Sunday, August 15, 2010

Rachael Stryker's "The Road to Evergreen"

Rachael Stryker is Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Mills College, and the author of several articles on international and domestic adoption. She is currently at work on a book connecting anthropology to public life, Public Interest Ethnography: A Primer.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Road to Evergreen: Adoption, Attachment Therapy, and the Promise of Family, and reported the following:
P. 99 is remarkably representative of this book as a whole. The page marks the beginning of an analysis of chapter four (titled “Prisoners in Our Own Home”), which outlines the processes by which adoptive parents come to embrace the Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) diagnosis to explain the challenging postplacement behaviors of adopted children, as well as parents’ decision to bring their children to undergo controversial models of attachment therapy in Evergreen, Colorado (think “emotional boot camp” for kids). The page also begins by highlighting a paradox: adoptive parents in the United States understand parental love as a curative agent, one that is expected to heal the emotional wounds of formerly institutionalized adoptees caused by abandonment and/or orphanhood and help integrate the child into the new family. However, parental love often fails to turn formerly institutionalized children toward the adoptive family – in fact, adoptees (and particularly those who have been severely abused, who have spent long periods of time in institutions and/or who have been adopted at older ages) may feel much conflict, confusion, and psychic pain in response to parental love as it is expressed through the nuclear family. Parents must thus find other ways to inculcate the impulse toward emotional reciprocity within children, sometimes turning to medical professionals like those who practice the Evergreen model of attachment therapy, particularly because they are experts who promise to help parents emotionally manage the children and project an affective future for their family once again.

The promise of rebuilding the adoptive family is an alluring one for adoptive parents whose postplacement expectations have been dashed, one that can overshadow the dangers or consequences of the methods used to procure the prize. Adoptive parents undoubtedly learn that the Evergreen model of attachment therapy is controversial and possibly detrimental to children’s emotional and physical health. Still they are drawn to it. On p. 99, I demonstrate that adoptive parents often treat the RAD diagnosis as a “black box” (Latour 1987), that is, as “a mechanism that is so complex in terms of its history or inner workings that one does not care how it actually works but only how much input he or she needs to provide to achieve a desired result (in this case, child love).” In other words, when adoptees frustrate the hegemonic logic of the nuclear family through their challenging behaviors, parents typically do not investigate their own actions, expectations for, or models of the family. Instead, they are elated to discover that there may be a reason for their children’s behaviors that have nothing to do with their own parenting practices – one that may find a “quick fix” through professional intervention. In addition, I argue that the RAD diagnosis operates as what medical anthropologist Howard Stein (1985) has called “a signal symptom,” that is, a medical diagnosis borne from a shared social conflict that is intended to displace and direct elsewhere the location of that conflict, thereby allowing society to focus and distract them selves its actual source, which can be overwhelming to all involved. In this case, the RAD diagnosis allows parents to locate the problem solely within the promising and more optimistic realm of the reparable emotional disorder, rather than look systemically at child circulation systems that are, in fact, not necessarily child-centered.

When someone picks up The Road to Evergreen and turns to p. 99 then, what she or he will get is a glimpse of the way the book as a whole challenges readers not just to rethink motivations for the pathologization of formerly institutionalized adoptees, but to also recognize some important contradictions inherent in adoption systems in which formerly institutionalized children are regularly called upon to help individuals build their nuclear families.
Learn more about The Road to Evergreen at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue