Adoption, Superman and the Primal Wound
What I have learned about adoption from Superman
Posted July 9, 2009
I am a self-ordained, lifelong, card-carrying member of the Superman fan club. Ever enamored with his incredible abilities, his power over me has evolved and deepened as I have grown from childhood to adulthood and finally into parenthood. I have always been aware that the infant Kal-El was jettisoned into space by his biological parents, Jor-El and Lara moments before their planet of Krypton exploded, and that he was subsequently adopted by earthlings Johnathan and Martha Kent of Smallville, Kansas.
Being born on this planet; however, I could not appreciate, as a child, either the alien nature of Kal-El's origin, nor the indelible mark that traumatic separation from his family of origin left on his psyche. Nor could I identify with the challenges of growing up as an adopted child-having been raised by my biological parents. And now, as the parent of two adopted children, I am at a loss to fully grasp the complexities that my children experience as they move through their lives; attempting to reconcile their past with their present and their biological with their adoptive parents.
I think it has something to do with what Nancy Verrier called 'the Primal Wound". This powerful and poignant notion suggests that the adopted child; whether from the distant reaches of space or across the country, carries a scar throughout life reminding her that someone gave her up. When my wife and I adopted our first child, we were aware, at least intellectually, that adoption was as much about loss as it was about being found.
Around the time my book "Using Superheroes in Counseling and Play Therapy" was published, I had the good fortune of meeting Robert Briceno, an adoptee who felt a kindred spirit to Superman. Robert's mother had introduced him to his own adoption by reading Superman comics to him as a child. Robert grew to embrace his adoption, his adoptive parents, and of course, Superman! It was from Robert that I was reminded afresh of the multiplicity of losses that surround adoption.
However, it wasn't until a few years later that I would re-engage with the adoption narrative on a far more personal level. It was when my my son, then 15, brought home the first three seasons of the CW Network's blockbuster television series Smallville, which chronicles Clark Kent's coming of age.
We watched with rapt fascination as this young man grew into his formidable powers including super-strength, x-ray vision and flight. In spite of his burgeoning super-powers; however, the young Superman never quite felt connected to his peers, sensed a deepening disconnect from his adoptive parents, and had a painfully deep longing to re-connect with his origins as well as to finally feel 'whole'. His adolescent angst was being compounded by the 'primal wound' that he concealed from the world, and which was only slowly becoming known to him. This wound was every bit as painful to him as any chunk of Kryponite could be, seering his soul as surely as the glowing green rock burned his flesh.
Psychologists and adoption researchers have not yet come to agreement as to whether or not adoptees, when compared to non-adoptees are at higher risk for a host of psychological and interpersonal difficulties. However, after devoting many years to this very question, Dr. David Brodzinsky, a preeminent scholar in the field, came to believe that while being adopted sets the adoptee on a lifetime search for identity, meaning and connection, he is no more or less at risk psychologically because of being adopted (for more reading see Smith and Brodzinsky, and Brodzinsky, Smith & Brodzinsky). I do believe, as both a psychologist and adoptive parent, that adoption presents unique and often painful challenges to adoptees that only they can understand...hopefully, in time!
I will, therefore, continue to watch Smallville with my children, and follow the young superhero on his journey of self discovery. More importantly, I will watch my own two superheroes-to-be, as they struggle to make sense of why their journey, which began on one planet and now continues on another, is so different than that of others. But unlike my passive engagement with the chronicles of Kal-El, aka Clark Kent, aka Superman, I will engage fully with my children as they attempt to unlock the secrets of their origins and make sense of their lives.