After three decades, and there was nothing

We all die some day. I too will pass away, and I hope my wishes are honored, and my ashes are scattered when I do.

I recently visited the tombstone of a man who died three decades ago and who I never really knew. It was the first time I stood over his bones.

He impacted my life and that of my family in ways that I never could control as a kid, but what I could do was determine how I wanted to live my life at a very, very young age.

I also  decided that I would not carry a name given that did not reflect who I was in any way, and instead I would choose my own name, which honored my past and ancestors.

Others will judge how well I succeeded in being better than the family name on this headstone. I have worked at this for decades, and every day I ask myself, how am I doing? Am I living the life I intended to live and not making the mistakes I have seen around me? No one will ever really understand this quest but me, and there will be no rewards for this quest, for that is called living your life.

I also continue to be questioned by many who will never understand why I made my choices to not bear this name when I part from this life to whatever awaits us all. I am comfortable with that. I have been questioned for decades about my choices, and anything worth doing will upset people who do not have the imagination to comprehend a world they do not live or understand.

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The Man of Steel, an adult adoptee’s journey of discovery

I recently watched the 2013 blockbuster based on the prototypical American comic superhero, Superman, called Man of Steel. I was not expecting much. I hoped for mindless Hollywood entertainment.

This film adaptation of the 1930s original comic-book character took a new direction with a very overt narrative, amid the buildings falling down and space ships blowing up. In this rebooted franchise, the Superman tale is told as a story of a man’s—or rather, a Kryptonian’s—search for his identity.

Super Adoptee, Superman

Superman, the adult adoptee on interplanetary steroids–beloved and feared by many.

The Man of Steel relies on one of the oldest mythological stories of human civilization, that of a hero’s search for himself by finding out his “true lineage.” This is the arc of great stories, from Moses to King Arthur. The Man of Steel also includes other classic mythological storytelling tropes, such as confronting a nemesis, the inevitable conflict, and the return from the journey as a hero. In this case, the hero happens to be born of one family and sent across the galaxy to be raised by another family in Kansas. He then must spend years figuring out who he really is.

The Haywood Tapestries show King Arthur, a famous adoptee of noble lineage, like Moses, the greatest adoptee of the Bible and the Jewish and Christian traditions.

The Haywood Tapestries show King Arthur, a famous adoptee of noble lineage, like Moses, the greatest adoptee of the Bible and the Jewish and Christian traditions.

The hero’s journey

Minus the over-the-top special effects battles, this film is a basic tale a self-discovery. The most compelling moments in the film involve conversations the young Clark Kent has with his “adopted” father, Jonathan Kent, played by Kevin Costner. They discuss their ambiguous relations as non-biological father and adopted son. That tension bursts in a scene where the older Clark tells his father and mother, “You’re not my real parents.” Right on cue, following that conversation, Costner’s character dies in a tornado.

The adult Clark is left adrift not knowing who to call his parents or how to identify with his biological roots or his adoptive roots. So, the journey begins, and he wanders from the Bering Sea to the Canadian Arctic.

Clark Kent and Father in Superman Film

In this scene form the Warner Bros. film the Man of Steel, Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent talks to the younger Clark Kent, his adopted son from an alien race from the planet Krypton

This cinematic rendering of this rite of passage is nearly identical to what an adopted adult goes through when they have to decide for themselves if they wish to find out their history and biological roots, or accept the decisions institutions and others made for them.

A not-so-super real-life journey by adoptees

The actors who decided those adoptees’ fates are usually shielded by archaic adoption laws and the intransigent bureaucracies who supported the millions of adoptions, as was the case in the United States between the 1940s and 1970s. This adult adoptee decision is never easy, and is often costly. It can be very divisive and unpopular. Such a decision can forever change family relations and be condemned by people who know nothing about this desire to find the truth. It is at its core Superman’s tale.

In my case, I literally had to spend years, like Clark, on a pursuit that took me from state to state, bureaucracy to bureaucracy, until I finally solved the case and learned about the identity of my biological parents. I did not find a space ship buried in the Canadian ice like Clark, and my biological roots are not linked to Krypton. Nor did I meet my computer-generated father, Jor-El, played by Russell Crowe.

A scene from the Warner Bros. film, Man of Steel, showing Russell Crow as Jor-El, father of Kal-El, aka Clark Kent aka Superman.

A scene from the Warner Bros. film, Man of Steel, showing Russell Crow as Jor-El, father of Kal-El, aka Clark Kent aka Superman.

During their conversation, Crowe’s Jor-El tells Clark his “real name” is Kal-El. This is identical to what any adoptee experiences when he or she learns his or her “real name,” or the name at birth and on an original birth certificate. That document in most states is treated as a high-level state secret and never shared with adult adoptees unless they get waivers from surviving birth parents signed. This is the case with the state of Michigan for me, which still refuses to give me my original birth certificate, even though I have known my biological family history now for 26 years.

So Kal-El is also Clark Kent, much as I had another name for three and a half weeks until I was given a “new name.” It was a name I had until I changed it in 2009 to a name that incorporates parts of my birth and adoptive names.

In the fictional movie, Clark has all of his questions answered. His original Krypton father is a noble and great leader, as was his adoptive father, in Kansas. But in real life, how many people do you know have movie-style fathers? My biological father and my adoptive father clearly were not cut out for any story as formulaic as this film. They would never make it into a screenplay for the masses. I never had a conversation like our film hero did with his biological or adoptive fathers.

Finding your answers unleashes chaos, the not-so-subtle message of Superman

In the last act of the film, Superman is exposed as a space alien and chased by a rogue band of surviving criminals from Krypton, who force Superman to make a choice between his adoptive tribe or his biological tribe.

Superman must also tell his adoptive mother he found his “real parents,” watch her sadness, and then be redeemed for viewers by saving her life and calling her “my mother” while doing it. The rescue creates a comforting way we can have Superman be forgiven for being confused who is parents are or who is mother is, when such warm fuzzies may not be in abundance in the real world.

If you follow the narrative of the Man of Steel, these questions could lead you on a journey that threatens the very fate of the planet earth, or something equally dreaded.

If you follow the narrative of the Man of Steel, these questions could lead you on a journey that threatens the very fate of the planet earth, or something equally dreaded.

Ultimately, the film reveals that Superman’s activation of a beacon on the spaceship that he found brought the evil Kryptonites to earth, with the goal of total destruction of the planet. You cannot get more grandiose than the genocide of all of humanity as a penalty for discovering your identity and asking, who am I, and where did I come from. Once the chaos is unleashed by the bad invaders, only Superman, the misfit between both worlds and both families, can save the human race. That is a huge burden to lay on a guy who asked a very basic question.

In the end, Superman remains Clark Kent, not Kal-El. He retains his adoptive family loyalty. He will hide his biological self, except when needed, though he may never be trusted because he is “different.” He has solved his riddle, and the package is neatly tied as many Hollywood movies are.

Life does not follow this pattern. There are no heroic battles with invading aliens. Things are more messy.

But the journey of the real-life hero is no less epic than what the film Man of Steel shows. I  think the film resonated more deeply, more viscerally with those who have undertaken the quest of Clark/Kal-El/Superman. If you have never had to ask the question that confronted our hero, about who you are and where you came from, you may never understand his journey, and also the conflicts and rewards that must inevitably accompany such a quest.

‘Ideals are peaceful, history is violent’

About 15 years ago, a friend of mine told me a story that has stuck in my memory. It was not her story. Rather, it was the story of her husband’s father. Her husband is Jewish, and she is of Armenian descent. So both have a keen sense of history, and the consequences of history, including the crimes that occurred during war. So this is why I gave this story a lot of weight.

Her husband came from the city where I grew up, St. Louis. His father lived there most of his life. The father, I learned, was a veteran of World War II. He fought in Europe, with an armored division as it entered Germany in April 1945, just as the European conflict was ready to end.

The Tank Crew in the FIlm Fury

Above is a publicity shot of the WWII action film Fury, starring Brad Pitt (2014).

She told me about her father-in-law sharing war tales. They were not happy stories. There were stories of conflict and death. One story he shared was about his armored column’s capture of Nazi soldiers. The American soldiers chose not to take the surrendering soldiers into custody. Instead, they shot them down with their weapons, and kept their advance.

I had often wondered how much truth there was to that tale. I know war is pure hell, and soldiers on all sides do not allow their better angels to rule when their inner demons are unleashed in life and death combat. I just did not know what to think about U.S. GIs mowing down Nazis surrendering in the heat of battle.

I thought about that tale again while watching the 2014 film Fury, by writer and director David Ayer, starring Brad Pitt as the leader of a U.S. Sherman tank crew. In one scene, Pitt’s character, Don “Wardaddy” Collier, leads a team of tanks and soldiers in an attack on a German position. They overcome the Germans, and in the final moments of victory, slaughter them in brutal fashion. This was far less brutal than the Nazi were everywhere, when they pillaged and committed war atrocities on an unimaginable scale, especially in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Brad Pitt as Don "Wardaddy" Collier

Above is a publicity shot from the WWII combat film Fury, with Brad Pitt.

One German soldier escapes the executions and is left at the mercy of the enraged American soldiers. Wardaddy picks out his newest team member, a teenager named Norman Ellison (played by Logan Lerman) and forces him to shoot the surviving German soldier with a pistol. It is a painful scene, because the elder Wardaddy is initiating his new “son” into the art of death to make him ready for combat and a better team player.

The film captured a fair bit of critical acclaim for its gritty realism of combat in the claustrophobic conditions of these metal boxes that were no match for Nazi Panzers. I kept thinking about my friend’s father-in-law as a young man, faced with a choice of capturing the enemy or killing them, so they could achieve their objectives more quickly, with less risk to their side. I now believe everything I heard was true.

It was war, and the most brutal war in human history. This was how the war was won. Fury holds back nothing. It is worth watching to appreciate what happened day in and day out, from Stalingrad to Warsaw to Anzio to the Ardennes to the fall of Berlin. Mercy was in short supply, and a whole lot of killing happened to bring the horrible mess to an end—a mess started by the Nazis and carried to an extreme. As Wardaddy told Ellison, before he died, “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.”