Thoughts on “Off and Running”

Off and Running, directed by Nicole Opper and broadcast last night on PBS, tells the story of an African-American teenager, Avery, who was adopted as a baby by a white lesbian couple, Travis and Tova. Avery’s brothers, Rafi (older) and Zay-Zay (younger), were also adopted. (Read the PBS synopsis in the post below.)

The film illustrates a theme familiar to transracial families, adoptive or not: the question of racial identity; that is, the child’s sense of belonging to a community. Avery struggled with this issue throughout the film, as do many transracial families.

 But it seems to me that the film’s more pressing and central theme–”Who am I?”– is unique to adoptive families. Not ”Who am I?” as a member of a community, but “Who am I?” as an individual. You can’t know who you are unless you know where you came from. It’s the question my children asked almost as soon as they could speak. “ Did I come out of your tummy? Why not? Whose tummy did I come from?” And then, as they got older: “Why did she give me up?” 

To me, those questions are at the core of every adoption story. And they seem to be at the core of Avery’s struggle in Off and Running. Her fascination with her birth name is a great example of this.  As she says aloud the name and uses it as her internet identity, she wants to know: “Who did I used to be, before I was Avery?”  The name is symbolic of a life she might have had, the person she might have been, had her life been different.

One lesson learned from the movie is that when seeking to make a connection with a child’s birth family, parents must be prepared for any outcome. And they must be willing and able to prepare their child for any outcome. After Avery contacts her birth mother, she hopes to establish a relationship with her birth family. She longs to have her questions about her heritage and history answered. She yearns to know her mother. 

That doesn’t happen. Her birth mother writes Avery one letter, and then, nothing. No further response, no invitation to visit. Avery’s birth mother has her own reasons for not responding to her daughter, and like every adult, she has a right to make her own decisions. But Avery is shattered. As her mom, Tova, says, Avery feels rejected by her birth mother all over again.

The episode made me wonder why the family hadn’t sought contact with Avery’s birth mother sooner. As an adoptive parent, I’ve been counseled to seek contact with family when my children are young, so that whatever the reality, it will seem more “normal” to them—simply the way it is. Her birth mother’s desire for no contact may have been easier for Avery to accept when she was younger. Avery’s adoptive parents seem to have left the timeline for contact to her. Was it fear that kept Travis and Tova from pushing for earlier contact–fear their roles as mothers would be threatened? In hindsight, might they have made a different decision?

 Another powerful part of the movie is when Avery’s older brother, Rafi, reads an essay he has written that is a list of questions he’d like to ask his birth mother. (Perhaps he read from his journal; the source wasn’t clear.) Maybe because I write myself, I was stunned by the essay’s intensity. Rafi reads phrases such as “my first days in detox in the ICU.” Each sentence is a punch. Rafi claims he is less interested than Avery in learning more about his birth family–he has one photo and some biographical information–but the intensity of his essay reveals his feelings run deep. The scene illustrates that even adoptees who don’t wish to search for birth family–and I have met many–harbor profound questions about where they came from. They may not “need” to know, but somewhere inside, in a place they may not acknowledge even to themselves, they wonder.

Off and Running ends with Avery earning a track scholarship to college and moving away from home. For now, she is not seeking contact with her birth family.

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