The recent release of The Jungle Book movie adaptation has given Rudyard Kipling’s much-loved story a new lease of life and lots of fresh pairs of eyes. The story follows Mowgli, an 11 year old boy forced to leave the family unit that raised him (a pack of wild wolves) to seek out a village of his own human kind. Though loved by children and adults alike, there’s important and difficult themes at work here – the issues of abandonment, belonging and self-discovery, which can all be similarly experienced in adoption.
We enter the story at a pivotal point: Mowgli, feeling confused and angry, ventures into the jungle under the watchful eye of Bagheera the black panther, who has mentored him from infancy. It’s not long before they become separated and for the first time Mowgli has to face the unfamiliar, dark and frightening world alone. An unknown jungle is full of danger and he encounters the allure of the deadly cobra Kaa, whose hypnotic attraction almost consumes the vulnerable boy. Thankfully, Mowgli is saved by the bear Baloo.
Baloo initially has his own agenda in rescuing the boy, namely using him to secure much-needed honey growing on the side a treacherous cliff that he can’t climb. Mowgli feeling obliged and indebted to the bear, reluctantly agrees to help and uses his ingenuity to create a complex system of ropes and pulleys that successfully harvests the cache of honey! Baloo quickly realises the young boy’s potential and encourages him to embrace his talents or “tricks” (his own internal resources) – something the wolf family constantly want him to let go of so that his place of belonging was reinforced with them.
The Jungle Book is primarily about self-discovery and the challenges that can arise on this path as identity emerges. One aspect which grabbed our attention is the integration of Mowgli’s dual histories – he effectively has to choose between two tribes in the crucial development of his identity, which is a very relatable and relevant experience for adopted children. All of us go through the natural process of developing our identities, however that process becomes far more complex for adoptees. The primal need to belong is deep-rooted in our psyche so, not surprisingly, choosing a tribe in which to belong presents enormous psychological challenges.
Adoptees know there’s another family out there that’s part of them, which can lead to an unconscious sense of waiting to be found. Adoptees experience a pull to remain fastened to adopted narratives with their rich social bonds but this is offset by the equal pull towards the biological roots which may have a more elusive but powerful narrative. Of course, inevitable confusion ensues from an internal struggle for belonging. This duality impacts not only on identity but also on the capacity to attach as the unconscious phantasy for the foundling child might be just that: forever waiting to be found.
Interestingly, you will actually notice similarities between the fictional story and the author’s own personal experience as Rudyard Kipling had to assimilate into a tribe of his own. Born in India to English parents, he enjoyed a life of privilege in Mumbai (then known as Bombay), but all was to change at age five when his mother – to whom he was especially close – returned him to England to secure a good education.
As if being severed from both biological mother and mother country wasn’t traumatic enough, he also endured severe mistreatment at the hands of his foster parents. After an incredibly testing five years, his mother relocated him to a new school in which he thrived, particularly developing his love of literature and journalism. At 16 he returned to India and spent the next decade immersing himself in Indian culture, remarkably achieving cultural integration by being accepted by both Indian and British cultures – no mean feat!
Mowgli learns, just as Kipling did, that the pathway from abandonment to integration is the acceptance of difference, identity and belonging in both tribes rather than forgoing one for the other and potentially acting out vengeful attacks. Adoption is confusing as it’s painful to belong and also be an outsider but ultimately finding a place within both tribes is integration!
If you would like to talk to us more about adoption, abandonment or any of the themes in this story, we’re here to listen and advise. Get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org