Bastard from Detroit

The Coat Arms of the Foundling Hospital in London was created by the socially conscious artist William Hogarth, with the word “help” written boldly below an abandoned child. A foundling hospital served as the orphanage for mostly bastard children, given up by their mothers, who were scorned by the church and society for having a child out of marriage. The famous hospital, where G.F. Handel’s Messiah was revived as a masterpiece in May 1750, was one of the first organized public health efforts to help children brutally punished by awful conditions and left at the hospital because society had condemned them for being born “illegitimately.”

Why This Bastard Calls Himself a ‘Bastard’

The word “adoptee” carries a second and unspoken meaning, which adoption supporters, adoptive parents, and many adoptees wish to ignore. It provides a polite way of identifying a human as a bastard.

My book will frequently use the term “bastard.” It is a word that only a bastard can own and appropriate, robbing other users of its historic meaning to demean those conceived out of wedlock. As evidence shows, being conceived out of marriages can be harmful to individuals and groups defined by others as illegitimate. To ignore those outcomes is to ignore the power of the stigma of illegitimacy, which helped to fuel the institution of adoption into which millions of Americans were placed.

My life and very existence as an adoptee is a product of that societal shame. Therefore I reject how those who created and sustain the system would prefer to speak about the adoption experience. I will use the word throughout my memoir to subvert this common slur.

In the most literal sense, I was born a bastard and will be one until the day I die. As a bastard, I have always been keenly aware of the word’s literal and derogatory meanings. It is a word many find offensive and insulting, which is why it remains an insult of choice. My half-sister on my birth father’s side of the family, who I met in person once, physically cringed when I called myself by that term. The word’s etymology is packed with historic meaning and universal human prejudices. If you are to ask an American man what a likely curse he might use against a man he wants to demean, “fucking bastard” surely will be in the top 10 arsenal of verbal slings. Data miners have actually shown in a survey of curses posted on Facebook that “bastard” was among the 15 curse words used by both sexes in the United States. [1]

As a high school student in the St. Louis area, where racial tensions were fairly high for minority whites such as myself when I went to school, I was bombarded with racial epitaphs on an almost daily basis. The standard put-downs, such as, “fucking hunky” or “dumb-ass hunky,” were somewhat mild. I knew the stakes were higher when the phrase sounded like, “Yo, you goddamn fucking bastard!” The word “bastard” was usually the exclamation point. It was my cue the temperature was hot and it was time to exit that situation. Ironically, the tough guys talking trash did not know I really was a bastard. Had they, they would have relished the moment.

Origins of the Term ‘Bastard’

The word has medieval origins in Europe, starting in the 11th century, with written sources attributing it to northern France. The term bastardum, in some dictionaries, is linked to the medieval Latin word bastum, or packsaddle. This supposedly suggests a bastard was a child born in the saddle, or in French, fils de bast. Thus it likely evolved to indicate birth outside of a marriage bed, in transit.

In Europe, prior to the early 13th century, nobles and powerful men were able to inherit noble or royal title even if they were illegitimate. However, during the thirteenth century, the words “bastard” and “spurius” came to mean a child born to anything other than a legitimate marriage, as it was by the canon law of the Catholic Church. This also included children born to parents both of the highest rank and married to each other, if the pope denounced the marriage as illegal.[2]

The common Latin expression was filius nulius, meaning no one’s son. In addition to French and German, the term “bastard” has been common in the English language since before William Shakespeare’s day. In English society in particular, which used primogeniture that limited inheritance to just the eldest son under English law, the bastard was a product of sin, without title and property. He or she was cut off from family. Many writers in Shakespeare’s era referred to bastard using imagery of filth, disease, corruption, and plague, which continues well into the 21st century.[3]

Today the term is used widely in everyday English language around the world, usually derogatorily. The most popular television show on the planet in 2016, The Game of Thrones, has given the slur new life, with a cast of bastard characters who are as vile as any ever created for the small and big screen. The discourse from the show seeps daily into our daily social media lives on dozens of web sites and YouTube. And this is just one of many ways we keep the ancient stereotype alive and well.

Growing up, as someone always conscious of my status as adopted, I knew that I was different. I had parents, to whom I was not biologically related, but I also had a mother, almost certainly a single women, who gave me up in Detroit in the mid-1960s. I was the “bastard of Detroit.” Even though I carried this narrative in my head for as long as I could remember I never elaborated with friends what made me different. I was self-conscious mostly of how different I looked to both of my adoptive parents.

If you were to ask Americans if they harbored fear or prejudice against bastards, they likely would say no, of course not. But if you look at how our society actually treats bastards and illegitimate persons through laws restricting rights on adoptees—the group known to everyone as bastards—you will find clear examples of bias that likely is still rooted in these older, archetypal sentiments.

[1]Chris Kirk,  “The Most Popular Swear Words on Facebook” Slate Magazine, last modified September 11, 2013, accessed March 26, 2016, http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2013/09/11/top_swear_words_most_popular_curse_words_on_facebook.html.

[2]Sara McDougall, “How Do You Say ‘Bastard’ in Medieval Latin?,” Institute for Advanced Study, the Institute Letter, Spring 2015, accessed February 21, 2016, https://www.ias.edu/ideas/2015/mcdougall-latin.

[3]McDougall, How Do You Say “Bastard” in Medieval Latin?