When you grow up knowing that you are unacceptable for who you are and what you represent, it’s difficult to appreciate who you see in the mirror. Simply being a western bog-sized woman living in world full of glossy magazines will do it. Being raised in a protestant culture which vilifies any self-interest in the name of that deadliest of sin–vanity–will do it. Facial scarring from a car accident will do it. Raised by a narcissist who transmits by word and deed that you are not the daughter she wanted–that’ll do it too. Then there’s a less widely applicable angle. Genealogical bewilderment–that set of image and imprinting difficulties experienced by adoptees or folk who grow up without genetic mirrors will also do it. I sit at the crossroads of all these influences…
As a consequence there’s the one experience which put the kibosh on my desire to ever look into the mirror again.
Genetic attraction, more commonly known as genetic sexual attraction or GSA, is a well kept secret. Not in the adoption world though, where ‘evidence from the Post-Adoption Centre and University College London suggests that GSA it happens in 50 percent of reunion cases’1. The powerful emotional link that binds families who grow up together often manifests itself in curious ways when adult adoptees meet their biological families. Yet as common as it is, few want to touch it because–well–incest. But this issue needs more awareness, and not only because according to recent reports it’s on the rise. Also because I believe that it’s a fertile ground for a particular type of abuse.
That GSA is on the rise is not surprising to me. It shouldn’t be surprising to you. After all, we spend our whole lives trying to answer the question ‘Who am I?’, adopted or not. When children grow up without any visibility of their genetic roots, whether by adoption, divorce, egg and sperm donation, surrogacy or the simple fact that they are a throwback to an earlier generation, they seek connection; they seek missing mirrors and an answer to that question. Every train ride, every social interaction I looked for possibilities that the person I saw to might be related to me. Was it my mother? Brother? Sister? Every time, I was left disappointed, wanting more. Until I met my biological father and only longed to return to those halcyon days, where narcisstic parenting by my adoptive mother resulted in harrowing low self-esteem and a lack of identity.
Adoption is predisposed to occur within a triangle of shame and that was certainly the case in the 70s. Bastard children were shameful because they were born of sin, unwed mothers were shamed because of so-called sexual misconduct, the adoptive parents were shamed because they were often infertile. For that reason it was traditionally pretended that adoption was the perfect solution to the shameful problem. Shame was the reason it was a problem in the first place. And afterwards shame was the reason we couldn’t talk about it.
But what of the men who were genetic fathers to these lost children? Male privilege absolved them of personal responsibility and I, I will not pretend that the men in these triangles aren’t likely to be at best thoughtless dickheads and at worst abusive assholes. Either way, they faced few repercussions or checks on their actions. Regardless of adoption, our patriarchal society creates and protects a glut of such men. This was the type of man impregnated my mother and disappeared when she wrote him the news. He was rather stereotypically, a merchant sailor. She learned too late that he was married and after twenty years, I learned too late that this type of self-serving cruelty was his modus operandi. He still lives out there, the spit of me, but off the grid because he doesn’t pay taxes, register for social security or take part in any other state system which might track him. He is the worst of his kind.
Within adoption there are effects from several variables which result in a uniquely compounded trauma. If genetic sexual attraction is a little talked of subject, unilateral genetic sexual attraction from such a man–of which I suspect there is a disproportionate number within adoption–towards his adult child, is a slice which has to my knowledge never been examined.
His abusive tactics were screaming at me, but I had no awareness of what constituted abuse. The objectification in my childhood–a baby paid for and passed to strangers who wanted a child as a form of narcisstic supply–had left with me with the knowledge that emotional blackmail, and psychological coercion was the normal way of things. As my father once done to my biological mother twenty years before, he took advantage of my naivety, my passivity and my desperate longing for connection. He spoke to me of the time old tradition of father-led sexual initiation, stated overt ownership over my body whilst simultaneously threatening to ruin the lives of those I loved.
I’ve spent years trying to forgive him if genetic attraction was the cause. After lessons from another wholly inevitable abusive relationship and extensive study of the phenomenon, I have understood that whilst he might have been a prime candidate for it, there is still no excuse for what he did. The level of forgiveness I’ve achieved is not a pardon, it is simply a release of my anger and a reframing of it into a scarred lesson.
I was sexually abused by a male version of myself, tortured by my mirror image, boxed in by my own likeness. For years I could barely look in the mirror, I cannot see photographs, I cringe when I see myself on film. Even when I look, I do not see. My mind does not want to see. To recover it’s taken years of wading through stigma, shame and exclusion, which even therapists couldn’t or wouldn’t touch. I was told that as a grown woman, I was to blame for it, and like so many raped women are told, ‘I asked for it’. But what I asked for was a father. What I got a was a rapist who I see every time I look in the mirror.