Jewish World Review April 30, 2004/ 9 Iyar 5764
When pain is a spectator sport
By now everyone has formed an opinion of whether ABC's "20/20" segment on open adoption was in good taste or bad, whether it was a quality documentary or a smarmy reality show, whether advance promotion was over the top or just about right.
Everyone, that is, except the one person who seems to have been forgotten in the run-up to the show and in the near hereafter. The baby.
Remember the baby? Someday The Baby - Trumanesquely scrutinized by millions of spectator-strangers as his mother vetted prospective adoptive parents and handed him over - will grow up to notice that he was objectified when he was most vulnerable, used by those charged to protect him for some supposed greater good.
The text of that greater good goes like this: People need to know about open adoption as an alternative to abortion. But the subtext is something else, which is why some viewers felt they should avert their eyes from this ostensibly lovely, yet somehow repugnant, thing.
A clue to that repugnancy was offered inadvertently in a statement from the directors of the adoption agency. Defending their decision to allow ABC to document the process, they said the message of the program was "the wonderful option of 'openness.'"
Ah, yes, openness. We're all in the open now. We give birth on the Internet, strip for strangers before video cams, seduce and betray fellow trawlers for attention on reality shows, hire, fire and sing out our guts, subject ourselves to humiliation and degradation - all for the greater good of openness in the service of "reality" in exchange for celebrity.
The ABC program - "Be My Baby" - was a special edition of "20/20" with Barbara Walters documenting the "open adoption" of a baby boy born to 16-year-old Jessica. Originally, and erroneously, promoted as a sort of game-slash-reality-show, the program provided an up close and personal view of the process whereby the birth mother selects the adoptive family for her infant.
In real reality, open adoptions are conducted more or less as shown on the program. Twenty years ago, I covered a similar story about a teen birth mother who opted for open adoption over abortion or closed adoption. She and the parents went through pregnancy and birth together, posed for pictures and built family scrapbooks.
I've lost touch and don't know how the story progressed, but I do know this. It was a very private affair. No television cameras, no live capture of emotion and tears, no public viewing and critiquing.
Arguably, the most wrenching scene in the "20/20" story is when Jessica cradles her newborn in the hospital and the adoption contract is placed on her bedside table. It's Jessica's moment of truth: Does she honor her commitment to give up her baby, or does she back out as allowed?
I'm sorry, but this is emotional terrorism. Of course Jessica cries, spilling tears onto her baby's cheeks. She's just given birth for heaven's sake. She's emotionally and physically spent, drowning in a hormonal tsunami, about to give up her own flesh-and-blood - all under the reptilian eye of a television camera.
Do we really need to witness such painful intimacy in order to grasp the story of open adoption? No, but ABC needs it to get us tuned in and we comply. Like motorists on a highway, we decelerate and stare, craning our necks to view the human wreckage on the roadside or displayed on the television screen. Life is a tearjerker and we're all one big dysfunctional family convulsed in community compassion.
There's no question that open adoption is a valuable option for women facing an unwanted pregnancy. And Barbara Walters, an adoptive parent herself, was as safe a bet as any for showing how it's done. But television is never safe in our reality-obsessed culture and reality is never real when an audience is present.
The camera by its nature distorts as it seduces with the promise of fame and the drama of celebrity. Television producers bank on that, and pros like Barbara Walters are lions among lambs. With her dulcet demeanor and dolorous eyes, Walters could talk a mannequin into disrobing, while kids like Jessica - no matter how savvy at 16 or how rich in the options of openness - don't have a chance.
More important, her baby boy didn't have a chance, or a choice. Someday, when he bumps into the hard wall of reality, watching footage of his innocence being devoured by strangers, he may find compassion unavailable for those who forgot that love means sacrificing oneself, not the other.
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