stepmothers, stepfathers and all other intruders have been malign figures since the advent of the fairytale. Even a grandmother or grandfather or an in-law can become ‘foreign’ or ‘alien’ in relation to the primary family structure. People may argue that children should not be seen as chattels owned by their parents, but parents will continue to regard their offspring as uniquely and irrevocably theirs. And perhaps parents need to believe this before they can sacrifice so much of their own lives to rearing their children. Family relationships, as we now know them, seem to flourish on exclusivity. Husbands and wives resist intruders. In-laws, ex-husbands and wives are never easily accommodated by the married couple.

The notion of ‘blood ties’, ‘heredity’, ‘genes’, ‘natural mothers’ (whose logical antithesis would appear to be ‘unnatural mothers’), is insistently present in the book. Why are adopted children ‘lost children’? If they are lost, then they need to be found, and here they are only found when reunited with their biological mothers. Adopted children have ‘strange beginnings, unnatural and abrupt’. In her ‘Conclusions’, Toynbee slates that all adopted children thought of blood as important. ‘Kith and kin, clan and ancestors matter.’ It is evident that she does not believe adoption can ever form as strong a bond as blood kinship. ‘The evidence in the animal kingdom,’ she says,

suggests that adoption of alien offspring with alien genes is virtually unknown. A male gorilla acquiring a new female into his group will automatically kill off her offspring by a previous male. A lion acquiring a new pride will kill off all the young progeny of a previous male. The instinct appears to be to multiply your own genes, not someone else’s.

This argument from nature is, as she admits, ‘crude’ and perhaps ‘irrelevant’. But, like the lawyer who introduces evidence he knows will be disallowed so that the jury will hear it and be influenced by it, she goes on to say: ‘A sense of alien, different, foreign, unknown blood and genes may not ever be totally obliterated from the relationship between new parents and child.’

Does the adoptive parent remain haunted by the fear that alien genes are about to surface in her adopted child? According to Polly Toynbee, on the basis of no evidence at all, she does. She would, she says, be suspicious of any adoptive parent who was reluctant to meet the child’s natural mother, because such a reluctance would hide a fear of the dangerous, alien genes which so preoccupy her. ‘With a child of your own, for better or worse, it is of your own making, your own flesh and blood ... But the adopted child has unknown blood, unknown genes. If in adolescence it seems to turn for a while, like children can, into some alien monster, then adoptive parents can choose to think they have been saddled with a cuckoo in their nest, a Rosemary’s baby, a Heathcliff. The glue that binds them to their child may be in greater danger of coming unstuck.’ A Rosemary’s baby! A Heathcliffe! We are no longer dealing with the imagined prejudices of adopters, but with those of the author. Thus, while she can observe that adopted children are not really in search of their natural parents, but, like all children, natural or adopted, are ‘looking for our mother of myth and fairy-tale, the mother of all religions, Our Lady, Mother Earth, every unfulfilled wish’, she is paying this idea lip service only. Her sympathy is clearly with the blood mother, the legitimate mother, the mother who is stuck to her child with a glue that cannot become unstuck.

Underlying everything Toynbee writes is a sense of the importance of blood lines, lineage, genes, the legitimate heir. In a class-conscious society, this is not surprising, even if it is unpleasant. From what she tells us, this prejudice affects adoption agencies. On the one hand, they tell adoptive mothers to look on themselves as if they were pregnant from the moment they apply, and then to think of themselves as having miscarried if their application does not succeed. On the other hand, they insist the parents tell the child of his roots, show him a picture of his natural mother and meet the natural mother herself, so that they will not so easily ‘delude themselves that this child was their own.’ Regardless of what the agency thinks is best, once the child is placed the adoptive parents can ‘pretend’ the child is their own and, in Polly Toynbee’s patronising words, are then ‘entirely free to simulate natural parenting as best they can’. This emphasis on the blood tie strikes me as bizarre. What does she make of the marriage tie? Those who enter into marriage must not be closely related by blood, yet the relationship between husband and wife has always been considered no less sacred, and no less enduring, than the relationship between parent and child.

Polly Toynbee’s language everywhere reveals her prejudice against the phenomenon of adoption. ‘Luckily’, she says, the number of adoptable children is decreasing. ‘Unluckily’, there will always be children who need to be adopted. If adopted children have particularly vivid fantasies about who their ‘real’ parents are (and she admits that all children at one time or another believe their biological parents are not their ‘real’ ones), then the fantasies ought to be dealt with, not gratified. All children have incestuous fantasies: society has not yet seen fit to deal with such fantasies by indulging them. There is enough evidence in Lost Children to indicate that children may really be lost if they do, in fact, find their biological parents. One finds Ruth Ellis. Another finds her mother a hopeless derelict. Yet another finds a mother who stubbornly refuses to have anything to do with him. Many of the discoveries charted in this book are disastrous, and a different author would have drawn very different conclusions from the evidence assembled here. At best, Lost Children will stimulate further thought and discussion. At worst, it will reinforce prejudice against adopted families and their children, and upset those families who rightly see its ‘conclusions’ as threatening the stability of their lives. ‘Open adoption’ or ‘custodianship’ does not seem to be an idea whose time has come.

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Vol. 8 No. 1 · 23 January 1986

SIR: In her temperate review of Lost Children (LRB, 5 December 1985) Susan Fromberg Schaeffer rightly points up Polly Toynbee’s bizarre respect for the ‘blood ties’ of adopted children with their natural parents: these are supposedly so strong that ‘open adoption’ should become law, a state in which the lost parent becomes a regular presence in the life of the adopting family. The idea is, of course, nonsense, but also magic, a spell to bestow mystique on the conception of family life which Polly Toynbee regards as normal, if painful. Her norm in this case is the family afflicted by divorce, that ‘complicated life’, she calls it, which she cruelly wishes upon adoptive parents and adopted children. She is campaigning for membership, enforced by law, of the Guardian ethical constituency.

Ian MacKillop
Department of English Literature, University of Sheffield

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