A Long Way Home (Lion) by Saroo Brierley, Larry Buttrose (ghostwriter)

I saw the film when it was on at the cinema about a year ago and like everyone who has seen it, I thought it was extremely moving. If you don’t know the story, it’s about a 5-year-old boy who is out with his teenage brother, who has told him to wait for him at a quiet train station near their home, and feeling tired, he climbs into an empty carriage, falls asleep and when he awakes, it is moving, the carriage locked and he will be transported, far, far from his home, which he won’t see for another 25 years.

The book only confirms how incredible and moving his story is, on top of the emotion it provokes, was the amazement at how many situations 5-year-old Saroo got into that he was miraculously saved from, often by his own well-honed instinct, other times sheer luck, and occasionally, surely, divine intervention.

Like befriending the teenage boy he trusted and went home with, who would be the first person to make an intervention on his behalf that would lead him to 25 years of safety, before he could find his way back home and be reunited with his family again. In the meantime he would spend those 25 years in a middle class Australian family in Hobart, Tasmania – far from his culture and birth family, learning another language, getting an education and developing a way of life that would benefit them all by the time his story comes full circle.

It’s a bittersweet story with a thrilling beginning as he falls asleep in the wrong place at the wrong time and his life is hurtled, like a rocket capsule, into another hemisphere, with a few obstacles to overcome on the way.

It’s sad because he was a boy who became lost from his family in a large country, he had difficulty pronouncing the name of the town he came from (and even his own name) and in the city he arrived in Calcutta (Kolkata), he spent weeks riding trains hoping one of them might take him back. Nighttime brought an element of danger, and even in the day while having fun with other children in the river, danger was never far away, he would be rescued a couple of times that might have been life-threatening, had not well intended strangers come to his aid.

Saroo with his adoptive mother

The childless (through their own choice) couple that adopted him, were open and inclusive regarding his culture, furnishing his bedroom with a large map of India and items reminiscent of his country of birth, they joined an association connecting Indian families to their culture. However, unwanted memories could arrive unbidden, sometimes reconnecting with stories from India awakened his childhood trauma. He describes seeing the Hindi film Salaam Bombay:

Its images of the little boy trying to survive alone in a sprawling city, in the hope of returning to his mother, brought back disturbing memories so sharply that I wept in the dark cinema, my well-meaning parents unaware of the cause. Even sad music could set off emotional memories. Seeing or hearing babies cry also affected me strongly, but somehow the most emotional thing was seeing other families with lots of children. I suppose that even in my good fortune, they reminded me of what I had lost.

A few years later, his parents adopted another boy from India, who became his brother, the book doesn’t delve too deep into this relationship, however the film did bring out the contrast in their characters and the difficulty his parents, particularly his mother, who was a relatively quiet and calm woman, had in parenting him.

Mantosh and I were very different, partly because of the natural differences between our people, but also because of our different experiences in India. It’s one of the things that makes people who adopt children, especially from abroad, so brave: often the kids they’re taking in come with troubled backgrounds, having suffered in ways that make adjusting to their new life difficult, and which can be hard to understand and even harder to help. I was reticent and reserved; Mantosh, at least at first, was loud and disobedient. I wanted to please; he rebelled.

According to an interview, Mantosh was unhinged by the film, his protracted adoption wasn’t able to be finalised within the two month grace period the children’s home were given, so he was sent back to the large orphanage where lost or abandoned children would encounter all manner of youth, including bullies, criminals and abusers, the time he was obliged to spend there awaiting the administrative outcome scarred him physically and mentally. He didn’t have the good fortune of his brother, whose story is all the more remarkable for him having avoided abuse, though he was certainly close to encountering it, as his story shows.

“[His grandmother] couldn’t keep Mantosh in her care anymore, while he was waiting to come to Australia, once we’d accepted him. So he had to go back to [the orphanage] where he was burnt, raped, beaten, you name it. And I’m very bitter about that.” – Sue Brierley

There is most certainly a very different and equally important story to be told, if one follows Mantosh’s experience; it was interesting to listen to his mother speak on that in an interview recorded here. At least, she says, it did result in him beginning to open up more about his experiences and they were able to seek help for him, he represents the other side of adoption; the adoptive mother admitted they weren’t prepared for what it would mean to raise a child who’d been through such trauma, she didn’t have the support needed and experienced discrimination in the medical community when she did try to seek help.

When Saroo really becomes intent on tracking down his family, (another element that is much more vividly portrayed in the film) no one except his girlfriend knows how obsessed he has become, he has had periods of searching in the past, spurred on by meeting other students who grew up in India, who’d make guesses as to where he might come from based on his memories, but when, with the help of Google maps and tracing railway lines out of Calcutta, he began to spend hours every night doing his research, he kept it to himself, in ways and for reasons many adoptees will recognise.

I didn’t tell many people what I was doing, not even my parents. I was worried they might misunderstand my intentions: they might think that the intensity of my search revealed an unhappiness with the life they’d given me, or the way they’d raised me. I also didn’t want them to think that I was wasting time. So even as it took up more and more of my life, I kept it to myself.

He was fortunate to have such a supportive girlfriend, he felt she would have been within her rights to feel alone in their still-new relationship, he was treading a fine line and would catch her looking at him sometimes as though she thought he was crazy. He was driven, determined and you knew he wouldn’t give up until he’d found something he recognised, the memories and maps in his head so well preserved over the years, surely he would find them if he kept going.

Perhaps to some extent sharing something so fundamental to me strengthened our connection – and that came through when we talked about what it all meant to me. It wasn’t always easy to articulate, especially as I was trying to keep a lid on my expectations, trying to convince myself it was a fascinating exercise, not a deeply meaningful personal quest.

In the book, Saroo spends a lot of time rationalising and expressing his gratitude, it’s clear he doesn’t wish to hurt anyone in his portrayal of the story, he understands he treads the line between two families in a topic that is almost a cause, that attracts fierce activism especially on the part of those who are pro-adoption, however he also acknowledges what many adoptees need to hear, the aspect that was healed in him in taking this journey, by his perseverance.

Rightly so in his case, as he wasn’t abandoned or given up in the first place. The trauma his mother must have gone through in finally accepting that he had disappeared, and what strength and love, to have believed for so long he may return, so strongly she believed it that she refused to leave the town they lived in, to join her other children and be nearer them and their families.

After being lost, I’d been lucky enough to adopted by a loving family, and not only lived somewhere else, but had become someone else from the person I might have been had I stayed in India. I didn’t just live in Australia, I thought of myself as an Australian. I had a family home with the Brierleys and had made my own home in Hobart with my girlfriend Lisa. I knew I belonged and was loved, in those places.
But finding Khandwa and my Indian family also felt like coming home. Something about being in the place just felt right. I was loved here too, and belonged, in a way I’d not thought much about beforehand and found hard to explain. This was where I’d spent my first years, where my blood was. When it was time for me to return to Hobart – a time that came around far too quickly – I felt the wrench of leaving deeply.

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Journey Of The Adopted Self: A Quest For Wholeness by Betty Jean Lifton

I haven’t read an adoption book in many years, and in fact I have only ever read one,  one that is considered a classic in adoption literature Nancy Verrier’s The Primal Wound.

I decided I should increase my awareness and familiarity with the issues, as I’m writing down the story of – as the author, scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell would put it – my ‘hero’s journey‘, learning who I was ‘born to‘, which is necessary if we wish to learn more about who we were ‘born to be‘, something which is neither about the family we are raised by, nor the one we are biologically related to, but that in-between place, where we carry influence from each, which once unravelled, allows us the space to detach from them both, to pursue a life we can truly claim as our own.

Journey of the Adopted Self, follows that traditional quest, and for each element in the journey, the responding to the call (the decision to search), the departure (actively seeking), meeting the mentor (finding help) crossing the threshold (making contact), the challenges + the ordeal (dealing with the aftermath), the reward (unravelling the mystery), the road back (the new ordinary life) and the elixir (the transformation and the life lesson) the authors discusses a range of issues that can arise and gives examples in brief snippets from the many case studies she has had access to as an adoption counsellor.

Each person has a unique experience, so in the journey there are many reactions likely to be encountered, but the one thing that all adoptees have in common, is that they have experienced what is referred to as the ‘pre-verbal trauma’ of separation from the mother. That may have been immediately after birth or soon after, some babies may never have been held by the mother who carried them for those nine months, others may have been for a few hours or days, or even a few months.

According to the Austrian psychoanalyst and contemporary of Freud, Otto Rank in his book The Trauma of Birth, everyone experiences significant trauma at birth and that trauma or separation from the safety of the womb is healed over time by the bond created and the physical proximity and nurturing provided by the mother, whose heartbeat, smell, voice and very being are a comfort to the baby, who has known these things without seeing them from within.

Adoption adds another layer to the trauma, as the bond with the mother who gives birth is severed and the nurturing is to be provided by another, who has not been infused with the maternal hormones of pregnancy that nature creates to ensure the mother mothers her child. The adoptive mother in her head and heart wills herself to be and provide that role and is a good substitute, but that doesn’t avoid the fact that the baby will have experienced that initial double trauma of separation, first from the womb and then from the human it was connected to that birthed it.

Because this experience happens so early in the life of a baby, it is possible the trauma can lie so deep that for some it may not rise to the surface until very much later, or it may be possible to live without realising or recognising the behaviour patterns that are a common thread to those who have experienced this at birth.

How well adoptees overcome the traumas inherent in adoption and the additional ones they encounter in their specific families will be determined by their genetic susceptibility to stress – some children have more than others – and their ability to find an empathic teacher, friend or mentor to give them emotional support.

The author describes a range of different responses her clients (adult adoptees) experienced in the many aspects of the journey. Any adoptee who reads it, is likely to resonate with a number of passages, which may relate to their own experience in navigating the triad of adoptive parents, birth parents and siblings and the adoptee themselves, in particular if they have been involved in the closed adoption system, where all ties with the biological family are severed, the child’s name changed, legally becoming another person in another family.

This book then, is about the search for the adopted self. It is not the literal search in the material world, where one sifts through records and archives for real people with real names and addresses; but rather about the internal search, in which one sifts through the pieces of the psyche in an attempt to understand who one was so that one can have a sense of who one is and who one can become. It is the quest for all the missing pieces of the self so that one can become whole.

Essentially it is a healing journey, although that may not be something consciously embarked upon, and inevitably in any kind of healing journey, there are likely to be disruptive elements as we realise and confront aspects of ourselves that we haven’t been aware of.

At a psychiatric meeting in Ireland I was asked by a young doctor whether an adoptee must search in order to heal, or whether there were other ways.
It was a very good question and one for which there is no definitive answer. “There are other ways to heal, of course,” I replied. “But if possible, finding one’s heritage is the best, for it enables the adoptee to become grounded in biological and historical reality. The very difficulty of the search is a commitment to the transformation of the self.”

It suggests that adoptive parents should also familiarise themselves with the potential issues before considering adopting a child and that it is a responsible idea to also seek help/therapy while raising an adopted child. This seems so obvious and yet, in the era my siblings and I were raised, society and the system considered us ‘a blank slate’, so old-fashioned parenting would suffice, and everything was dealt with “as if” you were an ordinary child and parents were just expected to get on with it, as if they too had not been through their own trauma that might need healing, prior to the appearance of a child. Adoption was seen as a cure-all, with no healing required.

There are so many passages I could share, however it is a book that will be personal to each reader, depending on their role, perspective and experience. I found it an insightful and helpful read, leaving me with much to reflect on.

I’ll be reading a few books on this subject in the coming months, as part of my research and writing, which is why there have been less reviews and reading of fiction. It’s not easy to read fiction while writing, even though I feel the lack, but I’ll try to keep posting, as I travel the writing path.

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