Book Review: Adoption: Uncharted Waters

Published Date Written by Erik L. Smith

Adoption: Uncharted Waters [1]describes the theory of Adopted Child Syndrome (ACS)  [2] and makes a case for it being a cause of, or major factor contributing to, serially killing and parricide [3]committed by adoptees. Uncharted Waters presents several case studies from the author's experience in his work as a consulting expert for criminal defendants.


The book's only problems are procedural. Uncharted Waters offers no operational definition of "adopted child" or of ACS. Instead, the reader must construct a definition from descriptions throughout the text. And while "adoption" has a definite legal meaning, Uncharted Waters offers no psychiatric definition for ACS. What does "adopted" really mean in the mind of an adoptee? Is a child in permanent foster care an adopted child under ACS theory? While the author has a healthy distrust of the DSM-IV, [4](a diagnostic manual of mental disorders) he could at least try to formulate a hypothetical DSM entry, or similar operational description, for the reader.


In any case, possible elements or identifiers of ACS seem to be abandonment at birth, fear of rejection in relationships or cumulative trauma of rejection, [5] feelings of being disfavored in regard to siblings, early lying, stealing, or pyromania, assuming false identities, drug abuse or suicide, and a thwarted quest to locate the birth mother. [6]The syndrome is often fed by a "compulsion to repeat." The serial killer, for example, has surrogate and symbolic victims for his one true target, his parents. [7] ACS is then exacerbated by a family climate of denial, secrecy, and lies regarding adoption issues. [8]Accordingly, prevention of ACS lies in having an atmosphere of openness in the adoptive family, which, by validating feelings of loss, prevent the harmful fantasizing, proneness to "self-splitting," unresolved grief, and resulting "fatal quest" of killing seen in the extreme cases of adoptees who murder. [9]


Uncharted Waters also defends against past and predictable criticisms of ACS theory too late in the book. [10]The author excellently rebuts those criticisms and concerns. But the reader's own concerns and critical questions remain unanswered until after the evidence closes at page 250. The power of the case studies is reduced, though they remain intriguing and fascinating in their own right.


Substantively, however, Uncharted Waters is well done and effective, considering that it is foundational. Before his execution, Ted Bundy reportedly opined that society should do more to try to figure out why people kill serially. I agree. Uncharted Waters is a major step both in that direction and in understanding the psychology of adoption. Whether ACS is misused by experts in the courts is an irrelevant--or at least subordinate--haggle. To discount Uncharted Waters simply upon personal disagreement about the theory is to shortchange a needed inquiry in society: whether and to what extent do adoption beliefs, policies, and characteristics cause or exacerbate harmful human behavior? Thus, neither Uncharted Waters nor ACS should be rejected simply because one disagrees with, or suspects the true breadth of, its application. The author was obviously limited in his choice of people to study and in the degree of interaction with those persons. That does not undercut ACS theory, but simply emphasizes the need for more controlled study. We still need answers to questions. Is there a qualitative difference between a serial killer or parricide and one who repeatedly enters destructive relationships? Are the criticisms of ACS theory arguments of misnomer or semantics, or representative of a fear of truly discovering what makes us tick, or tick wrongly? 


That is what fascinated me about Uncharted Waters: How did the rejection from my own mother when I was a child motivate my actions as an adult? Did it make a difference that my mother raised me in wedlock and loved me? Is there a crucial variable that keeps me from engaging in crimes of the law rather than in just crimes of the heart? 


Your fascination with, or view of, Uncharted Waters may be different. Put politics aside and read Uncharted Waters for what it is: an important, and perhaps unprecedented, inquiry into the causes of human behavior--in the adoption context. Adoption: Uncharted Waters is a must read for anyone interested in psychology. 

 Kirschner, David, Ph.D. Juneau Press. 2006. 322 pgs.  
As yet unrecognized by the DSM, a diagnostic manual of mental disorders.  
 Killing one's parents.  
See pg. 62.  
See pg. 307.  
See pg. 60.  
See pgs. 87-89. 
See pg. 303.  
See pgs. 303-307. 
Chap. 14, pgs. 251-268.