Steve Jobs And Offensive Adoptee Stereotypes

Steve Jobs was one of my personal heroes. I probably wouldn’t have gotten into IT or started my own business without his influence. But my grief at his passing was marred by the constant references to his adoption. And the adoptee stereotypes I’ve encountered made my jaw hit the floor with the speed of the Tevatron. (Not the LHC, because I live near Fermi so I’ll give some love to the home team.)
What scares me is that I didn’t even notice myself at first, and trust me, my adoption-BS meter is finely tuned. We all saw what the news coverage was like. Steve Jobs, gone! Such a visionary! Such a genius! And did you hear he was adopted?
Even adoptees mentioned it, talking about Jobs as “one of us.” I started to do the same thing. I was proud of Steve for being adopted, for showing the rest of the world we’re worth something.
And then I realized, holy shit, what we’re really saying is, “Steve Jobs succeeded even though he was a bastard.” We’re praising him, not because he succeeded, but because he Succeeded While Adopted (SWA).
Bastards have to work harder. We’re never good enough. Not even Steve Jobs was good enough.
It’s even more obvious in the Walter Isaacson biography, which has more adoptee stereotypes than an NCFA convention. The first chapter is the incendiary “Abandoned And Chosen,” loaded words which epitomize the primary adoption stereotypes: that birth mothers abandon and that adoptees are “chosen” for “a better life”. Notably, a biography of an adoptee begins with the lives of his adoptive parents. The adoptee is always a secondary character in his own story.
Steve’s first mother found out he hadn’t been adopted by college graduates as she stipulated, and refused to sign the papers. “The standoff lasted weeks,” Isaacson writes, and describes that Jobs’ mother eventually “relented” (read: gave up after constant pressure and coercion) but made the a-parents “sign a pledge” that they’d send him to college. Yeah, about as enforceable as any of today’s supposedly “open” adoptions. Then Isaacson goes on to interview Steve’s friends about his feelings about being “abandoned” (even though his mother obviously fought for him). Like many adoptees, myself included, Steve internalized abandonment because everyone in his universe told him he was abandoned. The rest of the chapter is equally repugnant. Steve Jobs lived the adoptee stereotype and, in death, he’s become the epitome of it.
This is a best-selling book! What the hell kind of message is this for adoptees, especially young ones, that a wildly popular book about a wildly popular person is riddled with stereotypes? I’m not talking about a stray remark here or there. I’m talking screaming misogynistic anti-adoptee lunacy. If anybody brought us to the 21st Century it was Steve Jobs, yet his authorized biography reads like a 19th Century handbook on social work. Go read even just the first few pages and you’ll be as appalled as I am.
In the vernacular, OMG. *deep breath*
Another underlying message I heard in the buzz surrounding Steve’s death was that adoption redeemed him: that if he had been raised by his birth mother he wouldn’t have succeeded. We don’t know that. Maybe he would have been an even greater success. Adoption is trying to take credit, when the credit is due to Steve for fighting the societal restrains of being a bastard.
Steve Jobs succeeded despite adoption, not because of it.
Many of the less-desirable personality quirks attributed to Steve, in particular his control issues, are traced back to his adoption. As adoptees our lives have been controlled for us. Is it any wonder we want to take that control back? Why is that seen as a bad thing? Is it because allowing us to do so might acknowledge our humanity, and the inherent problems in adoption?
Words are powerful. If you say something it is likely to become true. (Or, as Wang Chung said: “The words we use are strong; they make reality.” Profound advice from 1980s pop.) I thought we were making some progress on adoptee stereotypes but now I’m realizing we’ve only scratched the surface. It’s so ingrained we can barely get people to acknowledge it much less treat us with some level of respect.
Jaw still on floor, gathering neutrinos.


  1. http://Anonymous says

    I agree. Why is his adoption always mentioned and why is it so important to bring that up in everything that is written about him. On the other hand, as an adoptee, I am also tired of the stereoptypes being broadcast by many, that adoptees are damaged fragile potential serial killers as well. We are just people like everyone else, individuals, and all unique and I wish that people could just see this simple fact and just see us as people, not adoptees.

  2. I also wish they would actually LISTEN to how we feel about adoption instead of assuming or putting words in our mouths. Only we can tell our own stories. I bet if Steve Jobs had wanted to write an autobiography his thoughts on his adoption would have been very different. I don’t care what kind of access Isaacson had to him, you don’t really understand adoption unless you’ve lived it.

  3. I’ve got more to say about this probably, but am short of time right now. What is so wrong about wanting to control your life? If you are not adopted, it’s considered an admirable trait (outside of serious control freakiness), but in adoptees it’s bad.

    You know, I never knew knew adoptees were so “broken” until I got online in 1993. It’s a constructed brokeness, created by the therapeutocracy.

    I believe that adotion does cause problems, dysfunctions, and sometimes even worse, but follow the money and see whose promoting it. It may start with the adop0tion industry, but as we see in the rights movement, it’s the peripheral players– in the case of “brokeness” therapists, counselors who fuel it. Why are there so few good adoption therapists in the country? (Randy Seversen, Joyce Mcquire Pavio Carol Demuth, Robert Haefetz come to mind)? Beause the therapy industry as a whole makes good money off of adoption from adoptees and both sets of parents. Like good cultists, break you down and build you up in their own image.

    Well, I’m rambling and need to go out on an errand. I don’t know if I’m making sense. Adoption itself is dysfunctional, and that dysfunction is fueled by many sources as it wends it way out in to the public.

    I’m tweeting this.

  4. http://Anonymous says

    Triona-I agree that even when we speak sometimes we are not heard and others like to speak for us as a group. We all have our own stories and opinions.

    BD-you are making absolute sense. I have only been involved in online discussions in the last 4 years and until now only in one place. But I was amazed to discover that somehow adoptees are now “broken.” And I agree that there are therapists who are writing books and making money by proclaiming we all need fixing. That certainly does nothing to stop the misconceptions and prejudices the public has about us to begin with. I guess I should sign this somehow so I dont get confused with other anons. For now I will just sign as


    And hope no one else is using this intial signature. Sorry but I am not brave enough yet to go public here.

  5. J, feel free to sign as whatever. I don’t have a policy about anonymous posting.

    It’s amazing how this “broken” attitude is being perpetuated at the same time as unprecedented numbers of adult adoptees are speaking out. A correlation, perhaps? If we are “broken” then whatever we say as adults doesn’t matter.

    I have major problems with the prevalence of so much “therapy” in our society. What’s the difference between someone with a strong individual personality, and someone “in need of therapy?” That goes beyond adoption but adoptees are facing the results of this kind of warped thinking.

    Yes, there are legit therapists but I agree with BD, they are few. Far more common are the kind of self-hyped well-paid “professionals” who like to see themselves on talk shows. That’s where we get this idea of “broken”. If adoptees weren’t broken we wouldn’t need whole industries of expensive “help.”

    Most of what is “broken” about adoptees are our civil rights, not ourselves. Our anger about adoptee rights, discrimination, and stereotyping is dismissed as further evidence of “broken”. I suspect similar conversations occur during any attempt at reclaiming civil rights (the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, for example). When people start getting close to being seen as human and therefore equal, the only way to keep them oppressed is to dehumanize them.

  6. http://Anonymous says

    Hello, I’m a firstmom and every time I loudly proclaim online that I did not abandon my child, numerous adoptees (yes, adoptees) come forth to proclaim that I did despite the fact that only I know the circumstances surrounding the birth and loss of my child. These same adoptees also claim that they are broken and damaged by the primal wound that was created by adoption and N. Verrier. How can they not see that Verrier is part of the problem and by supporting her they are, in turn, feeding the adoption industry!

  7. While I agree that the adoption stereotypes are ugly, and while I agree that Steve Jobs was an incredible contributor to the world of technology, I never viewed him as one of us. Oh, sure, Steve was adopted. He was even interested in his roots to the point of searching for his first family. But, and this is a huge but, Steve Jobs was against open records!

    Your tag line for your blog is “Identity is a basic human right. ALL people deserve equal access to their original birth certificates.” Well, Mr. Jobs did not agree with this. He stated “birthparent privacy rights” as his reason for disagreeing with open records.

    Mr. Jobs was against legislation in his home state that would have given back to adopted persons the right to access their own factual birth certificates. He could have been a fantastic asset to the equality movement for adopted persons. Instead, he vehemently made his anti-adoptee position known to those who were working hard to pass rights legislation.

    My intent is not to speak ill of the dead. Nor is my intent to discount all that Steve Jobs did contribute to the world. But, I think it’s important to know that, even though he was an adoptee, he did not support what I consider the highly important issue of equality for adopted persons.

  8. Anonymous – I think the primal wound exists, but I also think adoptees need to listen to first parents as much as other people need to listen to adoptees. I really didn’t understand until I started listening to first mothers and their experiences.

    LJ – I’m not saying Jobs fought for adoptee rights. Given Isaacson’s infamous “insider access” it doesn’t surprise me that some of the stereotypes come from Jobs himself. I’m just disgusted at the level of blatant discrimination against adoptees, made all the more repugnant by the fact that very few people even acknowledge it as a problem. And I think we adoptees have an obligation to ourselves and adoptees of the future to do something about it. Jobs obviously didn’t feel the same, he could have made a big difference.

  9. http://Anonymous says

    Anon firstmom-
    It is interesting that you bring up N Verrier and the Primal Wound book. I have seen that brought up in discussions and it has always been firstmoms who brought that book to the discussion. In these discussions it seems to be almost used as a tool to dismiss adoptees while infantilizing and portraying us as never being able to function normally because of lost contact with the all omnipotent firstmom. Some of the things I have seen quoted from it are absurd not to mention physically impossible i.e. unborn babies being able to smell things outside the womb while immersed in anniotic fuid inside the sack. Anyway I know that everyone’s story is unique and I don’t make prejudgements and don’t like to see anyone else do that. And I see many people using this or that circumstance in their life as a reason for some action or inaction on their part but I think as adults we need to know that only we are responsible for our lives not anyone else or any situation from our childhood.

    I did not know that Steve Jobs was not in favor of open records. I find that very surprising since he did his own search and found and is very close with his bio sister, Mona Simpson. And I know he has met his birthmom and even mentioned her in that famous address he gave to the graduation class (forget what college it was). He could have been a powerful advocate I agree. So could Oprah after being found by her sister who was adopted.


  10. Most people don’t get involved with adoption reform unless they’ve had a personal experience being denied information. Perhaps, because people like Jobs and Oprah have other resources available to them for search (eg money, contacts etc) they never found themselves going down that road and therefore never felt the need to fight for our rights.

    That being said, I know a number of people in the adoption community who help with reform efforts even though they themselves were able to search and find (or the information was never lost to them). I admire them for sticking with the cause even though they already have their answers.

  11. I should also point out that I don’t want this thread hijacked into a flamewar over whether the Primal Wound is accurate. We all have our opinions on it based on personal experience and we aren’t necessarily going to agree. Just a friendly reminder to keep the conversation civil, folks.

  12. I was also amazed and horrified by the news coverage that painted Steve as a former foundling bastard basically left on a doorstep in a basket after being abandoned by his mother, They fed right into the myth of Moses, a leader who came from a basket in the reeds and grew up to lead masses. His adoption was portrayed as a shady, sketchy past.It seemed archaic and I couldn’t believe they were saying it in today’s day and age.