To see or not to see; that is the question when it comes to race in Matthew Pratt Guterl’s family. Guterl, a professor of Africana studies and American studies at Brown University, has written an alternately fascinating and infuriating memoir about growing up in a home of adopted children. Guterl himself was one of two biological offspring of Bob, a liberal Catholic lawyer in suburban New Jersey, and Sheryl, a teacher who shared Bob’s idealism and helped to make his dream of creating a kind of Noah’s ark—two of each race, Bob liked to joke—into a reality.
Guterl describes the family’s formation:
I am born in the summer of 1970, the white “first child” with blond hair and blue eyes. Bug—a nickname so old that it has no genesis that we can recall—is our first adoptive addition but not our last. Mark, another biological white son, is born in 1973. Two years later, we adopt Bear, a mixed-race, Black-Asian child brought out of Saigon. He is days older than me, and just barely five years old when he arrives…. Anna, our older adopted sister, arrives from Seoul in 1977 when she is thirteen, a beautiful Asian-and-white-child…. Our youngest sibling Eddie, adorable, Black and with a quick smile, is our last adoption, arriving at six years old in 1983 from the South Bronx.
We don’t know exactly how Bob and Sheryl decided on this course of family formation. At least part of it was their apparent belief in the problem of overpopulation. As his mother later told Guterl, “zero-population growth was a hot topic at the time and it made sense.”
As strange as it sounds, Guterl says this explanation “clicks audibly in my mind, drawing together so many aspects of our assemblage and our story.” He goes on: “I can see what they see: the link between recycling and adoption, and their love of a supposedly pure and unpopulated outdoor world they sincerely fear will vanish by the end of their lives. They want a large family, including biological children of their own. They take overpopulation seriously, and do not want to be wasteful. They also want to make a political statement about the coming decimation. International, multiracial adoption is the solution.”
Despite this mishmash of a political agenda, Bob and Sheryl seem like mostly loving and devoted parents. The kids have a kind of idyllic childhood, full of playing outdoors and family meals, wholesome vacations, church attendance, chores, and plenty of reading. As in any family, some children are more academic while others take to athletic pursuits. Some are more inclined to follow the rules; others opt for rebellion. The siblings seem genuinely to care for one another and were all devastated by the death of their father a few years ago.
Still, as a family they prove to be the object of more attention than they might like. Their home is located across the street from a local market, and Guterl describes how passersby are fascinated by their family. He prefers being at a lake house they rent in Vermont for a few summers to any of their other family vacations at campgrounds: “Those are always more public adventures, framed by the gawking stares of neighboring campers who always seemed fascinated—or focused—on our tonal variations. We always seem to be the ones integrating these spaces.”
It is not easy being a child in these situations. Guterl is sometimes the object of harassment because his siblings are black. He is mocked and chased. And he feels for his siblings in other ways, too. In a darkly humorous passage, he describes the action movies from the 1980s that he and his siblings would view in their living room, hoping that at least one black character would not die. Watching the “forgettable Missing in Action 2: The Beginning,” for instance, Guterl describes how Bear would say “he is gonna live” about one black character after another: “Bear’s prayer inspired us all. ‘He isn’t gonna die.’ ‘Not tonight he won’t.’ ‘High fives if he makes it through this scene.’” But inevitably he does not.
Guterl worries about the messages that were sent to his siblings by these movies, not to mention the movies they watched with the Vietnam War as the backdrop: “No family exists in total isolation. We are not the Swiss Family Robinson, though we surely read that story often… We cannot live above the world in a treehouse….. The world comes to us inexorably.”
The contradictory messages on race offered by Bob and Sheryl do not help. On the one hand, the family is supposed to be an example of how color doesn’t matter. On the other, they are supposed to be examples to the world of integration.
In some ways, the Guterls are ahead of their time. They ensure that Bear stays in touch with Peter, his biological sibling, after they both arrive in America and are placed with different families, both the children of different African-American servicemen who returned home, and both therefore doomed to exile from Vietnamese society. And Bob and Sheryl provide support to the boys’ mother, eventually facilitating her immigration to the United States.
Guterl believes that these bonds ultimately help Bear become more well-adjusted in a way that Eddie—who is cut off from his family of origin—does not. Whether this diagnosis is accurate is another story. Eddie’s story prior to arriving with Guterl’s family is a black box. They know that for his first five years he was bounced from relative to relative, that drugs were involved, and that no one wanted him. Guterl is quick to dismiss these factors as part of a misguided ideological narrative about crack babies in the 1980s. But what really happened to that tiny boy in those years could certainly have had deeply detrimental effects on his unfortunate trajectory—which would not have been mitigated either by staying with relatives or becoming a part of the most well-equipped adoptive family.
It is understandable that Guterl feels responsible for not being able to help his brother as he descended first into petty crimes, then drugs, violence, and ultimately attempted suicide. Guterl and his family do everything in their power, sending Eddie to a variety of private institutions to help him, paying his rent, helping him get jobs, and the like.
But Guterl’s look back on his childhood through the lens of current racial ideology makes his effort to evoke the pain of those years and experiences highly flawed. And you can tell where he’s going from the first few pages, in which he explains that their home had a picket fence: “A nearby lumberyard provides posts and pickets for a proper fence, the sort of decorative border that has been conventionally understood as an emblem of middle-class prosperity but that has its origins in the violence of colonialism. Two centuries earlier those pickets would have been sharpened pikes.”
When it comes to his parents, “their whiteness empowers them to act, authorizes them to do whatever they feel is urgent or necessary, no matter the cost,” Guterl says. “I see in their faces a forceful resolution they want to change the world. Whiteness gives them permission to dream that big.”
The diagnosis that structural racism is what doomed Eddie, however, feels a little cheap. For someone who grew up in a very complicated family, Guterl seems reluctant to recognize how the interplay of nature and nurture can produce a broad array of human emotions and outcomes. There are plenty of white children who grow up in difficult circumstances and find themselves caught in an endless cycle of violence and trouble with the law. Maybe Guterl’s family was naive to think they could save Eddie from this life, but surely his being black was not the only issue.
Guterl recounts how periodically, during his childhood and adulthood, people would feel free to use the N-word around him and say other racist things and how his brother Bear is beaten within an inch of his life in an unprovoked attack by two white people who follow him in a truck in North Carolina. These lead him to the conclusion that “the not-so-secret truth of white people, I have learned, is that most of us, deep inside, hate people of color. And it generally takes a couple of drinks—or maybe just one and the presumption of racial affiliation—to get our tongues loose.”
After reading Skinfolk, though, I can’t help but wonder whether he really thinks this or if this is what his academic colleagues have convinced him of. Toward the end of the book, he recounts how he was chastened by his older sister after his father died. Apparently, he was in the habit of jokingly correcting her English grammar. But Anna didn’t move to the United States until she was a teenager. She tells him, “That is racist, and I can’t take it anymore.” In the 1980s, when Guterl and I were growing up, one might have simply substituted the word “racist” for “rude” or “obnoxious.” And by the way, who goes around correcting an-other adult’s grammar, even if she is your sister?
In the current climate, it is evidently impossible not to see such slights through the lens of race. Guterl recalls “how innocently we engaged, as children, with one another, how carelessly we played with the toxic material of race.” Did Bob and Sheryl aspire to colorblindness? There is no doubt that they loved all their children and wanted only the best for them. But the strange experiment they conducted also placed their children in an untenable situation, making them constantly aware of their differences and the lessons they were supposed to offer to a gawking public. As Guterl says, no family exists in isolation, even a singular and unduplicable family like the one he exposes in Skinfolk.
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