Jason Bourne, an adoptee’s search story in disguise

The film character Jason Bourne has staked out a unique place in cinematic history as an anti-hero on a hero’s quest. The essential conflict surrounds a man searching for his past, who will stop at nothing to find out who he is and how he became that way.

Jason Bourne, a man on a mission, to find out who he is--something most adoptees share.

Jason Bourne, a man on a mission, to find out who he is–something most adoptees share.

For most viewers, Bourne is an uber-sexy and straight-up action hero, who can improvise killing with a ball-point pen, dirty towel, magazine, toaster, and shoelace. For anyone who is an adoptee, who has spent a life wanting to know who they are and where they came from, they will see this rogue agent with amnesia as a different story, about a person intensely wanting to know one’s self. They likely see Bourne’s narrative as their own.

His very name, which means outer limit in old English, also plays on the word’s other usage, as a verb, meaning coming into life from the womb. He’s a man who is literally born anew, without knowing where he comes from.

Bourne’s many opponents, in the dark world of secret U.S. government black ops programs and intelligence, are part of a vast system that works relentlessly to stop and kill him and those he loves. They had recruited him, brainwashed him, trained him, turned him loose to kill, and now need to terminate him to ensure their own personal survival.

Jason Bourne escapes again

Jason Bourne escapes again on his journey of self-knowledge and discovery.

The right anti-hero for a morally ambiguous world

At one level, this is a perfect story for our complicated times of secret rendition and torture, bulk data collection, and little-publicized military and intelligence operations. During the years Matt Damon’s Bourne emerged on the screen in 2002 in The Bourne Identity, the United States was involved in two official wars following 9-11 and supported other military ventures in Africa and the Mideast. The films emerged while U.S. national intelligence services widely expanded data collection programs on ordinary citizens and real and perceived enemies of the state.

The Bourne Supremacy followed in 2004, ramping up the fight choreography and exotic locations where Bourne battles his enemies. The last Jason Bourne franchise film, The Bourne Ultimatum, released in 2007, presciently predicted the later revelations of 2013 by former CIA employee and government contractor Edward Snowden. Real programs like the CIA-run Prism eerily resembled the fictional Treadstone and Blackbriar programs that our hero Bourne was once a member of in the first three Bourne films.

Like many fans of the Bourne series, I and others secretly cheer our hero as he gathers information through clues captured with surveillance gear, deception, impersonations, odd alliances, and direct confrontations with his nemeses. All Bourne wants to know is, who he is and how did he become the killer who can tear apart a U.S. embassy in Geneva as if it were second nature? How and why did he have to kill people deemed to be threats by his handlers?

Throughout the chases, escapes, explosions, and close-quarter death fights, our hero Bourne is constantly looking for answers. He has PTSD-like flashbacks, and tries to figure out his past dashing from Geneva to Paris, from Naples to Berlin. Why would he keep risking his life seeking answers?

The real motive is archetypal and older than Oedipus Rex

The motive is archetypal. Bourne is acting out a natural desire. It is the drive that is the most innate in humans—a quest of self-discovery. This is precisely the yearning every adoptee has. I would argue that the intensity of this desire for any adoptee is as strong as anything we see in the onscreen Bourne. It has a type of intensity that unsettles those who do not relate to this story in a personal way.

For those in the United States lucky to be born when original birth records were once again made accessible, this quest is much simpler than Bourne’s bloody odyssey. But for adoptees who were born in states where their original birth records are still closed, such as Michigan for adoptees who are my age range, they are more like Bourne on his now 14-year journey—denied answers, obstructed at every turn.

Unlike Bourne, adoptees are not trained in combat, subterfuge, and intelligence. They can’t beat up social service managers and storm into offices to reclaim documents that are theirs, such as their original birth certificates. They are mostly on their own. They have to play ball in a legal reality that treats them as second-class citizens, with no chance to hack a safe that holds all of the secrets kept hidden from them.

The second film in the series, The Bourne Supremacy, concludes with Bourne confronting his murderous past and telling actress Oksana Akinshina’s Irena Neski character, the daughter of two Russian activists, that he killed them and that she should know what he did to her mother and father. It’s a scene worth sharing again:

Jason Bourne Confesses

Jason Bourne discovers he is a murderer, and confesses his crime with the daughter of a couple he killed on assignment–his Oedipus Rex moment of truth and catharsis.

Bourne: Does that mean a lot to you?
Neski: It’s nothing. It’s just a picture.
Bourne: No. It’s ’cause you don’t know how they died.
Neski: I do.
Bourne: No, you don’t. I would want to know. I would want to know that my … that my mother didn’t kill my father, that she didn’t kill herself.
Neski: What?
Bourne: It’s not what happened to your parents. I killed them. I killed them. It was my job. It was my first time. Your father was supposed to be alone. But then your mother … came out of nowhere, and I had to change my plan.
Bourne: It changes things, that knowledge. Doesn’t it? When what you love gets taken from you, you wanna know the truth.

This is one of the most moving scenes of the entire series, reminiscent of classic Greek tragedy. It brings instantly to mind one of the most famous adoption narratives ever, Oedipus Rex. In the play by Sophocles, the audience learns that king Oedipus was orphaned as a child to escape his planned murder by his father, King Laius, all because prophecy foretold a terrible future of regicide by his son.

A baby Oedipus was later adopted by a shepherd, never knowing the truth about his past.

Oedipus eventually becomes king of Thebes after killing his then-unknown biological father, King Laius, on the road along the way and solving the riddle of the Sphinx. He is rewarded for defeating the Sphinx by being married to the dowager queen who is his biological mother, Jocasta. The plague that grips the land, we learn, is because of his abominations. But our hero pursues the truth to learn that he is both a murderous adoptee and someone who slept with his own mother—a very stern warning against the adoption from our Greek forebears. He blinds himself plunging a knife into his eyes, and then leaves the throne.

Bourne, unlike Oedipus, does not blind himself. He does, however, confront all three of the father figures in the first three films who failed, in succession, to have their rogue agent killed: Chris Cooper’s Alexander Conklin, Brian Cox’s Ward Abbot, and Bourne’s brainwasher—knocked off in the only Bourne film without Damon—Albert Finney’s Dr. Albert Kirsch. With each character, he chooses not to kill them. He acts more humanely than the “fathers” who wanted him murdered for his quest of discovery.

To put it mildly, the confrontations are cathartic in the truest Greek sense of the word. They bring to stormy conclusions the hidden secrets and the hero’s willingness to accept the consequences for the truth.

Jason Bourne Is Back

To succeed in your journey, you need to be resilient and ready for what you do not expect. Also, you can never just let it be, ever, like Jason Bourne, who comes back in July 2016.

Catharsis and its inevitability for anyone on this journey

For an adoptee who does find out who they are, and who are lucky enough to either meet their birth families and/or find their original birth documents, there will be catharsis.

There will be realizations that the fantasies about one’s past need to be thrown away. There may be realities of knowing who one truly comes from, good and bad. It could be both, but it could be far worse or better than imagined. These moments forever change the lives of the families who tried to keep the information secret, such as the fathers who impregnated and abandoned many single women, or the mothers, who realize that a past that brought so much turmoil must now be confronted.

This is not a place for anything but mythical, archetypal storytelling. It is good that the messenger is someone who is as resilient as Bourne.

I for one am very anxious to see how our hero, Bourne, resolves his journey in the fourth film, Jason Bourne. He will re-emerge from shadows and back into the light. Will he accept himself and find what he needs to know? All we know is that nothing will stop him. For that reason, I will be in the theater, cheering him on, knowing that the journey is worth the burden and obstacles.

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.