Stalking Irish Madness, Through Adoption’s Lens

I mentioned a while back that I wanted to read Patrick Tracey’s book Stalking Irish Madness: Searching For the Roots Of My Family’s Schizophrenia. I had the opportunity recently to do so and it’s an intense journey through one family’s experience.

Being an adoptee, I can’t help but read it through the lens of adoption. Knowing that my birth mother is Irish by descent, and knowing that there is some hitherto unidentified mental illness that runs on that side, naturally my curiosity about this book was piqued. I’d like to highlight some of the things that spoke to me and how it relates to my experience as an adoptee.

The notion that madness had favored the Irish had been kicking around since the 1850s… Genetically speaking, the Irish are no more at risk than any other people. But in their darkest hour their rates of insanity were pushed to extremes… [T]he Irish population in America had been largely Protestant and comparatively well screwed on. These newer arrivals, these Irish Catholics, were another thing altogether… Anyone could point the finger of blame–at the long history of famines and the malnutrition they spread, at drink, at religion, at emigration, at British inhumanity.

As a class, we adoptees are similarly tainted. Not too long ago it was thought that unwed mothers were of unsound minds, and that this supposed deficiency was transferred to us, their bastard offspring. Remnants of this mindset remain today in the knowing looks and snide comments we receive when folks find out we are adopted. People don’t say “bad blood” anymore, but they still think it, and our super-secret-sealed adoption records only confirm it. Reading this book makes me wonder more about my blood relatives, not just the immediate relations but those stretching back into antiquity.

I know that for most people, the idea of going insane is unthinkable. For most families sanity is a given, as easy as breathing, as sure as seeing the sun rise in the eastern sky. For too many of us, however, there is a creaky gate that swings open at the cusp of adulthood, and on the other side is madness. On us sanity rests no more securely than a hat blown off in the wind.

For most families, biological ties are a given. Origins are a given. The fact that you have Aunt Mary’s nose and Uncle Jed’s propensity for stupid jokes are a given. Most people learn this with ease, over time, through all the little remarks families make in their daily lives. Not so for adoptees, however. Conversations of this nature cease when we walk in the room or, worse, continue while deliberately excluding us.

That mental illness that runs through my birth mother’s family affected many of her relatives and siblings, one of my birth uncles “severely”. I don’t know what that illness is, its impact, how it might be treated. Reading this book makes me wonder anew: is it schizophrenia? Depression? Manic disorder? Something I haven’t heard of but ought to know about for the sake of my children? It’s an anvil hanging over my head, waiting to fall. I have been led to believe my birth mother is Catholic. Did the Irish Catholics Tracey mentions lend some irregularities that even now are floating around in my bloodstream like nanites, waiting to take control? Until my records are unsealed, uneasy thoughts are my only heritage.

Tracey continues:

[T]he diocese itself was no place to go for comfort. From the Victorian era until recent times, it ran a Dickensian regime. If there were not enough landed men to marry, a girl was sent to live behind the walls of a nunnery. If she first found herself pregnant, she was a slattern, her child a bastard. If the child survived the pregnancy, the Church wouldn’t baptize him, damning him, effectively, in a false God’s name. If he died, the Church wouldn’t bury him. As a rule, a child born out of wedlock could not be registered with the parish. Illegitimate stillborn babies were laid to rest in fairy mounds across the county line. Today, recuperation ceremonies are held in border villages to reclaim the remains, and a new sense of tolerance prevails.

I would venture to say it’s not tolerance that prevails, but the sense that “this could never happen today.” Except it does. One Irish woman Tracey meets says:

“[L]oads of people have turned away a Yank because they think they’re coming for the money. Back in my mother’s day, illegitimate children given up for adoption had to go to England. Now there’s a new law they can come back to claim the farm.”

Same in this country. When adoptees reach out to birth relatives, one of the first assumptions outsiders make is that we’re after some sort of inheritance. The only inheritance most of us want is the one rightfully due us: our heritage. There’s no money in the world that could ever replace that. Although, I do like the idea of those poor stillborn bastards being buried in fairy mounds. Perhaps they now live in that other world, dancing and singing at neverending feasts, having become fairies themselves. The thought brings me a measure of comfort.

In the same chapter Tracey writes something that will doubtless hit home to any adoptee or birth relative who has ever tried to search:

This is why I am not enamored of genealogy… What irks is that at some stage… a gap appears in your factual understanding of who your ancestors were. I realized this going in. I knew that even in this computerized world of name searches, the most mundane details of lives lived 160 years ago can be as hard to unravel as the tangle in my grandmother’s knitting bag. Sooner or later if your people were peasant Irish, the trail goes cold, the search thwarted at a sudden turn.

Or, if you’re adopted, the trail stops cold at the first crossroads: your parents. Funny how people can understand this if someone like Tracey writes about it, someone who is “legitimately” pursuing his genealogy. But if an adoptee or birth mother searches, roust the villagers and grab the pitchforks! Why the dichotomy? Why must we be forced to live in the dark?

I’d highly recommend this book to anyone, but for adoptees it may be of special interest. It illustrates how genetic ties, no matter how far removed, impact those of us living in the here and now. Disturbing, yet provocative. I wish I could travel to Ireland and see the places my ancestors once lived. What could possibly be the harm to my birth family in that? Why am I not permitted such a journey simply because I am adopted?


  1. http://maryanne says

    Another very interesting Irish piece. I still have to get that book. The famine is one of those awful “gifts that keeps on giving”.I have heard that the high prevalence of diabetes among the Irish is part of that legacy. It has to do with who was genetically more likely to survive famine and storing fat. Not surprising the high level of mental illness may be a legacy of the famine as well.

    Nice comparison of Irish and adoptee issues, and I too was touched by the bastard babies buried in the fairie mounds. Have you heard of the recent study and report of abuse of all sorts in Catholic orphanages, schools, and other institutions? Devastating cruelty many years, constantly denied and covered up by Church authorities. It is called the Ryan report. Very nasty stuff, but we knew it from the Magdalen Laundries. It went much further than that.

  2. Th need for medical history is of course not just an Irish issue…nor is suicide, depression or other mental health issues.

    Depression suicide and eating disorders are part of my Jewish family tree and were passed onto to my daughter Alicia who I lost to adoption. From her father she inherited alcoholism. Together her genetics – and a change in placement unbeknownst to me when she was a year old – combined to cause her to take her own life at just 27 years of age. A tragedy that might have been prevented in so many way.

    I tried to open her adoption when she was a teen. I offered medical history. Her aps preferred fantasy, denial and pretense. They never even asked me why her biological father had died at just 39 years of age! Wouldn’t you be curious?!?

  3. maryanne–Tracey talks quite a bit about the legacy of the famine and its effects on subsequent generations. Much food for thought. I did a blog last month about the Catholic report (“There But For The Grace Of…”). It’s disgusting to think how many innocent people have been harmed by all this.

    AdoptAuthor–By all means, the need for medical history is hardly an Irish-specific thing. I just see it through that prism because it happens to be my experience. Why must people insist upon secrecy when so many have been harmed by it? Adoption secrecy creates too much sadness for too many people, and far too many casualties.

  4. Late to the game of responding to this post, but, I, too, was fascinated by this author on NPR in July. As I listened to his description of schizophrenia, I couldn’t help but wonder of another type of genetic influence called eppingenome. I could be wrong on the spelling, but it is the environmental effects on the genes that cause subtle changes for the next generation. Therefore, subsequent generations as well.

    This speaks to the issues of famine, alcoholism, stress of pregnacy on an already stressed female — and that stress could be lack of proper nutrician due to famine, and, the intensity of stress and worry under harsh conditions of poverty.

    When considering the added stress of carrying a pregnancy to term of an unmarried,societal “scandleous” pregnancy and all the emotions forced upon a woman at that time leading to the birth of a “bastard”, then the effects of stress (eppigenome) on the mother and particularly the baby are magnified.

    Makes me wonder what is truly genetic and what is environmental. Adoptees are the world’s experimental rats.