Adoption narratives are hard to tell. This is ironic given that adoptions are fueled by stories. Birth parents tell themselves that giving up their child is for the best and that the child will be better off with their new family. Adoptive parents convince themselves that building a family through adoption is no different than creating one biologically. Love, they say, is what makes a family. Parents endlessly recite “gotcha” stories at bedtime, wrapping their adoptee in a cozy narrative blanket that explains how the family was born. And adoptees quietly develop their own foundation narratives, using the scaffolding their parents supply and filling it with new information and fantasies as the years go by. Akin to a superhero’s origin story (and why not, as so many superheroes—Superman and Supergirl, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Batman and Robin, and numerous more—are formally and informally adopted?), adoptees’ stories explain their differences, their past, their future, and their very reason for being. Stories are essential to adoption, and everyone in an adoption has one.
It is the abundance of narratives within an adoption that makes these stories so hard to get right. In each adoption there are too many perspectives and parts; too many silences and unknowns that widen the already unfillable gaps. My adoption story began in my second year of graduate school, when a doctor explained that my husband and I could not have biological children. But this story, which ultimately resulted in the adoption of two sons, is starkly different from the narratives of my children’s birth mothers and fathers, of which I know very little. My children too have their stories of being adoptees, which are only now beginning to form in language and can perhaps one day be shared by them.
In her memoir All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung takes up the difficult task of telling her own adoption story while also weaving in the largely unknown accounts of her parents, birth parents, and biological sisters. By taking a multipolar approach, she forces readers to confront the narrative excess that makes an adoption story so hard to tell. In the process, she deconstructs the simple, happy-end myth of her adoption as told to her by her parents and replaces it with a more complex genesis that emerges from a reunion with her biological family and the birth of her own biological daughter.
The act of narrative recovery throughout All You Can Ever Know asks readers to question our need for a happy-end story for adoptees, not only those we know personally but also those we read about in novels or see in films and on TV. Only by questioning our need for tidy narrative conclusions to adoption stories (both real and fictional) can we begin to represent adoption as involving an interwoven network of people who share an often-hidden bond that lasts an adoptee’s lifetime.
Chung’s memoir is rooted in her experiences growing up in the 1980s as a transracial adoptee, a child of Korean immigrant birth parents raised by white parents. The book addresses the loss she felt at being cut off not only from her biological family but also from her Korean culture and language. In recounting this cultural severance, Chung’s adoption story resembles international adoptions; yet the difficulties that arise from being a transracial adoptee in a white family and a white community resonate with many national adoption stories as well (including, to some degree, those of my own sons). Readers who have experienced some aspect of the adoption process will see themselves in parts of Chung’s personal memories, as she works to reimagine the experiences of her adoptive parents, birth parents, biological siblings, and biological child. Her memoir, then, is a narrative of adoption and one example of the ways adoptees can begin “to tell their stories” so that “no one else define[s] these experiences for [them].”
Part of the narrative uniqueness of All You Can Ever Know is that it primarily focuses on the adoptee as an adult. Most fictional representations of adoption not only insist on a happy end but also do not show the adoptee past childhood, and some of the most famous ones end after the child finds a forever home, even if formal documents aren’t signed: for example, Oliver Twist, Annie, Matilda, The Boxcar Children, and Disney’s version of The Jungle Book.1 Other famous fictional adoptees, like Daniel Deronda and Pip in Great Expectations, reach adulthood, but the use of the bildungsroman form means that the adoption is positioned as an obstacle to self-discovery.
There are similarities between Chung’s memoir and the bildungsroman model. The book traces Chung’s evolving understanding of and comfort with her adoption, from childhood to adulthood to motherhood. Her telling situates the discovery of her birth parents and the reason for the adoption as the central obstacle of the story, the resolution of which enables the author to move forward into her new role as mother. The book also positions the adoption as the central point around which all its other narratives, even the birth of her own daughter, revolve. Chung’s attempt to tell these “other” narratives—despite the inevitable fissures, gaps, and erasures that make this impossible—signals the complexity of adoption. Chung’s self-discovery is inescapably bound to the stories of her parents and her birth parents, which she can never fully know.
Chung scatters bits and pieces of those stories throughout her memoir. For example, she briefly tries to imagine her parents’ grief at not being able to have biological children and mentions the “lingering fears” they felt the first six months she lived with them before the adoption was final. Chung’s language in this early section of the memoir implies that she is retelling the stories told to her by her parents. She uses phrases such as “I picture,” “I’m told,” and “I wonder” to suggest the inevitable gaps that adoptees face when trying to narrate their own birth stories, gaps that frequently remain unfilled. And while there is extensive narration about Chung’s biological sister, Cindy, and, to a lesser degree, her biological father, the story of her biological mother is largely absent. In its place, Chung writes about her birth mother’s motivations and character based on information from her biological sisters and father, as this is all she chooses to have access to during the time the memoir is set.2
But these gaps, both chosen and not, also mean that despite Chung’s efforts to write a multipolar adoption memoir, there are still some stories of her parents and birth mother that she cannot fully imagine and therefore cannot wholly weave into her own narrative. In her choice of title for the book, Chung acknowledges the limits to what she can know about her own adoption story; this includes how her parents and birth parents felt about the adoption and the traumas associated with the loss of a child (one biological and one the adoptive parents had once imagined).
Chung’s memoir and her call for more adoption accounts by adoptees is a much-needed narrative counterweight to the traditional happy ending.
These absences in Chung’s story expose the difficulty of writing about adoption. Adoption pushes the limits of narrative structure. The stories are more complex than good versus evil, hero versus villain. As Chung notes, she “no longer consider[s] adoption … in terms of right or wrong,” but instead “urge[s] people to go into [the adoption process] with their eyes open, recognizing how complex it truly is.” This, of course, is difficult to do; in my own experience, people consistently try to conceptualize adoption using traditional narrative tropes: they want a hero, a villain, and a victim. Although it’s unfair and inaccurate, the adoptive parent is often cast as the hero of the story, taking in an “abandoned” child victimized by parents who do not want or cannot take care of the child. Listeners to adoption stories seek out happy endings—the adoptee found a home with loving parents—even when the resolution is never that simple.
This desire for a happy ending is propagated by endless movies and books that portray the adoption as the best thing for the child. Take, for example, George Eliot’s Silas Marner. Although it shows the complex intersecting lives of the adoptee, the adoptive parent, and the biological parent, Eliot’s novel argues that the adoptive home is the “right” home for Eppie, as she chooses to remain with Silas (her adoptive father) upon being offered a chance to live as a gentleman’s daughter with Godfrey (her birth father). Chung mostly avoids this narrative trap in All You Can Ever Know, both praising and finding fault with the choices and motivations of her birth and adoptive parents. Both, she suggests, made difficult choices that they thought were best for their daughter at the time. Chung, therefore, is not the victim of adoption or her birth parents’ choices. But she is, as this memoir shows, a product of these choices and the stories that were told about them.
The memoir form, however, also dictates what Chung can and cannot tell us. This is her adoption story, and her parents, biological parents, biological siblings, husband, and daughters play roles in it. But their experiences of the adoption are narrated through Chung and thus are not really their stories. Other storytelling modes have the potential to be even more successful at capturing the abundance of narratives that make up an adoption. The television serial seems particularly suited to narrating numerous individual story lines. The one-hour drama The Fosters (2013–18) is perhaps the best example. Focusing on the foster system and adoption, the show delved into the lives of not only the foster children and adoptees but also the adoptive parents and birth parents. The serial drama form provided the space to tackle the intertwining stories that contribute to each and every adoption, space that is much needed in order to avoid the hero/villain dichotomy.3
Chung’s purpose in writing All You Can Ever Know is similar to that of The Fosters’ creators: to demystify adoption and make it more familiar to a wider audience.4 “If families like mine were better understood, if more people knew that adoption was far more complicated than common media portrayals might suggest,” Chung writes, “maybe fewer adopted kids would have to answer the kinds of questions I had gotten, or feel pressured to uphold sunny narratives even they might not necessarily believe in.”
Chung’s memoir and her call for more adoption accounts by adoptees is a much-needed narrative counterweight to the traditional happy ending and will hopefully, with help from shows like The Fosters, bring forth a trend toward more realistic representations of adoptions in fictional narratives. In order to understand adoption, we need to see/read/understand it as a network of interwoven lives that includes social workers and judges; siblings (both biological and adoptive); birth fathers, birth mothers, adoptive fathers, and adoptive mothers; and the adoptee. All these people are forever connected by the birth of a child and the stories that they choose to tell.
- Academic and adoptee Marianne Novy notes a similar focus on the adopted child in Reading Adoption: Family and Difference in Fiction and Drama (University of Michigan Press, 2005). ↩
- In her memoir, Chung writes about her decision not to meet her birth mother in person, based on information provided to her by her biological father and sister, who claim that the birth mother was abusive. The abuse is also given as one of the reasons for Chung’s adoption. ↩
- The Fosters continues to break with traditional adoption story tropes. Good Trouble (a spin-off of The Fosters) began airing in January 2019 and moves past the conventional focus on the adopted child to explore the adult lives of two of the adoptees. ↩
- Accurate adoption statistics are difficult to find because, while foster care and intercountry adoption data are made available, this is not always the case with private adoption agency data. According to the 2008–2012 Trends in U.S. Adoptions report (the most recent government data available), adoption rates are declining, with 119,514 children adopted in the US in 2012, down from 139,647 in 2008. The number of parents who adopt is also declining, with only 49/100,000 (.049 percent) of adults age 18+ adopting in 2012, down from 60/100,000 in 2008. It is estimated that only 2 percent of the child population in the US is adopted (Child Trends Data Bank report). ↩