Brown Bread

Adoption stories usually focus on adoptive parents, birth parents, or adoptees, and a lot of time is spent on hearing narratives from the adoption triad to improve the adoption experience. But there is another voice that is just as important, and that is the voice of the non-adopted sibling. And in order to truly understand the scope of adoption, this voice must also feel welcome in the conversation.

Brown Bread is a film that seeks to be that voice. The documentary is directed by Sarah Gross and tells the story of her interracial adoptive family growing up in 1970s America. Sarah and her older brother James were born in 1964 and 1967 to Margot and Peter Gross. Having read an article about minorities being hard to place in adoptions, the couple decided to adopt. Daniel was adopted in 1970 at 6 months, and then Adam was adopted in 1972 at 6 weeks old. Daniel and Adam seemed to adapt to the family seamlessly, and Sarah and James were happy to have playmates.

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Daniel, Sarah, Adam, and James

A few years later, in 1977, Margot and Peter adopted Carl and Carla, siblings who came from a very dysfunctional and abusive foster home. Carl and Carla were 8 and 9 at the time, and all of a sudden the two became younger siblings to Sarah and James, but older siblings to Daniel and Adam. In the years that followed Carl and Carla’s adoption, the family was turned upside down, with each child trying to figure out their place in the family.

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Adam, Carl, Daniel, Sarah, and Carla

The documentary is mostly made up of interviews of the family members reflecting back on a  time that was filled with both laughter and pain. The interviews are honest and give a glimpse into a family trying to blend with each other and with the rest of the world. The film is a genuine look at what happens when families are created through adoption, and sometimes the results are not what you think. Watch the trailer for Brown Bread, and then read on for my interview with Sarah!

The title of the movie comes from your mother making homemade brown bread, and sending you to school with brown bread sandwiches when you longed to fit in with everyone else and have sandwiches made from store bought white bread. I can relate to those awkward teen years wanting to fit in and be “normal.” Did you have a group of friends who helped you through those years?

At the time of our last adoption, our family began going to the Unitarian Universalist Church, where over the years I was able to process some of the turbulent feelings I was experiencing and where I met many of my closest friends.  Quite a few from there had adopted themselves, or had mixed race families, or some other lifestyle choices which pushed them outside the “norm,” which meant we could all kind of relate to each other and support each other in our struggles.

Also, in the first years after the final adoption, we lived in Knoxville, Tennessee in a supportive and mixed-race community, where all of us had friends who looked like us (or didn’t) and it really didn’t matter so much.  Funnily enough, it was when we moved to California that the racial divisions of the outside world came to play an increasingly large role in our own individual developments.

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Margot and Peter with their six children

We often think of loss in adoption in terms of adoptees and birth families. But there can be loss for children who receive adopted siblings. Do you ever think of how your life would be different had your parents not adopted? Did you ever resent your parents or adopted siblings for taking that life away from you?

I guess every child imagines what life would have been like “if”…  (her parents hadn’t divorced, or Johnny hadn’t been born, or if her parents hadn’t adopted Suzy…)  But given our family situation, there wasn’t any room for this kind of question while we were growing up.    Since the adoptions in our family occurred in two stages, with the little ones Adam and Daniel being adopted as babies and within the space of two years — then Carl and Carla being adopted as much older children, I have occasionally found myself imagining what things would have been like without Carl and Carla being part of our family, but never without Adam and Daniel, because they are part of the origins of who we are.  But even thinking about not having adopted Carl and Carla is very painful for me.  Painful because I love them both and am who I am because of their joining us.  And painful because so many things would have been easier and perhaps better for us, especially for Daniel and Adam, without them.  Yet if they hadn’t come to us, Carl and Carla would have most likely grown up in a context of abuse, crime, and very few opportunities to develop themselves beyond all this.  How can you weigh such things? I never resented my siblings but sometimes my parents for forcing these mind- and heart-expanding experiences on us, yes.

You and your brother seemed to have accepted Adam and Daniel, who were adopted at 6 months and 6 weeks respectively, into your families quite easily. It was harder for you to accept Carl and Carla who were 8 and 9. Your brother said he wanted to escape from the fighting, yelling, and total chaos in the years that followed their adoption. Throughout those difficult years, did you parents ever seem to regret their decision to adopt?

My parents never let on that they regretted having adopted.  I don’t know that they did ever regret it.  It is not part of their psychological makeup to go back and wish things had been different.  I think the biggest issue was that my parents went into it thinking that enough love can make anything possible and now know it is just not so.  So rather than regretting the adoption, I think they perhaps regretted their inability to cope with and rise above the challenges.

It’s interesting to see the lifestyle choices that you and your siblings have made as adults. What prompted your move to Germany? How did your very nontraditional childhood shape some of your decisions as an adult? 

Since my mom was from England, we had always spent a lot of time over there visiting relatives.  I had been relatively good at languages at school and felt myself drawn to Europe.  During a gap year after high school I went and travelled extensively in Europe.  During college I spent a year studying in France.  It seemed only natural after finishing college to then apply for scholarships and find a way to return to Europe.  I received a scholarship to study in Berlin, found myself dating a wonderful German man I had met in the U.S. and ended up making a life for myself here in Germany, almost without planning it really.  But looking back of course I can imagine there was a subconscious desire to be far enough away from my family to get a little distance from the painful deconstruction we’d been going through those past ten or so years.

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The Gross family all grown up

Your documentary steered away from making any judgements about adoption, but let viewers form their own opinions. Having had first hand experience living in a transracial family, is there anything you could share that could help prospective families?

Having shared a lot of painful stories of growing up in our family, I wonder if this might dissuade prospective parents from adopting transracially.  But this is not at all my intent, on the contrary, I am really proud of our family.  Much of our experiences will never be repeated because a) children don’t get adopted out of chronological order any more and b) we had very little post-adoption support, which has also gotten much better since then as far as I know.  Race and class get so mixed up in our heads, and adopting any child at 8 or 9 years from abusive foster care in a deeply impoverished environment will be hard for a middle class family.   The issues of interracial adoption need to be seen separately, which have more to do with claiming identity and finding good supportive mixed-race communities and role models.

I am developing a multi-media project called The “Normal” Adoption Project, where we hope to inspire people all over who’ve been touched by adoption to tell their stories, thereby building a mosaic of what adoption means to us.  Creating mentor relationships between older families who adopted a long time ago and younger families just beginning the process would be a wonderful part of the “Normal” Adoption Project and could be a great help to both sides.  We welcome people to become involved by writing us at info@normaladoptionproject.com or visiting the website at www.normaladoptionproject.com

What’s next for the documentary? Where can people view the film? 

Brown Bread will be distributed in North America by Kino Lorber.  We will make the film available for community screenings for organizations such as churches, adoption networks, schools and colleges. DVD and streaming will also follow.

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To follow Sarah’s documentary and see upcoming screening dates, visit http://www.facebook.com/brownbreadthefilm

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