Secret Fatalities and Liminalities: Translating the Pre-Verbal Trauma and Cellular Memory of Late Discovery Adoptee Illegitimacy




Illegitimate, Late Discovery Adoptees, Pre-verbal Trauma, Cellular Memory, Embodiment, Creative Writing, Poetry, Novel Writing, Surrogacy, Reproductive Industries, PTSD, Illegitimacy

How to Cite

Coull, K. (2014). Secret Fatalities and Liminalities: Translating the Pre-Verbal Trauma and Cellular Memory of Late Discovery Adoptee Illegitimacy. M/C Journal, 17(5).
Vol. 17 No. 5 (2014): illegitimate
Published 2014-10-26

I was born illegitimate. Born on an existential precipice. My unwed mother was 36 years old when she relinquished me. I was the fourth baby she was required to give away. After I emerged blood stained and blue tinged – abject, liminal – not only did the nurses refuse me my mother’s touch, I also lost the sound of her voice. Her smell. Her heart beat. Her taste. Her gaze. The silence was multi-sensory. When they told her I was dead, I also lost, within her memory and imagination, my life. I was adopted soon after but not told for over four decades. It was too shameful for even me to know. Imprinted at birth with a psychological ‘death’, I fell, as a Late Discovery Adoptee (LDA), into a socio-cultural and psychological abyss, frozen at birth at the bottom of a parturitive void from where, invisible within family, society, and self I was unable to form an undamaged sense of being.

Throughout the 20th century (and for centuries before) this kind of ‘social abortion’ was the dominant script. An adoptee was regarded as a bastard, born of sin, the mother blamed, the father exonerated, and silence demanded (Lynch 28-74). My adoptive mother also sinned. She was infertile. But, in taking me on, she assumed the role of a womb worthy woman, good wife, and, in her case, reluctant mother (she secretly didn’t want children and was privately overwhelmed by the task). In this way, my mother, my adoptive mother, and myself are all the daughters of bereavement, all of us sacrificed on the altar of prejudice and fear that infertility, sex outside of marriage, and illegitimacy were unspeakable crimes for which a price must be paid and against which redemptive protection must be arranged. If, as Thomas Keneally (5) writes, “original sin is the mother fluid of history” then perhaps all three of us all lie in its abject waters. Grotevant,  Dunbar, Kohler and Lash Esau (379) point out that adoption was used to ‘shield’ children from their illegitimacy, women from their ‘sexual indiscretions’, and adoptive parents from their infertility in the belief that “severing ties with birth family members would promote attachment between adopted children and parents”. For the adoptee in the closed record system, the socio/political/economic vortex that orchestrated their illegitimacy is born out of a deeply, self incriminating primal fear that reaches right back into the recesses of survival – the act of procreation is infested with easily transgressed life and death taboos within the ‘troop’ that require silence and the burial of many bodies (see Amanda Gardiner’s “Sex, Death and Desperation: Infanticide, Neonaticide, and Concealment of Birth in Colonial Western Australia” for a palpable, moving, and comprehensive exposition on the links between 'illegitimacy', the unmarried mother and child murder). As Nancy Verrier (24) states in Coming Home to Self, “what has to be understood is that separation trauma is an insidious experience, because, as a society, we fail to see this experience as a trauma”. Indeed, relinquishment/adoption for the baby and subsequent adult can be acutely and chronically painful.  

While I was never told the truth of my origins, of course, my body knew. It had been there. Sentient, aware, sane, sensually, organically articulate, it messaged me (and anyone who may have been interested) over the decades via the language of trauma, its lexicon and grammar cellular, hormonal, muscular (Howard & Crandall, 1-17; Pert, 72), the truth of my birth, of who I was an “unthought known” (Bollas 4). I have lived out my secret fatality in a miasmic nebula of what I know now to be the sequelae of adoption psychopathology: nausea, physical and psychological pain, agoraphobia, panic attacks, shame, internalised anger, depression, self-harm, genetic bewilderment, and generalised anxiety (Brodzinsky 25-47; Brodzinsky, Smith, & Brodzinsky 74; Kenny, Higgins, Soloff, & Sweid xiv; Levy-Shiff  97-98; Lifton 210-212; Verrier The Primal Wound 42-44; Wierzbicki 447-451) – including an all pervading sense of unreality experienced as dissociation (the experience of depersonalisation – where the self feels unreal – and derealisation – where the world feels unreal), disembodiment, and existential elision – all characteristics of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In these ways, my body intervened, acted out, groaned in answer to the social overlay, and from beyond “the dermal veil” tried to procure access, as Vicky Kirby (77) writes, to “the body’s opaque ocean depths” through its illnesses, its eloquent, and incessantly aching and silent verbosities deepened and made impossibly fraught because I was not told.

The aim of this paper is to discuss one aspect of how my body tried to channel the trauma of my secret fatality and liminality: my pre-disclosure art work (the cellular memory of my trauma also expressed itself, pre-disclosure, through my writings – poetry, journal entries – and also through post-coital glossolalia, all discussed at length in my Honours research “Womb Tongues” and my Doctoral Dissertation “The Womb Artist – A Novel: Translating Pre-verbal Late Discovery Adoption Trauma into Narrative”). From the age of thirty onwards I spent twelve years in therapy where the cause of my childhood and adult psychopathology remained a mystery. During this time, my embodied grief and memories found their way into my art work, a series of 5’ x 3’ acrylic paintings, some of which I offer now for discussion (figures 1-4).  These paintings map and express what my body knew but could not verbalise (without language to express my grief, my body found other ways to vent). They are symptom and sign of my pre-verbal adoption trauma, evidence that my body ‘knew’ and laboured ceaselessly and silently to find creative ways to express the incarcerated trauma. Post disclosure, I have used my paintings as artefacts to inform, underpin, and nourish the writing of  a collection of poetry “Womb Tongues” and a literary novel/memoir “The Womb Artist” (TWA) in an ongoing autoethnographical, performative, and critical inquiry. My practice-led research as a now conscious and creative witness, fashions the recontextualisation of my ‘self’ into my ‘self’ and society, this time with cognisant and reparative knowledge and facilitates the translation of my body’s psychopathology and memory (explicit and implicit) into a healing testimony that explores the traumatised body as text and politicizes the issues surrounding LDAs (Riley 205). If I use these paintings as a memoirist, I use them second hand, after the fact, after they have served their initial purpose, as the tangible art works of a baby buried beneath a culture’s prejudice, shame, and judgement and the personal cries from the illegitimate body/self.  I use them now to explore and explain my subclinical and subterranean life as a LDA.

My pre-disclosure paintings (Figures 1-4) – filled with vaginal, fetal, uterine, and umbilical references – provide some kind of ‘evidence’ that my body knew what had happened to me as if, with the tenacity of a poltergeist, my ‘spectral self’ found ways to communicate. Not simply clues, but the body’s translation of the intra-psychic landscape, a pictorial and artistic séance into the world, as if my amygdala – as quasar and signal, homing device and history lesson (a measure, container, and memoir) – knew how to paint a snap shot or an x-ray of the psyche, of my cellular marrow memories (a term formulated from fellow LDA Sandy McCutcheon’s (76) memoir, The Magician’s Son when he says, “What I really wanted was the history of my marrow”). If, as Salveet Talwar suggests, “trauma is processed from the body up”, then for the LDA pre-discovery, non-verbal somatic signage is one’s ‘mother tongue’(25). Talwar writes, “non-verbal expressive therapies such as art, dance, music, poetry and drama all activate the sub-cortical regions of the brain and access pre-verbal memories” (26). In these paintings, eerily divinatory and pointed traumatic, memories are made visible and access, as Gussie Klorer (213) explains in regard to brain function and art therapy, the limbic (emotional) system and the prefrontal cortex in sensorimotor integration. In this way, as Marie Angel and Anna Gibbs (168) suggest, “the visual image may serve as a kind of transitional mode in thought”. Ruth Skilbeck in her paper First Things: Reflections on Single-lens Reflex Digital Photography with a Wide-angled Lens, also discusses (with reference to her photographic record and artistic expression of her mother’s death) what she calls the “dark matter” – what has been overlooked, “left out”, and/or is inexplicable (55) – and the idea of art work as the “transitional object” as “a means that some artists use, conceptually and yet also viscerally, in response to the extreme ‘separation anxiety’ of losing a loved one, to the void of the Unknown” (57). In my case, non-disclosure prevented my literacy and the evolution of the image into language, prevented me from fully understanding the coded messages left for me in my art work. However, each of my paintings is now, with the benefit of full disclosure, a powerful, penetrating, and comprehensible intra and extra sensory cry from the body in kinaesthetic translation (Lusebrink, 125; Klorer, 217).

In Figure 1, ‘Embrace’, the reference to the umbilical is palpable, described in my novel “The Womb Artist” (184) this way; “two ropes tightly entwine as one, like a dark and dirty umbilical cord snaking its way across a nether world of smudged umbers”. There is an ‘abject’ void surrounding it. The cord sapped of its colour, its blood, nutrients – the baby starved of oxygen, breath; the LDA starved of words and conscious understanding. It has two parts entwined that may be seen in many ways (without wanting to reduce these to static binaries): mother/baby; conscious/unconscious; first person/third person; child/adult; semiotic/symbolic – numerous dualities could be spun from this embrace – but in terms of my novel and of the adoptive experience, it reeks of need, life and death, a text choking on the poetic while at the same time nourished by it; a text made ‘available’ to the reader while at the same narrowing, limiting, and obscuring the indefinable nature of pre-verbal trauma.


Figure 1. Embrace. 1993. Acrylic on canvas.

The painting ‘Womb Tongues’ (Figure 2) is perhaps the last (and, obviously, lasting) memory of the infinite inchoate universe within the womb, the umbilical this time wrapped around in a phallic/clitorial embrace as the baby-self emerges into the constrictions of a Foucauldian world, where the adoptive script smothers the ‘body’ encased beneath the ‘coils’ of Judeo-Christian prejudice and centuries old taboo. In this way, the reassigned adoptee is an acute example of power (authority) controlling and defining the self and what knowledge of the self may be allowed. The baby in this painting is now a suffocated clitoris, a bound subject, a phallic representation, a gagged ‘tongue’ in the shape of the personally absent (but socially imposing) omni-present and punitive patriarchy. 


Figure 2. Womb Tongues. 1997. Acrylic on canvas.

‘Germination’ (Figure 3) depicts an umbilical again, but this time as emerging from a seething  underworld and is present in TWA (174) this way, “a colony of night crawlers that writhe and slither on the canvas, moving as one, dozens of them as thin as a finger, as long as a dream”. The rhizomic nature of this painting (and Figure 4), becomes a heaving horde of psychosomatic and psychopathological influences and experiences, a multitude of closely packed, intense, and dendridic compulsions and symptoms, a mass of interconnected (and by nature of the silence and lie) subterranean knowledges that force the germination of a ‘ghost baby/child/adult’ indicated by the pale and ashen seedling that emerges above ground. The umbilical is ghosted, pale and devoid of life. It is in the air now, reaching up, as if in germination to a psychological photosynthesis. There is the knot and swarm within the unconscious; something has, in true alien fashion, been incubated and is now emerging. In some ways, these paintings are hardly cryptic.

Figure 3. Germination.1993. Acrylic on canvas.

In Figure 4 ‘The Birthing Tree’, the overt symbolism reaches ‘clairvoyant status’. This could be read as the family ‘tree’ with its four faces screaming out of the ‘branches’. Do these represent the four babies relinquished by our mother (the larger of these ‘beings’ as myself, giving birth to the illegitimate, silenced, and abject self)? Are we all depicted in anguish and as wraithlike, grotesquely simplified into pure affect? This illegitimate self is painted as gestating a ‘blue’ baby, near full-term in a meld of tree and ‘self’, a blue umbilical cord, again, devoid of blood, ghosted, lifeless and yet still living, once again suffocated by the representation of the umbilical in the ‘bowels’ of the self, the abject part of the body, where refuse is stored and eliminated: The duodenum of the damned. The Devil may be seen as Christopher Bollas’s “shadow of the object”, or the Jungian archetypal shadow, not simply a Judeo-Christian fear-based spectre and curmudgeon, but a site of unprocessed and, therefore, feared psychological material, material that must be brought to consciousness and integrated. Perhaps the Devil also is the antithesis to ‘God’ as mother. The hell of ‘not mother’, no mother, not the right mother, the reluctant adoptive mother – the Devil as icon for the rich underbelly of the psyche and apophatic to the adopted/artificial/socially scripted self.

Figure 4. The Birthing Tree. 1995. Acrylic on canvas.

These paintings ache with the trauma of my relinquishment and LDA experience. They ache with my body’s truth, where the cellular and psychological, flesh and blood and feeling, leak from my wounds in unspeakable confluence (the two genital lips as the site of relinquishment, my speaking lips that have been sealed through non-disclosure and shame, the psychological trauma as Verrier’s ‘primal wound’) just as I leaked from my mother (and society) at birth, as blood and muck, and ooze and pus and death (Grosz 195) only to be quickly and silently mopped up and cleansed through adoption and life-long secrecy. Where I, as translator, fluent in both silence and signs, disclose the baby’s trauma, asking for legitimacy. My experience as a LDA sets up an interesting experiment, one that allows an examination of the pre-verbal/pre-disclosure body as a fleshed and breathing Rosetta Stone, as an interface between the language of the body and of the verbalised, painted, and written text. As a constructed body, written upon and invented legally, socially, and psychologically, I am, in Hélène Cixous’s (“To Live the Orange” 83) words, “un-forgetting”, “un-silencing” and “unearthing” my ‘self’ – I am re-writing, re-inventing and, under public scrutiny, legitimising my ‘self’. I am a site of inquiry, discovery, extrapolation, and becoming (Metta 492; Poulus 475) and, as Grosz (vii) suggests, a body with “all the explanatory power” of the mind. I am, as I embroider myself and my LDA experience into literary and critical texts, authoring myself into existence, referencing with particular relevance Peter Carnochan’s (361) suggestion that “analysis...acts as midwife to the birth of being”. I am, as I swim forever amorphous, invisible, and unspoken in my mother’s womb, fashioning a shore, landscaping my mind against the constant wet, my chronic liminality (Rambo 629) providing social landfall for other LDAs and silenced minorities.  As Catherine Lynch (3) writes regarding LDAs, “Through the creation of text and theory I can formulate an intimate space for a family of adoptive subjects I might never know via our participation in a new discourse in Australian academia.”  I participate through my creative, self-reflexive, process fuelled (Durey 22), practice-led enquiry. I use the intimacy (and also universality and multiplicity) and illegitimacy of my body as an alterative text, as a site of academic and creative augmentation in the understanding of LDA issues.  The relinquished and silenced baby and LDA adult needs a voice, a ‘body’, and a ‘tender’ place in the consciousness of society, as Helen Riley (“Confronting the Conspiracy of Silence” 11) suggests, “voice, validation, and vindication”. 

Judith Herman (3) argues that, “Survivors challenge us to reconnect fragments, to reconstruct history, to make meaning of their present symptoms in the light of past events”. I seek to use the example of my experience – as Judith Durey (31) suggests, in “support of evocative, creative modes of representation as valid forms of research in their own right” – to unfurl the whole, to give impetus and precedence for other researchers into adoption and advocate for future babies who may be bought, sold, arranged, and/or created by various means. The recent controversy over Gammy, the baby boy born with Down Syndrome in Thailand, highlights the urgent and moral need for legislation with regard to surrogacy (see Kajsa Ekis Ekman’s Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self for a comprehensive examination of surrogacy issues). Indeed, Catherine Lynch in her paper Doubting Adoption Legislation links the experiences of LDAs and the children of born of surrogacy, most effectively arguing that, “if the fate that closed record adoptees suffered was a misplaced solution to the question of what to do with children already conceived how can you justify the deliberate conception of a child with the intention even before its creation of cruelly removing that child from their mother?” (6).  Cixous (xxii) confesses, “All I want is to illustrate, depict fragments, events of human life and death...each unique and yet at the same time exchangeable. Not the law, the exception”. I, too, am a fragment, an illustration (a painting), and, as every individual always is – paradoxically – a communal and, therefore, deeply recognisable and generally applicable minority and exception. In my illegitimacy, I am some kind of evidence. Evidence of cellular memory. Evidence of embodiment. Evidence that silenced illegitimacies will manifest in symptom and non-verbal narratives, that they will ooze out and await translation, verification, and witness.

This paper is offered with reverence and with feminist intention, as a revenant mouthpiece for other LDAs, babies born of surrogacy, and donor assisted offspring (and, indeed, any) who are marginalised, silenced, and obscured. It is also intended to promote discussion in the psychological and psychoanalytic fields and, as Helen Riley (202-207) advocates regarding late discovery offspring, more research within the social sciences and the bio-medical field that may encourage legislators to better understand what the ‘best interests of the child’ are in terms of late discovery of origins and the complexity of adoption/conception practices available today.

As I write now (and always) the umbilical from my paintings curve and writhe across my soul, twist and morph into the swollen and throbbing organ of tongues, my throat aching to utter, my hands ready to craft latent affect into language in translation of, and in obedience to, my body’s knowledges. It is the art of mute witness that reverses genesis, that keeps the umbilical fat and supple and full of blood, and allows my conscious conception and creation. Indeed, in the intersection of my theoretical, creative, psychological, and somatic praxis, the heat (read hot and messy, insightful and insistent signage) of my body’s knowledges perhaps intensifies – with a ripe bouquet – the inevitably ongoing odour/aroma of the reproductive world.


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