Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Blank Slate and a Vulnerable Adoption Story

Written by: on February 27, 2020

When she opened the door and opened her arms to me there was a strange complexity of emotion. I suddenly became the infant she never held, angry that she didn’t, but now wanted her to. The violent storm raging inside was unnoticeable on the outside as I walked calmly into her home. We stood in the living room staring at the setting. My husband has described it as an episode of The Twilight Zone. The house was spotless, the coloring and style of the furnishings were just like ours at home, the same curtains were hung in the kitchen, and identical prints were hanging on the wall. I was in the mirror image of my house in a person’s home I had never met. How could this be? She began talking and bringing out photo albums and family stories and I sat in shock. The final scene of this Twilight Zone episode hit its climax when she walked into the kitchen to prepare lunch and threw a dish towel over her shoulder exactly like I do when cooking commences. My husband squeezed my hand with such intensity it felt as if the blood flow stopped! We were both in complete awe. This is a strange woman in a strange house with eerily similar mannerisms and atmosphere. Some months later her husband, watching the two of us decorate a room, commented, “She’s more like you than the four girls you raised.”

Nature versus nurture? It is not a psychologist’s, humanist’s or behaviorist’s argument for me. It’s reality,  and it is not either/or, it is both/and. Nature and nurture have both clearly drawn the picture of my life. I remember how often I struggled in the home I grew up in feeling so different. I looked different, I felt different, I thought different. At five years of age I painted a water color of a blue stick girl with black bars in front of her and named it, “A Girl in Jail.” Sadly, no one questioned the content of the painting, they only celebrated when it won second prize at the Kern County Fair. After a complete mental breakdown at thirty-two years of age, I am most grateful for the gifted therapists who were able to help me piece it all together. They took me through the mosaic of nature and nurture that had made me who I am. The either/or idea was what caused the bifurcated self. Weaving it all together with Psalm 139 over a five-year period help me paint a new picture.

Today I’m reflective after the passing of my adopted mother Monday evening. This event brings this part of my story to a conclusion as my father passed away ten years ago.  There are many things that have become part of who I am from the community I was raised in, the religious beliefs and practices, the holidays and vacations, the values and mindset within my home. These all wrote on the slate of my life that already had genetic dispositions. Many family stories of my early life and behavior confirm the nature part of me and were only confirmed further the day I met my birth mom.

In reading works like Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker’s Blank Slate, I often find myself muttering the words under my breath that God spoke to Job out of the storm, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”[1] Scientific, philosophical and political arguments over matters that are true to human beings’ development should be written with care. In his review of Pinker’s work, Henry D. Schlinger calls his tone, “sensational and combative and certainly not modest.”[2] Schlinger focuses on how Pinker takes on behavioral psychologists such as John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner. He quotes Pinker’s treatment of Watson and Skinner calling it…

…the words of a polemicist. It is incongruous for Pinker to assert the objectivity of science and then associate Stalin, Mao, totalitarianism, and torture with an American psychologist who because of his contributions to improving the lives of so many, was given the International Award of the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation for Mental Retardation in 1971.” He goes on to argue that Pinker is “simply wrong” about many of those he argues are “blank slate advocates.” Finally, he states, “Pinker’s poor scholarship is indefensible…and probably represents a case where personal ambition has clouded objectivity.”[3]

Many reviewers of Pinker’s book complain about the worn out debate of nature versus nurture that Pinker seems to resurrect. While all of these argue their point, I continue to live mine. There is no debate for me. If nature were not true my first experience with my birth mom and the complexity of feeling so connected to a stranger would not have been so profound. Yet, stranger I was, and much of who I am is a result of being socialized into a family and community. This is my story and I am grateful for the nature part of my slate and the nurturing part of my slate…it certainly was not blank on May 17, 1961.

[1] Job 38:2 ESV

[2] Henry Schlinger, “Not So Fast, Mr. Pinker: A Behaviorist Looks at The Blank Slate . A Review of Steven Pinker’S The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Human Nature,” Behavior and Social Issues 12, no. 1 (2002): 75-79.

[3] Ibid.

About the Author

Tammy Dunahoo

Tammy is a lover of God, her husband, children and grandchildren. She is the V.P. of U.S. Operations/General Supervisor of The Foursquare Church.

8 responses to “Blank Slate and a Vulnerable Adoption Story”

  1. I appreciate your moving story Tammy. Just like what Pinker said, the debate over nature versus nature does affect lives.

    I haven’t read much of Watson and Skinner, whom Pinker criticizes according to Schlinger. Are Watson and Skinner blank slate advocates or not?

    • Tammy Dunahoo says:

      Thanks, Harry. Watson is considered the father of behaviorism. Skinner was a follower of Watson and developed the theory of operant conditioning. His intent was that behavior is determined by consequences. If the consequences are experienced it will curb the behavior from happening repeatedly. Any parent of a strong willed child can give a rebuttal to that claim!

      Though both of these lean heavily on behavioral focus, I didn’t read anything from them that denied human nature altogether, or blank slate beliefs. They just don’t give it equal bearing.

  2. Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Profound Tammy, especially this week. May prayers and only the best of thoughts embrace you and yours.

  3. Jenn Burnett says:

    Thank you Tammy for your beautiful and vulnerable perspective on this discussion. I also appreciate the critical points of view you shared. I questioned his characterization and classification of supposed ‘blank slate’ advocates. In particular I often found his language and tone disrespectful of differing opinions. Given your story, what might you say to other adopted children to help them understand their dual inheritance? How might we better minister to people who share this story? May God’s peace and comfort be yours this week.

    • Tammy Dunahoo says:

      Thanks, Jenn. It is a very important topic to me and I have talked with many in the adoption triangle (adoptee, adoptive parents, and birth parents). It is critical to understand that the questions and even confusion and acting out are normal. There is a really good book entitled “Primal Wound” that became by guidebook. Also, Journey of the Adopted Self was very helpful. One of the most important aspects of adoption is healthy, secure adoptive parents who recognize its not about them, its about the wound the child has that they can be instrumental in healing or making deeper.

  4. Mary Mims says:

    Tammy, I appreciate your story and how you experienced both nature and nurture. In my opinion, both nature and nurture are supported in the Bible.

    I want you to know my prayers are also with you on the passing of the mother. May God continue to comfort you in this difficult time. Love you!

  5. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Tammy – I don’t have great words for this but want to acknowledge the sacredness of this post. What you shared is as precious as you are – and I am deeply grateful to be able to read them. That girl behind bars…and that thirty-something year old self…and now a grieving daughter. Sacred and precious.

    Your response to me on my parenting pressures is life-giving and so is this. I agree it is both nature and nurture and for those that see and receive it, we also have the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That is very hopeful and I am encouraged.

  6. Thank you Tammy for your vulnerability in sharing your life experiences at such depth. May God comfort you and give you His peace at this time as you mourn your mother. I recently (2019) became an adoptive parent of two children and I appreciate your sharing your experience and giving counsel on the importance of properly nurturing adoptive children. I will look for the books you’ve recommended to learn more.

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