Adoption: How I lost my little sister
Adoption is a tricky business, as Michael Bywater knows only too well – and the signing of the papers is no guarantee of a happy ending
I had forgotten how well I remembered her. But I hadn't forgotten her. It was, naturally, a shrink who brought it all back and put it in perspective. A rather good shrink: the psychoanalyst Susie Orbach. She did it for free. In public. On the radio. A discussion programme about sibling relationships, chaired by Laurie Taylor. I talked a bit about how I'd never really properly invested, on an emotional level, in my relationships with my sister or indeed, come to that, my parents. Or my family in general.
"You should come and consult me professionally," said Susie; "get to the bottom of it. I mean, if you mind about it, of course."
If I mind about it. Christ. I remember once on the Provençal terrace of a friend's house, bathed in the smell of the lavender – and melon-fields, towards twilight, after dinner. A fellow guest said that she supposed it was always a comfort to know that, if things got really bad and everything went wrong and she failed utterly and the world turned against her, she could always go home and they'd be pleased to see her and would comfort her and tuck her up and it would be all right again. And I thought: what on earth is she talking about? For me, it was quite the opposite. It was closer to Lady Thatcher's definition: "Home is where you go and they have to take you in." Have to. But not necessarily want to. In the end, I realised I was wrong. But it had always felt as if home was where you went when there was no chink in your armour, when there were no lapses or guilty secrets, no failures or defaults, nobody cross with you or out to get you. Home was where, if the secret police rang the bell, they'd lock the back door to prevent you getting away. Home was profoundly unsafe.
Then Orbach said something – I don't remember what – and I remembered my memories. I remembered the first time I saw her – this was in the late 1950s. I remembered her dark hair, her deep brown eyes, her watchful stillness, her intelligent gaze. I remembered that when she looked at me for the first time, she smiled. I remembered something like falling in love.
"I had another sister once," I said. "They sent her back."
For once, the studio – normally a civil sort of a bear-pit, everyone anxious to say their piece – fell silent.
"I was ... three and a half? Four? They adopted a baby. I remember her name. Beverley Henderson. 'This is your new sister,' they said. And then after a few weeks – I don't know how long in reality – she was gone. They sent her back. I never saw her again."
After the broadcast, walking to the lifts, Susie Orbach said: "You know what I said about coming to see me? Forget it. We've got to the bottom of it, on-air. No wonder. What a thing to do to a child."
"Send her back?" I said.
"No. She was probably fine. I mean to you. To give you the idea that it could happen to you, too. That you could be sent back. For no reason. Just ... sent back."
There was no reason, either. None that I could ever find out, once I had remembered it all. After my mother died, I asked my father. "I never got to the bottom of it," he said. "but I think it was because Mummy thought people would realise it wasn't her own baby. She was very dark."
The dark hair. The dark eyes. The locus of this infant's beauty and the source of her rejection? Absurd; yet not absurd to think that that would seem reasonable to my mother who was, bless her, afraid of so much. Afraid, particularly, of being found out. Found out in what? Your guess is as good as mine. Just as she was ashamed, though of what I don't know and never will. Yet her shoulders, designed as far as I can tell centuries back in some poxy shtetl to carry the burdens of the world, had devolved into a huge support system for her chips. I'll never know what was going on in her mind. I don't think she ever did, either. But she sent my dark sister back.
"Maybe," said Dad, "she just didn't bond. So it's probably for the best. I mean, how would it be if you kept a child you didn't bond with?"
My mother: clearly intended to have at least eight children, but couldn't. And when they find one needing a home, needing a mother, she couldn't bond with it, or was afraid, or ashamed, and quite possibly – it was another of her major emotions – cross. But my father was right. It probably was for the best. Adoption's a tricky business and though the adoption services, all those charities and agencies and nuns and social workers, all well-meaning, all claim every story is different, some patterns emerge if you can winkle them out of the keepers of the statistics.
Seven-year-old Justin Hansen, in the news earlier this year when he was sent back alone to Moscow from his "adoptive" home in the USA – returned to sender with a letter in his pocket – may well have been the victim of what Russia said was "a monstrous deed", but, like the wedding-bells in the romantic comedy, the signing of the papers is not a happy ending but a beginning which can go either way, or any way in between. According to the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), only 4 per cent of the 60,900 children in care last year were adopted, at an average age of 3 years, 9 months. The younger the child, the greater the chances of the adoption "succeeding", yet the national average shows that 20 per cent of adoptions fail. The Baaf says that the process parents go through after a failed adoption is like grief.
Working out the human consequences of all this is harder. Agencies can be opaque, defensive, reluctant to discuss anything at all. And records are a disgrace; only 92 out of the 450 local authorities in the UK kept records, and they showed that the number of children sent back into care has doubled in the last five years. (Curiously, while it's illegal to take a child's ethnicity into account in the US, it's a major factor in the UK. They don't seem to have got as far as hair or eye colour matching yet, but who knows?)
Why adoptions fail is an agonising species of human diversity. From my mother sending back an infant because she was frightened of being ashamed of being found out, to Justin Hansen's adoptive parents, frightened that he was violent enough to burn the house down, as he allegedly threatened, the spectrum is as wide as a rainbow but grey all the way. Justin told of beatings and violence in the Russian orphanage; Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kids Company, a charity working with "lone" children, speaks of the result of childhoods lived where fear and high arousal are the norm, and the effect on their subsequent neurochemistry; psychologists pinpoint poor development of the prefrontal cortex in neglected or abused children, leading to problems with loving and being loved, with discipline and empathy and attachment.
Yet none of this applied in the case of my sent-back sister. And little if anything is written about the effect on the pre-existing child, as I was. My father said: "But you were only a toddler yourself; we imagined you wouldn't even notice." But I did notice, and – glib though this may seem – I can trace so many aspects of my own behaviour which puzzle or sadden me to the moment when Beverley was sent back. My strange tendency to acquire and collect and personify and care for – fret over – small things: pens, shaving brushes, hats, little things. Bags. And any Freudian could tell you what an attachment to bags mean. My favourite is named Bungo. Perhaps giving things names is giving them a sort of autonomy and therefore safety. Bungo has an entitlement to his place in the world that just an ordinary Mulberry leather laptop bag lacks. And that I lack, too. But I carry Bungo at a cost: the despair which I first project, then empathise with, on to the others, left behind, unused, unwanted, unloved. Choice, for as long as I can recall, has been agony. To my utter perplexity, I endow inanimate things with feelings. Selecting one pair of socks over another in Marks & Spencer is almost impossible; how will the rejected pair feel?
By the same token, find something I like and one is never enough. I need two, three, five, all of them. If I have all of them then I will never be without one and finally, maybe, I will be safe.
Perplexing, too, my equally strange inability after all these years on the planet to attach myself to big things: houses, cars, position in the world. My remarkable – even to me – lack of a sense of entitlement. To what? To anything. My fear of becoming part of any group. My failure to invest any emotion, for many many years, in my own sister, Jane, born a little under two years after The Sending-Back. (And why? If one could be sent back, so could another.) My sense that I needed to be invulnerable before I could go home; my sense of double jeopardy: trouble in the outside world meant trouble at home. No safe haven. My position secured by in some way measuring up, not by entitlement.
In short, I think I spent most of my life afraid that I too would be sent back into some unknown exile; that one day I would do something which would cause me to vanish. Does that sound like melodramatic psychobabble to you? It does to me, too, yet it is so persuasive a mechanism for all those things that perplex me, in my sixth decade, about my own life that to ignore it would be idiotic.
Readers of the Justin tale on the BBC website run across the spectrum. There's the inevitable smattering of admonitory finger-wagging from the sanctimonious, the inevitable railing against "so-called experts" by so-called people; the inevitable person claiming to "struggle to understand why anyone could hand back a child", which inevitably really means "have made no attempt to understand"; and two accounts, from adoptive parents and an adopted son, one saying "there is no harder job than caring for a troubled child in your own home", the other saying that though she had been "very lucky in my upbringing", all the same "the emotional trauma is for life".
My own troubles are trivial compared with others. A writer on the Liberian Journal website tells of his own experience of the "dark side of adoption" where two adopted brothers were locked outside and neglected when, as often seems to happen, two biological children followed. "The oldest brother finally relieved his pain by committing suicide in his mid-twenties."
Reactive attachment disorder is a sequel of untreated emotional trauma. It's usually associated with violence; I am an unviolent man (and afraid of confrontation; perhaps that's why I chose my trade, hiding behind the parapet to throw my rotten fruit) but it seems to me that a sort of attachment disorder has pursued me all my life, and that it is reactive – a reaction to The Sending-Back – I have little or no doubt.
I don't know where Beverley is now. Perhaps she's not even called that any more. I wish her well. Animus against my mother? No; poor woman, she was trying to do her best against her own fears and insecurities. Against my father, for being weak? No; he wanted to be a good boy all his life, and so he was; just that sometimes the unforeseen (and unforeseeable) consequences could be harsh. Anger about my own situation? Certainly not. It happened. It was a tiny thing with massive fallout and who could have predicted it? My biggest regret is that I in my turn rejected my own sister for so many years when she had done nothing to deserve it.
But life is a process whereby nobody deserves what they get, any more than they get what they deserve. Glib? Yes. But there are no conclusions which aren't. Except that my daughter, knowing little or none of this, this year started a charity, the Safe Haven Children's Trust, to help care for the lost ones in Cambodia.
Sometimes the wheel does come full circle in a way we least expect.
Yet I still remember the first time I saw her.