Long Lost Family would not exist without adoption. (Wouldn’t that be great?) I didn’t know it existed, as I lived overseas for many years and on returning paid little attention to anything adoption-related. Or maybe I deliberately blocked it out, not yet ready to deal with my own pain. By the time I started to come out of the fog and talked to other adoptees, I decided that NO WAY was I going to watch Long Lost Family. I imagined it would present, shall we say, a certain type of narrative and a certain palette of emotions, for the consumption of the same Great British public that over-invests in both royal weddings and royal deaths. Performative emotion. We do it well. Take us along for the ride, let us cry tears of sadness, tears of joy, tears of “that’s made me feel something; I’m glad it’s not my life.” Empathy and othering in one gesture. Just look at all the comments on their social media posts: “Time to get the tissues” and “It made me cry” are frequent compliments. Compliments. A good show turns on the water works and takes us along for the bumpy journey of someone else’s life. Then we can put away the tissues, put the kettle on and say “Wasn’t that lovely? Gets me every time.” Wake up. It’s designed to ‘get you’ every time.
I didn’t want to watch the trauma of adoptees or birth relatives; my own trauma was too raw still. But I’m trained to look, parse and analyse. I have the adoptee drive to know, understand, put it in an analytical box so it won’t affect me. And I’m angry. I’ve seen too many examples now, of the received narrative (better life! because they loved you! gave you up! chosen! I’m lucky! I’ve got wonderful parents! nurture not nature! blank slate! my adoptive parents are my parents!) and I know too well the decades of additional pain that buying into this ideological framework can bring. A framework designed to protect adopters (the law has made us your ‘real’ children for life, what on earth do you need protecting from?), protect birth parents (we did what was best for them!), nominally to protect us (we need to feel stable and loved in our adoptive families, so let’s just pretend we had no pre-adoption life), and above all, to protect the system. (The ‘adoption has changed’ line also protects the system, but that’s for another day).
And I’ve now progressed into reunion myself. I recall the shock of seeing a photo of a birth relative for the first time, and the mixed emotions, and the wonder of meeting for the first time and feeling awed, calm, disbelieving, in flight and grounded all at once. Would I have done any of that on camera for national consumption and to preserve for future generations to watch on ‘catch up’? Not on your life. Do I know any adoptees who would? No, but I know adoptees who are desperate for information and would do almost anything to find their roots. I know adoptees who have been told there was a flood or a fire that destroyed their records (often a lie). I know adoptees who do not have the financial resources to get help with searching. I know adoptees who have done their own searches and can get no further without specialist help. And I know there are many adoptees who like Long Lost Family and identify with some of the stories told – who think the show does a service and helps us to reconnect. And in some ways it does. It fills a huge gap left by government and adoption agency services, who take months and years to get information, if they can get it at all, and offer inadequate support through the process.
But there is a price for this help. Always a price. And that price is having your life put on show, having your complex, raw, unprocessed emotions filmed, Davina leaning in. And the set pieces. I have only watched the new episodes, but they’re easy to spot: gazing up at a building where a significant life event took place, or down at a doorstep where you were abandoned, while walking solo; a researcher sharing new and interesting information with a gleeful presenter on an iPad, before it is shared with the adoptee or newly-discovered birth relative (seated at an angled table, locked into the frame); getting ready in a hotel room; waiting anxiously at a table in an otherwise empty room; and, of course, meeting family members for the first time.
Nicky and Davina, it goes without saying, are major beneficiaries of this formula-driven drivel. But they are also the controllers, the arch-manipulators, orchestrating the release of information and timing their soft-spoken, almost seductive “I have a photo” (Davina) or “He wants to meet you.” They know how long to pause while the camera zooms in for the reaction shot. They do both, I believe, understand the emotions, having both suffered losses, childhood traumas, and having put the time and money into therapy to get themselves to a place where they are mentally strong enough to work on a show like this. But somehow that makes it worse. They should know better.
The show, naturally, stops after the initial reunion meeting. The realities of building a relationship, the ups and downs of real-life reunions, navigating the loss of missed decades, are not ‘good telly’. A brief catch-up photo is appended: the newly-discovered relatives are “in touch” or “planning to visit.” There are, we hear, follow-up shows in which the participants are revisited some years later. Are these more realistic about the long term prospects for reunion? We don’t know, because we don’t know how selective they are in choosing who to revisit and what to air.
And this is the crux. Whose stories get told? Which get left out? There are hints sometimes—a sibling “does not want any contact at this time”; adoptive parents are not generally featured and yet still the adoptee trots out the usual tropes (“I couldn’t have asked for better parents”) and is invariably asked if they have “had a good life” (the answer is always, yes). Where are the adoptees who did not ‘have a good life’? Where is the secondary rejection by birth family? Where are the adoptees who are rejected by Long Lost Family (“Sorry, we can’t help you”)? Whose families cannot be found? Where are the birth parents whose child was forcibly removed? Where are the adoptees trafficked across borders?
Even where there is trauma and dysfunction, it is somehow glossed over. One newly-found sister mentions almost in passing to an adoptee that their mother suffered with alcoholism and died young. But everything is hunky-dory. Just FINE. No need to reflect on what losing her son did to her and the rest of the family. Just be happy that we’ve connected now. Be grateful. And never question.
Ellie Simmonds’ documentary Finding My Secret Family was pleasantly different, and showed up Long Lost Family for the formulaic popular entertainment show that it is. Ellie was given the space to discuss her feelings, to talk about the mixed emotions, the doubts, and the fears. She talked to the camera and not to a star presenter. She was given proper support in the form of a personal on-call social worker, who was able to prepare her for what she was about to read and seemed to follow Ellie’s lead and her pace. She had the on-camera support of her adoptive parents. She met with an adoptee, Jono Lancaster, who has traced but been rejected by his birth family, to talk about what that was like for him. The eventual meeting with her birth mother took place off camera. The whole felt like genuine discovery rather than exploitation.
The producers of Long Lost Family do, of course, provide off-camera support to adoptees and always break news of a parent’s death to them away from the cameras. They have addressed some adoptee concerns in a letter to How To Be Adopted and are “proud” to have helped and supported over 1000 searchers, only a fraction of whom are filmed, itself an acknowledgment that they are not presenting the full picture. But separated family members are their product, their bread and butter, the lead actors in their unfolding melodramas. There is never space to present the bigger picture, to contextualise, to question or examine the very system that severed family ties in the first place. It’s all about the emotional money shot.