I'm So Special

How special do you feel? What factors make up your sense of special – or otherwise?

Many adopted people remember being told they were ‘special.’  “We chose you,” is a standard phrase for adopted people.

At the same time, it is implied there is no difference between you and the non-adopted.

The law backs this up, stating the child is “as if” born to the adopters.

But with adoption, there’s only one way to make ‘no difference’ work. You must deny all nature in favour of nurture. Where that leaves being ‘special’ is uncertain. Because, how can you be special for being adopted and no different than non-adopted at the same time? (see below for comment on open adoption.)

In my case, there was no place to acknowledge or accept difference. But still, you’re special. You must be. Your friends weren’t chosen as you were. You arrived by unknown means. You are like the mystery prize at the fun fair.

Psychologist Edward Dreyfus says the need to feel special is common to human beings. He posits that we are all hoping for special treatment. The issue, he says, is how we deal with the reality of when we are not. And whether we can distinguish between being special and being treated specially.

And that’s where it gets murky for adopted people. Because legally we are anything but special. With no legal right to access the files held on us, we are the opposite of special.

But, if you want to try to access those files we must convince a judge that you have a ‘special reason’.

In my recent application Judge P J Callinicos denied my request. But he did throw me a bone. He said: “I invite her to state all reasons, preferably special ones, why otherwise restricted records should be made available to her.”

But that’s a trick. Because ‘special grounds or reasons,’ is not defined in law. 

This has tripped others up in the past.

In one application, the anonymous ‘B’ asked to inspect files to “meet her natural mother.” She wanted to ‘ascertain Jewish blood,’ because she was ‘undergoing an identity crisis.’ The judge held that these did not constitute special grounds.

When ‘P’ applied, the judge ruled the “psychological comfort” of the adopted person was not considered special enough.

In another case, an adopted woman discovered her mother had died of a heart-related illness. She wanted to know if they ran in the family. The judge said heart issues are common in Western civilisation, so that did not constitute special grounds. He advised her to get a check-up.

It’s not only adopted people. In another case, a mother who lost her child to adoption was terminally ill. She begged the judge to open her file so she could find her child. He refused.

In their refusals, judges say things like this: “While it may be reasonable and justifiable to want to know family background, this does not constitute a special ground.” Or, “It is natural and certainly not peculiar or special that the applicant should wonder about her mother.”

One of the most stunning comments I found came from Judge G F Ellis. In attempting to define special grounds he said that an adopted person wanting to know family members meant the breaking of confidential records to which they were not party.

Think about that for a minute: Records to which they were not party.

In essence, the judge is saying that adopted people are non-persons.

But mothers and their babies were routinely denied independent legal representation when their lives were signed away. On the other hand, adopters did have a lawyer. In truth, the mother and her baby were considered expendable once their role in resolving infertility in a married couple was completed.

This turns us, the people who were adopted into objects, something I find as painful as it is absurd.

Dreyfus says feeling special is all about receiving that extra bit of attention to let us know that we matter in this very impersonal world; we want to be seen as a person, to be validated as unique.  

In New Zealand, the law says adopted people are only special in the way they are denied their most basic human rights.

We shall see if my re-submission before Judge PC Callinicos will succeed or follow almost all the others in the last 60 years. Will my grounds (the anomalous birthdates held in the files) be found special enough?

Of course, now I’m worried. Was I too demanding? Did I make too much of my right to know? Did I show too much emotion? Are my reasons special enough? Am I special enough?

Given the law is clear, what do you think my chances are?

Watch this space.

*There is no open adoption in NZ. The idea is little more than adoption industry PR. A legal judgment states that while the process of adoption now often proceeds on an open basis, what still remains not open is the wish of a child (at any age) to understand more about their background.

*All quotes and comments are taken from the case notes of specific legal judgments handed down by the NZ courts.

*All italics are mine.