From the comical adoption of Kristoff by a family of stone trolls in Disney’s Frozen, to the brief mentioning of the two dysfunctional sisters in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine being adoptees, to the heartbreaking story of Philomena, adoption has been a theme in several blockbuster movies these past few months. It’s also interesting to see how adoption has been connected to films off screen. While many people look for adoption triggers in films before seeing them, perhaps more attention should be paid to these rather disturbing off-screen connections.
The first movie I’ll highlight is Disney’s, “Saving Mr. Banks,” which dramatically tells the story of P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, and recounts how her book became a Disney classic.
Emma Thompson does a beautiful job portraying this crotchety, stubborn woman. The jovial songwriters effectively balance the heaviness of her story. The film is well-done and explains so much about the characters of Mary Poppins and the events that shaped P.L. Travers. But an integral part of her life is missing in this movie: her son.
P.L. Travers remained a single woman into her adulthood and like many, wanted to parent a child. In 1940, She knew of a couple in Dublin who were unable to raise all of their grandchildren, so she came to the family home. Joseph Hone, the grandfather pleaded with Travers to take the infant twins. She insisted she could only take one child, though, and separated six month old twins. After allegedly consulting her astrologist about which child would be the better match, she chose the larger, bonier, first born twin – named Camillus Hone. She told Camillus that she was his natural mother and that his father had died. He had every luxury he desired, but his life of privilege was forever changed at age 17 by the discovery of his twin brother. Anthony had tracked down his twin and showed up at Travers’ home completely unannounced. She forbade Camillus from ever seeing Anthony again, but the twins defied her orders and met occasionally to drink together. Camillus was unable to forgive P.L. Travers for lying to him and descended into alcoholism. Anthony felt rejected all of his life, and he, too, became an alcoholic, costing him his career and family. Years later, Joseph Hone said, “Pamela Travers saw herself as Mary Poppins and thought she could play Poppins with poor little Camillus. . . . I don’t think Travers was fit to bring up children.”
The second film I’d like to mention is Labor Day, starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, which comes to theaters, today, January 31st, 2014. This film tells the story of depressed, lonely, single mother who has a 13 year old son. A convict approaches the son one day and forces them to take him with them. The mother and convict fall in love, and the man becomes a mentor to the son. The cops continuously look for the man, and the now happy family is unable to escape. Frank, the convict, is sent back to jail, and the three main characters are reunited after many years. This movie is based on the novel by Joyce Maynard.
The adoption connection? Joyce Maynard is a former adoptive mother. Former? That’s right. Past tense. Because she decided to re-home her children. At age 55, Maynard went to Ethiopia and decided to adopt two sisters, ages 6 and 11, “with an utter, absolute resolution that [she] would be their mother forever.” She claims that leaving them until she could process their citizenship was one of the hardest days and joyously describes how much hope, love, and happiness filled her heart. But just 14 months later, she told the world, “there was no shortage of love or care – and despite some very happy and good times – the adoption failed.”
Sitting in the tub with the girls, she told her daughters, “You know, when I went to Ethiopia to bring you home, I made a promise to all the people who left you there that I would make sure you had a good life in America, and I will make sure you have a good life in America … I think you need a dad.” She also mentioned in an interview that for those 14 months, she “abandoned pretty much everything else in [her] life. . . But it wasn’t okay.” My reaction to that: It sounds like this is more about her than the girls she adopted. Perhaps she had forgotten how much work parenting is since her older children are long out of the house. Maybe she didn’t realize the girls’ ages and lack of English on top of other adoption issues would cause barriers. Or maybe Maynard discovered that intercountry adoption was not quite as simple as Hollywood makes it seem. Despite her own ignorance on parenting adopted children, she should of thought about family structure and safety nets before she uprooted the girls from their home country and separated them from everything they knew, before she promised to be their mother and to love and support them always.
Since the girls have gone to their new family, Maynard has not sent any letters, packages, or had any correspondence with them. What a fantastic way to let the girls know that they have been abandoned by two mothers: the first by AIDS, and the second by choice. Maynard believes she will see the girls again in the distant future, however “when [she] said goodbye to them, they could not even look at [her] anymore.” If I were her “daughters,” I honestly don’t think I would want to see her again. I find her actions completely despicable, and what’s more, she says that she has used this as a growth experience. I feel that her growth shouldn’t be dependent on the tossing around of vulnerable children.
She ends her letter to the public by saying, “I have not for one moment questioned that I made the right choice for them. . . There is not a single person in this story who is not in a better place now than she was, three years ago.” That’s a very nice line Maynard can try to tell herself to justify her participation in the horrible and should-be illegal process of child rehoming. (Last summer, Reuters did a fantastic job exposing the dangers, failures, abuses and middlemen involved in rehoming, a practice typically reserved for family pets. Their investigation is called, The Child Exchange.)
From these two specific cases, I bring to light the issue of disturbing adoption connections not only on screen, but also off screen, in the film subjects’, writers’, and actors’ narratives. I don’t want any of my pennies to land in Joyce Maynard’s change purse, and so I can guarantee you that Labor Day is not a film I will be watching in the theaters in these upcoming weeks.