What “The Queen’s Gambit” Gets Right About Adoption

Being a child prodigy is not all fun and games. Neither is being an adoptee.

**Spoiler alerts for those who have not seen the series**

After watching the Netflix drama mini-series, The Queen’s Gambit, I was struck by so much. The set design, the makeup and costumes, the characters, and of course, the chess. As a woman, I was in awe of the lead character, Beth Harmon, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. As much as I love chess, I was never trained to play as a child, partly because my family just didn’t play chess, but also, girls are far less likely to be introduced to the game, let alone encouraged to become great at it. To see a woman depicted not only as highly skilled, but dominating the male competition, is the kind of representation I am 100% here for.

Female empowerment is what most critics have focused on when they discuss the series, and of course, many chess players have weighed in on the accuracy of the games depicted. As Jennifer Shahade, two-time U.S. Chess Champion notes, she was not expecting complete accuracy and was more interested in the effect the show might have — namely, drawing more women and girls to chess, which so far, seems to be happening. However, as she notes, since Garry Kasparov and Bruce Pandolfini were asked to consult on the series, it turned out to be extremely realistic.

Another thing the series depicted accurately that I have yet to see discussed is adoption. Not because it portrayed adoption as a wonderful solution to a supposed social dilemma, nor because it celebrated adoptive families as unique and wonderful. Quite the contrary. The Queen’s Gambit showcased the complexity of adoption from the adoptee’s perspective, something rarely, if ever done in popular film. The timing could not have been more perfect either, as we are smack in the middle of National Adoption Awareness Month (NAAM), a month that has become dominated by adoptive parents sharing how amazing adoption has been for them, with hardly any voice given to the children adoption is supposed to benefit.

The Queen’s Gambit does not sugarcoat Beth’s experience as an adoptee. While it is easy to get swept up in her genius and fame — I found myself idealizing her so often in the show — even her prodigious chess-playing does not come without great cost. This is what so many adoptees want you to know about adoption. For all its supposed greatness and happy family-building, adoption is, fundamentally, a great loss.

When Beth is 8-years-old, her mom dies, leaving her orphaned. However, she is not technically orphaned, and we learn later that her father is alive, but has refused to take responsibility for her. It turns out many adoptees are merely “paper orphans” and adoption agencies often make it seem like they are truly without parents or extended family to care for them, when this is far from the case.

There is a scene where we see Beth’s father has remarried and had another child — her half sibling. This moment hit hard for me. I’ve spent a whole life separated from 6 siblings I never knew I had until recently. One of them died 8 years ago, so I will never get a chance to know him. Perhaps it was ‘for the best’ that I was not raised by my biological parents, but that does not make it right that I was never allowed to know my brothers and sisters, or that our children — first cousins — might never know each other if not for DNA testing and my own obsessiveness. Likewise, there are aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents that I lost in my adoption, and they lost me. I wondered, while watching this series, how many of those connections Beth had lost and if she’d ever re-establish them.

Beth is placed in an orphanage until she is adopted by a couple when she is roughly 13-years-old. It is during her stay in the orphanage where she discovers chess. The game is taught to her by a janitor, Mr. Scheibel, who is no slouch at the game himself. So when Beth beats him after only playing for a short while, he knows she is something special. For the rest of the series, he remains a constant source of behind-the-scenes support for her.

In the orphanage, Beth also befriends Jolene, an outspoken and independent girl who happens to be black. Jolene never gets adopted. Here’s another hard truth depicted accurately by the series: white children are more likely to get adopted than non-white, but in terms of adoption fees, white children are far more expensive. Jolene gets angry when Beth gets adopted and steals her favorite chess book. But she hangs onto it and eventually returns it to Beth at the end of the series.

Another important thing that happens to Beth while in the orphanage is she becomes addicted to the tranquilizers that the girls are given to help them sleep at night. The show dramatizes the effects of these pills, with Beth hallucinating chess pieces on the ceiling at night. She becomes addicted, not so much to the pills, but to the effects the pills have on her. They flood her mind with visions of strategic gameplay. Chess becomes her escape. The pills are a vehicle for that escape. This is an overwhelmingly common theme with adoptees. We are far more likely to suffer from addiction problems in life.

As researchers have noted, part of the strong correlation between adoption and addiction stems from the trauma adoptees face. Early maternal separation, for instance, disrupts the normal biological bonding process and sets an infant’s autonomic nervous system into a dysregulated and often permanent fight or flight state. In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth grows up for the first few years with her mom, so she is not plagued by the preverbal trauma infant adoptees undergo, but her life is depicted as traumatic all the same. Her mother attempts a murder-suicide, but Beth survives, and she revisits this memory throughout the series, seemingly trying to confront the harsh reality that the woman who should have protected her most in life tried to kill her.

While it’s not a perfect analogy, the sense of betrayal many adoptees feel regarding their biological family is strikingly similar to how Beth grapples with her mom’s role in her life. It doesn’t matter if giving us away was truly done in the hopes that we could live a better life. One of the pervasive themes you will hear if you sit down and listen to adoptees is that we inhabit this ambivalence with regards to the parent figures in our lives. We are told we are chosen, but we know we were not chosen by the people our infant selves desperately wanted. We are told we were loved so much by our biological parents that they gave us away to strangers. We are told our birth mother did the most selfless thing by relinquishing us, so we infer that choosing to parent your own child is selfish. We live these mixed messages our whole lives. No wonder so many adoptees have identity issues.

Beth’s character embodies so much of these ambivalent identities as she struggles to figure out who she is in a world where it never seems she fully belongs. She was not completely ‘at home’ with her biological mother, and her time in the orphanage is no different. Perhaps the most compelling depiction of her attempts to blend in while also forging her own identity is seen in her life with her adopted mother. The filmmakers did an exquisite job of portraying the entire relationship in this uncomfortably contrived manner. On the one hand, it is clear Beth loves her adoptive mother, but on the other, she does not relate to her at all. There are glimmers of genuine love from her adoptive mother as well, but there are also clear indicators of narcissism and exploitation of Beth’s gift for chess. Her adoptive mother capitalizes on Beth’s abilities and uses them to jet set around the world with Beth for tournaments, to drink fancy alcohol, and have affairs with mysterious men. Despite all of this, when her adoptive mother dies, the undeniable truth that this is yet another traumatic moment for Beth is made clear. She keeps her adoptive mother’s robe, and even sets it up on the bed, so when she returns from having lost several speed chess games against Benny Watts, she can fall into the robe and cry in its arms, like she would have done before her adoptive mother’s death. Beth even wears this robe on several occasions, seemingly trying to invoke her adoptive mother’s personality. Again, the symbolism of such moments in terms of the adoptee experience is remarkable. So many of us adoptees cloak ourselves in superficial identities because we are too scared to dig inside and find our own voices and speak our truths. We might get abandoned all over again if we do that.

Finally, the series does an excellent job of subtly depicting Beth’s adoption-related trauma at various moments, such as when she sneaks into the medical ward to steal the tranquilizers that have since been banned by the government, due to their deleterious effects on the children. This scene and the buildup to it perfectly captures what addiction counselor, Paul Sunderland, describes in his lecture on the effects of relinquishment.

Besides being prone to addictive behaviors, Sunderland argues that adoptees are expert adapters. Though they are overrepresented in cases of mental illness, personality disorders, and suicide attempts, adoptees are also more likely to be extremely intelligent. The rate of giftedness in adoptee populations exceeds that of the non-adopted population, and as Sunderland speculates, part of this likely has to do with our capacity to adapt so masterfully to basically any situation. We must fit in to survive, in other words. All throughout the show, we see Beth morphing and adapting, with chess being the only real constant. She uses her incredible intelligence not only to win at chess, but to carefully plot how to sustain and conceal her addictions. And although she is a mastermind, she is not immune to blundering, both on the chess board and in her personal life. Her deep feelings of sadness and emptiness cause her to seek ways to fill that void, until she finds herself bare and exposed. This occurs in the orphanage when we see her overdosing on the tranquilizers she has so skillfully managed to steal. It happens when she uses sex to feel something other than hollow. It is present in her alcoholism. Above all, it manifests in her addiction to chess, an obsession that is at once necessary for her to achieve the greatness at the game she does, but also detrimental to her wellbeing. In each of these moments where Beth’s mask slips and we see just how much trauma has impacted her life, we are transported back to her childhood. Throughout the series, although she physically grows, she remains the same scared and lonely little girl trying to steal pills to escape herself.

The culmination to the series involves a surprise visit from Jolene, who returns Beth’s chess book, and urges Beth to go to Russia to compete in the Moscow Invitational. At this point, Beth has hit rock bottom. She is on the precipice of succumbing to her alcohol and drug addictions. Jolene offers to pay for Beth’s trip to Moscow, but not because she wants anything from Beth. Jolene will not even accept the offer Beth gives to accompany her to the tournament. In this moment, Beth begins to realize that there are people who love her, and their love is not conditioned on anything. The full extent of this realization does not happen until the end when Beth is victorious against the reigning champion, Borgov. Beth has allowed herself to lean on her chess friends, calling them at night to discuss the games she has played and taking advice from them. Though they are her rivals in the game, they are her true friends in life.

One of the hardest things for adoptees to do is ask for help. Extreme independence is a common coping strategy developed in response to trauma, so it makes sense why Beth would be so resistant to help, as many adoptees are. Her recognition that she did in fact need others was life-saving for her, but also emotionally cathartic to watch. The apex of her self-actualization came when she ‘went home’ with Jolene to the orphanage. Mr. Scheibel, the janitor who introduced her to chess, dies just before the tournament in Moscow. Beth discovers, in the basement where they used to play, that Mr. Scheibel has saved every newspaper article and announcement of Beth’s victories. He has been following her all along and cheering her on every step of the way.

Besides the personal nature with which I related to the scene in the basement where Beth realizes the father figure she never really had was there all along in Mr. Scheibel, I think this moment also depicts what so many adoptees need so badly from the rest of the world. We want to be supported and believed in, just like everyone else. But we also want to be believed. We want to be believed when we say adoption harms us, even if it is true it has helped some of us. We want people to hear that message and not silence us or gaslight us just because we speak about adoption in its full complexity. Sure, plenty of adoptees are fine with their adoptions. Plenty of adoptees are happy and adjusted. But so many are not. Just this month, an adoptee I tangentially know from adoption circles on the internet took her life. This is a tragedy in adoption that is being willfully ignored by those who want to promote adoption as an ideal solution to a handful of social problems, when in reality, adoption creates just as many problems as it solves.

Beth was fortunate to find that love and support she so desperately needed to survive and thrive, but not all adoptees are so lucky. Beth’s story in The Queen’s Gambit can therefore be seen as a warning: don’t assume being adopted is all fun and games. It carries great harm with it for many adoptees. Choosing to ignore this fact is choosing to perpetuate this harm.

Constant collisions between the personal and political. Professor. Adoptee. Advocate. Activist. I write about dogs a lot. michelemerritt.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store