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Published 12/18/2009 at 3:48pm  |  Views: 6349
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by David Biddle
Original Article

What I hate about reality shows is that the stories are often contrived and artificial. You name it, Survivor, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, The Longest Race, Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, reality and the human experience give way to gross-out, gamesmanship, and goofiness.

Find My Family is different. There's real human drama on display here. There's no question that the footage of adoptees and birth parents learning the truth about long-lost kin is one-take, real stuff.

I can only imagine what watching this show feels like for the millions of adoptees out there still searching for--or at least wondering about--their birth parents. As a successful searcher (we found my birth mother six years ago), I think watching Find My Family does a good job of getting across to viewers the deep emotional issues that adoptees confront as adults in the world.

It has a simple premise: the hosts introduce adopted adults, interview them about their need to find their birth families, and then perform a search for the long lost. Once the object of the search is located, the hosts interview that person as well. The final meeting between the two lost souls--and, believe me, you get a hefty dose of what it means to be a real-life lost soul when you watch this show--is then filmed. Let the hugs begin.

Find My Family is definitely a full box-of-tissues tear-jerker. You cry when you listen to the story of why the adoptee finally decided to begin a search; you cry when you understand how frustrating a search can be with all the dead ends; you cry when the show's hosts, Tim Green and Lisa Joyner (adoptees themselves), deliver bad news and good news; you cry--sometimes uncontrollably--in the reunion scenes; and you cry during the final scenes as the adopted cavort with newly found siblings and parents in lush parks or quaint middle-class American kitchens.

I may be biased, but in my opinion the adoptees and their birth parents in Find My Family are capable of showing natural emotion on a level that makes even the best actors look like they're getting paid millions of dollars to be fakes.

Without a doubt, placing the reunion search detective story--that's exactly what it is--on prime time is an interesting move for a major network like ABC. And it comes at a perfect moment in history for those of us adoptees who believe that we should have more rights to identifying information and our original birth records.

Groups like Bastard Nation and Adoptee Rights are growing more and more militant as states continue to control access to information that might lead adoptees to their birth families. It is very likely that this issue is going to be highly charged in 2010. Adoptee Rights is organizing a national demonstration set for July in Kentucky at the Annual Summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

There is no question that the stars of this show are the adult adoptees. Their birth parents are also heroes. The defining moments of the hour come when the adoptees walk up a special hill towards the "Family Tree," a real tree under which the birth parents (or a sibling) wait. Watching that lost soul climb a long hill towards the answer to life-long questions is powerful, even if the symbolism is a bit heavy.

One quibble I have is that adopting parents don't have a very big part to play in these tales. We get to meet some of them, but they certainly don't get center stage. It's easy to see why, since the drama and existential struggle of adoptees and the parents who had to let them go is so profound.

But still, I'd like to hear at the end what the adopting mom or dad thinks when the child they raised and loved all those years has found a new mom, dad, brother, or sister. Adopting parents are often as emotionally invested in the reunion search as their adopted children.

Obviously there's some contrivance built into how the hosts tell these stories. Details are sometimes dropped in for dramatic effect. The settings tend to be highly beatific; the film crew is definitely looking for a Hallmark™ feel to scenes. The show's participants are often perfectly coiffed, wearing heavy makeup.

I only bring this up because what is so appealing about Find My Family is that the producers can't choose actors or even attractive amateurs. There are only so many people who are adopted and willing to have their stories told to the world on TV. As such, the "stars" are completely real people--your neighbors, co-workers, or classmates.

This is important, because the identity issues adoptees go through are really not that much different than what anyone goes through: Who am I really? Where did I come from? Why do I feel all alone?

In many ways, all people are orphans in the world. We grow up. We leave home. We have to deal with life as solitary agents. Adoptees just have to face that their entire lives.

Find My Family, of course, portrays only the successful and positive stories of reunion searches. For every wonderful, loving re-connection the show depicts there are at least as many--and probably more--searches that don't end well. I've heard too many tales of weird scenes with birth families, and sometimes the trail can lead to graveyards, mental institutions, and other depressing conclusions. Perhaps Fox should one-up ABC and consider offering something along those lines in 2010.

But despite the flaws, Find My Family does an excellent getting job of getting across to America what it's like to be an adult adoptee. Here are some recognizable statements in the first few episodes from my own life and the lives of my adopted peers: "I've always had to deal with abandonment issues." "I felt trashed." "This is the look of Complete!" "Oh my God, he looks like me! This is so weird."

In the end, this show is going to empower a lot of adopted folks and at least their birth moms to stand up and be counted as examples of fortitude and grace. In this age of high-profile divorces, celebrity adoptions, and philandering heroes, Find My Family is an antidote to the cynicism and edge that continue to seep into our lives.

Call me old-fashioned, but if I'm going to let TV enter my life, I'm more interested in plot and character development than I am in being entertained. I'll take hugs, kisses, crying for joy, and everyday people pouring out their hearts on camera any day over people who make fools of themselves pretending they're important.

TV should be an adjunct to our individual quests to figure out what life is all about, not an escape hole. Find My Family admirably provides the former, and in this way is truly life-affirming.