This influential book was the first
to make adoption a significant issue in the sociological literatures
on family and mental health. Its author, H. David Kirk, was an adoptive
father of four. Born in Germany in 1918 and educated at the City
College of New York and Cornell University, he directed the Adoption
Research Project at McGill University from 1951 to 1961. This project
eventually compiled data about the attitudes and experiences of
2000 adoptive families in Canada and the United States, most headed
by infertile couples. What he learned was that “role handicap”
characterized the experience of adoptive parents. Adults who failed
to have children naturally were labeled abnormal and experienced
discrimination. Adopting other people’s children, Kirk found,
did not relieve their pain. The agony of infertility
followed them into parenthood.
Two choices existed for handling the strain, according to Kirk.
Adoptive parents could believe in the promises of matching
and pretend to be something they were not. Or they could own up
to their deprivation and make common cause with their children and
their children’s birth parents.
Kirk called these two options “rejection-of-difference”
and “acknowledgment-of-difference.” Adopters who made
the first choice escaped social stigma by claiming they were just
like biological parents and avoiding the dreaded task of telling
their children about their adoptive status. Adopters who made the
second choice had to live with doubts about their own authenticity,
but they cast their lot with children whose hold on belonging was
as shaky as their own. Difference was the “shared fate”
of adoptive parents and children. Acknowledging it was less comfortable
but far better for everyone involved.
Shared Fate was important for two reasons. First, it analyzed
adoption as an important social institution rather than as an arrangement
made by individuals seeking to solve a range of personal problems.
Second, it promoted a decisive shift in the world of adoption away
from simulation and toward diversity as the foundation for family-making.
As a new adoption reform movement dawned in the late 1960s, matching
was criticized, along with policies of confidentiality
and sealed records. The denial of difference no longer seemed
natural or wise, as it had earlier in the century. The struggle
with difference, also at the heart of therapeutic adoption, emerged
as the single most defining feature of the adoption experience.
It is obvious to most people that adoption is a different way to
make a family. Kirk elevated this common sense observation to the
level of social theory. Bringing difference into the open made it
more urgent than ever to know whether difference was just difference
or whether difference caused damage. Psychopathology
studies suggested that difference was detrimental and that adoptees
were prone to behavior problems and emotional disturbance because
they were adopted. Kirk protested this pessimistic conclusion, but
Shared Fate had provided significant momentum for a wave
of thinking about the risks of adoptive kinship for adults and children.
The notion that adoption was fragile primarily because of its emotional
defects was fairly new, but the notion that adoption was an especially
hazardous and inferior form of kinship was not. Danger has been
an enduring theme in modern adoption history.