Anatomy of an article

shutterstock_73892212I wanted to write a little bit about the process of writing that Brain Child disruption article. It’s the first time in a long while that I’ve written something this reported that wasn’t straight service and I loved writing it even though it was hard and I had a lot of adoption-related nightmares while I was writing it. This is very long so I’m putting it all below the cut (I also don’t have time to edit so forgive any stupidity on my part) but I thought other writers might be interested in this. This was my query letter, which I pitched in December:

By now you’ve surely heard about Anita Teldadi who wrote a Motherlode blog about giving up her adopted son away after failing to bond with him. The letters section, naturally, exploded. Was Anita a brave mother willing to face up to her limitations and give her son a better life? Or was she a selfish woman who threw away a baby for not fitting in to her family? Anita has since appeared on Today defending her decision while in the background her essays about adoption (including one critical of another disrupted family and another celebrating her son’s arrival) have been quietly scrubbed off the internet.

Disrupted adoptions are the dirty underbelly of adoption. According to a 2004 article published by the Child Welfare Information Gateway, disruptions may end up to 25% of adoptions but these numbers are hard to come by. International adoptions sometimes disrupt before the child ever leaves his or her home country and some disrupt before the adoption is finalized back at home. There are agencies that specialize in “re-placing” adopted children into new families and an underground network of desperate parents sometimes move children into new families on their own.

How does this happen? Whose fault is it?

I’m proposing an article digging deeper into adoption disruptions to get a better understanding of how they come about, how they can be prevented and what happens to those re-homed children. I will speak with Adam Pertman, author of Adoption Nation and head of Evan B. Donaldson adoption institute think tank as well as Sharon Roszia director of the kinship center in LA. I will also talk to adult adoptee activists like Jae Ran Kim, a social worker as well as a contributor to Outsiders Within: Writers on Transracial Adoption and an adult international adoptee. I will also speak with parents who have disrupted their children’s adoptions and those parents who have adopted “re-placed” children. While I will use Anita’s story to introduce the topic, I will look beyond one family’s story to get a better understanding disruption in general and what it has to say about our cultural experience of adoption.

I will write this from the point of view of an adoptive mother who is willing to confront the “as if born to” myth. Can we love adopted children “just the same” as our bio kids? Do these heavy expectations make it harder when the going gets tough? How can we better serve the kids we take into our collective homes?

Note that I did NOT end up talking to Adam Pertman or Sharon Roszia. Usually I put “experts like” to give me an out but I didn’t this time although I did with Jae Ran because I was less sure if I’d be able to interview her. I knew I could interview Sharon because I have before and I figured I’d be able to interview Adam because the Evan B. Donaldson people have actual paid PR workers to make sure that he gets interviewed. The reason I didn’t speak with them is that the more I thought about what I wanted to do, the more I wanted to talk to other people. I also ended up not writing as much about what happens to kids AFTER. But the gist of it — the “as if born to” myth and how it might contribute to disruption — stayed in the piece. I also ended up writing a piece that was less judgmental than I thought it would be because when I talked to families who disrupted, I understood their decision.

At first I wanted to talk to families locally because I hoped to visit them. I imagined sitting with them on their couches and maybe even looking at pictures of the children they had adopted and then surrendered. But the people I spoke with here were very very wary. They were in a lot of pain and understandably defensive. I clung to the idea of getting someone local for way too long and then I ended up kind of scrambling. Carol agreed to talk with me right away but then our emails crossed or I mislabeled one so I thought I wasn’t hearing from her and I put her aside as an interviewee. I found someone else willing to be interviewed, which was a relief but I was getting worried. I knew I needed a strong central story that would humanize the issues and I knew I needed it soon because I couldn’t really do my expert interviews without some of what would end up in print in mind. I also reached out to Anita Teldadi herself through several avenues because it’s clear she wasn’t telling the whole story and I thought what the heck, why not see if she’d talk to me. (She never responded to any of my pleas.) Then I connected with Tiruba and started interviewing experts so then I had a sort of weak disruption story (the mother willing to speak with me was very very very guarded and after our initial phone call, it was hard to get more info) and Tiruba’s story and some ideas but it wasn’t going to be that great. I tried to make it work as a post-disruption piece but my editor (rightly) said no, that would undermine the central thesis (the “as if born to” myth) so I reached out to Carol again hoping she wasn’t blowing me off. And she wasn’t. Oh my how she wasn’t.

You can see how much Carol’s sharing shaped the whole article and you can also see how brave her sharing was. Some of you will recognize her because you already follow her story (she’s ok with that — she just didn’t want to be all that google-able). Carol knows what people have said about her and she doesn’t care really (or if she cares, she doesn’t let that stop her). She sees herself as an advocate for parents and for kids who need more than their parents can give them. There is SO MUCH she shared that didn’t end up in the article but that is extremely important like how she went back to the agency to try to get them to see what they needed to do to better serve those children and their wannabe adoptive parents. Like reaching out to other families using the agency, like her willingness to criticize her own decisions so that she can help other parents learn from her mistakes.

Carol’s voice was a huge, huge benefit to the article and to me not just because she was willing to talk about her son’s adoption and dissolution. Her interview also highlighted so much of what Tiruba was saying to me and I felt incredibly lucky to have their complementary stories. Then Patty (who my editor found for me) gave me a wonderful interview that really showed someone in the thick of it and spoke compellingly of the difference post-adoption support could make for a threatened family. She was also the one who really helped me understand how flexible parents need to be in their definition of what it means to be a parent. When she talked about not being able to cuddle on the couch to read to her son, I GOT it. I got how much missing those small rewards could chip away at a parent’s ability to stay committed. And it fit my thesis, too, because it spoke to the need for preparation and it also, I felt, highlighted why some parents whose children aren’t struggling as much as Carol’s and Patty’s and Tiruba’s might want to re-home them.

I couldn’t find any parent who didn’t have truly compelling reasons for disruption. Every single parent I spoke to whether they ended up letting me interview them or not told me about extreme violence towards themselves or other children in the family that preceded the adoption. I asked every expert I spoke with about the idea of a parent who disrupted an adoption because they were simply tired of the kid and none of them had a story that matched this although some had stories (Arleta and Katie) that were less extreme. I tried to contact some of the “therapy” camps (the ones that purport to treat kids with horseback riding and camping trips) but I’d reach out and then not hear back. I also got some very few quotes from the woman who works for a law practice that disrupts adoptions and does re-adoptions. I was really really really annoyed that she wouldn’t let me use her name because it’s not like they operate anonymously and also because if I could have used her name, I could have added some backstory but without her name, the backstory would have potentially taken up too much time in the piece. (I can tell you this without threatening her anonymity: She used to be involved with an adoption agency. This agency did the kinds of things the article criticizes. So as happy as she is to condemn parents who disrupt, she does not seem willing to consider her own complicity in this. Argh.)

Anyway. I felt good. I turned in the piece for edits. Note: I also did something I never ever ever do. I gave the unedited but mostly finished piece to the families I interviewed. I never do this for obvious reasons — sources don’t get to dictate how the story goes. But I did it this time because the people I interviewed were putting so much trust in me to tell their very sensitive stories. I wanted to be sure I was doing right by them. I wanted them to understand how much I was sharing so they could revisit their decision. I also wanted them to fact check. A big magazine like Parenting does their own fact checking (usually with an intern) and it’s great because you know if you missed a word in an interview or misunderstood (“Oh you said your daughter was TURNING seven? But she’s actually six?”) or the person misspoke, they can fix it. But Brain Child doesn’t have interns or editorial assistants — they’re a small, diligent magazine operating on a pretty small budget — so I tried doing my own fact checking. And I got some minor details wrong so the families were able to fix them. So they all signed off except one who asked that I pull her story entirely, which left an ENORMOUS gaping hole in the piece. It was a nightmare. I tried pleading with her and she stopped returning my emails. I totally get her decision (her story was very recent and still raw and painful) but it created a mess for me and a little tiny party of me was wishing I hadn’t given her an out. Although I think it was the right thing to do.

At this point, too, the woman in Tennessee put her son on the plane. Argh. I knew this meant yet more rewrites and I also knew it meant there’d be scads of information coming out in the media and I’d have to figure out how much of what I wanted to say would be redundant to readers by the time the article came out. Truthfully I wanted to crawl under my bed and not come out for awhile. But then I read two posts from John Raible. This one and this one. And I went — doh! Like Homer. I slapped my head. Because where did my good intentions go about interviewing any adult adoptees? THAT was the voice so clearly missing! I knew I wanted to interview Astrid and Jae Ran and there were some other adult adopted people I reached out to, too, but it was around the time of a big conference so I knew it was pushing it.

Astrid and Jae Ran were INCREDIBLE. They both talked to me for a long, long time. They suffered my naive questions with grace. Astrid read the piece as it was and gave me feedback in several places including reminding me that RAD kids should be kids with RAD. Most importantly they spoke to the fact that these kids are survivors because they’ve HAD to be and that their dysfunction makes sense in the context of their circumstances prior to adoption. If I hadn’t read John’s piece and if I hadn’t reached out to Astrid and Jae Ran, the piece would have been much less than it turned out to be; an important reminder to me of how VITAL adoptee voices are in any adoption discussion.

HUGE thank yous to John and Astrid and Jae Ran!!!!!!

My back up plan if I didn’t get into school was to pitch a book about disruption because there is SO MUCH that still needs to be said. Like I would have loved to have been able to speak with adults whose adoptions as children were disrupted. I would have liked to visit a residential treatment center and talked to the therapists there. I would have tried to find a way to travel so I COULD sit on the couch of an adoptive parent who disrupted and see their pictures and see their faces when they talk about their kids. I mean, there is A LOT still to be said.

Anyway, that’s my anatomy of that article.

If you have questions from a writer-ly or an adoption point of view, let me know. I’m happy to answer them.

Comments 17

      1. The content of the piece is fascinating and compelling but I also selfishly enjoy seeing a piece evolve for someone else. The interviews you think will be key but fall flat; the insiders who get cold feet and bail on you; discovering you need to reconfigure the piece because how you feel about the characters or subject changes; the miracle interviews that fall from the heavens. I have thought at times these “oh shit!” panic moments just happen to me. 😉

        Also, you make a point that is VERY important to me. It is the rare piece that is viewed by its subject prior to publication.

        “I never do this for obvious reasons — sources don’t get to dictate how the story goes.”

        RIGHT! If sources got to write the story, journalism would be called public relations.

  1. I still think you could pitch a book about adoption disruption. Doris and I both devoured your article… but I also totally understand the amount of time pursuing your masters is going to take and how difficult it is commit to a book project in the midst of it. Who knows, maybe you’ve stumbled upon your masters thesis topic 😉

  2. I’d love to see a book on Adoption disruptions! I think it would be really interesting to compare the different types of adoptions (domestic infant, foster care, international) and their disruption rates/reasons… I think that type of book could be infinitely valuable to those looking into adoption or those finding themselves in a difficult position post-adoption. Anyways, great article and it is interesting to see how it came to be!

    1. There are such lousy stats about it — private agencies don’t have to report them. So really the only place where there are numbers are foster care agencies. It’s a huge problem for people trying to figure out what policy works for kids but I think it’s fair to extrapolate foster-to-adopt with international adoption in some ways since the issues can be similar and the kids are older than in domestic infant adoption. But the lack of records is hugely problematic.

  3. It was such a terrific article & I have to say, I just so enjoyed reading about the process, from both writerly & adoption-y perspectives. Part of what’s so moving is how entrusted with the material/stories you felt & that’s absolutely what shone through in the Brain Child piece. Without wanting to make you accept too much praise (smile) bravo.

  4. Thank you for sharing your process! I can only imagine how big of a job it was to write the article. I know that you spent hours and hours just talking to people, and I can say from my “involvement” in your article, that you did a magnificent job capturing the tone and words of what we discussed. This is a special gift that not many writers have so I commend you for your work.

    Also, I could add a little footnote for folks interested. TTops has moved out of our home and into the group home. We are very much still her family and always will have legal guardianship and see her or talk to her every day. She is doing very well (the staff maybe not as much, LOL). I am watching our relationship develop, grow and strengthen as we are able to focus on IT instead of her behaviors and the hundreds of various things that she would do that were unsafe in our home. We are so fortunate that our social service system recognized that this was what she needed to keep everyone safe and supported us in her move without requiring us to give up our rights as her parents. Many families have to disrupt just so their kids can GET services. We are lucky that we did not.

    1. Thank you, Tiruba, for everything!!! Is there any way you could post this to the “We’re talking” comments page to the article? Just so folks reading online can hear the update?

  5. I read both articles. They were both fantastic. I am an adult adoptee about to embark on a Counseling masters program where I hope to work with everyone touched by adoption. It gives my heart so much peace to see articles like these two that reflect the truths and not the myths. Thank you so much!

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