I’ve never been able to find the right words to describe life with my daughter, Natalie. We adopted her five years ago, and she came to us with special needs—ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, and various other issues. My mantra—”she’s easy to love, but hard to raise”—is inadequate in describing either the intense love and joy or the chaos and exhaustion she’s brought to my life.
Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism & Adoption, by Ralph James Savarese (Other Press; $25.95), states—clearly, concisely, and with passion—why some people adopt. Why some people adopt kids with special needs. Why we adopted Natalie. It’s a powerful, complex book about “what hope and commitment can accomplish.”
Savarese, a professor at Grinnell College, and his wife, an expert on autism and inclusion, adopted their son, DJ, from the U.S. foster system when he was six. DJ has autism. He doesn’t speak, and he experienced severe trauma before joining his family. Woven into the story of their adoption journey, the challenges and triumphs they’ve shared along the way, are Savarese’s treatises on the politics of differing abilities, foster care and adoption, and the meaning of family.
It’s an intellectually (morally, ideologically) challenging read. But to say it’s “worth the challenge” would imply that I had to slog through it. That’s not true—I could hardly put it down. DJ, who now practices “facilitated communication,” using a computer, wrote the final chapter himself. “I resent these very hurtful conversations being easy reading for everyone,” he writes. It isn’t easy reading, DJ. It’s life-changing reading.
I e-mailed Savarese, hoping for a quote I could include in my review. Reading it gave me shivers. It will tell you, more clearly than I ever could, why you should read the book.
In the author’s words:
I hate the fetish of blood relations. Not only does it make adopted children and families feel like second-class citizens, but it perniciously tells us that our ethical obligations extend no further than our natural (as opposed to artificial) ties. So screw the homeless man on the street or the poor family on the other side of town. So long as I’m good to my mother, well, then, I’m a good person. Baloney! We need to open our eyes to the predicaments of those less fortunate; we need to look beyond the walls of the gated community that is often the blood family. More creative family making might actually help us to realize the sentimental trope of the “human family.”
For my wife and me, adoption was a FIRST-resort adventure in responding to the desperate plight of a badly abused, wordless little boy. This boy has given us MORE than we have given him. Has it been exhausting? You bet; the most exhausting and challenging and anxiety-producing thing I have ever done. Ever. But also the most rewarding.
Why are we on this planet? I believe to grow in our capacity to care and attend to human suffering. By stretching ourselves, sometimes beyond measure, we find a joy that approximates wisdom. My wife and I are NOT saints and don’t appreciate being compared to such beings. Our relationship has suffered. We don’t have time for the many things we used to do. But whose relationship hasn’t suffered with the arrival of kids, whether adopted or not? Looking back on the last 10 years, we marvel at what hope and commitment can accomplish.