The Girl Behind The Door: A Memoir By John Brooks

TGBTD-eBookCov_03-600“This book should be a wakeup call to all adoptive parents and professionals about the urgent issues adoptees and their parents face.”

Nancy Newton Verrier, attachment therapist and author

The Primal Wound and Coming Home to Self

A Marin County, California father embarks on a journey to understand what led his seventeen-year-old daughter, Casey, to take her life. He travels back to her abandonment at birth and adoption from a Polish orphanage. His search leads to a condition known as attachment disorder, an affliction common among children who have been abandoned, neglected or abused. It explained everything. The Girl Behind The Door integrates a tragic personal adoption story with information from the experts to teach other families what the Brookses learned too late.

Who should read it?

    Anyone with a connection to the adoption “triad.”
    Anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide.
    Anyone who cried through the movie Philomena.
    Anyone who knows us and wants to read our story.

Available now on Amazon in print and Kindle version. Soon to be released on the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble online, Sony Reader Store, Kobo and more.

Those Rages

From the very beginning to the very end of our lives together, Casey suffered from violent and debilitating rages and temper tantrums. The slightest thing would seem to set her off. She wouldn’t accept our attempts at comfort, so she was left alone to thrash around in her room until she fell asleep, waking up the next morning a new person, as if she’d exorcised an evil spirit inside her.

The “experts” told us she’d grow out of it; we just had to be tougher with her. How clueless they – and we – were.

Imagine if you’d been abandoned by your mother, for whatever reason. What if she had other children? You could be living in Shangri-La (as Casey did in Northern California) as opposed to rural Poland. It’s not surprising that your thoughts would turn to, “Why did you keep them and not me?” That would be enough to enrage me. And who would you take it out on? Your adoptive parents.

This is a scene from The Girl Behind The Door about Erika, Casey’s and my first night together in our hotel room in Warsaw on a hot night in July, 1991 when we first discovered the depth of Casey’s rage.

*   *   *

 I’d never fed a baby before and felt like I’d been given a ticking hand grenade. I cradled Casey awkwardly in the crook of my arm, trying not to drop the bottle. She had a blissful look on her face, eyes half shut as she finished. I took the bottle from her and looked for something to wipe her mouth with, finally using my shirttail. She gazed at me, just as she had in the orphanage the day before. Now what do I do? Erika was still in the bathroom.

I walked her over to the window. We had an expansive view of a drab, gray sprawling city. A faint pinkish-red sunset filtered through a thin layer of smog. Across the street was one of the tallest and, perhaps, ugliest buildings in Europe, the Palace of Culture and Science. Built in the fifties, it was a ‘gift’ from the Soviet Union.

Casey looked out at the view, seemingly mesmerized by the flow of traffic down below, a bustling swarm of small cars and trucks that must have looked like toys to her. Erika returned from the bathroom looking weary but happy. “Did you remember to burp her?”

“Burp her?” I remembered reading about it in a baby book somewhere. Erika rolled her eyes as she took Casey from me, hoisting her over her shoulder. “You always burp a baby after she eats.”

I called room service to order sandwiches, beer and hot water for making baby formula, and then flipped through the channels on the TV – a Russian game show, German news, Italian soccer, French political talk show, Polish documentary on Hitler, CNN. Thank God, something I could understand.

Erika buckled Casey back into her stroller and parked her three feet from the TV. She stared at the screen, unblinking, apparently hypnotized by the wonders of television and the news of the world.

I collapsed on the hard beds, spent, as a breaking story came on about Boris Yeltsin, the first elected president of Russia. “How long have we been at this parenting now? Four hours? I’m exhausted. I don’t know how I’m going to get through this for another eighteen years.”

Erika plopped down next to me. “Get used to it.”

My eyes fixated on Casey in the stroller in front of the flickering light. Here we were watching TV together. “Just kidding. I meant to say it was a good exhausted. I’m loving every minute of it.”

By the time room service arrived with our dinner and we ate, it was close to ten o’clock. Casey was still awake in front of the TV, squirming in her stroller. “Let’s put her to bed.” Erika unsnapped her from the stroller, checked her diaper and laid her in the crib on her belly with a wool blanket, the pink squeaky doll, a stuffed bunny and a goose down comfort pillow she’d bought at a gift shop in Warsaw.

Casey kicked and thrashed like a turtle trying to right itself, then pulled herself up into a crouched position on her hands and knees. Letting out a soft hum, she rocked back and forth on her knees while staring straight ahead.

Erika and I watched, transfixed, through the bars of the crib. She seemed to have no awareness that we were there. Erika whispered, “Oh my God. I think she’s trying to rock herself to sleep.” I studied her. “Wow. We saw those kids on TV in the Romanian orphanages do the same thing.”

Erika and I watched, transfixed, through the bars of the crib. She seemed to have no awareness that we were there. Erika whispered, “Oh my God. I think she’s trying to rock herself to sleep.” I studied her. “Wow. We saw those kids on TV in the Romanian orphanages do the same thing.”

She was referring to an ABC News 20/20 exposé we’d seen the year before about Romanian children abandoned in state orphanages, the disastrous result of a bizarre plan concocted by the Ceauşescu dictatorship to force women to bear children for the state. The televised images were heartbreaking – youngsters in straightjackets confined to metal bed frames in bleak, cold rooms; mentally disturbed adolescents left alone in silence, rocking back and forth; neglected infants drowning in their own filth, too weak to cry.

After about ten minutes, Casey tired herself out, collapsing in a heap crying. Maybe it was her rattly cough that kept her from sleeping. Erika jumped out of bed, picked her up, bouncing and shushing her, but Casey’s distress seemed to get worse. Her crying became an ear-piercing scream.

I’d never heard such a desperate wail. Didn’t she have an off switch somewhere? We’d had a long day and needed sleep. Erika kept bouncing her up and down, rocked her back and forth, sat her by the TV, but she wouldn’t settle down.

An hour later, at eleven o’clock, Casey finally calmed herself. Erika laid her back down on her stomach in the crib, kissing her hot sweaty head, covering her with the wool blanket and pulling the comfort pillow up close to her face.

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We looked at each other, exhausted. I felt like we were two bomb disposal experts who’d just defused an improvised explosive device. Looking over the bar of the crib, careful not to disturb her, I listened to her breathe. Her nose was stuffy so she breathed through her mouth, wheezing from the congestion in her chest. I whispered to her, “Poor kid. You won’t be alone at night anymore.”

Then I blew her a kiss goodnight.

Six Ways That The Adoption System Fails Our Children

In my search for answers to Casey’s life and death, a sad irony began to reveal itself – an adoption chain that fails these children miserably despite the best of intentions!

Here’s how.

1. Adoption agencies don’t warn adoptive parents that institutionalized children may have severe behavioral problems, no matter how normal they seem or how quickly they catch up.

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2. Orphanage caregivers obey instructions to stay emotionally distant from the children.

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3. Adoptive parents, particularly those in foreign countries with limited fluency in the language and legal system, don’t ask questions for fear they will lose the child.

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4. Friends and family are too quick to tell concerned parents what they want to hear, that the tantrums and lack of affection are normal, a stage.

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5. Mental health experts, partly out of ignorance but sometimes out of professional arrogance, mis-diagnose, lecture, fail to connect, ignore the elephant in the room (adoption) and may leave the child feeling even worse about herself, maybe even blaming her for not cooperating.

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6. Government agencies erect Chinese walls between the child and the birth parents out of concern for privacy, believing that it’s better for all concerned not to know.

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It doesn’t have to be this way. Somehow this adoption system needs to change and, in some respects, it is. I’ll talk more about this in future blog posts.

Adoption and Orphan Care In Poland – Part 1 of 2

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International adoptions have made headlines over the last few months with the cruel political gamesmanship going on in Russia right now. It’s nothing more than using orphaned children as pawns in a high stakes poker game with the United States.

A fellow adoption blogger in New York, Tina Traster, writes more extensively about the Russian ban on her blog, www.juliaandme.com. She and her husband adopted their daughter, Julia, from Siberia about a decade ago. If you are interested in this subject I urge you to visit her site.

I’d like to talk about Poland because that’s where we received Casey.

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Our international adoption journey began in 1990 when there were relatively few channels available – Latin America, South Korea and then Romania. Erika and I believed at the time that our adopted child would have a hard enough time with her identity and self-image – the standing in the checkout line at the Safeway test – so we figured Romania, a European country.

It was only by chance that we learned through the adoption grapevine that a couple in nearby New Haven, CT. (we were living outside of Hartford at the time) had adopted a 2-year-old girl from Poland. That seemed like nothing less than a moonshot to us. Erika was of Polish decent and still had family there. Thus became our journey to Poland, and the rest as they say is history.

International adoptions from Poland are very rare. During the first decade of this century, roughly 45,000 children were adopted from Russia and 69,000 from China. There were only about 1,000 from Poland. There are many reasons for this. First, by comparison to Russia or China, Poland’s population (some 30 million or so) is relatively small, about the size of Canada. It’s a deeply Catholic country with strict abortion laws. Children end up in the orphanage system for a variety of reasons – unwanted pregnancies, shame, a perceived handicap, family dysfunction, substance abuse, or even temporary room and board for some families financially strapped. Poland has worked very hard to find homes for children where they believe they belong – in Poland. Otherwise, they look beyond their borders. It was only through this loophole that we found Casey. She was perceived “special needs” because she was a weak preemie, but there was no data to back that up.

International adoptions have become a political hot potato with accusations of Westerners “stealing” children, bribing local officials with money. That wasn’t the case for us in Poland and for many, many other adoptive parents. But to be fair to all sides, these concerns are legitimate. After all, we’re supposed to be looking out for the best interest of the children. But that doesn’t sit well with an adoptive parent who’s bonded with nothing more than a photo of their (hopeful) child to be. Trust me, we’d been there. Midway through our process with Casey, we’d heard grumblings through our attorney in Warsaw that the Polish Parliament was considering putting the brakes on all foreign adoptions of Polish children. Erika and I went into an emotional meltdown, having bonded with Casey through just a photo and some fragments we’d heard about her. So I truly empathize with those adoptive parents of Russian children now caught in limbo. It’s a terrible place to be, as though your child and your hopes have died.

In Part 2 I’ll talk about what Poland is doing for its orphans.