Orphanhood is not a simple concept. When parents adopt a child, they do their best to shield him or her from ever sensing that feeling. When you’re adopted by good, loving parents (as Bruce and Ellen Biddle adopted me), you learn early on that you were chosen, that you are special.
Still, feeling special is also part of the problem. At their cores, all adoptees are orphans. This is such a primal feeling and so closely held, so secretly self-defining, that even now, eight years after finding my loving birthmother (whom I call Mom), I can’t get beyond feeling alone in the world and different from everyone around me.
And, yet, orphanhood gives adoptees a strange power, too. The fact that we have been adopted means nothing if we aren’t also willing to adopt the family who adopted us—and to choose the particular life situation we find ourselves in.
We are powerful from the moment we understand that we are adopted. We are independent beings far too soon in life. But that independence gives us a kind of grace and intensity of feeling, as we affirm and establish daily, over and over, our connection to the world that has taken us in.
This premature ability of orphans to create their own identities and connections in the world is not lost on our culture. In some ways, it’s a major motif. Many of the great characters of the past two hundred years—Oliver Twist, Clark Kent, Tom Sawyer, Pippi Longstocking, Harry Potter, Annie—are parentless.
In one sense, adoptees are the ultimate recycled product. But, in another way, we are the least recycled. We are required to stand on our own—even if we don’t know that’s what we’re doing—and from within that solitude, we reach out, understanding that we have no choice but to define ourselves.
2 months ago