A Tale Of Two Orphans: Casey and “Joseph”

Our first image of Casey in April, 1991 came through another American couple who were in the process of adopting a 2-year old boy named Joseph (not his real name). He lived in the same orphanage as Casey did in Mrągowo, Poland. They snapped a couple of pictures of her while they received Joseph, pictures that we’ll cherish forever. We kept in touch over the years, sending Christmas cards and photos of our children as they grew from infancy to toddlerhood to middle school and high school.

We led different lives.

They lived in a rural area, were very conservative and devoutly religious. We lived in a famously liberal, affluent suburb outside of a world-class city. We were active in our local Episcopal church, but our connection was more social than spiritual.

Every Christmas I’d share their cards and photos with Casey, re-explaining the nature of our connection. But as she reached her teen years, she reacted as most teens would – superficially. She poked fun at Joseph’s ears (poor kid did have elephant ears that stuck out) and sniffed at his involvement in church groups, scouts and his aspiration to become an auto mechanic. He was certainly not marriage material for Casey Brooks. 

After Casey’s suicide, I tracked down Joseph’s father online; we’d lost touch. I wanted to break the tragic news to them but also wanted to know how Joseph was doing, especially in light of my discovery of attachment disorder. He was older than Casey when he was adopted from that orphanage. Surely there was emotional residue from his longer time there. I needed to understand more about Joseph’s life narrative since I knew so little about Casey’s. I emailed Joseph’s father hoping I’d get a reply, but “teen suicide” is a toxic subject and most parents slam the door shut.

You are left alone.

Joseph’s father did write me back. His response was both illuminating and unsatisfying.  

They had one biological son but wanted another child and couldn’t conceive a second time. Joseph was the product of a neighborhood affair, and spent much of his first year at home in a rocking cradle. His birth father was legally blind and couldn’t care for him, so he and Joseph’s birth mother agreed to give Joseph up for adoption so that he could have a chance for a better life. He had been in the orphanage in Mrągowo for less than 6 months before he was adopted and, according to his adoptive father, bonded to his adoptive mother “amazingly fast.”

His life since then had been pretty normal, much like Casey’s. He adored his older brother and his dog, loved NASCAR and entered a training program in auto mechanics at the age of 22. His father admitted that Joseph had some learning disabilities and issues with his eyesight, but nothing like that rages and outbursts we’d seen in Casey. 

This left with me with a multitude of questions. 

  • Was his father being truthful with me?
  • Were they in denial as I had once been?
  • Did they even tell Joseph about Casey’s suicide for fear of freaking him out?
  • Was the fact that Joseph had been at home for his first year rather than institutionalized a deciding factor (as adoption experts assert)?
  • Was Joseph’s “older brother” a critical source of security for him? Should we have given Casey a sibling? Was her dog Igor not enough?
  • Were Joseph’s parents simply better parents than we were? Were we just complete failures?
  • Should we have been more conservative and devout?

Would any of this have made a difference in whether Casey lived or died? Why would two children from similar circumstances go down such different life and death paths?

These are the kinds of questions a grieving father grinds through every day for the rest of his life.  

8 thoughts on “A Tale Of Two Orphans: Casey and “Joseph”

  1. I don’t think there is an explanation — some kids are extraordinarily resilient, others not so much. There’s no way to know — or tell.

    My BFF (from the age of 4) and her baby sisters bounced around foster care for years and years — their parents loved them, tried valiantly but never quite managed to kick their drug/alcohol daemons. BFF (and her sisters) were adopted the summer before senior year. All three were college graduates before their 23rd birthdays and are happily married with kids — successful grownups in their 30s, by any measure. My oldest daughter (adopted from foster care at 16, with a background pretty much identical to BFF’s… largely because of BFF) is a senior in college — smart, accomplished and a total sweetheart.

    I’d love to say that BFF et soeurs and my oldest kid turned out super-fabulous and well-adjusted because of marvelous parenting… but I think they just happened to be naturally extra-resilient.

    Based on the 13 other families in my and hubby’s fost-adopt cadre (and support group) and the blogosphere, most alcohol-exposed in utero and traumatized (by their years in foster care, if nothing else) do not turn out as well as my kid. My kid was by far the oldest in our fost-adopt group (she only lived with us full-time for 18 months before she left for college) and the only singleton. The latter may have helped slightly, but equally could have been offset by the fact that she became insta-big sister to our two toddler-age biokids. The other fost-adopt families have had a much rougher go of it — lots of RAD, need for out of home placements and intensive outpatient services. And they’re WAY better parents — stay at home parent, homeschooling, organic food only eating, etc — than hubby and I will ever be (read: we both work full time, do the drive thru dinner at least twice a week en route to soccer practice, have been known to sneak the munchkins into see the odd horror movie, etc)

    • Yes I know sometimes you can do everything right and things go disastrously wrong and vice versa. There are a couple of adoptees I’ve talked to who insist they’re fine and I take them at their word. No issues. Are they telling the truth? Am I overly concerned? Don’t know.

      • You asked. They answered. I’d be inclined to accept the answer at face value. On the theory that it’s *their* experience. Who am I to second guess it?


        Out of curiosity, how old were the adoptees you posed your question to? Were they adopted internationally or domestically?

        I’m asking as:

        1) an adoptee’s view on the impact of their adoption on their life is likely to be very different at, say, 8 or 14 or 35

        2) I’m a longtime fan of adult international adoptee Jae Ran Kim, who has written about happily being an “adoption poster kid” into her early 20s… but whose perspective shifted by her early 30s:

        “Looking back, I cringe when I think about what I told those parents; today it would be much different. But that’s the nature of having an extra twenty years of life’s journey carried on one’s body. I think it would take an extraordinary young person to at age 16 be able to articulate to a room full of adults on all the complexities involved in being an adopted person”.

        My oldest? She is who she is — our parenting has precious little to do with how she turned out. It’s also worth noting that the rest of the kiddos in our fost-adopt cadre are mostly still in elementary school — who they are at 7 or 9 or 12 isn’t necessarily who they will be at 18 or 25 or 35.

      • Well I’d respond to this by saying (a) I’m not a professional and (b) my research is more experiential than scientifically bulletproof. How big is an appropriate sample size? Probably larger than mine. Nonetheless, I found my conversations revealing. I met with adoptees (both international and domestic) who are Casey’s age (she would be 23). I’ve talked to older adoptees (30’s). You’re right though. I don’t mean to make blanket judgements but I do what I can!

  2. Dear John, I just want to thank you for your blog. I have a 10 year old son from Russia who rages intermittently, but severely, and even with all of the resources I am lucky to have (an attachment therapist, going to Heather Forbes conferences, etc.), it is incredibly difficult, and there is no easy cure. I respect your thoughtful writing, and your courage gives me hope. If you have courage after losing Casey, then I can continue to muster courage too.

    I am so terribly sorry for your loss of your beloved daughter.

    Thank you for helping people, like me, that you have never even met. Sincerely, A

  3. Dear John, Would you mind letting me know if you received my previous email and this one as well? I have never responded to a blog before; indeed, I have never followed a blog before!

    In response to your recent post, I wanted to tell you that I have a fairly large group of acquaintances who have adopted children from Russia, and most of the children do NOT experience the kind of rages that you describe with your daughter and that I experience with my son. Some families I know experiences the rages with one child, but not all of their adopted children. In fact, I have another child, also adopted from Russia, who was less traumatized and does not get emotionally dysregulated as my older son does, even when I compare them at the same age (e.g. how they both were at age 4.) I can see that there is so much more at play than simply my parenting style. I am grateful to have this awareness; even so, it is hard not to question myself, so I understand the self-doubt that you expressed in your post.

    On the other extreme, if you asked our attachment therapist, she would say that 100% of children adopted from Eastern Europe have an attachment disorder. But, of course, she is only aware of the parents in crisis who call her.

    So, I am not at all surprised that Joseph has had an easier life than your Casey because I personally know a lot of “Josephs,” and it seems completely plausible that his father is telling the truth. I even have a “Joseph” living in my own home. Although my younger son was adopted at an older age than was my older son, he was in a different baby home with a noticeably different “feel” to it (e.g. adoptive parents were routinely allowed to see the cribs in the one baby home but were adamantly prohibited from doing so in the other baby home). And, my younger son most likely had a different prenatal experience as well.

    Thank you again for writing your blog. Sincerely, A

    • Hi Anon – Yes I received your email and try to respond to everyone. I agree with you and have written that not every adoptee has behavioral issues relating to their abandonment and institutionalization, but many do. I don’t like to lump everyone in one box and perpetuate a negative stigma. I deal more in probabilities than in absolutes. So whereas your therapist might say all adoptees have attachment disorder, I’d say adoptees are at least at risk for attachment disorders because of their experience.

      Thanks for writing!


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