Oct/Nov 1998 Miscellany

All But Forgotten: Adoption in The Truman Show

Essay byJill R. Deans

Looking back on this year's summer blockbuster season, I recall the hope and hype dutifully rendered by Hollywood marketing agents last May. The annual promise of miracles and wonder, unleashed like the running of the bulls, always seems to result in a flurry of action and plenty of gore, but can leave moviegoers wondering what they are left with.

This year, it's hard not to remember The Truman Show, the phenomenon-that-didn't happen, that in its yearning to be clever and self-critical of the media, forecast its own doom. What happened in the film when Truman went off the air? Viewers changed the channel and went on with their lives as if nothing had happened. And so it was with the film—it was over, and we went on. No time to contemplate the fate of Truman loose in the world when an asteroid was headed our way, threatening the very same imperfect planet that Truman was about to discover.

Something about Truman lingers, however, and prompts me to wonder from time to time how he's doing. I admit I was moved from the start by this character, "the only child legally adopted by a corporation," having been adopted myself by a loving family that had the decency not to exploit me on television. I found the film's treatment of adoption and the sealed-records controversy both daring and precise. This angle was never mentioned in critical reviews, however, and is worth a closer look as the film moves toward video and its modest place in film history.

The premise of the film signals an overt critique the media's invasion into private lives: Truman grows up on camera, unaware that his life is a continuous broadcast and his hometown is an elaborate set. He awakens to this truth as he begins to question his identity, claim his origins and determine his future. Though allegorical in all kinds of ways, Truman's struggle for agency would be particularly familiar to adoptees whose lives can seem as relentlessly staged and public as the film's "show within a show."

As with many adoptees, Truman's initial malleability depends upon his illegitimacy, the fact that he was "abandoned" through unfortunate circumstances then "saved" in a happy twist of fate. His viewers accept the manipulative gestures of omnipotent director, Christos, who appears to be a responsible adoptive Father, glossing over all traces of Truman's gritty origins to remake his world perfect and secure. The adoptee's dream, right? But real-life director Peter Weir drops hints of moral ambiguity. Though Truman was born on camera, footage in the show depicts only a floating fetus, no laboring mother to suggest his profane beginnings.

At this point, the film's audience should distinguish themselves from the featured audience of the "show within the show." But we are moved by our own voyeuristic impulses and continue to watch them watching him, fascinated by the contradiction between reality as we know it and reality as it should be. Complicit now in the slip between reality and fiction, we—and the film as a whole—enter the contentious realm of adoption politics where battles are being waged daily over the identity of adult adoptees and their "right" to claim their origins and determine their own reality.

Traditional, sealed-record adoption works like "The Truman Show" to erase all traces of birthparents when an individual enters a new family in love and law. Though under attack for (at least) a quarter century, sealed-records have been doggedly defended by those who argue for the privacy of birth and adoptive parents. The Truman Show parodies what has become a gross manipulation of confidentiality in adoption. The privacy of the unsuspecting adoptee is violated twenty-four hours a day by a knowing public. For this reason, the film should satisfy adoption rights activists, who have been claiming this injustice for years.

While many adoptees struggle daily to access the truth about their origins, Truman (the "true man") romanticizes this search as a universal quest. After all, who couldn't relate to Truman's confrontation with his creator, his longing for a love that's out of bounds, his fear of the unknown and his desire to explore the world?

The Truman Show demonstrates deftly, however, that relating to the adoptee can be uncomfortable, implying that the audience has likewise been sold out from the start. Yes, the truth can sometimes hurt. So as a society, we support the identity quest of the adoptee—to a point. Opening sealed records, ultimately, would be like Truman stepping off the screen into an uncertain future. A carefully staged show would be over. Is this why we all forgot Truman after his meager run at the box office? Some critics poked at the obvious nature of the script, others prodded at the staging, but few, if any, considered the more subtle implications of Truman as an adoptee. Here, I believe, the film can make a lasting contribution to a debate over identity that will long-out-live a disappointing summer season at the movies.

The Truman Show (1998), dir. Peter Weir. Not yet on video.


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