Judith S. Modell, Kinship with Strangers: Adoption and Interpretations of Kinship in American Culture. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994. 280 pp

Review by Miriam M. Johnson, University of Oregon

Compared to the study of divorce, remarriage, and single parenting, adoption has been virtually ignored by sociologists. Yet as anthropologist Judith Modell shows in her book, Kinship with Strangers, adoption ideology and practices pro vide a unique window on the fundamental premises underlying the North American kinship system. Moreover, the changes occurring in adoption practice suggest that fundamental changes in these kinship patterns may be taking place. For Modell, adoptiv e families have been, as it were, the exception to the "normal" family that proves the cultural rule that normal families are built on biological parents who remain exclusively so for life. Now, the open adoption movement, led by adoptees and birt h parents, opens up the possibility of thinking in terms of more than one set of "real" parents.

Modell briefly traces the legal history of North American adoption policy and describes the later development of the impersonal role of social workers in making child placements "in the best interests of the child." In the early 1980s, the Cana dian sociologist David Kirk exposed many of the contradictions and conflicts created for adoptive parents by the radical separation of birth parents from adoptive families. He pointed out that while adoptive parents were expected to tell the adopt ive child that he or she was adopted, they were expected generally to act "as if" they were the only parents the child had ever had. Modell expands on these contradictions and conflicts not only for the adoptive parents but most especially from th e standpoint of the less explored birth parents and adoptees.

The data on which the book is based come from Modell's interviews with three self-selected samples of birth parents, adoptive parents, and adoptees, for whom adoption policy was in some way problematic and who were willing to talk about it. Int erestingly enough, 28 of the 30 adoptees she interviewed were male. She also uses information gleaned from the literature of various support organizations for each of the three groups and from attending their meetings. Modell reports that the inte rviewees often used the rhetoric developed in these support organizations which legitimate and build a discourse around the unease created by closed adoptions. For example, she finds birth mothers saying that, contrary to what they were told, they did not "soon forget" the child they "surrendered" to social workers after its birth and testify that they still continue to worry and wonder about the child's well being. Adoptees for their part may have been told they were "chosen" by their ado ptive parents, but in a culture that says parenthood is unconditional, they wonder why were they "unchosen" by their biological parents (p. ll4) and if they could be "unchosen" later by their adoptive parents (p. 115). Modell found that "feeling different was a dominant theme" among the adoptees she interviewed and was a central argument for adoptee support groups (p. 120).

In the latter half of the book, using the same sources, Modell describes adoptees' search for their birth families, birthparents' search for the child they relinquished, and adoptive parents' ways of coping with the contradictions in being adop tive parents. Generally the adoptive parents she interviewed had not yet experienced their child's wanting to search and were somewhat dubious about how open adoptions could actually work. Modell points out that among all three of the groups, moth ers were far more prominent than fathers -- birth mothers searched for their children, adoptees searched for their birth mothers, and adopting mothers were the more involved parent.

In the final chapter Modell explores the implications of "open adoptions" which would end the radical separation between birth and adoptive parents and allow the individuals concerned to decide how best to relate to one another. Here she is les s concerned with how individuals and agencies actually do work out open adoptions, as with her contention that "carried to a logical end, open adoption `opens' concepts of parenthood, of mother and father, and of family -- thus of kinship altogeth er" (p. 236). Because of this, she suggests, "open adoption is more subversive than its rhetoric implies" (p. 237). While in one way the seeking done by birth parents and adoptees suggests a renewed emphasis on biology or genealogy, the larger mea ning of open adoption may be, paradoxically enough, that genealogy will no longer be the core of our kinship system and that the concepts of mother and father may become plural.

This is a scholarly book which is nevertheless eminently readable because of the numerous quotes from interviews. It provides a refreshing reprieve from the "declining family" perspective and would be a useful basis for class discussion about f amily structure in general, personal identity and family, and about changes in who or what constitutes "family." Although Modell herself does not discuss the many other phenomena besides open adoption that presage new conceptions of family (e.g., blended families, gay and lesbian families) her book would make an appropriate beginning for such a discussion since it shows so clearly the genealogical basis of North American kinship.

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