Doing the "work" of identity
"Who am I, anyway?" That's a question most of us ask at various points throughout our lives -- usually most noisily as adolescents but with piercing power as we grow older, too.
This question -- and the form it takes particularly in Jewish adoptive families -- was the framework for a fascinating event I attended yesterday: a discussion of race, religion, adoption, and identity with Nicole Opper, director of Off and Running: An American Coming of Age Story, and Adam Pertman, author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming America. The event, co-sponsored by the Northeastern University Jewish Studies Program, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, the Jewish Women's Archive, and the Boston Jewish Film Festival, featured clips from Opper's documentary about an African-American girl adopted by a Jewish lesbian couple and her search for identity, along with conversation among Opper and Pertman and the audience.
I haven't seen Off and Running in its entirety yet (though I did buy a ticket to see it at the Boston Jewish Film Festival on November 10), but even the few clips that I saw yesterday did an amazing job of posing so many difficult questions about how people work through their identities. What does it mean to know who you are and where you came from -- the questions to which Avery, the teen protagonist of the film, seeks answers? Are these questions about family? About biology? About race? About religious identity? About love? About belonging? About separation? One of Avery's moms says, "I'll tell you who you are -- you're his sister, and his sister, and my daughter" etc. Avery's birth mother says "You're the person your parents raised you to be."
Ultimately, of course, no one else can tell you who you are, and there's no one right answer that you can figure out for yourself, either. The answer is constantly in process, shifting, and constructed piecemeal from the various pieces of truth that we create from the facts, myths, and experiences of our lives. I don't know yet how Avery constructs her answer at the end of the film, but I'm sure that it's already changed in the months since the cameras stopped rolling.
I learned some interesting things about adoption from Adam Pertman and the research of his Adoption Institute, such as that there is a gender imbalance in those who search for their birth families (women do it way more, and earlier), and that issues of racial and ethnic identity among adoptees do not peak in adolescence but actually become increasingly important as they get older.
But one of the biggest takeaways of the conversation for me was not explicitly about adoption and identity issues. The conversation reminded me that every one of us -- even those of us who can trace our biological lineages with no questions -- engages in a process of figuring out who we are. Adoptees have more obvious hooks to hang these questions on -- as a transracial adoptee raised by two Jewish lesbians, Avery has plenty of hooks to choose from -- but at some point, we all ask, "Who am I, anyway?"
What's ultimately so useful about a film like Off and Running, and an event like yesterday's, is that they pose these questions in the context of race and Jewishness in America today, opening the conversation for all of us and creating a communal and personal context for pursuing some answers.