Dear Portland: how about we promote best public health practices for drinking water

Carole Smith, Superintendent

Carole Smith, Superintendent of Portland Public Schools, has been criticized severely by many parents for failures of leadership surrounding the lack of notification about unsafe lead levels at two public schools, for weeks.

Ed. Note, July 16, 2016: See update below regarding the city deciding not to adjust the water’s pH to address corrosion/lead and water issues.

On June 5, 2016, I wrote a letter to Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Nick Fish, head of the Portland Water Bureau, asking for some leadership. Right now, it appears Portland’s management of its critically important drinking water system is now being called into question, and rightly so. If you have not heard, the city’s schools are in a tailspin because kids and families were not properly advised of unsafe levels of lead in drinking water at two schools, for weeks. Soon after, all drinking water was shut off at all schools until fixes are made, and parents have called for the immediate resignation of Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith. This has since grown into a larger crisis impacting school systems dependent on the city’s water.

The actions at the schools and in our water system impact the entire community. While I am not alarmist by lead level readings in parts per billion, and I deeply worried that leadership is lacking and ideas that undermine public health are now being embraced in the decision-making culture of our schools and our local government. This matters, because nothing is more critical to public health than clean drinking water. And when trust is eroded, the public will not support public health with public money, which is how we ensure public health for all.

COPY OF LETTER SENT:

Dear Mayor Hales and Commissioner Fish: I work on many issues for my job, including educating the public about water. I love informing people how amazing our country’s drinking water systems are in promoting public health. So I feel passionately about the topic and appreciate all the work all of our water purveyors do daily, without much thanks they deserve, all the time. And my thanks are extended to the staff at the Portland Water Bureau. They keep us healthy, 365 days a year.

For the record, I have a background in public health and spent two years promoting community water fluoridation in the Tacoma/Pierce County area. I am proud of the many proven public health measures with our water systems adopted nationally since the early 1900s have saved lives, improved human health, and lead to better overall public health. This includes fluoridation and chlorination.

The Crude death rate for infectious diseases - United States, 1900-1996. Chlorination proved one of the greatest life savers to promote public health.

The Crude death rate for infectious diseases – United States, 1900-1996. Chlorination proved one of the greatest life savers to promote public health.

I am writing both of you now because I am becoming alarmed as a resident of the city, who is waiting for the outcome of a lead/water test at his home, of a “philosophy” expressed by some of our most important leaders regarding how we should provide clean, healthy drinking water–the greatest public health intervention we have for our community.

It appears as a city may have been taken badly off the rails by perhaps improper cost-based decisions and philosophically-based decisions over a long period of time.

OPB reported on June 3 that the U.S. EPA has become alarmed by the city’s decisions: “The manager, Marie Jennings, was concerned that the Portland Water Bureau isn’t doing enough to minimize the amount of lead at taps in Portland. She wrote that the EPA’s regional administrator, Dennis McLerran, had ‘heightened concerns about drinking water quality, including the [Portland Water Bureau’s] implementation under the Lead and Copper Rule.'”

We also, as a city, do not appear to be promoting best practices because of the vocal “natural-health,” vaccination-denying minority who don’t understand public health and whose sometimes radical views now threaten our kids, and everyone else in many areas. The consequences were very harmful with the public vote on water fluoridation. Continuing stories on how the city’s and its schools’ lead and water protocols are handled have me growing more concerned the more I learn about the many actions taken by the city dating back to the 1990s.

So, for the record, I WANT treated water. I think we can all agree there is NO SUCH THING as pure water. All water has minerals and chemicals that are adjusted to optimize public heath. Give me my chlorine/chloramines, please. I love that taste. It means I’m not going to get a water-borne illness that might kill me.

Mayor Hales, I would hope you can use your bully pulpit in the remaining few months to promote a dialogue on the benefits of healthy drinking water, including chlorination systems, one of the greatest life-savers ever adopted in this country. And please communicate using facts not fairy dust that Portland has “pure” water or that WE Portlanders “expect purity” in our drinking water. This is a very dangerous message with real consequences as we are now seeing.

We as Portlanders don’t want minimally treated water. We want optimally treated water. I want my chemicals in the water to ensure we stay healthy based on proven science. Having this message below used by our public health champions (and they are our champions) is not a best practice to promote public health. Let’s stop the nonsense about keeping our water pure. Did we learn anything from Flint?

I'll have my water with the appropriate treatment to optimize health--and yes that includes chemicals, thank you.

I’ll have my water with the appropriate treatment to optimize health–and yes that includes chemicals, thank you.

FROM THE OPB STORY:  http://www.opb.org/news/article/portlands-water-hasnt-gotten-the-lead-out/

The public’s strong preference for keeping Portland’s water source pure and natural – in open air reservoirs and free of chemical treatment  – hindered efforts that would have reduced the amount of lead in drinking water.

Portland remains the largest city in the country that does not add fluoride to its water. The city finally decided to phase out its open-air reservoirs after more than a decade of debate.

“Portland residents have said pretty clearly that they want a minimal amount of treatment in their water, so that’s something that needs to be taken into account” [Scott] Bradway said.

 Ed. Note: Scott Bradway is a lead hazard reduction specialist at the Portland Water Bureau.

UPDATE JULY 16, 2016:

The Oregonian published a story that addresses the concerns I raised with Mayor Hale’s and Commissioner Fish. Neither office replied to two emails I sent to their office. In the story by Oregonian reporter Brad Schmidt, it appears Portland is continuing to take a position not to address issue of the corrosive qualities of the water. This is likely in part because of a misguided view seen in the statement from Bradway that residents want minimal treatment of water. That is a false statement–we want our water treated optimally to maximize public health for everyone.

This view undermines the ability of government to promote public health and dangerously cedes public health decision making to the anti-fluoride and anti-vaccer voices that have made Portland and Oregon public health poster children for how not to promote health for all. If these views are guiding our policy-makers, this remains very disturbing and should be a great concern to anyone who practices public health in Oregon and Portland. Did anyone in Portland learn anything from the example of Flint, Michigan?

The story noted: “But Fish cautioned Portland may not simply add more chemicals to the water to reduce corrosion. Officials could explore options for ‘more robust outreach and education,’ more water testing or potentially some sort of program that helps homeowners replace lead-tainted plumbing.

“‘We think we can do better’ — Portland Commissioner Nick Fish on lead levels in drinking water.

“‘Until we’ve completed our assessment, we don’t know what’s the best option,’ Fish said.

“In August, city officials will meet with state and federal regulators to review preliminary results from a study looking at pipe corrosion within Portland’s water system. The meeting has yet to be scheduled.

Although city officials haven’t committed to making any changes to their treatment process, they have agreed to present a ‘detailed proposed schedule for selection, design, construction, and implementation’ of treatment techniques to lower lead levels, state records show.”

Dear State of Michigan: I just want my original birth certificate, now!

I am attempting to secure my original birth certificate from the State of Michigan. You can watch my video highlighting my request for my original record of birth.

If you were not adopted, you are entitled to this document. It provides you legal proof of who you are and, as important, information about your family, which is the foundation to knowing your ancestry. If you are not adopted, you will never have to face obstacles for the most basic information and not know what it means to be denied essential information about who you are.

Today,  one’s ancestry is widely considered one of the important pieces of information for a human to have. Medically, having access to one’s family history is considered a best health practice by all medical professionals. Nearly all dental and medical professionals ask for this information.

Access to original birth records is a national health and public health priority

The National Institutes of Health highlights why every person needs to know their family history--it can be a matter of life and death with cancer.

The National Institutes of Health highlights why every person needs to know their family history–it can be a matter of life and death with cancer.

Adoptees like all other Americans should by legal right be entitled to this potentially life-saving information. The National Institutes for Health reports there are more than 6,000 genetic and rare diseases. These afflict more than 25 million Americans, and about 30 percent of early deaths can be linked to genetic causes. Genetic mutations play a major role in about 5 to 10 percent of all cancers, the second leading killer of all Americans, topped only by heart disease. Researchers have associated mutations in specific genes with more than 50 hereditary cancer syndromes, which are disorders that may mean some individuals are more likely to develop certain cancers.

For its part, the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) identifies the role of genomes in other health issues, such as birth defects, chronic diseases, and congenital heart defects, and the CDC has created the Office of Public Health Genomics to promote research in the field. The U.S. Surgeon General in 2004 declared a Family History Health Day, on Thanksgiving, to promote greater awareness on the critical role of family medical history to promoting health—and by family history the nation’s leading medical advocate means only genetic family history. Family medical histories can identify people with a higher risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes. A family medical history can also provide risks of rarer conditions caused by mutations, such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia.

Groups like the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force also use family health history information to recommend national screening and preventive services for conditions such as osteoporosis, hyperlipidemia, and breast cancer. The American Cancer Society recommendations for early breast cancer detection recently included changes in mammography recommendations that use family health history in decisions when a woman should begin mammography in persons with a family history where breast cancer is a known risk.

Ignore science and evidence and deny, deny, deny

To date, Michigan has prevented me for more than a quarter of a century from getting this document, by law. This is, on its face, discrimination against me simply because I am an adopted person. No other group of persons in Michigan, not even convicted felons, are denied this document on the basis of their status at birth.

The Wayne County Probate Court and my adoption agency, formerly Lutheran Children’s Friend Society of Michigan, did release most of my identifying information to me, however. But that was only after I found my birth family, spending two years searching, at great investment of my time, financial resources, and energy. They were compelled by law to release this information they once hid from me, in theory to promote some abstract benefit that is not proven anywhere in any research. I received no help from the adoption bureaucracy to secure my original records. Even though I have a copy of documents bearing my original birth name, my medical records during my adoption, my adoption decree, and other legal documents, the state’s outdated and archaic adoption bureaucracy has refused to discuss and work with me to obtain what I am legally entitled to: my original birth certificate.

To try and speed up this process, I am communicating directly with Director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services asking the leader of this state agency to resolve this simple bureaucratic records request without delay. I will have sent that document to Director Nick Lyon on March 21, 2016. I am excerpting below some of that request. In that note I outlined how Michigan openly discriminates against people by status of being adopted.

Legalized discrimination against adoptees, Michigan style. Yes, felons can get their certificates, but adoptees cannot.

Legalized discrimination against adoptees, Michigan style. Yes, felons can get their certificates, but adoptees cannot. This is published by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, outlining state law restricting rights for adoptees.

My goal is only to obtain what I should have been given years ago, and without further delay. By writing about this issue, I also hope to highlight how discriminatory state adoption laws continue to harm hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens and deny them equal treatment under the law. Closed records are widely acknowledged by nearly all evidence to be harmful to birth parents, adoptees, and adoptive families. My story is just a small piece of that larger story. One story at a time, state laws might be changed. I am not expecting that to happen any time soon, however.

Excerpt of Letter to Director Lyon:

Laws that your legislatures have passed concerning adoption no longer apply to me, as I have already found my birth families, now for more than 26 years, in 1989. There is no longer any compelling state interest or legal or other rationale that justifies the state of Michigan holding an original record and what is mine by birthright. I know my original name (Scott Douglas Owens). …

However, your adoption staff personnel refused to discuss this situation with me when I called the Central Adoption Registry in October 2015. A staff member there returned my call but refused to discuss my legal reality that bypasses the need for me to fill out Form 1919 (Parent’s Consent/Denial to Release Information to Adult Adoptee). … When I tried to explain I already know everything about my birth family and birth records, she still told me, in essence, “Fill out the damn form.” It was one of the most embarrassing calls I have had with anyone in public service in my life, and I’ve spent decades serving the public now as a professional.

… this form is no longer legally required. The alleged purpose of the law is to supposedly provide a benefit to birth parents and adoptees, even in the face of overwhelming evidence such legal barriers are antiquated and all sides in adoption want to know each other. In this case, there is no longer any compelling legal justification to delay the release of my original birth record now. I already know my family. I already have my other birth records. I just want my original birth certificate.

How legalized discrimination against adoptees and birth parents took root in post-War America

“Prior to World War II, there was no wide-spread and institutionalized adoption system. When children were born out of wedlock, both the babies and the mothers were considered undesirable. They bore a stigma—got little or no help. But after the war, that changed. Babies became part of a huge new adoption industry … while their unwed mothers were still shunned by society.”

Dan Rather, Reporter
Dan Rather Reports, Adopted or Abducted?
May 1, 2012

 “With respect to attitudes about adoption, white unmarried motherhood is no longer equated with mental disorder or an ability to recover easily from surrendering a child for adoption. A large majority of birth parents are reported to be open to or actually desire contact with adoptees. Adoptive families have come increasingly to be seen as having unique qualities and challenges. … Adoptees searching for information about or contact with their birth families have become families figures and are no longer assumed to be suffering from a mental disorder.”

Elizabeth Samuels, J.D., Professor of Law, University of Baltimore
The Idea of Adoption, An Inquiry into the
History of Adult Adoptee Access to Birth Records.
Rutgers Law Review, Vol. 53, 2001.

One of the most under-reported societal stories of the past six decades has been how the U.S. adoption system continues to discriminate against several million adopted Americans. This legal practice is particularly ironic because the movement to make adoption records more secret from adoptees, depriving them of basic human rights, came at a time when voting rights, civil rights, gay rights, disability rights, and women’s rights were expanding for all Americans from the 1950s onward.who am I

University of Baltimore law professor Elizabeth Samuels has documented this national trend with both clarity and meticulous detail in a series of articles she has published starting in 2001 on adoption law and privacy issues surrounding adoption.

Samuels has painstakingly documented in her authoritative study how state adoption laws evolved from the 1930s to the present and how elected state lawmakers systematically closed adoption records between the 1960s and 1990s. The change was championed by state legislatures and social service bureaucracies, with the quiet but critical involvement of the U.S. medical establishment that delivered the babies and cared for the women giving birth.

This happened without any clear evidence proving records secrecy offered benefits to mothers and children placed for adoption. The closing of records was based largely on societal views that stigmatized unwed mothers and particularly adopted children even to this day.

It is likely that many Americans still harbor deep fears and suspicions about adoptees as adults, thanks to archetypal fears of bastard babies and stigmas fueled by unrepentant mental health professionals who caused calculated harm with their pseudo-scientific branding of an adoptees’ quest for information as unhealthy.

Oddly, this movement to seal original birth certificates and birth records of adoptees through the 1990s took place as many adoptees had come of age and began organizing local, state-level, and national movements demanding a universal right to know who they were and where they came from, as found in original identity documents.

Advocates included Betty Jean Lifton, author of Twice Born: Memoirs of an Adopted Daughter (1975); Florence Fisher, author of The Search for Anna Fisher (1973), and social worker-turned adoptee rights advocate Jean Paton, author of The Adopted Break Silence (1953).

Jean Paton Book Cover

A new biography on adoptee rights advocate Jean Paton is now available as a downloadable e-book.

Paton, a mostly unrecognized social leader and equal rights advocate two decades ahead of her time, helped to launch a national adoptees right movement and published two books that advocated for adoptees’ rights. She suggested the creation of a mutual consent registry as early as 1949, for example, and embraced the term “bastard” in the 1970s, long before the emergence of the advocacy group Bastard Nation in the 1990s.

She wrote of her experience before states began to implement discriminatory laws: “In 1942 I had gone to the Probate Court … and looked up my first adoption paper, and saw my mother’s full name signed by her own hand. There was no rigmarole; you were allowed to see your own paper in a kindly procedure.”

When records were open to adoptees, the norm

As Samuels reports, “In the ‘40s and ‘50s, most state laws did permit adult adoptees to view birth records. But by 1960, 26 states were making both original birth records and adoption records available only by court order. Twenty other states still birth records available on demand, but over the following 30 years, all of those states but three—Alaska, Kansas and South Dakota—close records to adults adoptees.”

Samuels shows through a review of state records and recommendations from leading adoption welfare agencies from the 1930s to the 1950s that the groups most involved in handling adoptions and developing recommendations mostly agreed that adult adoptees should have access to their original birth records.

Samuels shows the original legal rationale to provide confidentiality of the birth mother and to keep her from knowing her birth parents was only to “protect adoptees and adoptive parents from the dangers of public access to personal information.”state secret comment

The intent up through the end of the 1950s was never to prevent adult adoptees from accessing their original birth certificates, which had their original names prior to their adoption and later amended birth certificates with their name provided by the adoptive parents.

The most influential adoption agency of its time, the Child Welfare League of America, noted in its 1941 standards that such protection shielded adoptees “from unnecessary embarrassment in case of illegitimacy.”

In fact the U.S. Children’s Bureau, one of the major players in the development of adoption law through the mid-20th century, fully endorsed adult adoptees’ rights to know who they were, in the form of access to their original birth records, up through the late 1940s. Samuels notes one consultant for the agency defended this already established legal practice nationally, noting, “every person has a right to know who he is and who his people were.”

Samuels’ legal analysis dismantles and thoroughly destroys the predominant justification still used today that the shamed and marginalized pregnant mothers who entered into adoptions from the 1940s onward wanted to have their identities hidden from their birth children. This false narrative still survives today and still continues to allow legalized discrimination and stigmatization of these mothers and their kids.

Samuels unearthed no data or credible study that ever justified this overwhelming legal rationale. It was the view advanced by the interest groups who managed adoptions, notably the social service agencies who brokered more than 1.5 million adoptions from 1951 to 1972— the last year before abortion became legal in the United States.

Adoption Industrial Complex Word Cloud

Many players participated and continue to participate in the “adoption industrial complex.”

“The historical record suggests that birth mothers were in fact seeking a measure of confidentiality,” writes Samuels in her October 2001 op ed published in the Washington Post in 2001. “What mothers wanted, however, was not to prevent the adoptive parents and the children they had surrendered from discovering their identities, but to prevent their communities from learning of their situations.”

When and why “secrecy” became acceptable?

Samuels’ evidence shows that the rationale by state legislatures reflected the social attitudes of their day. It is very likely lawmakers, still majority male from the 1960s to 1990s, were open to the advocacy of interest groups supportive of family ideas not grounded in any scientific research of the birth mothers or adoptees.

Samuels outlines this unproven myth of these three decades with the following main points:

  • Social attitudes were developing about the nature of adoption.
  • Adoption was increasingly being regarded as a “complete and perfect” substitute for the creation of families.
  • A prevailing myth gained credibility that once adoption is legalized, the newly configured family would become the “real family” and the child would be the same and feel the same as if he or she were born into that family.
  • From the 1940s through the 1960s, child development theories emphasized nurture over nature, and suggested that a birth parent’s purported “morality” would not be transmitted in a child’s development or future actions.

These views coincided with larger societal views that shamed unmarried women. This institutionalizing of this shame can be seen in the development of the Florence Crittenton Homes and other places that spirited away unwed and mostly white women until they gave birth to their kids. (See Anne Fessler’s study of these women, The Girls Who Went Away, for an overview of this system.)

Philomena

The 2013 film Philomena highlighted the Catholic Church’s role selling Irish babies of unwed mothers to U.S. families eager for children.

There were also illegal operations that allowed babies to be sold or stolen, seen in the case of nearly a dozen “Gertie’s babies” in the 1950s in the American west, who were placed in the adoption black market. In Ireland up through the 1960s, the Catholic Church ran homes for “lost girls” and brokered the sale of babies from single pregnant women to American families, documented in the 2013 film Philomena. (See my story on that film and the Florence Crittenton Homes, “The American Philomena story that is also my own.”)

The adoption industrial complex

Dan Rather recently profiled America’s hidden baby delivery and placement system that put vulnerable, pregnant women in situations that sometimes led to coercive adoptions. His May 1, 2012, episode of Dan Rather Reports, called “Adopted or Abducted?” interviewed women who decades after surrendering their children now claim they were forced to put their babies up for adoption, often with the support of Catholic charities.

This large but little publicized system went beyond the Florence Crittenton Homes and similar facilities that hid young women, including my birth mother and me. The participants were parents desperate for kids, doctors, social workers, clergy, lawyers, nurses, and lawmakers passing laws that ensured the system could operate without disruption. Most believed they were doing the right thing for kids and their moms. The adoptive parents certainly were not causing harm, and offering love and a home. Adoptive families are not being criticized or questioned here for their deeds and their love.

That larger system still exists today, minus the homes for unwed mothers. One estimate puts the value of the adoption industrial complex today at $13 billion per anum.

Not including adoptive parents, I have rarely heard of a single participant in this system ever admit they believed they were wrong, even when compelling evidence has been widely reported for decades in the USA today that secrecy in the adoption system has led to lifelong frustration by adults wanting to know their kin and where they came from.

220px-Kate_Waller_Barrett

Dr. Kate Wallter Barret is one of the co-founders of the Florence Crittenton Homes for Unwed Mothers (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Demographics and changing social mores had a large impact in this story too. Data from the National Center for Health Statistics show a dramatic rise in “illegitimate births” during the 25-year period from 1940 to 1965.

  • The number of out of wedlock births more than tripled from an estimated 89,500 in 1940 to 291,200 in 1965.
  • Five years later, in 1970, these out-of wedlock births reached 398,700.
  • More than half were by women 15 to 19 years of age.

By the mid-1960s, close to 400 maternity homes were operating nationwide, often overcrowded. My birthmother stayed in one of these. I was born in the unwed mother’s maternity ward of Detroit’s Florence Crittenton General Hospital, on Elizabeth Street, once affiliated with the Florence Crittenton Homes.

Sham pseudo-science by psychologists and psychiatrists

What’s particularly shameful from this era is how it promoted women’s virtue at the expense of pregnant women and the hundreds of thousands of adoptees. Complicit in these failings are social workers and health professionals who may have meant well, but who never fully understood the impacts of their activities or never considered the long-term welfare of mothers and their kids.

Psychiatry and psychology professionals colluded in especially damaging ways. They provided a mental health framework to promote ideas that were harmful to millions of Americans whose only failing was to have a child out of marriage or be born out of marriage. (For me, the kooky theories offered from this era still call into question these professionals’ scientific credibility to this day.)Psychobabble comment

One commentary cited by Samuels of a mental health professional (Viola Barnard) from this era described an adoptee’s curiosity to find his or her identity as “tragically pathological distortions.” Barnard’s views were considered influential in the 1950s and early 1960s on adoption practices, according to Samuels.

Samuels’ review of the literature of the time shows that unmarried mothers who became pregnant were seen as mentally ill—a theory that completely ignored the failures of the legal and moral systems to hold the birth fathers accountable or to shame them equally.

A woman, a white woman in particular, who had sex was seen as a deviant or having a psychopathology. Samuels notes racist views promoted another view that it was natural or normal for less-moral African Americans to have out of wedlock births.

Barbara Melosh’s history on American adoption notes that in postwar America, women who had children out of marriage were “deemed neurotic—as manifesting a disordered femininity.” They were “bad women, their sexual transgressions exposed by pregnancy.” (See Strangers in Kin, 2002.) Even women adopting were tarred as being unfit women because of their infertility.

Anne Fessler profiled this stigma in her 2006 oral history on women before the Roe V. Wade decision who gave up children for adoption, called The Girls Who Went Away.

In her interview with Rather on often coercive and sometimes illegal methods used to convince young women to surrender their bids for adoption, Fessler said, “In the United States between 1945 and 1973 a million and a half women surrendered children for adoption. I see that period of time as a kind of perfect storm of circumstances that led to all these surrenders. Number one, during the war and after the war there was a change in what was considered acceptable sexual behavior.”

While the men, like my respected ROTC and medical professional birth father, escaped societal scorn, women had to wear the brand of mental illness and be changed.

According to this view, reforming the mentally ill mother could occur with the lifelong separation from her birth child, which would enable the woman a chance to fulfill her desired identity as a woman by raising her own children and family. The burgeoning adoption market provided the “system” through which this idea was sustained—a two-part solution to a problem of change in society.

Unsubstantiated claims from the 1960s onward were made by defenders of closed records that adoptees or birth mothers might wish to extract revenge or extortion. Samuels even cites one instance where efforts in a court case by an adult adoptee to seek their records were denounced by an opposing attorney, who claimed the information could be used by the adoptee to “find and murder his biological parent.”

The bogeyman concept of illegitimate children, however, far precedes the U.S. adoption system and laws that govern it. Adoption laws only date to the 19th century in the United States. Ideas of birth-driven—now considered genetic—identity are historic and rooted deeply in most cultures over time.

TE Lawrence Posing

TE Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) was a bastard who was also stigmatized by British society for being born out of wedlock and illegitimately.

Such children call into question property ownership, lines of familial and political succession, moral standing of parents and entire religions, and more. Each society over time has addressed these fears, often brutally for the unlucky illegitimate. Normally, the “bastards” have been ostracized, but also killed. (Please see my article on the demonization of bastards.)

Parenting literature from the 1970s also was awash in guidance to adopted parents how to tell the children they adopted about their origins. But the so-called psychological professionals counseled that any adopted child who sought out their origins was the acting out of fantasy, not one of a human’s most innate desires, documented in nearly all religions and myths as an essential and archetypal human need. (See my article on this archetype and myth.)

The sociologist Katherine Wegar, who has studied the issue of adoptees’ rights and their quests for their birth documentation, suggests that searching for genetic identity is “generally regarded and experienced as an important part of a person’s identity, perhaps even as an archetypal yearning.” Wegar concludes adoptees continued to suffer from societal discrimination that they are inferior to non-adopted persons.

Accepted discrimination, so long as you are adopted or a birth parent

The stigma of adoption was also branded on all adoptees by these prevailing norms from the 1960s onward. These were reinforced by a network of increasingly discriminatory state laws that treated adult adoptees separately, with lesser rights than all other U.S. citizens. Laws were passed in states that blocked adoptees from ever inheriting any property or wealth from natural parents. (Samuels cites presence of such discrimination in 2001 of slightly less than half of all states preventing such inheritance.)

Author Florence Fisher wrote of her efforts in 1951 to find her birth parents, and the lawyer who arranged the process told her, “You have right to any information whatsoever. You were adopted legally … . You had no other parents.” Author Betty Jay Lifton was told by her psychiatrist she had consulted about her search in the mid-1950s, “Your need to look for your mother is neurotic. You are rationalizing why you must know who your real ‘real’ parent, as you call them, are.”

This was the overwhelming societal attitude I encountered starting in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, when I began to openly discussing my adoption as a young person.

During this dark period of lawmaking that closed adoption records one by one in most states, I began my own long, expensive, and ultimately successful search for my biological parents, my family medical background, and my collective family history. This is information that I am entitled to as a human right, though most states had made that right illegal.

During that search, I was told I was being cruel to my adoptive family. I was told I had “issues” that had not been resolved in my infancy or childhood. I was mocked and laughed at by people when I explained I had a German name, but was not German. I was told I was mentally unhealthy. The only people who seemed to give a damn were adoptees.

As Samuels shows, “widespread and entrenched social attitudes about secrecy in adoption” contributed to the closing of birth records to adult adoptees and birth mothers from 1960 to 1990. This was despite the social revolution of the era that was attacking the false adoption secrecy model and challenging the false narrative that adoption provided a perfect replacement to childbirth for families who could not produce children.

Samuels suggests that as single-parent homes among white families became more widespread, unmarried motherhood “was no longer equated with mental illness.” Adoptive families were finally seen as having challenges and qualities, grounded in peer-reviewed studies of outcomes of adoptees and their families.

Many birth parents were found to be open to being contacted. Thanks to the growing proliferation of stories about adoptees’ lack of rights, discrimination by states and agencies against them, and the emergence of a national movement, adoptees’ quests for identify information became less stigmatized. “Adoptees searching for information about or contact with their birth families became familiar figures, no longer assumed to be suffering from mental disorders,” says Samuels.

Samuels also cites arguments circulating in legal and psychological communities that adoptees should be given access to their rightful identity information because denial causes “psychological impairment.”

This idea is fundamentally flawed because it justifies the continued stereotyping of adoptees as mentally harmed, not as persons who are healthy by seeking information and who are doing what should be considered human and utterly normal.

Why state lawmakers ignore evidence and disregard adoptees and birth mothers

Despite changing societal views, states continued to double down and continued to close records.

Rudy as Baby

About the same time this photograph of me was taken, states across the country were making it impossible for adoptees like me to ever see their original birth certificates by passing laws sealing access to identity documents.

I think this happened because the state legislative environment has many conservative lawmakers in all states. Many of these lawmakers are sympathetic to adoptions as the “solution” to abortion (it is not). I also believe that this political environment is overly receptive to the Christian piety myth of rebirth through adoption that mirrors a conservative Christian notion of being “born again” (being adopted is not being born again, period).

Finally state lawmaking settings rarely rely on evidence alone to pass laws. I have seen on countless occasions when I worked in the Washington State Legislature for two years how single stories carry equal weight to massive evidence contradicting those outlier stories. In such a setting, the views of just one birth mother can be given equal weight of extensive and large bodies of scientific evidence that provide birth mothers and adoptees want to have rights they once had restored.

Samuels argues that laws from the 1970s on failed to ever acknowledge records for adoptees were once open. “It was as if there had never been periods of time in many states, only recently concluded in some and still ongoing in others, during which adult adoptees had legal access to their birth records.”

Evidence from many researchers continues to show adoption secrecy is rejected by the principal actors in adoption: birth parents and their children placed for adoption. Samuels says studies as far back as 1989 showed that “almost ninety percent of birth mothers studied favored being contacted on behalf of their surrendered children.”

Samuels reported in 2001 that:

  • In state sanctioned intermediary programs (where a third party is a bridge contact between adoptees and birth parents [birth mothers]), 95% of the parents are open to contact.
  • Hawaii reported that the most typical reaction of their state-run system is one of “great joy, crying, and, “This is the call I’ve been waiting for.”
  • New Jersey reported that 95 percent of 350 living birth family members contacted in a four-year period wanted contact if adoptees requested it.

More recent data published by the Donaldson Adoption Institute suggests that there is overwhelming support among adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth parents to allow for open records, completely undermining arguments from secrecy proponents.

The Donaldson Adoption Institute published data in its 2015 annual report that found overwhelming support for open records among the main group impacted by state laws that discriminate again adoptees and birth parents by closing records.

Question: Do you support adopted persons’ right to access their original birth records? The Donaldson Adoption Institute published data in its 2015 annual report that found overwhelming support for open records for adoptees among the main groups impacted by state laws that legally discriminate again adult adoptees. Note: Survey methods, including how it was conducted and how many participated in the survey, were not provided by the institute, so it is hard to determine the validity of this survey tool.

Failures of intermediaries and registries and the power of a powerless bureaucrat

In some states, such as Michigan, some adoptees and birth mothers can use an approved intermediary and others registries to request original birth records and find biological families. Others cannot simply on the basis of a person’s birth year. I fall into the period of births that closes records, except under strict conditions that require a birth mother to sign a legal release form, reviewed by bureaucrat who makes decisions that they likely have no training to understand.

I also believe a major issue not discussed in adoption research is simply the love of absolute power that mostly powerless bureaucrats and social workers have over adoptees searching for records. A bureaucrat’s imperative is to say “no,” as history shows time and again in a classic Weberian sense of how bureaucracies wield power.

In April 1989 in Detroit, I met a social worker with the Lutheran Child and Family Services and asked for my records and birth certificate. She politely refused to help me. She had the power, it was not “legal,” and she offered no help.

Two days later, after I had found my birth mother with some pretty impressive gumshoe detective work, I returned to the same social worker with a signed statement by my birth mother asking to release my information. The social worker finally released documents about my birth with my original birth name, except my birth certificate.

That type of life-changing power held by mostly lower-level practitioners is intoxicating, and bureaucrats seldom relinquish power once they have seized it. The law is the artifice used to justify it.

Registries and intermediaries in states also support the continuation of restricted access to records for hundreds of thousands of adoptees. They create unnecessary barriers to both birth parents and their kids under an unjustified notion that equal rights, namely, access to birth records, is a conditional right only the state can control.

Were such practices applied to anyone beyond adoptees and birth mothers, the media and advocacy groups would be lambasting state-approved registries and intermediary systems as a form of legal discrimination.

These methods still support a system that is not rooted in science or research, but one that emerged mainly through custom and tradition and the desire of Christian lawmakers to promote adoption alternatives to birth control (my own view of the political landscape). Restrictions also exhibit a raw expression of power by states and their bureaucracies. These methods legitimize the power of a state to control individual rights that most people assume are natural at birth.

With regards to the passive and active registries, Samuels concludes rightly they are “ineffective, demean adult adoptees, and do not remedy the fundamental denial of adoptees’ rights to the kind of basic information about oneself that is available to all other persons.”

Admitting wrongs and changing laws will make a difference

As an adult adoptee, I am grateful for the work of pioneers like Lifton, Fisher, and Paton, who were prophets in the wilderness and who identified injustice and clear wrongs. I remain grateful that stories continue to be published on adoptees finding birth family, and vice versa, as a means of keeping the legal discrimination front and center in the news.

Joni and kilauren2

Maclean’s covered the reunion of birth mother Joni Mitchell and her daughter Kilauren Gibb in 1997. Like with many things in life, it was not a fairy tale, but it has put a face on an issue mostly ignored by the public.

Having football heroes like Tim Green and singing icon and former birth mother Joni Mitchell have their personal stories be known to the public helps build awareness of the hidden and ongoing pattern of legalized secrecy that provides no clear benefit to society or those most involved. They humanize the issue.

However, the “compelling human-interest story” that inspires “myriad novels, plays, and movies,” as Wegar calls it, should not be the means to correct past wrongs and to extend equal rights to adoptees.

The language of civil rights, that was broadened to include the rights of gays persons seeking to marry legally and have the same benefits under the law, now needs to be considered in the context of those born into a system in which their rights were never fully considered.

In fact adoptees are doing that with a national MoveOn.org petition asking for the Obama administration to open closed birth records with an executive order, and they are planning to hold a national rally in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23 and 24, 2016, demanding equal treatment under the law by demanding open records.

As Samuel proves, anonymity rights concocted by mostly male run legislatures, with no recorded evidence submitted on their negative impacts on adopted persons, never existed in practice when the prevailing legal interpretations of the time claimed they did. Myth became truth, in other words.

I hope that the evidence that moves society is more through the studies Samuels cited and books like those written by Barbara Melosh, which are also turned into moving stories.

Evidence exists in other developed countries with a long record of using adoption (England, Scotland, Israel) that there have not been dire consequences for sharing birth identity documentation. Scotland has had open records since 1930, and England and Wales since 1975, both of which saw the benefits to the Scottish legal model that worked.

A useful model to follow is how the Australian Government has reviewed past abuses and harms caused by adoption to birth mothers, their families, and their kids. The government released an extensively researched 2010 report called the Impact of past adoption practices: Summary of key issues from Australian research, which focused on abusive practices that coerced young women to surrendering kids out of marriage.

The report noted: “Contrary to the popular myth that ‘time heals all wounds,’ one theme that was fairly consistent across the different studies and methodologies reviewed here was the notion that the pain and distress of their experience of adoption did not just ‘go away’ with the passage of time.”

The report looked honestly at the country’s past and used research to come to conclusions how to correct the mistakes and acknowledge that adoption was never a perfect system. Australia took a further step when Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in 2013, apologized to the thousands of birth mothers who gave up their children for adoption in situations that amounted to coercion.

There needs to be an honest accounting nationally in the United States, grounded in rigorous reporting and science. That should include testimonials by doctors and mental health experts, and lawmakers, who greased the skids of the flawed U.S. adoption system along the way. They need to step up to the mic, say what they did, and say that we could do better now.

Then there needs to be political and legal action to make it possible for those who were adopted or who gave up children for adoption to experience legal rights other countries grant to their citizens. We will see if the rally in Washington in September 2016 makes a difference. But I doubt states will be rushing to help adoptees anytime soon by granting them all open records access.

Meanwhile, my original birth certificate, bearing my birth name of Scott Douglas Owens*, remains sealed in an office somewhere in Michigan, hidden from me as a state secret, more than a quarter century after I have found my biological families. I will continue having to accept the utter insanity of an imperfect legal system that considers this to be both moral and normal.

(*I decided in August 2009 to legally change my adopted name, Martin Rudolf Brueggemann, to Rudolf Scott Douglas Owens, combining parts of my adopted and birth name. This is a true reflection of who I am, a person born into two families, with two names.)

 

 

 

Confronting Alzheimer’s disease and the promise of early in life lifestyle changes

At this point in my life, it is inevitable that people I know have been impacted by Alzheimer’s disease and/or dementia.

The Las Vegas Review Journal covered an AARP convention, showing a crowd of older American--millions will be impacted by dementia and possibly Alzheimer's disease.

The Las Vegas Review Journal covered an AARP convention, showing a crowd of older American–millions will be impacted by dementia and possibly Alzheimer’s disease.

A former friend of mine I used to run with has been diagnosed far too early in her 50s. Another friend’s mother finally passed away after battling the illness in assisted care for years. My friend’s family experience showed me first-hand how the disease’s many legal and caregiving duties can divide families when family members confront the illness in an elderly parent or spouse and try to sort out these roles. It can be very messy and often painful.

A family member of mine may have it, or perhaps another form of dementia.

Alzheimer’s or dementia?

I say “may” because a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is only 100 percent certain following an autopsy of a victim after they die, revealing amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain.

Some experts in the field claim nine out of 10 cases can be spotted with proper monitoring, MRI and PET scans, and what is often described as simple process of elimination.

Family members with a loved one in the midst of the disease will speak at length talking about the uncertainty of what condition their mother, father, or spouse has—with less certainly than promised by experts. This often leads to descriptions of drug regimes that are given to those with likely diagnoses.

Other diagnoses for dementia could include vascular dementia, or memory loss caused by microscopic bleeding in the brain; Parkinson’s disease, the degeneration of nerve cells that impacts one in ten Alzheimer’s patients; or maybe even dementia with lewy bodies (DLB), which can be concurrent to Alzheimer’s and mixed dementia. Another possibility is normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH), a nasty ailment that builds fluid in the brain and causes cognitive impairment and problems with walking.

Familiarity with these possible diagnoses is a reality with tens of millions of Americans who have family members with a form of dementia.

Healthy activity throughout life is a proven way to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's according to a major study in The Lancet.

Healthy activity throughout life is a proven way to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s according to a major study in The Lancet.

Enormous impact of Alzheimer’s disease

According to the Alzheimer’s Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • About one in eight older Americans has Alzheimer’s disease.
  • It is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States.
  • A whopping 15 million Americans provide unpaid care for a person with the disease or other forms of dementia.
  • Paying for care for the disease is staggering drain on the nation’s health care system, costing about $200 billion a year (2012 figure).
  • In 2013, an estimated 5 million Americans 65 years or older had Alzheimer’s disease, and the number could triple by 2050.

This does not cover the personal, psychological and health impacts the illness has on family members who serve as caregivers. The 36 Hour Day, the widely read and referenced book on the caregiving for those with the disease, addresses their many roles. These are day-to-day problems, from hygiene to wandering, to the major decisions that will occur, including placing a loved one in a care home. The title says it all.

I have sat in on sessions organized by the Alzheimer’s Association for adult children of those with the illness. I give the national organization a lot of credit for this kind of support network available nationally. What I have seen are tired, challenged, stressed, and at times sad people from all walks of life. It is humbling, because I am not a primary caregiver, and I can only sympathize even more with those who are.

The comfort I have taken from these experiences is knowing that the burdens are shared, but sometimes you are left breathless at what may await you and others, and ultimately yourself when you get older.

Some caregivers suffer more

Dementia and Alzheimer’s also put adult children in a caregiving role for parents who may have been lousy parents to the children when they were younger. One study found that among more than 1,000 adults caregivers, almost one in five reported physical, verbal or sexual abuse as children, while about one in 10 reported neglect.

Such caregivers likely will have higher risks of depression because of both the duties they confront and the moral dilemmas caregiving poses to them—being good to those who were not good them. (See Eleanor Cade’s book “Taking Care of Parents Who Didn’t Take Care of You.”)

Focusing on healthy activity earlier in life: the evidence

Alzheimer's groups now organize walking events to raise awareness; they should also try to promote walking as one of the best forms of intervention for everyone.

Alzheimer’s groups now organize walking events to raise awareness; they should also try to promote walking as one of the best forms of intervention for everyone.

One hopeful piece of research I found from the August 2014 edition of the health journal The Lancet, “Potential for primary prevention of Alzheimer’s disease: an analysis of population-based data,” noted early in life and upstream interventions could make a huge impact on the disease later in life. The authors of the study noted “… a third of Alzheimer’s diseases cases worldwide might be attributable to potentially modifiable risk factors. Alzheimer’s disease incidence might be reduced through improved access to education and use of effective methods targeted at reducing the prevalence of vascular risk factors (eg, physical inactivity, smoking, midlife hypertension, midlife obesity, and diabetes) and depression.”

The American Public Health Association cited this breakthrough study and reported reducing the risk of each risk factor by 10 percent, it might be possible to reduce Alzheimer’s prevalence by 8.5 percent by 2050. That would mean the 9 million fewer cases of the disease.

I shared this research with the Washington state chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association in the summer of 2014, when the group was taking public comment on their state action plan. I wrote to them citing this study and urging the organization to consider public health approaches that did not involve over-medication of patients and were based on population methods that could even be more cost-effective. I suggested the group participate in large-scale health fair activities that promote physical activities like walking earlier in life. I doubt these ideas took root—they require coordinated advocacy by families pushing against the “drug-solves-all” model.

Families looking for solutions beyond drugs

Aricept is the only drug approved for use in all stages of the disease, but not without some controversy from researchers and advocacy groups.

Aricept is the only drug approved for use in all stages of the disease, but not without some controversy from researchers and advocacy groups.

At the public meeting I attended in Seattle that had other family members with impacted parents, about half the people in the room voiced support for alternatives to drugs like Aricept (Donepezil), which groups like Public Citizen have voiced detailed concerns over. As someone who has sat in a room with many people dealing with parents on medication, it is very alarming to hear about the volume of drugs that their parents take. It may not even be clear a drug like Aricept is the best course, simply because someone with symptoms may not have the disease.

At this chapter meeting, I also felt hope seeing and hearing how committed many families—families that include elderly doctors suffering from Alzheimer’s—were to reducing and eliminating drugs that doctors prescribed for their parents. As the Mayo Clinic notes, current drug regimes may boost the performance of some brain chemicals, but they do not address the underlying conditions leading to the death of brain cells.

What happens when the patient says, ‘no’

Today I cannot receive one of the most common and beneficial oral health activities, a six-month dental visit with my dental provider, Kaiser Permanente.

Healthy Smile, photo by Rudy Owens.

Healthy smile, photo by Rudy Owens

The reason why? I am refusing to have a panoramic X-ray.

This potentially profitable medical procedure for some dental practices is a recent development in the oral health field that has followed the proliferation of the panoramic technology in the past several decades. However, these are not universally recognized in developed nations as a best health practice for routine dental care compared to bitewing X-rays, which my past dentists used. Neither is without risk. … [More of my guest column in the Sept. 16, 2015, Lund Report health newsletter can be found here.]

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For more information about the European Commission’s guidelines for recommended dental radiography practice and exposure to dental radiography, go to European Guidelines on Radiation Protection in Dental Radiology: The Safe Use of Radiographs in Dental Practice, produced by Victoria University of Manchester (United Kingdom). A more personal perspective on how a dentist may respond to one patient’s concerns about exposure to ionizing radiation can be found in the Daily Kos.

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UPDATE Sept. 20, 2015: One critic of my column printed on the Lund Report web site wrote this statement, apparently to correct the record about what the American Dental Association’s guidelines are:

The ADA’s guidelines from 2012 actually state that for new patients (such as Mr. Owen) a panoramic radiographic exam is recommended so it seems that Kaiser is following the ADA’s recommendation.

“Individualized radiographic exam consisting of Individualized evaluated for dental radiographic exam radiographic exam posterior bitewings with panoramic exam or radiographic exam, diseases and dental consisting of consisting of posterior bitewings and selected periapical based on clinical development selected periapical/ posterior bitewings images. A full mouth intraoral radiographic signs and occlusal views and/ with panoramic exam is preferred when the patient has symptoms. or posterior exam or posterior clinical evidence of generalized dental disease bitewings if bitewings and or a history of extensive dental treatment.”

I found this comment remarkable because the author of it, someone who identified him/herself as Peta Pita (likely an assumed name, and this person misspelled my name too), did not mention the statement that immediately precedes guidelines for all radiography recommendations for people of all ages. So this comment is factually inaccurate.

The ADA foremost states [I put in bold for emphasis]: “These recommendations are subject to clinical judgment and may not apply to every patient. They are to be used by dentists only after reviewing the patient’s health history and completing a clinical examination. Even though radiation exposure from dental radiographs is low, once a decision to obtain radiographs is made it is the dentist’s responsibility to follow the ALARA Principle (As Low as Reasonably Achievable) to minimize the patient’s exposure.”

What’s more, the ADA also states for adult patients the following (and this does not include panoramic radiography): “Adult dentate patients, who receive regularly scheduled professional care and are free of signs and symptoms of oral disease, are at a low risk for dental caries. Nevertheless, consideration should be given to the fact that caries risk can vary over time as risk factors change. Advancing age and changes in diet, medical history and periodontal status may increase the risk for dental caries. Therefore, a radiographic examination consisting of posterior bitewings is recommended at intervals of 24 to 36 months.”

I enclose a screen snapshot for those who may be unsure how to intepret a recommendation table. This section covers the issue mentioned above, just including recommendations for adults:

Note the statement on top of the table the is overarching guidelines any dental practitioner may wish to follow, if they choose to follow the ADA's recommendations. Note, the ADA does not represent how all countries and other international organizations who promote oral health set guidelines for dental radiography.

Note the statement on top of the table the is the overarching guideline any dental practitioner may wish to follow, if they choose to follow the ADA’s recommendations. Note, the ADA does not represent how all countries and other international organizations who promote oral health set guidelines for dental radiography. Remember, the U.S. health care system is the least efficient and most costly in the world, and a wealth of data highlight the over-use of unecessary medical tests as a major factor leading to this problem. Here is just one example of that: http://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/fund-reports/2014/jun/mirror-mirror.

What all of us can learn from T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)

All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph

Thomas Edward Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia

Thomas Edward Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia

I am finishing reading a fascinating biography on Thomas Edward (TE) Lawrence called Hero, by Michael Korda. It is a great study of how a 5’5’’ illegitimate son of an undistinguished, upper middle-class Englishman and Irish nanny became one of the most influential men in history.

Today Lawrence (1888-1935) remains one of the most celebrated and controversial figures of the 20th century. He was both a liberator of the Arabs against the crumbling Ottoman Empire and a sharp instrument in the militarism and diplomacy of the colonial powers—England and France—to carve up the Arab lands into pliable territories that became nation states. As time has shown, these countries had no religious and ethnic cohesion, and it now seems they may not stand the test of time.

For me, however, Lawrence was so many things. A certified hero and brilliant military tactician in guerilla war. A born leader of men. A charismatic fighter. A scholar and linguist. A consummate and tough-as-nails explorer. A great writer. A global celebrity, before there were celebrities, thanks mostly to a multimedia show after the war about his wartime exploits by the brilliant American publicist Lowell Thomas. An innovator in military strategy far ahead of his day.

Perhaps even as important as any other influence in his life, he was also a bastard—an illegitimate child at a time when such stigma had far greater stains than it does today. As a bastard myself (I was adopted), it is a link I have in common with Lawrence, as well as having visited places in the Middle East where he fought, including Aqaba, Wadi Rum, and the Sinai (all as a tourist in my case).

Winston Churchill, himself both a great World War II leader and controversial apologist for the colonial system he defended much of his life, called Lawrence “one of the greatest beings alive in this time.”

Aqaba a Feat of Imagination:

Of all his many exploits, Lawrence’s role in the Arab conquest of the port city of Aqaba, on the Red Sea, in July 1917, remains one of the singular most amazing feats of arms, logistics, and unrestrained imagination.Aqaba Is Over There

In 1917, when it appeared the Allies could lose the Great War, Lawrence and his band of Arab fighters travelled 600 miles on a weeks-long trek was through terrain so inhospitable that the Bedouin called it al-Houl (the Terror). The Arabs numbering 2,500 men entered Aqaba without a shot and lost just two men. Their opponents melted away. Lawrence then crossed the Sinai to Cairo to inform the new British commander-in-chief, Gen. Edmund Allenby, of this history-changing victory.

The event is the centerpiece of the 1962 epic film Lawrence of Arabia. For me, the scene that defines Lawrence and dreaming large is when he stays up all night and envisions how to change the tides of a war. In the morning, Lawrence convinces his ally, Sherif Ali, to join him with just 50 fighters, with the taunting line, “Aqaba is over there. It is only a matter of going.”

To this day, I keep a picture of that scene on my Facebook page as a reminder of acting boldly and dreaming impossible dreams.

What We Learn About Lawrence from Korda:T.E. Lawrence Posing

Korda’s depiction of Lawrence provides keen insight to the real man’s complicated life. As I read it with multiple lenses, I am impressed by many things that come through that have relevance to anyone today:

  • Lawrence followed a classic pattern of mastery: apprenticeship as an archaeologist with a master, multiple areas of intellectual interests, rigorous training and self-directed study, curiosity, open mind, willingness to take great risks.
  • Lawrence achieved military greatness by not being a soldier, but by being atypical and an anti-soldier, which was the right strategy for the right place at the right time. He did know how to shoot and use explosives too.
  • Throughout his life, Lawrence built and used powerful networks. This included the British intelligence-gathering for the Middle Eastern theatre, top cabinet officials in London, the Foreign Office, the Secretary of War, Arab tribal leaders, and military officers. Lawrence built his networks by leveraging the importance of what he could do for them and say to them. And vice versa.
  • Lawrence was supremely confident in his views, which were grounded in rigorous personal experience with first-hand encounters in the field, in dangerous situations, and with an expert understanding of multiple disciplines (cartography, language, military history, religion, and culture).
  • Lawrence never wasted time doing thing that were not of interest to his curiosity and imagination.
  • Lawrence was never afraid of pain and embraced it as a means of understanding limits he always tried to break. Great leaders have always been able to respond to and even master their pain and suffering and not be bent or broken by it.
  • Lawrence was a good judge of character, and understood who to align himself with in his career path–always choosing the right master, such as Gen. Allenby.
  • Lawrence always made his work stand out, and the quality of his work caught the eye of wise superiors, from his work analyzing the Arab revolt for his military peers in Egypt that was keenly followed to his Oxford thesis on Crusader architecture in the Middle East that opened doors to field work in the desert.
  • Lawrence relished the outdoors, adventure, drama, the myth of a hero’s quest, and creating links where others failed to see what he understood.
  • Lawrence fully understood the importance of symbols, such as the knife he bought in Arabia, the Arab dress he wore, and his physical place in a march among leaders of the revolt.
  • Lawrence mastered theater and stagecraft in his actions to influence opinions and motivate and inspire people in a guerilla war.
  • Lawrence inspired others by taking great personal sacrifices and showing he was willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the larger mission.
  • Lawrence never disowned his upper middle-class upbringing, and he used it to navigate his way out of some early young mistakes to positions of power afforded only to the privileged.
  • Lawrence realized that ideas with deep historic and religious roots are what motivate movements, not weapons and tactics alone.
  • Lawrence recognized the importance of storytelling and myth making, and he used all of his talents to control his story and brand.
  • Lawrence was a shape shifter, who could be different things to different people, but always himself.

Becoming Great on Your Own Terms:

T.E. Lawrence fully understood the value of appearances in working with other cultures.

T.E. Lawrence fully understood the value of appearances in working with other cultures.

I think one of the most telling periods of his life came after he graduated from Oxford and spent four years in the Syrian/Turkish desert at Carchemish on a dig, where he learned his craft (1911-‘14) under the auspices of Sir Leonard Woolley. (That relationship would be revived when Woolley became part of the Arab Bureau in Egypt that Lawrence was assigned to.) Lawrence used his time well on this project. This experience meant organizing projects, motivating workers, settling cultural disputes, finding friends in all ethnic groups, studying the larger political world around him, and seeing the chances this knowledge could bring.

Every one of these skills he employed later in his more active setting at war. Lawrence took what appeared to be useless skills and made them his strongest attributes that no other person in the British army had. He had made himself indispensable by following his own path.

For anyone looking for a bit of a reboot in their life, in terms of making more of a mark with their job, their relations, their purpose and meaning, I say, give Korda’s book a look on a long trip or holiday. You may find some lessons to be learned from someone who truly dreamed his life in daylight, and then died young.

So, You Want to Know More About the Motor City?

(Ed. Note: Dozens of links are provided below, after the introduction.)

Miichigan Central Station

Miichigan Central Station

Detroit’s unwanted celebrity status nationally and internationally continues to fascinate me. Detroit is now known as a failed American urban experiment. For the more cynical or the painful realists, it represents the dark end to America’s middle-class dream, and the embodiment of the decline of American power and even its civilization.

Detroit rose like a phoenix at the beginning of the 20th century and then experienced the near death of the American automobile industry at the start of the next one, culminating in the taxpayer-funded bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler during the Great Recession. Once the nation’s fourth largest city, the population has fallen from 1.8 million to less than 800,000 in 50 painful years.

Since the violent Detroit riots of 1967 that killed 43 and burned more than 1,000 buildings, the community has transformed into a nearly all-African-American city. Sadly, it now ranks as the country’s murder and arson capital. Multiple factors, well beyond Detroit’s control, spurred these changes. These include white flight and suburbanization, along with national racial politics and globalization.

From a public health perspective, there are not many major cities doing worse. Entire neighborhoods have been vacated. Burnt out shells of homes and businesses dot the urban landscape that now is turning to seed. Nearly half of the city’s children live in poverty. Once glorious buildings that were testament to the confidence in industrial capitalism, notably the ghostly Michigan Central Station, stand vacant as monuments to a past glory. They are our America’s modern-day Roman Colosseum, symbol of a dying or dead empire.

Detroit is also my home town, where some of my family have long roots as Michiganders. It is the place where my life story began, at the intersection of two stories of my adoptive and biological families, who all eventually fled or simply moved away.

To help others understand Detroit Motor City and why it matters, now more than ever, I have compiled some of my favorite links to resources, films, books, and online content that I have uncovered recently. Take a moment to learn more about this famous place that once was the world’s greatest industrial city.

Detroit, Enduring Icon of Decline and “Ruin Porn” CelebrityAndrew Moore Book Cover

  • Detroit Disassembled, photo book by photographer Andrew Moore (highly recommend)
  • The Ruins of Detroit, photo book by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre (highly recommend)
  • James Griffioen, Detroit photographer of decay (recommend)
  • Five Factories and Ruins (web site)
  • Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City’s Majestic Ruins, by Dan Austin and Sean Doerr, provides historic and architectural background
  • American Ruins and The New American Ghetto, by Camilo José Vergara, depict dereliction and abandonment in cities like Detroit, Camden, N.J., and Chicago
  • Julia Reyes Taubman, socialite ruin photographer of Detroit and subject of some blowback for photographing decay while protected by a wall of money
  • Detroit 138 Square Miles, website that accompanies photographer Julia Reyes Taubman’s photo book
  • Beautiful Terrible Ruins, art historian Dora Apel examines ways Detroit has become the paradigmatic city of ruins, via images, disaster films and more and notes that the images fail to show actual drivers in the downward spiral, such as globalization, neoliberalism, and urban disinvestment
  • Diehard Detroit, a time lapse video of many of Detroit’s famed architectural ruins, abandoned factories and homes, monuments, buildings, and freeways, with absolutely no perspective on the meaning behind the mayheim, just titilating entertainment with great technique and a cool drone toy (it is stunning visually, and thus classic “ruin porn”)
  • Detroit’s Stunning Architectural Ruins, and Why Documenting Its Faded Glory Matters (an article by the Huffington Post, a liberal blog which exploits unpaid “contributors” more than Henry Ford ever did his factory workers)
  • Urban Ghost Media, photos of the much-photographed and now infamous Eastown Theater

Detroit and Media Coverage

Must-See Detroit Documentary Film: Burn

The great documentary about arson in Detroit and the men who fight it.

The great documentary about arson in Detroit and the men who fight it.

  • Burn, a documentary film by Tom Putman and Brenna Sanchez, tells a year-long story of the year in the life of Detroit firefighters, who battle uncontrolled arson against all odds (amazing filmmaking!!! … from the firefighters interviewed: “That is how you burn a city down. One at a time.”)
  • Interview with filmmakers Putnam and Sanchez on their documentary Burn (great read on scrappy filmmaking with a purpose)
  • The Making of Burn—so, you want to make a great film no one in power gives a crap about, but you have to do it anyway

Must-Read Books on Contemporary Detroit

Detroit, The Former Glory

Pro-Detroit Media Coverage and the “Re-Birth” Branding

Detroit, Industrial IconDiego Rivera Mural, at the DIA

Nice Photo Essays of Before and Now:

Detroit Stories and Research of Interest