I located the sentence from Fanny Howe that I parsed yesterday and can now confess to having misrepresented Howe's meaning, if not the way in which language itself creates a schism between "nature" and "adoption." The sentence can be found in Howe's essay, "Immanence," from The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life (UC Press, 2003). This essay is about Edith Stein, a Jewish philosopher turned Catholic who was murdered in 1942 at the hands of the Nazis. Howe finds fascinating the difference between Stein's academic writing on empathy, writing that "was almost unreadable--it lacked the fluidity of experience or any way of speaking directly, and rested instead on a carefully constructed logic as stiff as wood" (45) and her writing about the experience of writing about empathy. The latter Howe finds moving, based on experience, empathetic. The shift from a logical, impersonal tone, to one "softer and more subtle" is crucial to Howe and matches her own method of moving between her own experience and her ideas about it.
The question Howe asks is this: "How does a change in vocabulary save your life? Replacing one word with another word for the same thought--can this actually transform your feelings about things?" (47). This question (which she never answers--who can?) leads her toward the distinction that bothers me. Howe's concern here is with emptiness: "Each time we exert our will we are exhibiting hope inside emptiness. And over time all the necessary actions that we take will help us develop a familiarity with objects and with space that makes our comforts seem natural rather than adopted" (46). Before I pause to consider the words "familiarity," "natural," "adopted," let me permit Howe to finish her (and Stein's) thought: "We begin to trust the logic of our own and the world's machinery working in tandem and forget the mysterious disjunctures between hopes and arrivals" (48) In other words, "natural comforts" are mystifications, whereas "adopted" ones recognize disjunctures. We think we are natural when we are actually adopted into the world as we become familiar with it.
But consider the vocabulary she uses and does not change, a vocabulary of family, divided neatly into "natural" family (sometimes birth mothers are called "natural") and "adopted" family (where familiarity is set apart from nature). This is the division that inspired a pediatrician to ask me, as I sat with my son, if I had "any children of my own at home." Or one that caused discomfort in an emergency room nurse who asked my husband and me, bringing in a baby having a hard time breathing, "how can we describe his relationship to you?" Or the rather frequent question I got early on: "where did he come from?" (So that the question of birth, if unanswered, inspires questions about history.) I could go on, and I realize that Howe is not using the terms ignorantly or insensitively. But still she has not changed the life of her vocabulary.
How can a vocabulary change your life? Consider that the words we use to talk about family are abstract, that they do not apply to most of us well. Consider then that to write about these words is to bring those abstractions closer to our experience in the way Stein came closer to her meaning for "empathy" when she wrote from experience rather than from "logic." If empathy comes out of a recognition of the fluidity of histories, including one's own, then those fluidities may inspire new words. What, for example, is the word for the relationship between me and the adoptive mother of my daughter's birth sister?
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