The Scarlet Letter

Stigma. Judgment. Inferiority. Branding. Segregation. Fear.

When we read ‘The Scarlet Letter’ in high school my first thoughts centered around the explicit nature of the book. Why were we required to read this? This book full of controversy and sin. At the same time why were we required to keep the bible and the belief therein hush, hush. Was it not also a book full of controversy and sin?

All critical analysis of the hypocrisy in the public school system aside I am glad I read the book. I am glad they made me do it.

The human tendency to act upon fears fascinates me. One who ostracizes or even punishes another person due to perceived differences sees oneself as just and right. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ illustrated this fact of life in a concrete way for me for the first time in my life.

For those of you who haven’t read this little book I’ll tell you a bit. Hester gives birth to a daughter borne from an adulterous relationship. 17th century Bostonian practiced mandated that such woman wear a scarlet letter A sown to the chest of their garments. The book, by the great Nathaniel Hawthorne, looks at the struggles of assimilating to life lived under the scrutiny of public condemnation.

That awful A. That detestable A. That fearful A.

This evening as I prepared my children, all five of them, for tomorrow, the first day of the 2012 school year, I think of that A. The stigma and judgement associated with adoption here in Bolivia quite often turns my stomach, much like the feelings I had as I read that book so many years ago.

I feel like I am sending Kaitlynn to school with a proverbial big letter A stitched to her cute little school shirt.

Even this morning at church I had a little conversation that had me biting my tongue even though I wanted to shout.

[names have been changed]

Me: Hello Valerie

Valerie: Hello. I want you to meet my friend, Stephanie.

(Niceties between Stephanie and myself, including a kiss on the cheek)

Valerie: (gesturing to Tyler) And this is her youngest son.

(Stephanie smiles at him)

Valerie: (gesturing to Kaitlynn) And this is her daughter.

Stephanie: (odd look on her face) She looks very different from the others.

Valerie: It’s because… (pause. quick, nervous glance at me.) …she is (in a lower voice) …adopted.

(niceties exchanged as I make a quick exit.)

Why did it even have to be said? Why was an ‘explanation’ necessary? In seeing the ‘differences’ why did a comment have to be made?

Not the first time such an exchange has taken place, nor will it be the last. And with school starting I fear for my daughter. She is only four. People say stupid things all the time.

“Who are her real parents?” “Your kids have curly hair and yours is straight. Why?” “What’s it like being married to a… [searching for a politically correct term]“ To name a few.

Then I go into analytical overdrive. Who’s judging who? I am judging the judgmental ones! I am pegging them with a fretful A and acting upon my own fears.

Kaitlynn is good, and sweet, and kind, and cute, and pleasant, and obedient, and smart. Why do I worry? My others have lived through the curious looks and uncomfortable questions. Skin color, nationality, parent’s profession, morals, religious stance, and income bracket, just to name a few of the oddities singling out the Washington family. When the unthinking comments come we will deal with it.

I am so grateful that we chose to keep Kaitlynn’s full background story a secret. What good does it do to make all that drama public knowledge? When she can comprehend the details we will share them with her. Upon her approval and if we see it is prudent we will share all that took place to bring her to our arms. Until that happens people needn’t know anything beyond the fact that she is ours. Period.


How have you dealt with it when others have singled out you or your loved ones? It’s been said we should celebrate our differences. How can we do that in a respectful way? How can we show love to those we disagree with, our enemies?


  1. A good friend of mine has a son who is in jail. As a Christian woman she no longer feels welcomed at her church. Questions have been asked of her about what she did wrong. With the mistakes of her son, she has been marked a failure. (as a side note, her son is adopted.)

  2. Ronn HoutzNo Gravatar says:

    Well written, insightful, thoughtful and more importantly relevant, real and wise. I am so proud of you and your family.

  3. We don’t get any “adoption” comments since we haven’t adopted. My sister has, and we get some comments there and really only feel the need to explain at times in private when people wonder why a single girl in ministry has two kids – one who looks the spitting image of her and the other at least similar. No, she isn’t divorced, no she wasn’t sleeping around… they are adopted. I wish people would just assume that instead of going to odd places in their brains.

    We do at times deal with the inter-racial, cross-cultural marriage issue. Thankfully, it has settled down as both sides have gotten to know each other and as I produced the first three grandsons for my in-laws (which is a HUGE issue in their culture). But in the beginning, at a wedding, a aunt of my husband made the comment, “better to be married to a dog than a foriegner!” (It is the comical justice of God, I think that all her girls produced only girls, and a few years later my mother-in-law told her at the announcement of my third boy, “well, even dogs can produce sons when God is pleased with them”.)

    On my side, my extended family warmed up to the idea once they met my husband. For them, it was the fear of the unknown, and they reacted from that. It made the first years hard, but we survived. Our kids get almost no flak from others. Only once did a child in the school tell my oldest that his “other culture” was “Uncivilized”. I smiled and told him to go back the next day and tell him that that culture was civilized and developed thousands of years ago while his culture was still running around in tents and skins. Thankfully, we are in a school with supportive teachers who agreed with my son and turned the event into a learning experience to study that culture’s achievements “way back when”. Haven’t had a problem since then. It has helped my kids that one side of my family seems to believe only in inter-racial marriage, and a family reunion looks like a meeting of the United Nations! To them it is so normal.

    That saying, we did make a conscious decision not to live in one place when we first had our kids – to go to a different school, and not live in that part of that country since in that place our kids would have been subject to a large amount of racism and we did not want that. We have chosen to live where we know they will be ok, and they have been.

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