Sometimes a Fatal Quest... Losses in Adoption
The quintessential adoptee, to quote an adoptee friend of mine, author/ psychologist Betty Jean Lifton (1988), was Oedipus. Had Freud been an adoptee, he would have known that the pivotal issues in Oedipus' complex were abandonment and loss, a need to reconnect with genetic roots and buried, dissociated adoptee rage.
Oedipus' search for his past evolved into a fatal quest, in large part, because he was not told the facts of his birth that Laius, not Polybus, was his biologic father and Jocasta his birth mother. He had voyaged to Delphi to seek the truth from the Oracle, but was rewarded only with a cryptic message, that if he returned to his own land he would kill his father and marry his mother. The fact that he had been adopted by Polybus after being abandoned by Laius was kept from him, as the truth of their birth is often kept from most adoptees. The consequence was parricide and incest. We are left to consider the possibility that on a deeply unconscious level, Oedipus knew exactly what he was doing when he killed his father and took his mother to the marital bed: he was both taking revenge for having been abandoned as an infant and reconnecting with his genetic past.
Abandonment and loss are core issues in adoption. Loss of the birth mother is a primal wound, says adoptive mother/author Nancy Verrier (1993), likely no less profound than loss of significant relationships through death, separation or divorce. In adoption, however, there is also a loss of origins, loss of identity and loss of a completed sense of self. All members of the adoption triad experience profound loss. Birth parents lose their children, adoptive parents lose their dream of a child they wanted to conceive, and adoptees lose their birth families. Unlike other situations of traumatic loss, the adoptee's need to grieve is too often not validated by society, or understood by the adoptive family.
Speaking of adoption loss, Jean Paton, the grandmother of adoption reform (Paton, 1968) wrote me, when she was age 82:
I believe that there are two traumas in the average adoption life history. One relates to the rejections one has received in the search. The other seems to come from nowhere else except the separation trauma, from the birthmother. It lies so deep that one is lucky if it comes to life and can be unearthed.
If loss is not recognized, how can grieving and healing take place? It is only when the losses of adoption are addressed, that the gains of adoption can be more fully realized. Kubler-Ross (1997) has identified five stages that are worked-through in normal grief and mourning. Recognizing these stages of grief can reassure adoption triad members that they are experiencing appropriate feelings, even though grieving in adoption is different in some distinct ways from mourning a death: With death, there is at least a concrete ending that initiates the rituals of grieving. In adoption, there is no death, and no clear ending, but rather a kind of limbo, which has been described as similar to mourning a loved one who is missing in action.
In a landmark double murder case in 1986, 1 testified for the defense that 14-year-old Patrick DeGelleke had killed his adoptive parents (by setting their bed afire) as he felt that only by their dying could he be freed to search for and find his birth mother. When I suggested to Patrick that his birth mother, Barbara, might not be alive, his response was "but if I found out for sure that she was dead, at least then I could see her grave." Young Patrick, incidentally, was obsessed with fire, and with the story of the Phoenix, the mythical bird that is consumed by fire, but is reborn and rises in beauty from its own ashes. Patrick acted-out his festering adoption issues, but many adopted children internalize their pain and curiosity, rather than hurting the adoptive parents' feelings, or risking another feared rejection. Consequently, it is not uncommon for adoptees to remain stuck at the first stage of grieving, denial, or the second stage, anger, or the fourth stage, depression.
Adoption loss has been described as the only trauma in the world where the victims are expected by the whole of society to be grateful. Psychologist/author Betty Jean Lifton, a mother figure of adoption reform, has called the secrecy based adoption system, "the game of as if." She wrote:
Everyone pretends as if the adoptee belongs to the family raising him or her ... The adopted parents embrace the child as if it were their own blood and ask the child to live as if this were true ... Inherent in this process is the expectation that the child regard the birth parents as if dead, if not literally, then certainly symbolically.
(Lifton 1988, P. 14)
Many adoptees, in fact, have even been told the lie that their birth mother was dead. One notorious/high-profile example of this kind of lie was David Berkowitz, the so-called "Son of Sam" serial killer, who terrorized New York City in the 1970s by shooting and killing young women in parked cars. Berkowitz, always told the lie that his biologic mother had died giving birth to him, nonetheless searched for and found her alive. She did not measure up to his idealized fantasy image. When he met her, she introduced him to a half-sister he never knew existed, whom she had kept, while giving him up for adoption. Shortly after this ill-fated reunion, the killing spree began, in the same section of New York City, the borough of Queens, where he had met his birth mother and sister. I speculated then (1975) that he was repetitively killing young women in mating situations to prevent other unwanted little David Berkowitzes from being conceived in parked cars and later abandoned, as he fantasized that he had been.
There is little doubt that adoption at its roots was meant to exist on a base of death and rebirth, writes adoption-activist Shea Grimm (2002). The adoptee was, and is, meant to be reborn (into the adoptive family) as if they are dead to their birth family, and the biologic family is dead to them. This concept is echoed in state adoption laws and court rulings, perpetuating the deep-seated notion that death and rebirth is intrinsic to adoption, and so a system of sealed records, falsified birth certificates, secrets and lies evolved to facilitate this process. Consequently in adoption, there is too often no acknowledged grief, no meaningful mourning, and no closure. Just a festering wound that cries out to be healed, so that the adoptee can truly bond, give and receive love, have a solid sense of self and identity, and not get stuck in pathological grief and unrealistic fantasies (of birth parents) that may last a lifetime.
There should/can be a rebirth/transformative experience in adoptees, but this is possible only in a climate of openness, honesty and validation that allows for grieving first. Where there is a failure to mourn, there will be a failure to bond.
Recent trends toward more honesty and openness in adoption, and increasing acceptance of the need of some adoptees to search (for their birth parents), has resulted in new beginnings and transformative experiences, in many adoptive families. Yet original birth records remain sealed in all but five of the fifty US states. Most adoptees continue to be frustrated and blocked in their search for information, closure and/or hope for a reunion with birth parents.
Since the early 1960s, I have seen hundreds of adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth mothers in psychoanalytic therapy. Since 1986 I have testified as a forensic psychologist in mom than twenty cases of adoptees who have killed (usually parricides, but also serial killers and killers of strangers) around the United States. I have repeatedly emphasized (Kirschner, 1980, 1988, 1990, 2006) that the vast majority of adopted children grow up to be psychologically healthy, productive, law-abiding citizens. I have also said (Kirschner, 1992, 1993, 1995, 2006) that there is a spectrum of adoption related issues/problems ranging from the essentially "normal" ones that most adoptees present and resolve to ego "splitting" or dissociative disorders (Kirschner and Nagel, 1996) for which only a small subgroup of adoptees at the extreme end of the spectrum are at risk. While it is just a small percent who are prone to commit violent crimes, we should pay attention to this group for, as criminologists Jack Levin and James Alan Fox (1985), Ken Magid (1988), and Joel Norris (1989) point out, adoptees are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and adopted serial killers have become household names.
Despite a wealth of clinical data and many replicated studies, with consensual validation among most mental health professionals in the adoption field indicating that adoptees are at greater psychological risk (Steed, 1989), them is still controversy about whether or not children of adoption are more vulnerable/at risk for emotional problems. Authors such as adoptive parent Elizabeth Bartholet (1993), adoptive father/sociologist William Feigelman (1986), adoptive mother Florence Klagsbrun (1986), and adoption agency lobbyist William Pierce (1990) all argue/maintain that adoptees are not any more prone to suffer from emotional/psychiatric problems than non-adopted individuals.
Adoption per se does not necessarily give rise to psychopathology. It must, however, be considered a risk factor, perhaps a precipitating one, in some families that are dysfunctional in terms of core adoption issues and parent-child interactions. Fortunately, not one of the hundreds of adoptees treated in my practice has ever killed anyone (thank G-d), though they all presented issues of loss, identity, anger/rage, etc., similar in kind, if not degree, to the twenty forensic cases who did act out in homicidal violence. What differentiates the few who kill from the vast majority of adoptees who work-through their issues of loss, abandonment, and identity and go on to lead productive lives? Why in these extreme cases is there pathological mourning, and an ultimately Fatal Quest instead of the healing,transformation, and new beginning that is often seen so dramatically, especially in the psychoanalytic treatment of adoptees? What can be learned from these cases at the extreme end of a spectrum?
For one thing, almost all of the twenty adopted killers whom I have seen had been in therapy (in childhood and adolescence), often with a number of different therapists, but the adoption issues were left virtually untouched in their treatment, and their therapists were not psychoanalytically oriented. Many therapists tend to minimize adoption as an issue in child and adolescent treatment. They often unwittingly enter into a folie a trois with the parents and adoption agency in which the adoptive family is viewed as being no different from birth families. Sociologist and adoptive father David Kirk (1964) believes this "denial of difference" as opposed to a realistic "acknowledgment of difference" is key to parenting emotionally healthy, adopted children. Therapists should also be aware that the transference of adopted children is quite special, and arises from the distorted parental images of many adoptees. The therapist may come to represent the birth parents and the patient may be intensely ambivalent, feeling both a strong need for attachment and a powerful fear of rejection. He or she will invariably attempt to sabotage the treatment. Adoption-sensitive, analytically trained therapists are best equipped to deal with this resistance.
My review of extensive treatment notes and reports on the twenty adoptees who killed suggests that their treatment was not adoption-sensitive, and did not focus on these issues. Almost all of them, as teenagers or young adults, had attempted to search for their birth mothers, but were blocked (by a closed adoption system) in this quest. Ironically many did have reunions in prison, as defense attorneys or investigators were able to find information on birth families in almost every case. In my opinion, had they been raised with openness and honesty; had their treatment been with therapists who were sensitive to adoption issues; and if they had been able to find their birth mothers prior to the events (the Son of Sam case notwithstanding), the killings would never have occurred.
This is not to say that reunions are always wonderful. Usually they do not result in long-term, close relationships. Reunion with the birth mother does, however, bring the adoptee back to the primal trauma. Revisiting this trauma, filling in the gaps and testing reality, no matter how unpleasant or painful, is often a major step in the healing process. In every case of the adoptees who killed, split fantasies of all-good or all-bad parent figures, dissociated adoptee rage, and the acting-out of an unconscious compulsion to repeat, was at the heart of the deed.
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud (1920) describes cases where patients display an unconscious need to recreate and repeat the primal traumas of their childhood, in successive relationships. He states, "There really does exist in the mind a compulsion to repeat which overrides the pleasure principle ... and this compulsion to repeat is part of the death instinct" (p. 24). Nowhere, in my opinion, is the connection between traumatic loss, pathologic grieving, the death instinct and repetition compulsion more dramatic than in cases of adoptees who kill.
For example, in 1989 1 examined then 45-year-old Steve Catlin, accused of killing his fourth and fifth wives, as well as his adoptive mother, with paraquat poison. Steve's third wife, Edith Ballew, raised suspicion about the deaths. The bodies were exhumed, traces of poison were found. I was called in to see if adoption issues could explain Steve's motivation and mitigate against the death penalty. When I evaluated him in prison in Bakersfield, California, I asked how he felt about being adopted. Steve, a macho kind of guy, started crying and said, "I can't believe you're asking me that. No one ever asked me how I felt about adoption before." When questioned what he had been told about his birth parents, Steve said that his biologic father was a Royal Air Force pilot during World War II who met his mother while training in the United States. He fell in love with her, went back to war, and was killed in the Battle of Britain. His birth mother, so he was told, upon learning of her lover's death, committed suicide by poisoning herself. I asked Steve whether be believed this story. He answered, looking me straight in the eye, "Ma Catlin would never tell a lie." But Steve poisoned Ma Catlin, his adoptive mother. Subsequent investigation revealed that the entire story was a fabrication. His birth mother had not poisoned herself. She was, in fact, still alive. Three other women were dead , however, poisoned by Steve who, I'm convinced, was in the throes of a fatal quest, a need to revisit his primal trauma, repetitively killing symbolic mother figures, poisoning them as, he believed, his birth mother killed herself when she abandoned him as an infant.
Joel Rifkin, the most prolific serial killer in New York State history (Pulitzer and Swirsky, 1994; Kirschner, 2006), was also on a fatal quest, a pathological search for his birth mother, when he killed seventeen young women in the New York City/Long Island area from 1989 to 1993. Adopted as a newborn, Joel played out his role of the "good adoptee" at home where , adoption was a taboo subject, virtually never discussed, in a family atmosphere of almost total denial. "We never talked about adoption in our family, not even close to really talking about it," Joel said. He spontaneously used the term dissociation to describe his adoptive mother Jeanne's tenacious denial of the importance of his adoption. Even the psychotherapists who treated him in childhood and adolescence (for "dyslexia," would you believe?) sided with this resistance, avoiding discussing adoption. Joel always fantasized about his birth mother and was convinced she was a prostitute (though she wasn't).
My first meeting with Joel was shortly after his arrest in 1993. Over the next twenty months, we met for more than 110 hours in the Nassau County and Suffolk County, Long Island prisons Though he thought of searching for his birth mother when away at college, he never did anything about it because, as he told me, "I didn't want to hurt my parents' feelings." Instead, he carried out this quest pathologically, in the throes of a (bizarre) repetition compulsion. Explaining that he always felt lonely, terribly lonely prior to each killing, and he would then troll for prostitutes, whom he felt a strong bond with, to counter his painful loneliness. Symbolically, even consciously, he identified the women he killed with fantasy images of his birth mother. He had no conscious anger toward them and described only a bond of affection with prostitutes from whom he sought the nurturing love he felt had been denied him. It was in their world that he sensed he belonged, feeling strangely at home. It was for these women, he insisted, that he felt nothing but affection. Though amnesic for the killings (which he called the "events") and what triggered them, Joel had total recall for the "disposals" of his victims, and his bizarre need to first return with the dead bodies intact to their source (where he searched for and found them) before dismembering them. If he did not return with the dead women to the source (scene of his symbolic reunion), he said, their life energy would not stay with him, to nurture him and counter his loneliness. In a tone as rational as a biology professor describing the body's need for nourishment, Rifkin explained that he needed the life-energy of these women - each his symbolic mother -- to survive emotionally, to fill the void and counter the pain that was always inside him. For this energy to nurture him, the women had to be dead first. If they remained alive, he reasoned, the energy would stay with them. In death, their life-energy would be released and absorbed into the body of their killer.
Parke Dietz, the prosecution psychiatrist in Rifkin's only trial, testified that Joel's motive, pure and simple, was "sexual sadism." I submit however, that even if there were elements of sexual sadism in Joel's acts, this did not fully explain his complex motivation. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud (1930) could well have been analyzing Joel Rifkin in writing about the death instinct as follows:
It is in sadism, where the death instinct twists the erotic aim in its own sense and yet at the same time fully satisfies the erotic urge, that we succeed in obtaining the clearest insight into its nature and its relation to Eros. . . . In this way [by destructive behavior] the instinct itself could be pressed into the service of Eros, in that the organism was destroying some other thing, whether animate or inanimate, instead of destroying its own self.
(Freud, 1930, p. 78)
A great value in studying extreme cases, such as these adoptees who kill, is that they can demonstrate in pristine form, issues that may affect other adoptees, on a spectrum ranging from normal/minor to severe/extreme. "The importance to society of future research on this problem (adoptees who kill) is that only by acknowledging that it exists can we obtain the data and understanding to treat, and we may hope, to prevent further tragedies" (National Association of Homes for Children, 1986, p. 6).
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