“‘Are We There Yet?’ The Greek Adoptees’ Road of Return - by Prof. Gonda Van Steen

Van Steen, Gonda, “‘Are We There Yet?’ The Greek Adoptees’ Road of Return–An Essay.” In Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters, edited by Y. Anagnostou (7 July 2018, online, 10 pages):

Author’s Note: 

In the second half of May 2018, I traveled to Greece with four Americans who, when they were children in the 1950s, were dispatched by Greece for adoption in the United States. Marianna, Linda, Jay, and Lori come from all corners of the States, but their common roots lie in or near the port of Patras. We visited various places that were important landmarks of their earliest days and months. For all four of them, the trip was a direct encounter with Greece and its people and also with their adoption history. The participants also spent ample time getting to know each other. I observed them and kept a travel journal. I encouraged them, too, to write down their own impressions and to share pictures. The essay below reflects our collective effort capturing and reliving the Greek adoption phenomenon by way of a “root trip.”

My current research aims to present a Greek American adoption ethnography, set against the backdrop of the Greek Civil War and the Cold War. I study the adoption routes leading from Greece to the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. My informants have been Americans, Greek Americans, and Jewish (Greek) Americans, who were adopted as infants or small children from Greek institutions or given up by birth mothers typically between 1955 and 1962. These children were shepherded through an adoption system that worked by proxy and was controlled by a small circle of orphanage directors, local mayors, doctors, lawyers, and Greek American community leaders. The methods used ranged from legal and slow-moving procedures to hasty, dubious, and plain illegal practices. The numbers involve more than three thousand children, and every extended Greek family seems to know of at least one case of an adopted or abandoned child, or a child that otherwise went missing.

“Are We There Yet?” The Greek Adoptees’ Road of Return–An Essay

There are five of us, four American adoptees of Greek descent and one observer “adopted” by the adoptees, and we agree that we need a theme line to name this “root trip,” our common travel experience and quest. By unanimous agreement, we decide on “Are we there yet?” Are we in Patras yet, from where three of my fellow travelers departed in the 1950s? Have we reached Nafpaktos yet, north of which Linda’s birth mother awaits us all? The geographical “Are we there yet?” is easily covered by our multi-day travel itinerary, which, distance-wise, does not stray very far from Athens. That’s what airline tickets and car rentals are for. But more important are the cognitive, emotional, and even traumatic distances we might travel, the metaphorical implications of our chosen phrase, “Are we there yet?” Will we unearth any new information about the adoptees’ histories? Are we psychologically prepared enough for what we might find? Are we there yet to digest it all? And to act on it? When and how?

The persistent question “Are we there yet?” expresses impatience, and almost always a child’s impatience. But the child adopted from Greece in the 1950s or early 1960s needs patience more than anything else, because the paths of discovery take a long time and the roadblocks, bureaucratic and otherwise, are many. There are moments of unshaken togetherness and solidarity among us five, which alternate with times when each one of us seeks isolation to be able to process the latest setback or disappointment. The sense of belonging, to the group, to the families that two of the adoptees were able to recover, to the country of Greece, and to Greek history runs deep, and the camaraderie becomes intimate and sustaining. But genuine, too, are the many reminders of not belonging, of returning “home” as forgotten outsiders, for having been sent off by Greece in the difficult postwar circumstances. For now, however, the focus of our root trip is on the social history of 1950s Greece, down to the microlevel of family stories. The political contours of the end of the Greek Civil War and of the onset of the Cold War do crop up, and they remain pervasive, but political explanations are not what our team is currently looking for.

Greece facilitated the adoption and migration of some 4,000 children in the 1950s through the mid-1960s. Only the first groups of these children may be called “orphans” of the war, as most of the children were actually born in the mid-1950s. Many were sent on their way with minimal documentation. The sheer lack of records has left many of these children, now older adults, with unresolved questions about their roots and, inevitably, with keen impressions that their fates were decided arbitrarily, perhaps even illegally. My travel companions and many other Greek adoptees (some of whom are traveling with us vicariously, as they closely follow the daily posts of pictures and comments on Facebook) are deeply vested in their search for answers, and any frustrations come at an emotional cost. The Greek state’s perceived unwillingness to deliver answers about their past is perceived to be infantilizing all over again.

Adopted children are always called back to their childhoods, however subtly or fleetingly. The act of adoption carries with it the very connotation of a (dis)placement that happened during one’s early years. Childhood remains the adoption’s unshaken point of reference. Nobody asks about the adopted adult, even if this adult makes his or her presence repeatedly known, standing tall in front of the native interlocutors, who display curiosity and hospitality, but occasionally also insensitive judgement (as when one archivist derails our search for hospital birth records, claiming that the Virgin Mary suffices as the mother of us all). A common reaction, indeed, is the rhetorical denial or the (nationalist) preempting of the adoptee’s search and of the urgency or personal anguish associated with it. Platitudes about Greece now or then do not in the least account for a life-defining experience for the adoptee, or for a traumatic chapter in Greek history that implicated many state institutions and individuals. Nobody among the locals we encounter inquires about half a century of living one’s life as an American, of trying to fit in from childhood up through age 60 and beyond, of being told “just how lucky you are.” Instead, time is a time warp in which the adoptees are thrown from one extreme end to the other, as if there are no sixty formative years in between. Space is warped, too, and one’s place of birth may well shift, as for Linda, who was told for a lifetime that she was born in Athens, to then have her place of birth relocated to Nafpaktos and then once more to a tiny village in the rugged mountains to the north.

The passive-sounding label “adoptee” does not do justice to the self-selected and very dynamic members of our travel team, who are reclaiming agency before they try to recapture heritage, both family and cultural heritage. Americans adopted Greek children, and Greek and Greek-American mediators transported these children through practices that muddled time, space, and especially control. The adult parties made all the decisions and sometimes left legacies of falsehoods and lies. The adoptees’ story is, therefore, about the kind of knowledge and power that vacated their own agency if they were transported as very young children. New data, technologies, and other resources have helped the adult adoptees, however, to subvert the long-established and oft-resented premise of the child’s powerlessness. The adoptees’ own arrivals in the United States and those of many other children have long blended into the larger narrative of the postwar diaspora and adult migration from Greece and of Cold War melting-pot America. We may even claim that diasporic studies has thus far ignored the very topic of postwar and Cold War “intercountry” child adoption, as this emerging trend was then called. But assisted by the records and the recollections of the adoptees themselves, this lacuna in our knowledge of postwar Greece may still be adequately addressed. Also, the lack of a solid theoretical or experiential framework folds the transnationalism of these Greek and many other international adoptees into a more complex process of mediating or routing between origins and destinations, allowing for the latter to become the former.

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