Guest Post: Not Far From the Tree – The Curse of the Adopted

I am honored to share this piece from Michele Leavitt, originally written for Medium.

Adoptees all over the world live under the same curse: their bad qualities and behaviors get attributed to their birth-family genetics, and their good qualities and behaviors get attributed to the environment created by their adoptive parents. This assumption robs adoptees of agency, and it allows adoptive parents and adoption organizations to avoid accountability when things go wrong. It is so deeply embedded in Western thinking about adoption, it often goes unquestioned.

An October 9 article in The Atlantic, “The Adoption Paradox” is a good example: both Olga Khazan, the author of the article, and psychologist Nicholas Zill, the author of the study Khazan cites, seem unaware of how this assumption has influenced both their questions and their conclusions. In the study, kindergarten and first grade teachers were asked to rate their students on “problem behavior,” “positive learning behaviors,” and “early reading skills.” Zill later collated these results with information about whether the kids were adopted. The adopted kids scored “significantly worse” in all categories than kids who came from homes where they were raised by both birthparents. They also scored significantly worse in the first two categories than kids in single-parent, step-parent or foster homes.

Like many adult adoptees who responded in the comments, I was not favorably impressed by the article, or by Zill’s report on his research. I was angered that neither Khazan nor Zill questioned their equation of wealth and education with good parenting, and that they both ignored the possibility that the “significantly worse” scores resulted from problem behavior on the part of the adoptive parents or from the trauma of separation from original families and cultures.

Angered, but not surprised. The idea that adoptive parents are better than birth-parents is old, cooked up from the misogyny and class prejudice that fed the secretive American adoption industry of the mid-twentieth century, when single pregnant women were often forced to give up their babies. Slut-shaming was an important tool of that industry, and it is still a tool of both the domestic and international adoption industries. But as international adoptions by mostly white U.S. citizens have increased, racism has become a main ingredient in the recipe for demonizing birthparents and denying adoptees agency.

The Atlantic’s header reads “Kids who are adopted have richer, more involved parents. They also have more behavior and attention problems. Why?” What’s implied is that the birth families are poorer, less well-educated, and too just-scraping-by to put much effort into raising children. Coincidentally, or not, almost all the children in the photo appearing below the header — the problem children — are clearly children of color.

What if the question were framed differently: Why are outcomes for children adopted into stranger families worse than for children who grow up with their own people? In that case, we might be inspired to answer the question “Because they are being raised by strangers!” But this possibility does not occur to Khazan or Zill.

Psychologist Zill posits that “Possible reasons why [adoptive] family resources do not always produce great outcomes may be found in attachment theory, traumatic stress theory, and behavior genetics,” yet he glosses over the disruption of a child’s attachment to his or her first mother, and the trauma of separation from culture. Instead, he speculates that maternal bonds may have been neglected in the children’s original homes, and that “[s]ome adopted children experienced neglect, abuse, or other stressful events prior to their adoption.” And then he turns to genetics:

Because the educational attainments of adoptive parents are exceptionally high, the genetic endowment of most children available for adoption is likely to be less favorable to intellectual accomplishment than the endowments of their adoptive parents. No matter how much intellectual stimulation and encouragement the parents provide the child, they may not be able to overcome the limitations of the child’s genetic heritage.”

So, in Zill’s world, privilege = intelligence. Just in case you were wondering.

That doesn’t jive with my experience. When I was about twelve years old, my adoptive father asked me what I was reading. It was Dostoevsky’s The Idiot,still one of my favorite novels. I said something about how I thought Dostoevsky’s madness gave him some insight into the frustrations of women, and my father, like a rooster strutting between hens, said “Environment! It’s the environment!” I didn’t understand what he meant because although I was a bright little chick, I was oblivious to the fact that I was adopted. Of course, considerable energy had been expended to keep that a secret. The incident stuck in my mind, like other dissonances that all made sense once I found out the truth. Meanwhile, I kept reading.

So were my reading habit a result of my adoptive environment? Hardly. I was the only person in my household who had read Dostoevsky, or much of anything that might be considered high culture. My adoptive mother was addicted to soap operas, and my adoptive father was addicted to playing cards and betting on greyhounds. I found out about nineteenth century novels thanks to the suggestion of a librarian. Using the either/or logic of Khazan and Zill, I guess since that wasn’t part of my environment, I must have connected to those books thanks to the “behavior genetics” I inherited from my poorer, less well-educated, scraping-by family of origin.

When I reunited with them in my thirties, I found a bunch of poets.#flipthescript


Michele Leavitt is a high school dropout, hepatitis C survivor and former trial attorney who lives in North Central Florida. Her poetry and essays appear or are forthcoming in venues including Guernica, North American Review, Gravel, and Medium. One essay, “Hidden in a Suitcase,” was on Longreads’ “Five Best” list in November, 2015, and another, “No Trespassing” received a Notable listing in Best American Essays 2011 after being awarded the William G. Allen prize from the Ohio State University. Find her at

2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Not Far From the Tree – The Curse of the Adopted

  1. Well said. And me, too. I was the only one in my adoptive family who read books, liked plays, etc. And then when I met my culture loving maternal grandmother as an adult it all made sense where my tastes had come from.

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