#FairytaleTuesday: Dreams of the Ghost Kingdom

This week we’re doing something a little different. In past posts, I’ve talked about the nature of fairytales, how they came to be, and the many different interpretations one can find in them. But what about the fairytales we create within our own lives? Because we do do that, quite often, especially those of us who have always been a little different and felt like we didn’t belong. Escaping into a fantasy of a life that should have/would have/could have been helped us to deal with the realities of life, if just for awhile.

For adoptees, however, dreams of should have/would have/could have been are a different matter. In many cases, they lack even the most basic idea of where they came from. There are many reasons for this dearth of information but in the end, adoptees are left with questions that may never be answered, and so their imaginations must fill in the gaps.

In Spring of 2022 , Shannon Quist, an author and adoptee, wrote her Master’s thesis on these gaps in knowledge and the methods that some adoptees have turned to in order to better understand their lives and their stories, including the use of possible worlds theory against backdrops of autofictional narratives. As you read the following guest post, I ask that you try to look at it through the eyes of someone who didn’t know her story and how her journey–and that of other adoptees–has been one of tales and truth and the ways in which she has sought to find the balance between and write her own story.– Elizabeth

“Ghost Kingdoms,” Theo Underhill, 2022

This is the chapter where I learn to explain the context of my entire life. Writing that feels dramatic, but it’s true. For the past several years, I’ve been studying the intersection of my own adoptee status and the ways that the study of literature, rhetoric, and narrative can help me contextualize both the reality of my life and the absurdity of it. 

I’m Shannon, I was adopted as an infant, and for the last several years, I’ve (finally) been dealing with my adoption in every way imaginable: emotionally, academically, legally, and even fictionally. Yes, fictionally. Adoption and reality and fiction are all tangled up in an existential mess of metaphors and literal pain which gets pretty interesting when you consider Betty Jean Lifton’s theory of Ghost Kingdoms. 

If you’ve seen NBC’s popular show, This Is Us, you may remember Randall’s explanation of what a Ghost Kingdom is when he explains it to his brother in season 5. And for the general public, it’s a decent definition, but for adoptees and adoption scholars, there’s more to it. 

In Lifton’s 1994 book, Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness, she explained that the Ghost Kingdom is a “psychic reality” where what-if projections of lost or wished-for persons (often conceptualized as ghosts) reside. This internal realm often includes characters who may or may not exist in real life, but are represented in a fictionalized manner so that the adoptee might have a private space in which to fantasize about the possibilities of a life not lived. For example, an adopted person may have an imaginary version of their biological mother in their Ghost Kingdom when in reality, they have been separated from their biological family and often may live in an environment where the biological family is treated “as if” dead. The fantasies and the ghosts that haunt adoptees during periods of unknowing hold the potential to turn into actual people later on (like, for instance, if the adoptive parents are suddenly able to reproduce or if biological relatives are found via reunion); but the opposite can also be true, that these ghosts may never manifest in reality. The more secrecy there is in an adoption, the more likely an adoptee is to retreat into such a mental space to ponder the big what-if questions surrounding their existence.

But writing an academic thesis can’t and shouldn’t be the whole healing journey. That’s why I want to take a moment to explain my own Ghost Kingdom.

My defenses are always up, let’s start with that. Any what-if thought experiments I ever had as a child are lost. That’s how repressed many of my memories are still. My dreams are probably the most truthful representation of any kind of Ghost Kingdom I’ve allowed myself over the years. There has always been some fantasy world in my head, but knowing I couldn’t safely examine it in a home where I was supposed to be grateful and good, I shoved it down. It’s only now bubbling back up. Once, when I was old enough to drive, I had a vivid dream of my birth mother calling out to me to come with her. In my sleep, I drove my car across town just to meet her. The call to follow her was so strong that for the first and only time, my body, along with my heart, followed the call. I woke up in the parking lot and sobbed. 

Although Lifton’s theory emphasizes the importance of “crossing over” by seeking out reunion, my particular case isn’t so easy. I know I’m not the only one. For a long time, I was scared, I thought it was selfish of me to want to reach out, I didn’t think I needed it. I thought I could build myself all on my own, and for the most part, I have. And yet, it continually gnawed at me. 

Finally, last summer, I reconnected with my biological aunt, the only family member my birthmother still has. My aunt is a warm and thoughtful person, and like me, is the black sheep of her family. It’s not a typical reunion, but I wouldn’t trade our phone calls for the world. 

“I had a dream about her this week, too,” she said to me one night. Every time I talk with my aunt on the phone, we always breach the subject of her sister, my birthmother, somehow. And those conversations are dark: codependency, drug abuse, homelessness, and pimps abound. But honestly, there’s nothing better than finding out you have a magical aunt with a kind soul who sees the significance of dreams the exact same way you do. That week, we both had dreams worth discussing.

“In the dream, she is coming to visit, which is wonderful. Normally, that wouldn’t be such great news, but it’s different in the dream.” She paused so we could both chuckle at this. “I’m wearing this cute sweater dress I have and go to greet her at the door. But when I go to give her a hug, I can’t lift my arms. My sweater dress is holding them down so that I can’t move.” 

“What do you think this one means?” I asked.

“This one is pretty straight forward. With her, my hands are tied.” She sighed. 

Our dreams have similar content, but they couldn’t be more opposite. In her life, she does all the paperwork when my mother wants to move between nursing home facilities which is often. Like a past version of me, she’s a flight risk, but she can never seem to escape what really haunts her. My aunt is the last family member she has. But in my life, she is some distant dream not yet fully realized, both my mother and a stranger. I know of her and about her, but there is nothing in reality that ties us together, nothing except for the little notes she sent me through the adoption agency when I was a minor and the occasional ephemeral dream that wanders through my subconscious. 

In my dream, my aunt and I are walking on a sidewalk on our way to see my mother. I’m worrying aloud about what might happen, how she might react to my appearance. Then we come to a corner, and there at the stoplight hanging out of the window of a limo is my mother. She’s a younger, brighter version of herself and smiling big. “Meet ya there!” She says to us, waving, and we wave her on. Then, after she’s down the street, I look at my aunt who says to me, “It’s not like that anymore. She’s excited to see you. She even cleaned her room.” When I woke up, the clash between my hopeful dream and bleak reality was the first thing I noticed. I hugged my pillow tight. 

It seems like I’ll forever be left in limbo in my Ghost Kingdom. The reality is, my birthmother is too far gone to tell me her story, to form a relationship with me. She has had a lifetime of pain and has spent so many years running from traumatic memories. And even if I know this and hear about it from her sister, there will always be a part of me that retreats to the safety of my fantasies about her. That’s all I have. 

In reality, she is placed in care (for now), but there is always the threat that staff may allow her to reunite with her husband who’s staying in housing for the chronically homeless a state away but sometimes comes to “break her out.” Either she’s placed somewhere or she’s out on the streets looking for drugs and money. That’s simply the reality. If she ends up being allowed to leave and return to him, it’s highly likely that she’ll disappear again which is really the most nerve wracking option, the true definition of Schrödinger’s cat where she’s simultaneously alive and dead. And to be honest, there’s not a lot we can do if she’s lost except hope that she’s okay.

Unlike many adoptees who talk about crossing over into the Ghost Kingdom to face the real humans the fantasies are based on, I have a more precarious situation. I can keep close tabs on her, write her letters when she gets settled in a new place, but I can’t put myself or my daughter in danger so it’s all at an arm’s distance. And my dreams fill in the gap of what I know I can’t have with what I wish I could have.

Shannon Quist is an adoptee, the author of Rose’s Locket, and a board member for Adoption Knowledge Affiliates. You can find more of her work (including her recent Master’s thesis) on her website at www.shannonquist.com

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