Back for a New Year: The Common Plot of Uncertain Parentage

Welcome, everyone, to 2014.  I’ve been on vacation, doing a bit of travelling and afflicted by some sort of nagging virus that seems to wax and wane inexplicably.  But now I am back and lo, it is a new year.   I hope the season has treated everyone well.

Mostly what I’ve been doing is reading and, for once, reading fiction.   I tend to read mysteries (ones that are not too tense) and also current literature (think The Goldfinch, which I highly recommend.)   And I’ve had a lot of time to do that recently.

What struck me–more forcefully than it has before–is how common it is for plots to turn around the paternity or parentage of a character.   This seems to be particularly true in mysteries.  How many times have I read a story where the key lies long in the past, where a child is born and the parents aren’t quite who they should be or are believed to be or whatever.  (I just finished one of these last night.)  There are infinite variations:  the child is born to the wife but is not the husband’s and the husband doesn’t know; the child is born to the wife and is not the child of the husband and the husband does know; the child is actually adopted but no one has told the child and so on.  

But it isn’t just the stuff of cheap mysteries.  I read The Lowland this break.  (It’s by Jhumpa Lahiri.)   It’s made several ten best lists and is a fine novel–quite  few tiers above the cheap mystery shelf.    It’s really worth a read.

It starts with two brothers in India.   One comes to the US to study, one stays there.  The one who remains becomes politicized and eventually is murdered by the police.   When he dies his wife is pregnant.   The surviving brother returns to India, marries his sister-in-law and they return to the US together.  There they raise the daughter born to the wife.   (All of this is pretty much on the book-flap so I don’t feel a spoiler alert is needed.)  The plot, which carries over many years,  is in large part propelled by the relationship of the two adults and the child as the child grows to be an adult herself.   Who, after all, are the child’s parents?

Now there are two points I’d like to make, I think.  One is just the observation–I think this is a surprisingly common plot device–the questionable parentage of a child.   While it is possible that I just see it everywhere because I think about it a lot, it really does seem to me to be remarkably prevalent.   The second point is that often, particularly but not only in the mystery genre, the origin question is shrouded in secrecy.   Mysteries, after all, need a dark secret to provide motive and tension.

What strikes me, though, is that the concealment is never (that I can think of, anyway) good.   The secret has always festered and/or become cancerous and/or warped the characters in profound ways.   You could say that this is necessarily so given that we’re talking about literary plot devices, of course.  If the secrets were benign, there’s be nothing to write about.   But still, it seems to me that taking the topic as a whole there’s a clear message sent:   conceal at your peril.

And that, it seems to me, is worth noticing.   We’ve talked a lot here about the importance of honesty–something I feel very strongly about.    I think parents (by which I mean the people raising the child) need to be honest with their children about their origin stories–in ways appropriate to the age of the child.   I know it isn’t easy, but I think the alternative–dishonest/secrecy–is only easier in the short run.  In the long run it’s a bad idea.  And that, it seems to me, is the message of these novels.   Over and over, the story is told–it’s not just the that child was not the child of the husband, it’s that the truth of that was concealed.

Which leads me to think that there is nothing so new or so remarkable about a stance that people need to be open and honest about these things.   The challenge, I think, is seeking ways to encourage honesty to seem a plausible option for people–which among other things probably means reducing shame and stigma.

Tomorrow I’ll return to a more conventional topic, but I wanted to close with one other observation, which is also a question.   None of what I’ve read has anything to do with ART–there are no hidden sperm donors, no concealed surrogates, in the books I’ve been reading.  It’s all plain old conception by sex and/or traditional adoption.   This might be a function of time–perhaps those stories just haven’t been written yet?   But it might also be that the ART story is more fundamentally different.   There is no original betrayal in it–where the wife takes a lover, say.  And maybe this robs it if the dramatic focus it needs to make a novel really go?    I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see?


10 responses to “Back for a New Year: The Common Plot of Uncertain Parentage

  1. Ah truth but they need to be allowed to legally live the truth once told otherwise the truth is a shallow nod to the rights they’ve lost the family they have lost

    • It seems to me that this raises much more complicated questions than it might appear at first glance. I might agree that the child (that’s the “they”, I think?) needs to be allowed to legally live “the truth.” But what does the truth mean? In The Lowlands, the truth (as understood by the child when she is grown to an adult) is that the man who raised her (her genetic uncle) is her father. It is also true that he is not her genetic father, but her genetic father was never a part of her life and so the truth (again, from her point of view) is that she doesn’t need to know about him.

      I know that other people (or other fictional characters) might arrive at different views of the truth. The point, I suppose, is that we cannot dictate what truth children find in their lives.

  2. Hi Oliva,

    I was referred to your site last month but this is the first time I’ve felt compelled to comment. I do agree with you that first parents are the ones who are raising the child and second that the parents need to be honest with their children. Many of the issues in adoption and third party reproduction that I’ve read stem from the parents not being honest with their children.

  3. Shame and stigma starts with not naming bio parents birth records. Shame and stigma continues with people who want parental authority over another persons offspring dont do it in an above board court approved manner.

    • I don’t know how productive it is to discuss where exactly shame and stigma start, but there’s a world of literature about this out there. In general, shame and stigma are understood to arise, I think, from social practices. So people feel shame/stigma when others around them treat them in particular ways. In order to avoid shame/stigma they may hide certain characteristics. So gay people might stay in the closet to avoid shame/stigma, say.

      In this sense I think the birth certificate stuff is more a result of shame/stigma than a cause of it. People who have adopted children, say, may have wanted to pass as “real” or “natural” parents–so they want birth certificates that let them do that.

      In other words, I see the birth records as a symptom of shame/stigma rather than a cause. But I am not sure why this is important.

      Maybe it matters for this reason: Let’s suppose we agree that we need birth records that list genetic parentage. What stands in the way of that? One thing is the way in which we tend to use birth certificates in our country–as proof of legal (rather than genetic) parentage. So we’d need to change that. (We’ve talked about this before–everyone could have a legal-parentage certificate.) A second thing that stands in the way is the resistance of non-genetic legal parents, who don’t want to feel singled out–that’s the shame/stigma thing operating. So we would, I think, need to diminish the experienced shame/stigma that non-genetic parents feel.

      • Actually what is fascinating is that as people I’ve reunited begin to go requesting that their birth record’s be corrected so they are medically accurate under Hippa rules your allowed to request corrections to your medical records – as they go about doing that it won’t undermine their adoptions as the birth record is not what gave their adoptive parents their parental authority it was the adoption paperwork that granted them the authority. Also the name change is in the adoption paperwork and so the adopted person can have an accurate birth record that is good for medical purposes and allows them to bbe located by their relatives and vice versa without causing any damage to the fact they are adopted. They have a legal name change that ties to their current driver’s license. It is much like showing a marriage certificate to justify a difference between a maiden name and the name on the birth record. Its all really quite clean to have the adoption decree presented as proof of parental authority because that is in fact the document that does grant them authority over the person named on the birth record. It will free the adopted person up to be a full legal member of both their bio family and their adoptive family. Same for donor offspring, even when the bio parent’s name is unavailable, they have to get something common on the parent line of their birth records otherwise they are not considered legal siblings. In the case of step parents who had been named on donor offspring birth records not having an adoption decree to fall back on highlights the black market nature of how they gained authority over the kid. I don’t think they’ll have to change their names to the name of the bio parent though in order to give rise to the legal kinship to the donating parent’s other kids or relatives. There was no name change for them, they would have to do a name change to change to the donating parent’s name. They can keep their step parent’s name and still put their bio parent’s name on their birth record.

        You are right people do use the birth record to prove authority but they don’t have to they also sometimes show proof of guardianship or court papers showing that a father has lost his custody and there is a restraining order. There are times when other documents trump the birth record in terms of decision making authority over a minor. Just live the truth. People into telling the truth should be into letting the kid live it with clear truthful medical records and other documentation that clearly states the nature of their relationship so that they and others are not misled into believing relationships are something they are not. There should be no need to say it’s none of anyone’s business. If its the truth it’s the truth and nothing to be ashamed of.

      • Non genetic parents don’t want to feel singled out? So they get to mess with with someone else’s medical record and mess up national vital statistics and medical research because they don’t like the truth of the matter? Well I want everyone to think I’m rich, can I have some falsified bank statements and credit reports? I want people to think things about me that are not true because I feel better about myself that way.

      • Julie,

        You hit the nail on the head. Societal pressures and stigmas that say that a person’s “real” parents are the ones who conceived them have encouraged the modified birth certificate as well as listed non genetic parents on birth certificates. Maybe if society recognized that non genetic parents are in deed “real” parents fewer parents who are not genetically related to their children would not have the need for these practices. Until society starts viewing non genetic parents as not being lesser than genetic parents these practices will continue to be encouraged.

        • Yes, this is indeed what I’m inclined to think. Surely the reason people lied to children about being adopted was that they felt insecure in their own positions as parents. They imagined a child going to school and being taunted for being adopted. (And it did happen.) There’s much broader tolerance of various family forms now, including adoptive families, and with that much greater openness about family forms.

          I think we can learn from that experience. If people think that telling kids about being donor conceived is important for the child’s well-being, they’ll be more likely to do it, especially if there aren’t a whole bunch of people waiting to pounce with the “I knew you weren’t the real parents” line. This is what concerns me about the genetic essentialist line. It seems to me that it makes it harder for people to do what is right by their kids when I think we should be looking for ways to make it easier. But of course, people disagree about this.

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