An Adoptee Lexicon


by Karen Pickell

Collection of micro essays by an adoptee presented as a glossary of adoption terminology connecting social history with contemporary politics.

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By Karen Pickell

Lyrical and informative, An Adoptee Lexicon is a glossary of adoption terminology from the viewpoint of an adult adoptee.

Contemplating religion, politics, science, and human rights, Karen Pickell, who was born and adopted in the late 1960s, intersperses personal commentary and snippets from her own experience with history and statistics pertaining to child development and the adoption industry. The collection of micro essays is presented as an organically ordered glossary, along with a robust list of sources and suggested reading as well as an alphabetical index, creating layers of association between words commonly used when discussing adoption.

Pickell draws connections between contemporary American political issues and the social climate that led to a tsunami of adoptions in the decades following World War II through the early 1970s–a period known as the Baby Scoop Era–and also touches on the complexity of transracial and international adoptions.

Throughout An Adoptee Lexicon, the focus remains firmly on adopted people–their perceptions, their needs, and their right to fully exist in exactly the way non-adopted people do.


“Part-memoir, part-lexicon, this artful inquisition of the terminology surrounding adoption took my breath away. Fierce and eloquent, Karen Pickell handles the delicate material of her own life with searing honesty and precision, while simultaneously calling out the grief, loss, and sense of abandonment that is the reality of adoption. I wish I could have had this beautiful book as my companion and guide as I fought to navigate the anguish and complexities of my own adopted life. An Adoptee Lexicon is a gift; a must-read for anyone touched by adoption, a triumph of love over loss, and a powerful and searing reminder of the redemptive power of truth.”

—Caitríona Palmer, author of An Affair with My Mother


“In An Adoptee Lexicon, Karen Pickell divines not only the terminology of adoption, but words so often taken for granted—sin, child, name, parent, home—in the formation of all our identities, cutting through clichés that impede self-actualization and empathy. That we might not know who we truly are—that we might be wandering ‘detached from the earth itself, from the world of living things,’ as Pickell hauntingly writes—is a truth this book embraces and with which it struggles, in which any reader, regardless of family history, can find kinship.

Whether unpacking the myriad forms of legal, medical, and sociopolitical literature on adoption and related issues or depicting moments of personal anguish and loss with visceral, necessary honesty, Pickell relates, through poetic narrative and stirring exposition, that wholeness is not some end-all, be-all goal but a process of truly seeing and loving our fragmented selves. In one of my favorite parables, told by the Sufi mystic Attar, a group of birds goes off seeking God and instead finds a mirror. An Adoptee Lexicon is a mirror like this. That we have the chance to hold it to our own faces—particularly as citizens inhabiting a moment in which we all, in our woundedness, are urgently needed—is a challenge and a blessing, expressed in the way its author comes from ‘blood and paperwork,’ the way she is ‘drawn to water, walks through trees,’ the way, though some tried to make it so, she did not disappear.”

—Christopher Martin, 2018 Georgia Author of the Year in Memoir for This Gladdening Light


“Poignant. Heart-wrenching. Authentic. Confrontational. Tragic. Personal.

An Adoptee Lexicon should be read by every adoptee who has ever felt alone. Though many adoptees try not to dwell on it, we also have the space inside of us Karen so aptly describes. Her work speaks to our often ambiguous reality: fit or misfit, embraced or denied, secret or light. We choose to channel our energy related to angst, hurt, and feelings of being misunderstood in a variety of ways. That Karen has chosen to channel hers into writing and self-expression is our fortune.

Some might call parts of what Karen has written an angry rant. Others will call it brilliant. An Adoptee Lexicon is soul baring, transparent, and risky—what many adoptive or birth parents won’t want to read, but should understand. A painful truth.”

—Betsie Norris, founder/executive director of Adoption Network Cleveland: The Ohio Family Connection and adoptee


“Adoptee perspectives are rare treasures in the adoption sector. Karen’s insights on common frequently used terms offer a vulnerable glimpse of how these terms impact those who they were intended to help. This text should be read by anyone who frequently utters any of these significant phrases.”

—Angela Tucker, founder of The Adopted Life LLC and director of post-adoption services at Amara


“Karen is a gifted writer. This may be her first book, but it certainly won’t be her last. She has used her extensive talent to provide the voice that is most overlooked in the adoption narrative, that of the adopted individual.

Successful marketing has created a false narrative of adoption. Brokers facilitating adoption don’t focus on the barbaric pain that lasts a lifetime. Instead, the billion-dollar adoption industry has institutionalized the term ‘proper adoption language,’ which frames adoption through the prism of eager parents. Karen eloquently reveals the impact of ‘proper adoption language’ on those who are at the center of adoption—adoptees. Using her phenomenal writing skill, she brings the reader to inhabit her being. Karen promulgates how the powerful adoption industry’s words have shaped adoption while ignoring the voice of the adoptee. A rather large omission in the narrative of adoption, wouldn’t you think?”

—Leslie Pate Mackinnon, LCSW, therapist, educator, activist, and Baby Scoop Era mother


“Karen offers an insightful and penetrating window into the adoptee experience through her selection and exposition of the charged language in adoption. Adoptees: read this and feel understood. Others: read this to understand the triggering language that permeates the adoption space.”

—Haley Radke, creator and host of the podcast Adoptees On

Additional information

Weight 6 oz
Dimensions 8.5 × 5.5 × 0.275 in