Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Source: Available through the National Library of Medicine,

Sigmund Freud

Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division (LC-USZ62-117977)

Freud's famous visit to Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, September 10, 1909

Sigmund Freud, the famous Viennese architect of psychoanalysis, had a significant influence on modern adoption theory and practice. So did his daughter Anna Freud, who carried on her father’s legacy after his death in 1939 and became well known in her own right as a developmental researcher, a child analyst, and a theorist of “psychological parenthood.”

Freudian ideas about unconscious desires, erotic instincts, and critical childhood stages in the formation of adult personality and behavior shaped the way that many parents and professionals thought about adoption, especially its special challenges and potential hazards. Early in the twentieth century, physicians, artists, and feminists were in the vanguard of Americans interested in psychoanalysis. Freud lectured at Clark University in 1909 and his translated writings made him a more popular figure in the United States than in any other country in the world. Freud always maintained that the American version of psychoanalysis was hopelessly naive and ridiculously optimistic—he called it a “gigantic mistake”—but Americans paid little attention. They embraced psychoanalysis as a practical means to cure a variety of ailments related to personal adjustment, sexual happiness, and family life. Adoption was just one example.

One starting point for Freud’s approach to development was the belief that becoming an individual required escape, over the course of childhood, from the absolute power and love of parents. In order to accomplish this liberation, he argued, children invariably called upon fantasies—acted out in play and daydreams—and imagined that their “real” parents were much better, kinder, and more exalted than the imperfect people who were actually raising them. Freud called these comforting but entirely fabricated fairy tales the “family romance.” The fictional stories that children told themselves about their origins mattered because they linked Freudian theory directly to adoption.

Freud’s prototypical “family romance”—the one he assumed virtually all children experienced and occasionally remembered—was an adoption scenario. This scenario was developmentally useful precisely because it remained imaginary. It allowed children to safely express ambivalence and anger toward their parents, all the while encouraging them to develop independent identities necessary to becoming a healthy adults.

What worked for most children, however, caused definite problems for children who actually were adopted. Adoptees who imagined another set of parents were not engaged in benign falsehood. They were facing up to reality. “There is a real element of mystery in the illegitimate child’s background which makes such correction by reality either impossible or unconvincing,” wrote social worker Mary Brisley in 1939. The convergence of fantasy and real life was the key issue for psychoanalytically inclined clinicians in social work and psychiatry whose interests included adoption. Viola Bernard, Florence Clothier, Leontine Young, and Marshall Schechter were just a few examples. Psychoanalytic ideas crowded the adoption world from World War II on. Erik Erikson’s concepts of “identity” and “identity crisis” were among the most widely disseminated Freudian ideas, applicable to adolescent development and youth movements in general as well as adoption in particular.

Because the loss of natal parents was an all-too-real component of adoption, the family romances of adopted children pointed toward unanswered and sometimes unanswerable questions. Who were my birth parents? Why did they give me away? Was there something wrong with me? Such painful dilemmas were deeply implicated in the problematic self-images and flawed relationships that some adoptees manifested, and that came to the attention of clinicians. It is not surprising that parents and professionals who took the Freudian family romance seriously favored adoption policies and practices, such as matching, that tried to erase natal kinship, hence concealing the emotionally difficult truth that one set of parents had been lost and replaced with another.

Even at the height of enthusiasm about confidentiality and sealed records, the ritual of telling children about their adoptions acknowledged that adoptees were different than their non-adopted peers. Adoptees’ family romances were more like nightmares than daydreams, and they had the potential to produce deep sadness and distress. Knowing that they had indeed been given away, and feeling that their very selfhood was divided and incomplete, adoptees were at special risk for a range of psychopathologies. Freud’s developmental theory implied that adoptees faced emotional challenges inseparable from the adoption process itself, hence anticipating and helping to bring into being more recent concerns with loss and attachment.

Psychoanalytic approaches to birth parents and adoptive parents also circulated widely in medicine, social work, clinical psychology, and the popular press. By midcentury, illegitimacy was widely perceived as the result of unhappy and destructive parent-child relationships that remained both unconscious and unresolved in adolescence and adulthood. Seen through this Freudian lens, adoptions of children born to unmarried women were no longer tragedies to be avoided, but constructive acts that transferred children to adoptive parents whose psychological (and other) qualifications were superior to those of their neurotic birth mothers. On the other hand, the infertility that logically motivated married couples to adopt was also suspected of having unconscious sources that might signal neurosis or worse.

All parties to adoption, in other words, shared some form of psychological dysfunction. After 1945, the goal of home studies and other therapeutic practices was increasingly to guarantee that professionals trained in psychoanalysis and other human sciences would play a crucial managerial role in the adoption process. Even Jessie Taft, a leading educator who disliked the orthodox Freudian emphasis on trauma—it “implies fear of life itself” she wrote in dismay—believed that skilled psychological interpretation and help belonged at the heart of adoption. With the skills to explore the emotional minefield that placement exposed, the psychological engineers who oversaw family-formation confirmed that adoption was abnormal while also promising to normalize it. Sigmund Freud’s chief legacy, in adoption and elsewhere in American culture, was to multiply deviations and simultaneously insist on their cure.


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