Find My Family

Warning: Much of the below drifts into territory closer to a personal essay. I review Find My Family in the end, but if you want the brief hit, look at the grade. That pretty much says it all.

The title Find My Family is a command. It's an imperative, something you need someone to do for you. But buried inside of it is a question. Find My Family? It's the idea that you can never really know yourself until you know the place you came from, the pieces that add up to making you who you are. One of the people seeking their family in tonight's official premiere (the show had a short preview after Dancing with the Stars last week) says both that she doesn't need to find her biological parents because she has parents (specifically her adoptive ones), but she needs to find her biological siblings. She needs to know more about who she is, she says, to find out things about herself that most people take for granted.

It's weird that I end up writing about Find My Family tonight because 29 years ago today (Nov. 30, which it still is on the West Coast as I write this), I was born to a woman in her early 20s who decided she neither wanted to abort nor keep the baby that resulted from a brief and ill-advised coupling. It wasn't a cruel decision in any way, as many adopted children and outsiders conclude of birth parents. There was to that decision a certain degree of calculated love, the idea that the two of us might both be better off if we weren't together, if life took a few turns from where it might seem to have been headed. And so she convinced my biological father to sign some papers, and I was born, and I went off to rural South Dakota, and she lived her life, and the world continued, a grander sense of the purpose of all of this only barely hinted at.
To be an adoptee is to spend your life chasing a question mark that defines your center.

You can be as sure of anything in the world - I love my parents, even if they did not physically conceive and give birth to me, and I love my adoptive sister as well - but still the question of whether this is who you always would have been remains present. Even those adoptees who have no desire to meet their biological parents (and there are many) will often seek out some amount of information, if only to know of hereditary health issues or to gain some knowledge of why they might, say, be a musician when their family was full of athletes. All children biologically born to their parents have to figure out their identities, yes, but they largely know where they come from and the individual droplets that combine into the deluge that is themselves. To be someone who doesn't know your own parents, your own DNA, even if you love the ones who have raised you with your entire being, is to be a range of possibilities, a long series of could have beens and bad plot twists.

It's doubly odd that I'm reviewing this show tonight because I'm returning from a Thanksgiving spent with my biological half-siblings, two people who didn't even know I existed a few years ago, two people whom I hadn't met until this summer, and two people who seem for all the world to me like family. The question of where you belong is a funny thing. It's, of course, possible to feel like you belong in many different places, like you belong in your home and at your workplace and in your cooking class and among your friends. But it's a strange sensation to feel the sense of belonging to multiple families, to feel as though there are deeper ties than the ones we forge by working at them our whole lives. There are bonds that can be constructed instantly, out of nothing, in the space of a three-second hug. My biological father died before I was able to meet him, but because my siblings and I have been able to meet, we've filled in those question marks in each others' lives. We are answers to questions we didn't know how to ask.

All of this is to say that Find My Family gets at the surface of what it means to be adopted and meet your biological family, but it never really manages to dig any deeper. Everything goes perfectly. The sun always shines. All of the unpleasant emotions of the decision to give up a baby are mostly shunted aside, while the stories of the adoptive parents, who take the new baby in, get short shrift. (In particular, I was waiting to hear more about a white woman who adopted a black daughter - in the '70s, no less! - and kept waiting as the episode rolled on.) When the new/old family is reunited, it all happens beneath the welcoming bows of a tree that ABC has literally dubbed "the family tree," and under the watchful eye of the host, who seems to exist only to provide conflict-free resolutions to these storylines. Like most reality TV of this ilk - particularly those TLC Story series that were so popular earlier this decade - Find My Family is mostly just interested in giving everyone involved the best, candy-coated version of these experiences that's possible.

But that's why lots of people watch television, really. They want to gain a window into a world that they'll never see normally, but not so much of a window that they're forced to feel anything other than what that window chooses to make them feel. I don't think manipulative television is all bad, nor do I think it's mostly bad. It can be quite effective when used well, and some of the best reality TV uses the manipulative tricks of the trade to create these perfect little tableaux of empathy and feeling. Find My Family, though, dances along the surface of complex, deep emotions like a skipping stone. Why does Ashley not particularly want to even know anything about her birth parents? Or is this a convenience invented because the two refused to be filmed for the series? We don't know, and the series shies away from every possible discussion of the topic, until it's literally all the viewer can think about.

But television is also uniquely good - better than any other medium, really - at dumping us into someone else's life with an immediacy and bracing sense of clarity that causes us to realize what it might be like to live that life. Maybe because I've lived the experience of Find My Family, I'm more critical of the way it attempts to provide a tiny glimpse into a world that's completely bewildering for the non-adopted out there. But my wife, who's often struggled to understand just what I'm feeling in regards to this at any given moment, spent much of this show irritated by how it tried to tug her feelings in a certain direction. There are interesting stories to be told about these people and about these lives, but Find My Family chooses, instead, to go about it from the outside in, then stops before it reaches anything too meaningful or painful. The hugs on the show build new connections, but all of the answers they build are closed off, not the beginnings of anything new, strange and open-ended.

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