Unanswerable questions

by: Laura Dennis

“So many unanswered and unanswerable questions.” That’s how my December 29 journal entry ended. One month later, not much has changed. The same old questions are still chasing each other round and round in my head, all thanks to Saroo Brierly’s A Long Way Home.

Haven’t heard of it? What if I tell you it’s the memoir that inspired the recent art-house feature, Lion? Still nothing? Learn more about Saroo here – http://www.npr.org/2014/06/22/323355643/with-memories-and-online-maps-a-man-finds-his-way-home – and the movie here – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3741834/

If you don’t have time for an Internet rabbit hole, the nutshell version of the story StockSnap_2FB235EEF0is this: a four-year-old Indian boy is separated from his family, falls asleep on a train, spends time as a street child, and winds up in an orphanage. He is soon adopted by an Australian couple who go on to adopt a second child, Mantosh. Years pass, Saroo starts to search, and search, and search until one day he finds…his birth family.

Given that I adopted my three kids from India, it’s not hard to imagine why I might want to follow Saroo’s story wherever it might lead. Where he finds answers, however, I get only questions. Here are just a few.

  1. Does any child ever truly escape early childhood trauma and neglect unscathed? ATN readers know the obvious cases, the various syndromes and disorders, the visibly maladaptive behaviors such as violence, deception, and theft. Saroo hints at some of these in his younger brother and I’ve experienced it first-hand in my son. But Saroo has his issues too. He can’t focus, settle, what we might call grow up. And if I’m perfectly honest, I have a kid who could in some ways be his younger, female double. Yes, these things could be explained by temperament or maturity, but then again, maybe not. Where does developmental trauma end and “normal” development begin?
  2. What’s it like to be the sibling of a seriously challenging child? Saroo alludes to the times he felt overlooked, left to his own devices as his parents attended to his brother’s more visible needs and behaviors. It is no stretch at all for me to imagine that my own daughters must often have felt, may always feel, the same. But do I know? Can I know their hearts for sure? And if I could, what would I do with the hurts I’m afraid I’d find?
  3. How do you form an identity when you have neither name nor place of origin? Sure, you might cobble something together, and like Saroo, seem relatively fine, but stories with unclear beginnings stand on pretty shaky ground. I have one child like Saroo with a legal name born of a mispronunciation and subsequent misspelling, another whose name had to be invented from thin air. We vaguely know where two of my kids are from, the third one not at all. How do you build a self out of that, particularly a self you can rely on?
  4. How do you tell your child he’s not going to get lucky like Saroo, that barring an actual, bonafide miracle, Google Earth isn’t going to help? His birth family is, for all intents and purposes, gone. Is there a way, any way at all, to help a child process that level of loss? After all, you’re not just asking him to accept reality; he’s going to have to abandon his fantasies too. Which is worse: false hope or lost hope?

See what I mean about unanswerable questions? There are plenty more where those came from, and they never really go away. That might sound painful, and it is, but in its way, it’s also a sort of gift, the gift nth6pq3vdow-benjamin-balazsof empathy. Can I know how my children feel? Of course not. Not really. But I can understand how complicated life feels when there are fundamental things you simply do not know. I might not have answers, but I am learning to live in the space of not knowing. Maybe, just maybe, I can meet my children there.

I am a solo mother of three, all adopted as older children from India, all of whom have been affected by early childhood trauma, particularly my youngest, who was diagnosed at age six with RAD, ADHD, and ODD. We had struggled along as best we could for more than two years before that, whereupon I started learning all I could about trauma and attachment. It has changed our lives for the better. Not only has it set my son on a path that could –maybe– lead to eventual healing, it taught me the type of help my eldest would need as she dealt with her own past en route to young adulthood. Perhaps best of all, it led me to ATN, who not only helped our family, but also gave me the chance to pay it forward by helping families like ours find the support they need. In my “real” job, I am a World Languages professor and department chair at a private liberal arts college in the Appalachian mountains. I have found a way to merge my passions by researching the depiction of intercountry adoption in world literature and film and guest-lecturing for education classes about diversity, inclusion, and trauma-informed instruction. In what passes for my free time, I enjoy long walks, reading, writing, playing piano, and caring for our dog and cats.