Disabling Petitioner’s Syndrome: Psychological and Structural Aspects

25 July 2014

As I plod slowly along on the slow trail of information-gathering to hunt down trails of my possible genetic origins through different genetic testing tools, I sometimes note an obnoxious petitioner’s syndrome that being adopted [1] can engender.

Petitioner’s syndrome points psychologically to having to address a greater power for essential information and structurally to working around the various social constructs that have sprung up to help and hinder individuals who cannot otherwise access that essential information.

In the case of adoption, this essential information points to stuff considered some of the most basic for the non-adopted: where did I come from; who are my relatives; what kind of health issues might I face, &c. The extremity and significance of this information exacerbates petitioner’s syndrome. It can make the adopted more circumspect in approach, sometimes sneaker—or at least they will feel they must be: precisely because so much seems at stake. A refusal to answer a petition likely has very wide-ranging consequences. As a result of this, structural features include predatory lawyers, kinder (but still expensive, sometimes) search angels, and various legalities (opened but still limited information about adoptions) and illegalities (bribery) that circumvent control over access to such information.

Petitioner’s syndrome manifests as when, having already sent off my DNA testing kit, I make up a story to my adoptive father about intending to test simply to provide me a pretext to ask him, once again, for any details he knows about my genetic contributors. As the only source of such information—whether his information is degraded by the passage of years or was ever true in the first place—I have to feel like I’ve created a circumstance for my asking that will elicit the actual best truth from him; I need a pretext to guarantee his honesty. Petitioner’s syndrome manifests structurally in the necessity of resorting to genetic testing in order to obtain information about one’s immediate family in the first place.

And it manifests in  a hybrid structural/psychological way there in that context while rummaging in the genetic testing communities as well. Having a higher than typical (for a Caucasian) contribution from sub-Saharan Africa, my roots, in the United States at least, apparently go back to a tri-racial group in West Virginia (and their descendants). An example shows how this raises the spectre of petitioner’s syndrome. One of the previously best-established genealogists from that population of this population (usually referred to as the Chestnut Ridge People) wrote his most famous book explicitly to deny all traces of African-American heritage in the lineages. (In fact, he adopts the classic dodge, one already well-established amongst the lineages he seeks to document: claiming to be colored, if at all, due to Native American inheritance, not African.) I have already been “warned” by one helpful person that there are people in these lineages who will still maintain this position. I’m fortunate she wasn’t one of them, or that door might have closed.

And so, though I feel honoured (like Pushkin) to have unambiguous and (in evolutionary terms) very recent African-American heritage in my familial past, not everyone I would contact in order to research that past will welcome my efforts. In fact, they might dead-end me. Hence, in my “public profile” (visible to everyone, even those I’m not “sharing” with), I removed the reference to my African-American heritage, reserving it only for my non-public (post-sharing) profile.

The underlying factor of petitioner’s syndrome concerns access to and control of information. The availability of genetic testing allows me to re-contextualise my adoptive parents’ monopoly on birth narratives about me (whether true, false, or indifferent); it permits me to say, “They told you I’m Irish, German, and Welsh. So far, that seems to be true. But I’m also African-American.” Similarly, my petition to the State of Washington for my original birth certificate permits me to say to any that would deny my origins, “No, in fact I am your relative, are we’re part Black.”

Of course, access to adoption records in Washington state (a recent development) points to an increase of social justice precisely because it removes the monopoly the state had on control over that information. It modifies the structural aspects, such as predatory lawyers (or kinder, but expensive) search angels who can bribe or steal their way through the system to uncover this information, because now the path to the information is less blocked.

Any political position about adoption justice, if we must suffer it to exist at all, would therefore seem to demand the elimination of petitioner’s syndrome, psychologically and structurally. One example of this: every adoption must be explicitly and permanently open.


[1] It may have been noted, I refer to “adoptees” as “orphans” now. The orphan is the one who is adopted, remembering that not all orphans get adopted: some get fostered, some die, some commit suicide, some run away, &c. Orphans who must ask others for information about origins will likely wind up in a “petitioner’s syndrome” scenario, but for now at least, I’m proposing that the syndrome arises structurally from adoption.


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