This post is prompted by my recent visit to Barnes & Noble, which is now carrying the book Rescuing Julia Twice: A Mother’s Tale of Russian Adoption and Overcoming Reactive Attachment Disorder by Tina Traster. I have not read the book and don’t know if I would, even if I managed to get a free copy, so as not to add any extra spare change to her pocket. Without reading the book, I cannot critique it. I can only discuss what I know.
I know that I am immediately disgusted by the title. Not only does this woman claim to have rescued her daughter once, but twice. In an article titled, When An Adopted Child Won’t Attach, she writes, “When I can’t come to Julia’s rescue, I suffer.” The rhetoric of adoption as “rescue” benefits Traster, not her daughter, Julia, in any way. This mentality is used to prioritize her adoptive parent experience, highlighting the pain, effort, and exceptional parenting on Traster’s behalf. The “rescue” narrative allows Traster to seek public approval for being altruistic or self-sacrificing and diminishes Julia’s role to a secondary character in her own story. I am adopted. I am Chinese-American. I am a blogger. I am so many things, but rescued is not one of them.
Traster describes her daughter as having Reactive Attachment Disorder, which is defined by Mayo Clinic as “a rare but serious condition in which infants and young children don’t establish healthy bonds with parents or caregivers. A child with reactive attachment disorder is typically neglected, abused or orphaned. Reactive attachment disorder develops because the child’s basic needs for comfort, affection and nurturing aren’t met and loving, caring attachments with others are never established. This may permanently change the child’s growing brain, hurting the ability to establish future relationships.” What’s more, Traster calls her daughter “the new face of RAD.” In a similar vein, she wrote in an article for Redbook Magazine that “only now were we ready to admit Julia was its [RAD] poster child.” My concern is purely about Julia. How does she feel about being the “poster child” for RAD, having every detail of her early life put out for public consumption forever?
Perhaps the most appalling and alarming element of this book is that it is yet another tool of exploitation. At age twelve, Julia is at a stage where I strived to be somewhat similar to my peers, I loathed my flaws or imperfections being pointed out, and I certainly didn’t want my parents sharing my private information with family or friends let alone the world. That, however, is exactly what Traster does through her writing, describing Julia’s “manic behavior” and calling her “feral” in a piece describing her early years for Time Magazine. There’s nothing wrong with offering hope to families in a similar situation, but there are several alternative routes the author could have taken to make her work more factual and ethical. Traster could have made this story anonymous, interviewed other families working with RAD, waited until Julia was 18, or co-authored with Julia. Instead, Traster used her daughter as another news story to advance her journalist career.
The sickening amount of exploitation continues on Traster’s personal website, juliaandme.com, which showcases the numerous articles and columns Traster has written on her daughter and their family’s experience overcoming RAD. Though the website is titled “Julia & Me,” it appears to be very heavy on the “Me” side of things, reserving one tab for Julia. Along with the articles and book reviews are promotional videos as well as a documentary by Traster titled “The Kids Are Not Alright.” In this video, Traster compares connecting with her daughter to rescuing a wild animal, such as a fox. But young Julia Tannenbaum is not and was not a wild animal. She’s a thinking, feeling human being – one who had experienced much trauma and change early in life. Later in the video, Traster calls their house “a war room” and says “[their] home literally became ‘Operation: Save Julia.'” When her parents constantly tell her how they’ve travelled tens of thousands of miles for her, how they’ve sacrificed so much for her, and how they’ve made her their “life’s work,” how can young Julia go through normal teenage rebellion? How can she live up to the silent expectation that her parents “saved” her from being a “feral” animal?
As a matter of fact, in a New York Times Blog post from May 18, 2014, Traster describes a situation in which Julia becomes angry and cries out, “You’re not my real mom.” Though not unusual, these words are hurtful to parents. Filled with pain, Traster spat back, “Oh yeah, then who is?” Remarkably, she relays how Julia was the bigger person in this situation and apologized first. Traster then told Julia to never say those words again, short-circuiting normalcy. Instead of making this a general learning experience about the impact of words or respect in a family unit, by telling Julia to NEVER say that again, she makes this situation about her own vulnerability and Julia’s role in protecting her.
Another video on the site titled, “Raising Julia” discusses their home life. In a very commodifying way, Traster reveals that she “had never seen a more beautiful baby anywhere.” Traster describes Julia as “so starkly stunning . . . She was like a piece of porcelain – stunning!” To me, it seems that Traster was delighted with her daughter when she thought she received the most beautiful, most perfect one and then became deeply saddened to learn she had received a “damaged good.” Towards the end of the video she describes Julia as her everything, her daughter and her work, as if the two have fused together. Traster says, “It’s kind of gratifying in a funny sort of way. I guess what she’s brought to my life, and I hope this doesn’t sound selfish, but she’s brought to my life a mission. Julia’s hurt has given us all a mission to heal, and that I’m able to do that through my work makes me very lucky. I’ve not just been given a child; I’ve been given a muse, you know.” The idea that Julia is her “mission” and her “muse” puts an exceptional burden on her. Instead of just simply being a child, Julia’s position in the family has come with a job description – to fulfill Traster’s life.
This relentless exploitation is coupled with relentless self promotion. In almost every article written, Traster concludes by mentioning the then upcoming release of her book, and an excerpt of Rescuing Julia Twice appeared on Yahoo! News. The vigor with with she promotes her book reduces the words in these smaller articles to nothing more than offensive advertisements for her book. Traster has also personally reached out to many adoption groups and pages on Facebook to advertise her articles and new book. I first came across Tina Traster towards the end of last month. She posted a link to a video interview about the book, Rescuing Julia Twice, as well as a couple images of Julia’s artwork and an article about RAD to the Families with Children From China Facebook page despite group guidelines strictly prohibiting advertisements, commercial content, and fundraising. Traster’s involvement in the group was unwarranted from the very beginning as membership is limited to Chinese adoptees and current/prospective adoptive parents of Chinese adoptees. Traster quickly disappeared from the page once it was revealed that she had not adopted from China, as the group expects.
Interestingly, Traster cites a news story of a woman jailed for involuntary manslaughter of her adopted, Russian son as her inspiration for seeking a diagnosis for her condition, Julia’s alleged RAD. Natalia Higier, the woman from the story, had accidentally thrown the child into the air and he hit his head. When the woman described a child who was “unaffectionate, exceedingly difficult,” and refused to attach, Traster immediately connected. Additionally, a 2010 story of a woman who attempted to return her adopted Russian child on a plane to Moscow served as a catalyst for Traster to tell her daughter’s story. While these cases juxtaposed to Traster’s situation may set out to exemplify her caring, persistent mother’s hear, to an adoptee the message is that she should be grateful her mother didn’t kill or return her – not only because “so many marriages and homes are ravaged by the challenge of adopting difficult children (according to her article in Redbook Magazine),” but also because Julia was the cause of their family becoming “adrift.”
The amount of positive attention Traster has received is absolutely shocking to me. Picked up by The Huffington Post Blog, New York Times Magazine, Redbook Magazine, Time Magazine as well as many other reputable sources, Traster writes as if she deserves a plaque for doing simply what she promised to do through adoption – parent. The sadness of this situation is firstly for Julia, whose privacy has been completely violated. And she will never get it back. A second sadness exists for the families who are currently dealing with RAD and desperately looking for help. Stumbling on Rescuing Julia Twice in the Psychology or Childcare sections of bookstores, these families may be tempted to use Traster’s book as a handbook for their own situations instead of seeking appropriate help. An additional worry is that children may be erroneously labeled by their parents as having RAD when they are only expressing their grief and loss through different coping mechanisms. Adoptee trauma must be validated so that adoptive parents don’t expect an instantaneous attachment on the part of the child. Such vast media coverage of Traster’s family does nothing to really address serious issues in adoption, including the inadequate information and preparation of prospective adoptive parents, the availability of reasonably priced mental health services, and post-adoption follow-up and support services.
Perhaps one day, I will be in Barnes & Noble, and I’ll glance up and see a book by a young woman named Julia Tannenbaum titled, Surviving Tina Traster: A Russian Adoptee’s Tale of Overcoming Exploitation and Self-Promotion by her American Mother. I look forward to that day.