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On the passing of B.J. Lifton

This is the post I don’t want to have to write.

Roughly two days ago B.J. Lifton passed away.

I’ve been grappling with what to say and how to say it ever since.

More to the point though, I’ve been stewing on this post since the Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture (ASAC) conference last April. Bear with me.

At the time I wrote two posts about the single most pressing aspect of what I saw at the conference (Please read, or re-read them to have context for the rest of this post):

but I alluded to the fact that there was more to it than that, and that I might eventually blog about the other aspect.

Hence this post. That “eventually” is now.

Lets be clear from the outset, this is a post about the pitfalls of hero worship, about cultural aspects that are genuinely standing between Bastards and where we’re trying to go politically, and perhaps most sadly of all, about the tactics so often used against us.

Yes, I’m going to have to write about B.J. to get through to those, but I hope others will be able to hear me in this writing in that what I am a speaking to is a far broader Bastard political critique.

After much thought, early Saturday morning, I wrote a little on my facebook feed, knowing that a number of Bastards and Mothers are my friends there and that they too, were in the process of hearing about and dealing with the news that B. J. Lifton had passed.

My short bit seemed very different than almost anything everyone else was writing.

Marley’s initial post in particular reflected the thinking of a number of Bastards.

We Lose Another One: B J Lifton &

I know that for many, reading B. J.’s writings was the first time they ever saw their hearts reflected on the page. Things so often left unarticulated, B. J. gave voice to, all the more importantly in that she did so at a time when such was all still so very new. She was a pioneer and vitally important to the process for many Bastards. She fought for our rights.

That said, having done so does not put her actions or tactics beyond criticism or political critique.

One can hold whatever feelings they do about someone personally or politically, or even historically without putting them on a pedestal too high to ever evaluate.

The adoptee blogosphere, small fishbowl that it is, is filled with personal remembrances and tributes at the moment, including some from those who didn’t always see eye to eye with her. Mrs. Lifton’s acceptance of and support for “adopted child syndrome” was one of many sticking points for some number of us, and those were certainly discussions if not debates many had with her while she was still alive.

Others of us always took issue with her arguments being predicated upon the idea of open records, search and reunion, etc. as grounded in healing or a quest for wholeness, arguing instead that these were simply human rights, what we did with our records once we had them, or how they made us feel was always in the personal realm and individual not the core argument to be taken before for example, legislators.

We seek equality under law, and at the end of the day no ‘quest for personal wholeness’ is even relevant to that fundamental demand.

As B.J. was a psychologist, these realms were her bread and butter though, and her practice dealt with the emotional aspects of adoption and implications to adoptees. It is little surprise that her adoptee rights work then, was grounded in that professional work.

pentagonUnlike many of us on the adoption pentagon, B.J. occupied multiple points as both an adoptee and a psychological professional in the realm of adoption. As part of that straddling, she had a particular responsibility to be aware of how that played out in her practice and her advocacy, as these points are at times in potential conflict with one another.

There are always potential conflicts of interests at that juncture where one’s loyalties to class Bastard and one’s profession in relation to class Bastard intersect, and sadly that lies at the core of the story I have to tell.

But her passing does mark an end of an era of sorts, and pretty much all adoptee bloggers have something to say about such.

Unfortunately, I do as well, though I truly wish these events had simply never happened.

As I said, I’ve been wrestling with this post, whether or not to even write it, whether gosh darn it, someone else could guest blog it for me, Sadly that would have to be my partner, Mike, (“Sleeps with Bastard”) and while he would no doubt say this more articulately and clearly than I’m capable of doing, in the end, this does come to down to me. (Mike has told me he himself didn’t fully comprehend or have a means of expressing what went down in real time.) I’m the one who directly experienced it, and for whatever value, it is important this be written by a Bastard, not someone else.

So this is clumsy, but conscience demands I at least try, despite the fact that it is all too likely to be misunderstood.

That wordy introduction of a sort out of the way, we come to the events of the ASAC conference last spring.

This was perhaps my primary interaction with B.J. personally, and thus it constitutes much of what I have to go on in terms of my personal opinion.

Yes, I had seen her at various points previous, but what unfolded at the conference is pretty much the only direct interaction I ever really had with her.

I made several mentions at the time of what what happened and how this post I now write was eventually going to have to be written.

First these bits from this post:

One last key point I did not have the opportunity to make in the Q&A session after the video (which I will address in a separate post, as reaction to the propaganda deserves a post all its own)…

I’m getting well ahead of myself, but when I went to the microphone to comment before it became clear that leaving the conference was the only option,…

Sadly, I suppose I may have to write a part II if only to explain my own intentions, and what happened once the presentation ended for those who were not at the conference. It may be some time before I get there though.

And secondly, my vague description of the incident from this post:

It came down to people in the audience to even begin to question aspects of this film.

And in the end, yes, it came down to me personally, to decry the film as “propaganda” and “vile” in the Q & A session.

As I wrote for the about page on my personal Stormcoming blog, speaking of a completely different, non-adoption related context at the time:

“…I’ve never been good at not saying what desperately needs saying when no one else will.”

Maybe I’ll write about the aftermath of my comments at ASAC eventually, maybe I won’t. For now I’ll simply say the response to my comments was both surprising and perfectly predictable.

Surprising, in that to my utter shock, a few people in the audience applauded.

Perfectly predictable, in that after I spoke my POLITICAL analysis of what had just happened, I was accused of being “wounded” and “hurt.” The same old tactics always used to shut down and derail Bastard political criticism.

Once you’re to that point, there’s no point in hanging around. Attempts at rationally discussing the content of the propaganda film had devolved down to personal attack decrying how “wounded” I personally was.

It’s impossible to discuss the actual content of the film in such a context.

When those who dare reject have their political criticism ignored as nothing more than some aspect of being personally broken, said conversation has ended.

I also tweeted briefly at the time:

Baby _Love_Child
I’ve left the ASAC conference. Disgusted. You’d think they know better than to run a propaganda flick about a maternity camp, but no.
30 Apr

Baby _Love_Child
The Belgian film makers denying racism the kids face AFTER one of the kids in the film reported being called “chocolate” & “shit”…
30 Apr

Baby _Love_Child
…among other such egregious examples was simply more bullshit than I was willing to sit there and take. I may blog, I may not…
30 Apr

Baby _Love_Child
But for now I’m headed home. Done accommodating industry crap in spaces I support. Very disappointed to be missing people & sessions…
30 Apr

Baby _Love_Child
But I’m done.
30 Apr

Privately, on my facebook with my friends, I was more explicit about the other, then completely unblogged aspect of what I had experienced at the conference, my political criticism having been dismissed as nothing more than personal “hurt.” Both of these entries are also from the evening of April 29th:

well, it isn’t everyday you get the usual ‘what you say is invalidated because you’re just emotionally broken’ bullshit (that’s constantly used to shut down bastard criticism) by the likes of B.J. Lifton.


then again, the overly emotional bastard is of course what she’s built a career off of.

Therein lay the unstated reality of what had happened at the end of the session just prior to me walking out, B.J. Lifton was the previously unnamed person who had personally (well, as personally as can be in an auditorium filled with the film’s audience) attacked my analysis as nothing more than “wounded” emotionalism.

Obviously, to this day, I had not publicly fleshed out the details of the reaction to my comment in the Q &A, but it has been for several good reasons.

One of which I alluded to at the time in one of my comments to that post:

…this past week had been both profound and a bit of a roller coaster for me personally, yes separate from the conference, yet still in its own way, “adoption related” shall we say.

The other of which being, it was more important to keep the focus on the anti-abortion adoption ministry related propaganda film and ASAC’s decision to run it, than for me to blog about the way B.J. dismissed my critique of it.

But I have always known it was ALSO important to eventually revisit that second aspect as well.

Unfortunately, I never got around to writing the piece while she was still alive.

The showing of that film at the conference led some of us to make our choices.

For me, and several mothers, sitting silently by and watching this pro-maternity camp/anti-abortion/compulsory pregnancy propaganda film and the racist, Bastard denying, pro baby farming comments by the filmmaker  go by without rejecting it, allowing it to go by unquestioned was unconscionable.

Pretending everything was ok was not an option.

And so in the Question and Answer segment some of us took our turns at the microphone and asked our questions and said our piece.

ASAC showed a complete lack of basic awareness of the politics of adoption to screen such an abomination and expect Mothers and Bastards to sit silently by. Those putting on such conferences need to understand that if they genuinely want our participation, they must in turn provide a space that will not subject us to for example, propaganda films praising maternity camps and baby farming operations.

Others in the audience also had their own choices to make.

  • They could sit silently by
  • They could support those who rejected the film and the characterizations by the filmmakers (which a number of people did, by applauding)
  • They could support of the film and filmmakers
  • Or, as B.J. Lifton chose to do, they could attack and dismiss the concerns of those who dared reject

The propagandists and industry didn’t need to champion their own work, as sadly, a fellow adoptee did their dirty work for them.

When that crucial moment of choice came, B.J. chose her loyalty to the theraputic aspect of the adoption industry over the voices of Mothers and a Bastard (who well, happened to be me this time around.)

I can’t call her a fallen hero, as to me, she was never my personal hero, but what I can say is that her actions were a betrayal of those who were standing against the industry in that auditorium.

It was sad to see.

It was also disgusting, in that there was nothing new to what she said. My political criticisms were brushed aside, as merely the ramblings of a “wounded” adoptee lashing out out of some notion of  being “hurt.”

Let’s be clear, it had nothing to do with the substance of what I said, (as she never addressed any of my criticism) nor me personally, considering she and I had never so much as had a previous conversation.

This was a dismissal based purely upon the myth of the “broken adoptee.”

I’ve blogged about similar in relation to Nancy Verrier’s so called “primal wound” psycho-babble and how such is used to derail adoptees politically.

Oddly I find myself unable to take B.J.’s dismissal personally, as there was simply nothing personal about it. It was the one size fits all way to quietly shout down any Bastard who dares question, let alone criticize, let alone decry.

For others, they would take such personally and potentially spend years focusing upon somehow attempting to “fix” their “wounds” rather than focusing upon the systems at work here. Systems that are intrinsic to the very maternity camps in South Africa the propaganda film extolled the virtues of and systems of self blame and recrimination that keep Bastards locked behind concepts like “primal wounds” rather than working politically against the genuine unequal treatment under law Bastards endure.

That is precisely part of what stands between us and where we are trying to go politically.

The professional unnecessary theraputization of adoption,  (including the “attachment therapy“/child torture industry) and on the individual level pathologizing of individual adoptees is ultimately a means of derailing political work and attempting to discredit those doing that work.

When these problems are framed purely in terms of the individual instead of the broader classes of people directly affected, people seek personal solutions, and maintain the illusion that they have authentic control of the situation, delaying if not outright preventing the authentic realization that the sealed records system is not under your individual control and that even if you do manage some form of a “personal solution” work around that gains you your records, hundreds of thousands of other Bastards (if not more)  remain locked within the broader system still unable to access theirs.

Any form of class based empathy demands that “personal solutions” ultimately aren’t.

The negation and betrayal of that broader class is part of the problem.

My point is not that B.J. attacked ME.

My point is that near the end of her life, rather than siding with Mothers and a Bastard who dared speak out against industry propaganda in the somewhat difficult context of an academic conference (hardly a hotbed of rowdy activists!)  she chose to attack those who rejected women’s lack of autonomy and economic circumstances that had led to the loss of their children to adoption.

Her attack had nothing to do with the substance of the objection, it merely consisted of precisely what those joined against us and our interests have always done, it attempted to isolate such to an individual psychological problem” rather than a systemic problem affecting classes of people, (women in particular.)

It would be bad enough had such come from just anyone at the conference, but sadly this is where that hero worship thing kicks in.

For many people, all substance aside, when a “hero” (any known hero figure) speaks out against someone who to many is simply an unknown, detail means nothing, reverence for the hero simply takes precedence, outweighing any validity of the unknown figure’s words.

When movements move from a point of people who are personal heroes to individuals (yet still fully human complete with human failings open to genuine evaluation) on to those simply considered iconic figures/heroes of “the movement” some of that critical thinking can begin to get lost.

The attack didn’t come from just anyone, it came from B.J. and thus carried weight that had  just anyone said the same, it would not have carried.

It was disappointing to see, but hardly unpredictable.

At the time, I was waiting in line for the microphone to ask a follow up question of the filmmaker.

In light of being addressed directly and reduced merely to little more than a cartoonish figure “the wounded adoptee”  I decided I had had enough. I gathered my belongings and with my partner at my side, we walked out, in what I suppose one might characterize as “a huff.”

I was left shaking my head, in both frustration at the stupidity of everything I had just seen and yet practically laughing at the absurdity of the ‘broken adoptee’ tactic coming from another adoptee, as opposed to say, a JCICS spokescritter.

The gut instinct was very much one of “you’ve got to be kidding, right?” I offered up a political critique to be hit with what, this again, HERE?

I vowed I was done supporting conferences that do not support women and Bastards.

No doubt there will be those outraged that I dare put up a post like this, they may loudly exclaim that I’m speaking ill of the dead or slinging mud at “the saint of adoptees.”

To which my answer is simply, the minute we start building people into “saints of adoptees” is the moment they lose their humanity.

One of the key aspects of the history of adoptee rights is that it has been populated by everyday people. Not super-adoptees running around in blue tights and a cape doing things mere mortals can’t.

That sets up a false dichotomy between the heroic unreachables and lowly mere mortals doing the everyday ordinary work of adoptee rights.

Whatever heroes we have, they also belong in the realm of the personal, as that way, any one of us can do that work. Our liberation should not be and cannot be left to some notion of “super-duper adoptees,” some mythical altogether different breed from the rest of us.

Adoptee rights work is the everyday ordinary work of everyday ordinary Bastards and people. It always has been. We call, we write, we volunteer and simply do what needs doing.

When people begin to grant additional weight to the opinions and actions of others because their books were meaningful, or one views them as a hero, it can signal the beginning of the end of careful evaluation and genuinely listening to those who are saying something other than those “heroes.” As that critical thinking slows, we all become the poorer for it.

But sadly, for me at least, some of B.J.’s legacy, even if she were “sainted” would have to be that of a saint of adoption, not adoptees.

At a crucial moment of choice and conscience, the therapeutic end of the adoption industry and the myth of the “broken adoptee” was more important to defend than to join with the very few voices in that room that dared speak out against industry.

I wish I could say otherwise, but regrettably, that is my experience and what I take away from my interaction with her.

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