Taking on the Identities of Others

Lucy Chau Lai-Tuen Sheen, an adoptee born in HongKong, has a poem in Perpetual Child: Dismantling the Stereotype (Adult Adoptee Anthology) called “Musings of a Transracial Adoptee.” She grew up in the sixties in the United Kingdom.

According to the poem, Sheen was Othered and objectified not only by society, but by her adoptive mother, as well.

I was placed upon the school desk as the / subject of “bring and tell”

It was my Adoptive Mother who brought / and placed me upon the desk

This treatment happened in front of 30 white children.

The stripping away of her language, name, heritage, and culture had a profound affect on Sheen. She describes herself as being “like one of those nests of Russian dolls / The difference being there was nothing at my centre / I was empty.”

 

Lucy Chau Lai-Tuen Sheen is a stage and screen actor and has worked alongside some of the British acting greats. In this poem, she makes a connection between her adoption and her career.

I chose a profession where I take on different identities

Speak other people’s words and feel other people’s

emotions

It sounds as if she has spent her life trying on identities to see what fits and as a way to fill that emptiness at the center of her layered identities.

Should I Read The Excerpt in the Anthology or the Whole Book?

A few carefully chosen sections from Catana Tully’s memoir, Split at the Root: A Memoir of Love and Lost Identity, were selected for inclusion in Perpetual Child: Dismantling the Stereotype (Adult Adoptee Anthology). I’ve reviewed Tully’s book before at “Split Between Privilege and Denial, The Truth Brings Wholeness.” Check out the review for a better idea about this important book for anyone interested in adoption identity issues.

When you read this section in Perpetual Child you can get a sample of Tully’s powers of description and the fascinating and original details of her life story.  The selections have been very carefully chosen and arranged to tell their own story within this anthology.

It might even be better, though, just to skip this section and order your copy of Tully’s book now. Read the whole thing. You won’t be satisfied with this excerpt once you see how caught up you get in her story.

Back to the portion in the anthology. There is a haunting (and gut-wrenching) scene in here. It so clearly shows what it’s like for an adoptee to have her boundaries trampled by others and to be forced to discuss in public things she doesn’t understand in her own mind and heart. In this scene, the mature adult Tully is interrogated mercilessly by a six-year-old demanding to know about Tully’s birth mother and her origins. She relentlessly hammers the woman with questions that serve to emphasize how little Tully has dealt with these issues. This child is both her own real person, but also a representation of all the children and adults and institutions that perform similar aggression on adoptees.

Read Tully here or read her in her own book. But READ HER.

Split Between Privilege and Denial, The Truth Brings Wholeness

by Luanne

I finished a book the other day, and I’ve had an irresistible urge to talk about it to every person I’ve seen since then.  Have you had that experience from reading?

If you want to feel that way, read Catana Tully’s Split at the Root: A Memoir of Love and Lost Identity.

It’s a book about adoption, but then it’s not quite about adoption.

Tully was born to a Guatemalan woman of African origin, but she grew up in the household of a German family living in Guatemala. She became a proper German young lady and eventually moved to Germany, where she became a fashion model and movie star.

Although many questions arise for the reader about Tully’s background, the girl herself doesn’t question the narrative she has been given by her German mother.

Only belatedly does Tully realize there is much to be learned about her origins.

Tully moves to the United States where she suffers an identity crisis. She isn’t African-American, although she is a Black woman. Eventually, she realizes the hard truth that she is racist toward African-Americans because she has so absorbed the subtle teachings of her childhood.

She studies and ultimately teaches Ethnic Studies and learns that she has been colonized by the German family who raised her. She begins the long struggle to learn who she is and from where she comes.  To do so, she must search for her birth mother (who has since passed away) and her birth father. Along the way, she meets her birth siblings and another father who tells her that he is her birth father. Additionally, after years of a difficult relationship, she reunites with the German sister who was old enough to be her mother and helped raised her. All this is necessary for Tully’s identity education.

I found Tully’s search to be suspenseful and fascinating. The book reads like a mystery or detective novel in the latter half.  The reader learns the truth along with Tully.

What makes Tully’s story similar to the stories of other transracial adoptees, such as my children who were born in Korea, and what makes it different?

The way Tully absorbed the culture of her German mother and didn’t really “see” herself as the birth child of a Black woman seems true to the experience of many transracial adoptees.

Where I think it differs is here:

SPOILER ALERT

It’s not only where her experience differs, but something that upset me on behalf of the young woman Catana Tully. She was never legally adopted by her German family. Therefore, when the mother dies (the father had been gone for years), the older (bio) daughter inherits the estate, but Tully does not. Tully writes about this injustice, but presents it fairly objectively. Rather than Tully telling the reader how to feel, the reader must pick up the responsibility and get angry (and I sure did).

So Tully had no legal rights as a daughter of the only family she knew at the point that her German mother died.  That she was loved very much is evident, but she was betrayed by this loving parent who didn’t do right by her in death.

The way the book ends answers most of my questions, although I still felt that the German family was an enigma. But what was important was that Tully’s birth parents came to life for me and surpassed the German mother’s heavy influence. Tully’s life seems to blossom into wholeness by the last words of the book.

The only weak point I could find is that the book could have used another editor’s eyes for typos, but I’m picky about those, and many readers might not even notice them.

Split at the Root is a well-written and thoroughly engaging memoir even for those not interested in adoption, and for anybody connected to adoption it is a must read.

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