Journey of the Adopted Self by Betty Jean Lifton


The Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness

By Betty Jean Lifton

This book is a must read for adoptive parents and adoptees, especially if they have chosen to go the route of a closed or international adoption. The book starts out with a description of a closed adoption and the feelings associated with it. Some of the explicit and implicit issues that take root as a result of secrecy. These issues span the adoptees childhood into adulthood and adoptees as parents are also discussed. Lifton spends a good deal of time describing the cumulative traumas that occur in a closed adoption system and behaviors that can occur as a result. Lifton then goes into the dynamics an adoptee experiences within themselves, their relationship with their adoptive families, and in relation to both their fantasized and real birth parents.

Lifton does an amazing job of discussing the search an adoptee experiences, whether that be literal or in terms of behaviors exhibited in childhood that indicates the desire to find their birth parents. She spends a lot of time discussing the dynamics between the adoptee and birth parents, the adoptee and adoptive parents, and the birth parents and adoptive parents. The amount of detail she provides illuminates the complex emotions and vulnerabilities experienced by each set of relationships.

The third and last part of the book provides a thorough glimpse at what adoptees need to experience to fully heal themselves. It is definitely a tall order, however, actually seeing these tasks written in words somehow makes them appear more tangible and obtainable.

I really enjoyed her use of her own experience as an adoptee, as well as other anecdotes from adoptees that she has interviewed. She uses myths, stories, and excerpts from literature in ways that promotes additional empathy building as well as normalization to the experiences of adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents. They also work as wonderful and emotional metaphors for those who have not yet experienced situations the book has discussed; allowing readers to still find connection within those experiences.

A few notes:

The author is not only an adoptee herself, and a therapist, but also personally knew Erik Erikson, the famous developmental psychologist. She uses her personal experience infrequently, but only as needed to add to the understanding about adoptees in general. In no way does she make the book about just her experience. Additionally, she does not use her experiences in talking with Erikson in to give herself an air of authority. Again, it is done only to emphasize important points.

I have read about the impulse for incest between the adoptee and birth parents in other books (it is rare that this actually occurs, however, the report of a sexual attraction seems to occur with some frequency). I like the way Lifton took the time to explore the reasons behind this attraction in a way that does not stigmatize the adoptee or the birth parents, but creates a better understanding to allow the reader to drop into a place of empathy. I also appreciate that she notes all the problems that may occur should those impulses be acted upon.

I did have one issue, and that was the author’s discussion about a perceived correlation behind being adopted and being gay. All of the information she provides is anecdotal. In fact, she discusses meeting several gay adoptees at an AA meeting and notes that this is one example of the correlation that she sees between being gay and being an adoptee. She does not mention, however, that both members of the LGBTQ+ community and adoptees have higher rates of substance abuse than their heterosexual and non-adoptees. She makes several guesses as to why there may be a correlation between the being gay and being adopted, but never once discusses biological possibilities, such as stress hormones during pregnancy. I wish that the author either avoided the subject all together, or if she was going to wade into these identity waters, which has a deceptively strong undercurrent, that she provides a lot more factual information to back up some of her observations.

I do highly recommend this book. I have found it to provide amazing insights that I don’t think I would have achieved through my work as a clinician alone and has provided more depth in the conversation about adoptees from closed adoptions than any other the books I have read previously on the subject. I would definitely suggest that all adoptive parents and adoptees of closed and international adoptions to read this book as well as all mental health clinicians!

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