In “Disenfranchised Grief,” Kenneth J. Doka presents the concept of disenfranchised grief, which is formulated as “the grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported” (4). Doka argues that the disenfranchised grief occurs when the relationship is not recognized, the loss is not recognized, or the griever is not recognized (“Disenfranchised” 5-6) and elucidates that the “emotions associated with grief are intensified and complicated when grief is disenfranchised” (“Introduction” 17).
Doka’s conceptualization of disenfranchised grief elucidates the experiences of bereavement, grief, and mourning that emerge within a particular social or cultural context. Bereavement takes place when a person experiences a significant loss and is “aware of that loss” (Corr 45), yet the grief is “prohibited, restrained, unsanctioned, and unsupported by society” (Corr 57). Grief is a “natural and healthy reaction to loss” (Corr 48);
Disenfranchised grief embodies the sociological, psychological, social-psychological, spiritual, and political implications, and Sarah Brabant who elaborated Doka’s concept argues that disenfranchised grief is interconnected with some “grieving rules,” which are part of the “normative order,” in each society (31). Norms engender “the discrepancy between individual and collective meanings of the loss” (Kamerman 413) and set a limit on human behaviors and delimit the rights of the members; the rules “specify who, when, where, how, how long, and for whom people should grieve” (Doka, “Disenfranchised” 4). If the grief derived from a personal loss is incompatible with the grieving rules of the society, it is unrecognized by others and the bereaved person receives neither consolation nor accorded right to mourn that loss, which subsequently engenders disenfranchised grief.
Doka’s concept of disenfranchised grief comes out of a tradition that social as well as cultural factors influence the nature of the bereavement experience. Within a certain cultural context, disenfranchisement represents human interactions that reside outside of the norms—that are taken as meaningless or that defy the fixed social values—or human behaviors that stem from the peripherialized principles that a society has driven from the center. In this sense, disenfranchisement exudes a sense of exclusivity.
The disenfranchised grief of a birthmother is one of the most significant themes in Tammy Chu’s
As Margaret Homans argues, “birthmothers may be desired, disavowed, or reviled, but their own stories are seldom heard” (250); birthmothers in Korea have been confined by the principles of the patriarchal order and misrepresented as emblematic of maternal absence or female deviance within the discourse of adoption as well as in adoption narratives. Since the “birthmother cannot represent herself, and she is representable by others only as an absence” (Homans 252) in the cultural logic of adoption, to speak or write about their loss was insurmountably difficult. “[P]erceived rejection, outright discrimination, and painful alienation” (E. Kim 192) peripherized them; and rather than being the subjects who lead and control the narrative, they have been the objects of adoptees’ origins searches or the silent figures who only exist in adoptees’ fantasies.
Disrupting the narrative tradition,
1)Directed by the Korean transnational adoptee, Chu, this movie premiered at the 2009 Pusan International Film Festival and won The Asian Network Documentary Award (Pusan International Film Festival). Also, it won the Best Documentary (Asian Film Festival of Dallas, 2010), Best Documentary Feature (DC APA Film Festival, 2010), Grand Jury Award Nominee, Best Documentary (Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, 2011), and Best Documentary Finalist (Palm Beach Women’s International Film Festival, 2011).
Birthmothers represent “the most subordinated groups in an entrenched patriarchy and misogynistic state welfare system” (E. Kim 199), and their relinquishment is a part of Korea’s cultural, social, and political history of abusive systems of power.2) In the history and the narratives of Korean transnational adoption, birthmothers have been the most neglected party in the adoption triad: they have been little acknowledged and/or generally misinterpreted as being promiscuous or irresponsible, whose mythical image is paralleled to that of cuckoo birds which lay eggs in other birds’ nests and neglect them, rather than being acknowledged as the victims of the Korean patriarchal system. The marginalization of birthmothers is shown in multiple forms of adoption narratives, such as memoirs, films, television soap operas, and more, and the complicated and contested ideologies of gender, domesticity, and motherhood are commingled around the issue of transnational adoption, a locus in which birthmothers are doubly peripherialized due to their gender, material situation, and marital status.
Critics argue that “the grief of a woman who has relinquished a child for adoption is unique, and, therefore, does not and can not follow the traditional prescription for grief and mourning” (Aloi 28). Lamentably, however, birthmothers have been deprived of their rights to grieve because they violated and transgressed Korean traditional norms of femininity and sexual chastity; from the canonical standpoint, birthmothers are deemed unfit to be mothers—since they exist on the peripherialized territory, outside of the patrifocal family—and who thus deserve to be denied mothering. The denial of their status as mothers lies in the fact that Korea is a patriarchal society that yearns for “good” mothers who abide by the male order/obligations or the norms that the dominant, or the male, have set up. Consequently, the primacy of the mother-child bond is severed by the family, institution, and nation, all of which operate based on the male-dominant rules.
Distressingly enough, there are a lot of myths surrounding birthmothers, which are not rooted in realities but are, more often than not, produced and reproduced by the dominant hegemony. Undoubtedly, and not surprisingly, the myths about birthmothers reflect cultural perspectives on birthmothers as well as the coded representation of them generated by the male-centered society.
One of the commonly misconceived assumptions about birthmothers and their relinquishment is that all the surrendered babies are unwanted ones—
Another misconception about birthmothers is that after relinquishment, they will somehow manage to move on and forget about their children.
Equally striking is that people are haunted by the false belief that the subsequent birth(s) will substitute for the child the birthmother has relinquished. Partially, it is true, as Myung-ja testifies herself that she decided to have Hyo-jung, when she found out she was pregnant with her second child, because she wanted to have a child of her own; and the subsequent child somewhat eased the pain of Myung-ja’s loss. However, the wound from the bereavement of her first child had become a scar that could not be healed completely. The birthmother ponders, “But all the while, he (Sung-wook) was always in my heart. Always” (Chu).
“Your birthmother and Korea did the same thing: they rejected you” (Yngvesson 155)—this is one of the most prevalent social and cultural dictates that misrepresents the truth. Archetypally, birthmothers are misjudged as rejecting mothers and as being abusive, violent, licentious, and/or negligent; however, the negative images of birthmothers are contested by Myung-ja’s definition of a mother—“A mother will give up her life for her child” (Chu)—and also by her maternal performance and responsibility shown to Hyo-jung. The film delineates how good a mother Myung-ja is, or how she is not unlike an ordinary mother, by featuring her caring and loving attitudes towards Hyo-jung: the mother spends much time with her daughter, takes interest in her school work as well as her extracurricular activities. For instance, a scene where Myung-ja sits next to Hyo-jung, who is practicing the melodeon/portable electric keyboard, and attends to every note the daughter plays underlines how deeply the mother loves and cares for her daughter.
Furthermore, contrary to the conventional belief,
Until only recently, birthmothers have not been allowed to voice their presence or to claim their loss. The patriarchal Korean society deprived them of their status as mothers, robbed them of their children, and silenced them; moreover, it urged birthmothers to “hold private their grief reactions to avoid troubling or disturbing others by bringing the reactions out into the open or expressing them in certain ways” (Corr 47). Wielding power for its own benefit, the deeply rooted patriarchal ideology of South Korea and the gender hierarchy between men and women greatly favored men, who reveled in their authority to direct and dominate female sexuality. The influence of Confucianism, which rejects non-agnate adoption, combined with a traditional adherence to bloodlines and the atmosphere of discriminating against single motherhood, consequently engendered the disenfranchised grief of birthmothers.
Dislodged from the center to peripherialized territory, birthmothers have been taken as nonbeings and relegated to the darkened lairs of muteness. The requirement of their nonexistence bred disenfranchisement—they were denied as mothers, and the denial of their status as mothers deprived them of their right to mourn the loss. They were not offered the “grieving roles” that would lay claim to social sympathy and support. Instead, society locked the birthmothers in a prison of shame, put them behind the bars of silence, and welcomed as well as supported that voicelessness.
To the bereaved, nothing but the return of the lost person can bring true comfort (Verrier 68). Reunion can, indeed, be a “vital part of the healing process” (Verrier 179) and Myung-ja confronts and fights the societal denial of the maternal self by stepping out of the dark into the light, which is symbolized by her appearance on a national television show, where the truth about Sung-wook’s pre-adoption story is aired nationwide. In public, she asserts that after his disappearance, she—as birthmother—tried to find Sung-wook but could not; all she could hear from the people around her was that her son had been sent away, and she assumed that he was living with a wealthy family in Korea; only recently did she find out he was adopted overseas.
The concealed history of adoption has to be discussed and narrated in order to reconstitute the past, through which process “what has been in your blind spot comes into view” (Gordon xvi). Myung-ja’s aunt certifies the birthmother’s testimony in confessing for herself and for Myung-ja’s mother and cousin, “We didn’t tell her that we sent her son away . . . . We didn’t tell her what happened. She didn’t know where he was sent. She had no idea” (Chu). The hidden secrets, the skeleton in the closet, or the “blind spot” in the history of Korean transnational adoption is exposed, and the disenfranchised grief of the birthmothers gains public recognition and acknowledgement.
Two years passed after Myung-ja’s first reunion with her son and Sung-wook revisits his birthmother, this time with his family, his wife and two daughters. Myung-ja takes Sung-wook to her extended family and to Korean traditional markets; she clothes him in
Verrier’s “broken plate” metaphor evokes Homan’s argument that the past is “irretrievable” (118), which is also implied in Myung-ja’s confession that it breaks her heart that Sung-wook is not completely her child. At the end of the film, Sung-wook returns to Korea for a short time to look for a job—his adoptive mother’s dementia has been putting strain on their relationship, and he wants to live with his birthmother. Nevertheless, Myung-ja’s wish of retrieving her son and living with him cannot be accomplished: suddenly, plans change and he is called back to South Dakota to care for his adoptive mother and two daughters. The last scene of Sung-wook’s story is devoted to the issue of “irretrievability” of the original separation —the film portrays him in South Dakota, the place where he was adopted as a baby, he is not with his birthmother but with his adoptive mother and daughters; the film ends with Sung-wook’s wish—“He hopes to return to Korea someday” (Chu)—which is employed as a metonym for his longing to retrieve his place of origin or his “original” mother.
Adoption inevitably engenders loss. And rather than denying the fact nor evading the truth,
2)The history of transnational adoption in Korea can be divided into these three stages: from the early 1950s to the 1960s, from the 1970s to late 1980s, and from 1988 to the present. After the Korean War, the South Korean government set up the Child Placement Service (1954) and sent the war orphans and mixed-race children (born to Korean women and U.S. soldiers during and after the war) to foreign countries. In the second stage, the children born of young unmarried female factory workers occupied the majority of overseas adoptions. Influenced by the Western media highlighting the large number of children sent out of Korea for adoption during the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, the number from 1988 to the present has decreased. Reasons for relinquishment/losing children to adoption in Korea have mostly been a result of social stigmatization of single motherhood, giving birth to mixed-raced children, domestic abuse, and/or economic hardship. Starting from 1950s, after the Korean War, sending children for foreign adoption has been carried out: after the introduction of the domestic adoption priority system in 2007, the number of children placed in domestic adoption has gradually exceeded that of those placed in foreign adoption; however, overseas adoption continues to exist in the present. 3)The term “birthmother syndrome” was coined by Merry Bloch Jones in her book Birthmothers (1993). According to Jones, the birthmother syndrome is defined as follows. It is unresolved grief including delayed denial, anger, or depression and manifest symptoms of PTSD, such as flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, avoidance, or phobic reactions. Diminished self-esteem, passivity, abandonment of goals, feelings of powerlessness, worthlessness, or victimization are entailed as well as dual identities—division into an outer pretense of perfection or normalcy—and secret feelings of shame, self-condemnation, and isolation on the inside reside within the minds of birthmothers. Slowed emotional development that is sometimes described as being stuck in the time of relinquishment emerges and self-punishment or self-destructive behaviors, abusive relationships, substance abuse, and/or eating disorders emerge as indications of the syndrome. Myung-ja’s narrative denotes that she had suffered from birthmother syndrome: the birthmother confesses that after the loss, she lost her goals and lived recklessly until she had Hyo-jung—whose surname is not given in the film—years later. Also, the birthmother mentions that after the loss, she began to smoke cigarettes: “I started smoking and wandered around like a madwoman” (Chu)—smoking, or engaging in other “substance abuse,” can be diagnosed as symptomatic of her unresolved grief. See Jones 269-88 for more information on the birthmother syndrome.
Charles A. Corr, who revisited and extended Doka’s concept of disenfranchised grief, claims that “constructive mourning” is essential for those who are striving to live in “productive and meaningful ways in the aftermath of loss” (58). In
Birthmothers and Korean TRAs exist in a limbo wherein they do not belong to anywhere nor to anyone, which creates “in-between-ness.” They possess a common frame of reference, a sense of collectivity, of adoption loss. In other words, the birthmothers and adoptees share the “collective counter-memories” —composed of “individual memories (and lack of memories) of Korea,” which are “important articulations of personal and national history” (E. Kim 199). The liminality of their identity and status in Korean society engendered rejection, discrimination and alienation and they are framed as “reminders and remainders” (E. Kim 197) of the concealed past in the history of foreign adoption and, at the same time, the remnants of the patriarchal systems that control and regulate female sexuality. In the film, the ritual accommodates the purpose of consoling the unacknowledged grief of the ghost, adoptees, and their double, birthmothers. After the scene that shows Myung-ja’s participation in the ceremony of the mourning ritual,
“To articulate the experience of becoming a non-person is already to have reconstituted some degree of personhood” (Homans 262). Through the course of “re-membering, of recollecting and reconnecting the fragments and splinters that history has torn asunder” (Sorenson 153), the mask of the rhetoric of transnational adoption, or the hidden truth behind the history of the overseas adoption, is doffed and Myung-ja discards her old self, as a marginalized, absent mother, and transforms into a new self, one that owns a voice and an empowered entity.
The reunion process is prerequisite for the reformulation of Myung-ja’s personhood and for her narrative mobility in
As the dialogue progresses, it turns into a public hearing where the audience becomes a witness, through which the issues of child relinquishment and the disenfranchised grief of a birthmother are probed and contested. Initially, Myung-ja’s aunt tried to defend her decision by saying it was “the right thing” to do and refused to recognize her niece’s unresolved grief. Then, the aunt impersonates the male voice and attempts to dismiss her niece’s accusation. However, Myung-ja is not intimidated by the threat; instead, she fights back and subverts her aunt’s argument with her empowered voice.
This scene is vital in that it pinpoints the locus where the shattering of patriarchal norms takes place and, more importantly, it exemplifies and signals the enfranchisement of the disenfranchised grief of the birthmother. The “fragmented components of the trauma reassemble and become an organized, detailed, verbal account, oriented in time and historical context” (Herman 177) as the dispute continues, which is, in fact, in a broader sense, the debate on the legitimacy of Korean transnational adoption. Myung-ja’s articulation, which was neglected as meaningless in the past, as well as at the beginning of the discourse, is finally acknowledged and her grief is enfranchised by her aunt, one of the perpetrators who caused the pain of separation and loss between Myung-ja and Sung-wook.
Ostensibly, the acknowledgment of the perpetrator’s guilt and of the birthmother’s grief appears to be personal or familial apology and recognition. Nevertheless, in essence, it should be noted that the apology and recognition, in a larger sense, represent those of the Korean society; they connote and embody the latent power to subvert the principles of Korean patriarchy and its grieving rules. The disenfranchised grief of birthmothers signifies the conspiracy of silence around Korean transnational adoption that the government has tried to hide. The scene epitomizes that Myung-ja is no longer confined within the male discourse that controls and regulates her autonomy; the dispute between the birthmother and her aunt is significant in that it dismantles the patriarchal norms and that it connotes the transformation in Myung-ja’s selfhood—from a silent body to a speaking subject.
“[D]ehistoricizing the past” (Sorenson 186) or to “fight for an oppressed past is to make this past come alive as the lever for the work of the present” (Gordon 66). After the second reunion of Myung-ja and Sung-wook, the birthmother’s inactive, static past as a passive victim of adoption loss is reincarnated into a dynamic, palpitating living present as an empowered identity. When Myung-ja and Sung-wook unite for the second time, the birthmother promises her son—“From now on, for the rest of my life . . . as long as I live . . . I will do everything I can for you” (Chu)—and she keeps her promise by doing “everything” she can for “adoptees” like Sung-wook to “prevent others from suffering like us” (Chu), like Myung-ja and Sung-wook. And her promise does not fall to the ground but it is put into practice and reincarnated into a solidarity movement that opposes overseas adoption.
Myung-ja participates in the demonstrations by birthmothers and adoptees against Korean transnational adoption, the social justice activities carried out by empowered adoptees and birthmothers, collecting signatures to end the atrocity of severing the inseparable bond of a mother and a child. The pivotal moment is manifested in the scene—“Please show your support for adoptees! Please sign the petition!” (Chu)—that encapsulates the amalgamation of Myung-ja’s empowered voice with social mobility, where the birthmother propagates the truths about the malicious and grievous aftermath of transnational adoption to the passersby at the subway station and asks them to be a part of the movement that strives to eradicate the evil practice. The performativity transcends the frame of the social construction: the solidarity movement destabilizes the deep-embedded conventional perspectives upon transnational adoption and reflects the current social climate change regarding birthmothers and adoptees.
Simultaneously, the film proceeds and presents the reborn Myung-ja who owns a powerful voice that castigates the exploitative system of Korean government—“Our country should provide more social welfare services. It’s a harsh world for a single mother and her child” (Chu). The birthmother is no longer fettered or repressed by the male-centered discourses; on the contrary, she transcends it with her empowered selfhood. Myung-ja, who was once dehumanized, deserted by Sung-wook’s birthfather and defrauded by her own family, the one who could not own a voice, transforms into an autonomous subjectivity, an activist with social mobility; she is empowered to fight for the justice of the disempowered—the birthmothers and adoptees. Myung-ja not only gains recognition upon her loss and bereavement but she also becomes an empowered voice who strives to raise public awareness upon the negative effects of transnational adoption and to speak on behalf of birthmothers.
“The horrors of war pale beside the loss of a child” (Soll & Buterbaugh xii): often compared to prenatal death and/or “losing an infant through death” (Askren & Bloom 395), adoption loss is “more pervasive, less socially recognized, and more profound” than other losses people expect in a lifetime (Brodzinsky et al. 9). Bereavement of child loss is taken as atrocious as to be depicted as “an emotional amputation” (Carlini 5); however, very little attention has been paid to the grief of the birthmothers who lost their children to adoption, and they have been a relatively silent voice in the discourse of adoption. Contrary to the mythical beliefs that label them as abandoning mothers, birthmothers in Korea are, more often than not, the victims of the poor social welfare system, lingering poverty, remnants of Confucianism, and the social stigma of single motherhood. Yet, due to the new wave of documentaries and NGOs, as well as cooperation with Korean TRAs, birthmothers are discovering their voices and moving from the periphery to the forefront. By fleshing out the disenfranchised grief of a birthmother through presenting Myung-ja’s story,
Birthmothers’ disenfranchised grief is emblematic of the gendered hierarchy that reflects the dominant social and cultural hegemony. Likewise, silence has been the imperative that patriarchal culture imposed on women: when birthmothers lose their babies, they lose their voices. Muted by the male-centered discourse, birthmothers’ narratives have been peripherialized. The uninscribed, uninscribing, and/or uninscribable story of birthmothers’ loss is textualized and gains verbal inscription within the loci of
An important frame of reference for
Subverting the convention of literary narrative that allows no space for birthmothers’ stories,