Is ‘Superman’ the Greatest Adoption Story of All Time?

As domestic adoption has evolved, so too has the portrayal of the iconic superhero’s origin story—one that this mother looks to as she raises her son.

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An origin story is the story of who we are. For the superhero the origin story—like any character’s backstory—explains how he came to his superhuman powers. Batman is avenging of his parent’s murder. Iron Man, once captured and forced to use his powers of weapon building for escape, now uses technical prowess and his money for good is a result of having once been forced to use it for evil. The list goes on and on.

And then there is the story of Superman. According to the producer of the 2013 Superman movie, Man of Steel, his origin story is “the greatest adoption story of all time.”

Even if you know nothing of superheroes, you likely know that Superman came from Krypton and that he arrived on Earth in a rocket where he was found by a couple who then adopted him. That is the longstanding unchanging story of Superman. That he was found.

As it was originally written in 1938, that alien boy, Kal-El, fell to Earth when his planet was destroyed. He and the rocket he arrived in were discovered in Smallville, Kansas, by Jonathan and Martha Kent, a couple with strong moral values. Here they are drawn as an elderly couple who bring the child to an orphanage and then go back to retrieve him several days later. Kal-El, now renamed Clark Kent (Clark is Martha’s maiden name), has no idea he is adopted and that he has come from a land far, far away. And yet he begins to notice he is not like other kids—that he has magical powers of super-strength and that, eventually, in high school, he has the ability to “leap tall buildings in a single bound.” The Kents die when he is in high school, and they take with them the story of where he comes from.

In this version, the adoption is closed up, sewn tight. And while all have made the best of a bad situation—Kal-El was hurled from another planet after all; things could have gone incredibly wrong—many of the “qualities” of adoptive children have manifested in Clark Kent. His identities—of being Clark Kent and then, in secret, as Superman in his alien costume—duel one another. His morality comes from his birth family. And it is Kryptonite, that radioactive ore originating from his birth planet that has the power to destroy him.

All origin stories uphold myths; they are about how the world was created, how the dinosaurs came and left. But we all have our human origin stories, the story—or the family myth—that explains how we got here. Mine is dramatic. I was born in Geneva and as I slipped out, I was turning a darker and darker blue. “Sa tete!” my father screamed, as he later recounted. Only then did the doctor notice the umbilical lassoed three times around my neck.  He unwound me, the doctor, and there I was, three times twirled before I was measured and weighed.

My origin story has yet to yield any superhuman qualities, but it is a story I know. This is not the case with the original Superman, and it is not necessarily so with all the children of adoption. While most adopted children know this about themselves, stories of what happened can be lost to them.  If the adoption is closed—as most were in this country until the early 1980s—children don’t know their parents’ identities and so don’t know if they share a large nose or blue eyes. Or breast cancer. Those children have only the fantasy of where they came from and of who they might have been. Often their adoptive parents know little about the generous, loving person—or people—who placed their child with them. 

The children of closed adoptions have to either forgo that origin narrative or they have to decide as adults if they will open the vault and let what exists of that narrative unfold. Whatever they choose, it irrevocably changes the tenor of their lives.

Often, adoptions were shrouded in secrecy and the adoptees, like Superman, were folded into the family, egg whites into heavy batter, their origins gone without a trace.

In an open adoption, which most adoptions are now in this country, there’s transparency to the process. Birth mothers choose the families they want to parent their child. Prospective adoptive parents, in turn, choose birthmothers. This is what, in adoption terms—like in dating terms—is called a match. (The term “match” for adoptive purposes actually came about in the 1950s and ’60s, from the rise of Eugenics, and ensured that adoptive parents and children were of the same race.) Now, when they are matched, prospective adoptive parents have a relationship with the birthmother—many before the birth—and they also have access to medical records, vital information for the future health of the child. When the child is born and as she grows, she knows her birthmother’s identity and has a certain amount of contact, depending on what everyone is most comfortable with. When it goes well—and there are many ways it can go so horribly wrong—this is by all accounts best for the child.

Any of these scenarios can yield crises of identities. Any adoption—however open—can be as much about grief as it is about joy. It would be dishonest to say that there isn’t a good deal of grieving done by all parties in any kind of adoption as much as there is a rejoicing in everyone having found one another. Superman hurtled to Earth alone, not sure where he was from or where he was headed. It would be dishonest to say Superman’s adoption gave him strength, or that, conversely, his adoption—in all the various ways that story gets told—is his greatest vulnerability.

The injury kryptonite could brand into Superman’s earthly flesh, the psychic made physical, is the overarching metaphor for what psychiatrist Nancy Newton Verrier has referred to as the “primal wound.” This wound materializes when a child is separated from his biological mother, and it leaves an ever-lasting scar. According to Verrier, this wound manifests itself in haunting ways; it will always feel like something vital has been forever lost, a ghost organ. The child will always be wounded from the manner in which that piece was cut from him.

Any emptiness, of course, must be filled. In its original form, Superman is the dominant aspect of Clark Kent’s personality, a contrast to the milquetoast Clark. When he dons his alien cape and fights evil it brings him love and adoration from his adoptive planet. It is not incidental that Kent’s love object, Lois Lane, goes weak at the knees for Superman. In all its incarnations, his identity is hewn as he cannot be both Clark Kent and Superman simultaneously. The wound cannot be properly sutured. What is his true identity? Superman is the only superhero I can think of who does not wear a mask.

All superheroes get upgrades to stay relevant and so continue to sell comics. The most memorable updates to my mind is when Marvel reimagined Spider-Man as Hispanic in 2011. And in 2007, when Captain America was killed, post–Iraq war, reflecting America’s loss of dominance in the world.

Superman’s costume has changed, as has the variations of his powers, his marital status, his very personality. But the changes in his origin story, and how much of it is told to him and to the reader, are a direct reflection of America’s changing attitudes about adoption.  In most cases an adoption is no longer a family secret, a cause for shame. Records in closed adoptions have in many cases been unlocked. And as adoptions open up in this country so does Superman’s. His origin story is revealed to the reader in 1961, but it isn’t until the seventies that the Kents get written in as full-fledged characters who can impact Kent’s personality. No longer cast as elderly, they live to see their son’s successes continuing to form him. Clark Kent, who thrives more in high school than in the original versions, milk-fed by his adopted, fertile earth, so begins to identify as an earthling and less as an alien. The more he learns more about his origins, early on, the more he is able to move through his life less crippled with the crisis of not knowing the story of his adoption. The research here pans out—open adoption is better for the child who will always know where he came from.

When, in the 1980s, DC comics did a “reboot” of characters’ backstories to reflect continuity, Superman had lost his luster. He was outdated, a product of the Depression, his invulnerability made to show power and endurance when most citizens had lost theirs. Here is when his adoption comes to the forefront. Now Clark Kent knows his story and identifies more with his adoptive family and his adoptive planet. Krypton is portrayed as barren, a place where babies are conceived in a birthing matrix, a world where fertility is ruled by science. This corresponds to the resonances of the first test-tube baby, in 1977, and the rise of fertility treatments and with the possibilities that for women biology was no longer destiny. Though his birth parents, Lara and Jor-El, are said to be the sole couple on the planet that loved one another, they know they can’t parent Kal-El, due to the planet’s impending destruction. They are established as the birth parents that have chosen to hurl Kal-El into space, and into a new family.

It is in this version that Clark Kent—the earthling—becomes his dominant identity, and he becomes more proactive in finding evil to fight. Armed with the details of his origins, Superman has found a way to blur his face—through the vibration of his extraordinary speed—so that photographers can’t capture him. But it is also a way for him to blur the two worlds. To suture them.

Oh, and now Superman can fly.

Subsequent versions of Superman reflect a complexity in the role of his internal life, what goes on beneath the cape, as it were, and so the way his adoption has informed him is illuminated. His relationship with his father, Jonathan Kent, becomes more complicated and tense.  He becomes fascinated with his origins on Krypton. In the most recent Man of Steel, we see Superman on Krypton, and a wrenching scene of his birthparents deciding they cannot parent him. When Clark Kent asks his father if he can just pretend to be his biological son, Jonathan Kent tells him: “You are my son. But somewhere out there, you have another father; and he sent you here for a reason,” the “greatest adoption story of all time,” makes a point of investigating—and making a case for—open adoption.

We are all bundles of selves; we all have a multitude of identities. We are all suffering from a primal wound that comes simply from being born.  We are all separated in that moment from our mothers. If briefly, we are all lost. And just in that we grow, we are all superheroes. 

But for an adopted child there are two origin stories. And as a parent of an adopted child, now a toddler, I wonder how my son will move through his life, how he will reconcile two distinct narratives. What will be the one he tells? 

The next Superman movie, Man of Steel 2, originally scheduled for 2015, will be released in May 6, 2016, and will now go head to head with an updated Captain America, both in theaters that same weekend. Henry Cavill will be the face of this Superman, but what will his story be? How will his adoption make its way into the narrative? The face of adoption in this country is changing rapidly. Families and how we make them are changing. What was once shrouded and closed publicly and privately, as is Superman’s adoption in the original Superman, now is a widely discussed and scrutinized part of our culture. And while that openness has changed the shame surrounding adoption, the popular language is still entrenched in the past. Birth mothers have “given up” their children, as opposed to having placed them in loving homes. In the media, adoptees are most always referred to as adopted children. Has there been a single piece that does not refer to Dylan Farrow as Woody Allen’s adopted child? Does her being adopted make it easier for anyone to fathom what went on in that family? How and why could that be? Implicit in this is that adopted children—and their adoptive parents—do not together form real families and that the ties that bind them are too easily unfastened. And so that wound stays wide open.  

I am worried about my son in the same way all mothers are worried about their children. Will he be happy? Will he be healthy? But I am also worried about what his story will mean to him and how he will hear it and how he will, should he choose to, tell it. My origin story, the wrapped umbilical, truthful or mythical, is frozen in time. Will his change? Will he get lost? What costume will he wear? How will he ever be sutured? How will he learn to fly?

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