Adoption stories typically focus on an idealized promise of adoption. If not about the glorification, benefits, and hardships of adopting a child—typically told through the eyes of adoptive parents—today’s dominant adoption narratives often stick to a theme of reunion, beginning with a cryptic past, a “journey” of longing and sacrifice that moves toward discovery, and a final narrative path that seeks to resolve an underlying mystery, typically a reveal at the end with a reunion between biological kin.
While Gabrielle Glaser, in her new book American Baby: A Mother, A Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption, treads loosely on familiar narrative paths, she does so with a keen and exquisite eye for the long unseen and buried details that run under and through all that we are taught about adoption and—for the many of us who have lived it—what it means when unquestioning narratives do not match our own complicated histories and experiences.
American Baby is a woven tale of two people: Margaret Katz, a young Jewish woman from New York who becomes pregnant in 1961, and her son Stephen, whom the adoption agency Louise Wise Services placed for adoption, despite heartbreaking attempts by Margaret and her boyfriend George (who later became her husband) to keep and raise him. Margaret is rebuffed at every chance to prove she and George can care for their child. While they plan for a future with him, the adoption agency does whatever it can to separate Stephen from her, permanently and for adoption. Ultimately, threatened with jail under New York’s wayward minors code if she did not give in, she signs the documents necessary to release her son for adoption, and Louise Wise Services subsequently places her son with a couple in Queens, though in a final needless lie told to Margaret, the agency said that he was going to a family whose father was a diplomat, not to a middle-class family whose father was a cantor at a local synagogue.
American Baby is also the story of Stephen, who after his adoption became David Rosenberg. To accomplish his transformation from illegitimate child to adopted person, his original birth certificate, which indicated that he was born to Margaret Erle (she later became Katz when she married George), is sealed and restricted from release by court order. In its place, the New York City Department of Health issues an amended record indicating that, instead of being born to Margaret, he is instead born to Ephraim and Esther Rosenberg, who lived in the Bronx and only ten blocks away from Margaret at the time. Born out-of-wedlock and legally deemed a bastard in many states, including New York, he is legitimated through adoption and raised as if he is no different than any other human.
An exploration of the sociological and economic machinery used to control Margaret and to transform white children like David is the powerful third narrative weaving its way through American Baby. It is what Glaser refers to in her title as the “shadow history” of adoption, a thread that lays bare what many participants in adoption have known, have experienced, and have lived with for decades: punitive secret practices, policies that exalt adoption over family preservation, and the powerful and controlling myths of what it means to be a “fit” mother as well as a “good” and ultimately grateful adoptee.
At its core, American Baby is a story of U.S. adoption in the second half of the twentieth-century when women—white single women in particular—were punished for being pregnant, and shamed and coerced into relinquishing their children to adoption, generally as a means to redeem their reputations and to resolve their transgressive nonconformity. One strategy of redemption, they were told, was to forget it all and move on. Severing yourself from your own child—and separating that child from you—was considered a win-win for everyone. You redeemed your reputation and your child gained more deserving parents, whom for whatever reason could not have biological children of their own.
Where the child fell into this sociological framework has largely been mysterious, generally because it is so secretive. Infants who are on a path to adoption first enter a liminal state: relinquished but not adopted, parentless but not considered orphans. This state could last for several days or, as was more common in the past, could last several months to a year. As Glaser recounts in American Baby, adoption agencies and adoption professionals moved into that liminal space and asserted control over the future of these children, generally guided by “best interest” standards that were supposed to keep the child’s welfare at the forefront of all considerations. In many cases, however, the adoption professionals, social workers, and judges (one of whom in American Baby was centrally involved in Louise Wise Services, the agency that placed David) used complete control over pre-adoptive children, taking advantage of that power and the secrecy to hide highly questionable if not unethical and illegal actions. American Baby sheds light on that liminal space and the people who controlled those within it, including the involvement of powerful and well-known figures in U.S. medicine, law, sociology, and anthropology.
Other works and stories have explored this period of American adoption, roughly the mid-1940s to the mid 1970s, which is generally known in the United States as the Baby Scoop Era. E. Wayne Carp’s book, Family Matters, sets out the history of making birth records secret in adoptions, which in most states even today prevents them from ever seeing their own records again. Similarly, Elizabeth Samuel’s legal scholarship has debunked the long-accepted but false notion that adoption agencies promised “anonymity” to birthmothers, when in fact they used such false promises to secure the relinquishment of desired children. That secrecy, however, continues to be used today to deny adoptees information about their own births, even when they are adults.
Rickie Solinger’s early work explored the racism that defined Black and white women and pregnancy, and, correspondingly, the impact of race in adoption. Her book, Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade, adds a critical framework (which Glaser readily acknowledges that American Baby cannot adequately cover) and how the design to feed the demand for birthmothers with “adoptable” babies did not extend to Black women or women of color. Rather, American Baby, and the term “Baby Scoop Era” as used in the United States, is largely about women like Margaret Katz: white, generally aspiring to the middle class, whose biggest transgression was failing to conform to the predominant post-war notion that the white nuclear family was all that mattered.
Adoptee and birthparent memoirs have also told more powerful and personal stories, if not doleful, profound, and occasionally humorous. Ann Fessler, an adopted person, produced a powerful set of oral histories in which women described how they were shamed into relinquishing their children during the Baby Scoop Era, all under the rubric that they were doing what society wanted and demanded of them: retaining the ability to marry so you can later produce children “more appropriately.” Numerous birthmothers have added their voices and memories, some compiling history and research along with their own stories in an effort to provide context into what compelled them to relinquish a child. And transracial and intercountry adoptees have brought important and necessary context to adoption, especially when the dominant fiction of “as if born to” is impossible to pull off.
While scholars bring needed gravity and expertise to the issue, their stories do not often speak to the details of those who have lived adoption, particularly adopted people and birthparents, the two participants in adoption who are compelled to concede the most. But memoirs by birthparents and adopted people are often dismissed as too personal or, frequently, as not adequately hewing to a dominant narrative that adoption is a “win-win” for everyone and a beautiful solution needing only the addition of love. Authors of memoirs that provide a truthful and critical eye on adoption and its practices may be dismissed as malcontents or, more likely, not widely read beyond readers who can understand the complexities of adoption without having a reactionary response. Some first-person accounts may even be wholly disbelieved, particularly if the narrative arc does not adhere to the unrealistic and rosy picture of adoption, whatever its emotional cost (the financial costs of adoption are a wholly different topic and one of the few negative impacts that adoptive parents face).
Glaser builds on these scholarly and narrative resources and weaves her own meticulous research into the story, but she moves a step further than many other narratives to include more startling revelations involving secret and federally-funded experimentation on children in the 1950s, 1960s, and even into the 1970s. This is the most chilling part of the book, where in excruciating detail she lays out experiments and “assessment” tools that are used to determine how best to “match” children with future adoptive parents, whether that match relates to intelligence, religion, race, skin color, or any number of factors social workers deemed appropriate.
One such experiment involved using a wooden gun to shoot rubber bands at infants to make them cry out in pain, with the stated purpose of determining the infant’s intelligence from his or her crying. The premise was that smarter babies cried longer and more forcefully and, as such, should go to more intelligent adoptive parents. If Dr. Samuel Karelitz and his associates—who received federal funding in part from the National Institute of Health for this and other studies—could predict intelligence in an infant, it would simplify how to ultimately match the child with a similarly “intelligent” family. To assess a cry, however, you had to induce the baby’s crying. As Glaser recounts in the book:
Image from “Relation of Crying Activity in Early Infancy to Speech and Intellectual Development at Age Three Years,” Samuel Karelitz, Vincent R. Fisichelli, Joan Costa, Ruth Karelitz and Laura Rosenfeld; Child Development, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Sep., 1964), pp. 769-777.
Researchers placed the infants on an examining table and commanded, ‘Down.’ Then they said, ‘Pick up foot,’ and ‘Touch,’ as they aimed the gun, which had stretched a fresh, seven-centimeter rubber band to three times its original size, at the center of the baby’s bare sole. Next they said, “One,’ shot the newborn’s foot and recorded the child’s cry. If the baby didn’t react, the researchers took a ten-second break before they repeated the procedure as many as seven times to produce at least a sustained 60 seconds of crying.
American Baby also explores the notorious triplet and twins studies, made famous by the recent documentary “Three Identical Strangers.” That study, also involving Louise Wise Services, remains secret to this day: its records sit dormant at Yale University, sealed and unavailable until 2065. And Glaser recounts how, in order to determine the “race” of a child and thus enforce racial divisions in adoption, noted anthropologist Harry Shapiro used his instinct “as well as the nineteenth-century principles of physiognomy, the practice of assessing a person’s personality and character from his or her features.” All of these experiments—and certainly others that have never been uncovered—-were made possible by the extreme secrecy that shrouded, and continues to shroud, the identities and details of adopted people’s early lives.
Our Secret Lives and Identities
I’m considered a lucky adoptee, not because where I was placed for adoption or how I ultimately meshed with my adoptive family, but because I have, over the course of twenty years, been able to punch through the punishing secrecy that surrounds my origins, ending up with all of my adoption agency and court records as well as my own unredacted original birth certificate that, for the first time for me at age 54, verified the identities of the two people responsible for connecting me to this earth. That twenty years, however, included two court petitions, a court of appeals case, and a five-year process at the end that effectively humiliated me by compelling me to provide permission slips from my adoptive parents, an affidavit from a biological aunt, and a question from a social worker that brought me to my knees:
Do you have any supporting documents that can verify that you had a relationship with your birth mother?
Most adopted people have not been lucky enough to secure their own documents, though luck in many cases is generally disguised as learned resilience. Other adopted people face the same humiliations as I did when they seek their own birth records, a resistance that not only comes from bureaucrats in control of our records but also comes from within their own families. How do you think that will make your adoptive parents feel? is a common question, interpreted, at least internally to many of us, that our curiosity is unnatural, strange, disappointing and, yes, shameful, despite a parallel multi-billion dollar genealogy industry that is built upon that identical curiosity: to know who your people are.
When adopted people as adults request their own original birth records they face discriminatory laws that divide them into deserving and undeserving piles. Born in Minnesota? Pay $1,000 to participate in a complex search-and-find operation that usually gets you a single-page document stating, “sorry, your mom has not given us permission to release your own record.” Adopted at any time in California or Iowa or Texas or nearly twenty other states? Good luck, unless you are near death and need a kidney from a biological relative to save you. Even then, a court may say that retaining one of your two kidneys may be good enough, as a court once stated that “one eye is good enough” to an adoptee I know who needed a corneal transplant.
David Rosenberg, Margaret’s son in American Baby, actually needed a kidney transplant, but New York’s draconian law at the time made it impossible to identify anyone related to him. Thus, the laws that created his relationship with one set of parents punished him for seeking information about his other set of parents, those who ultimately had the genetic keys to his immediate health. State secrecy laws gave him zero help at the time, though advocates have since won a major victory in New York in changing that law, and are working on other states. But most heartbreaking of all were Margaret Katz’s continued efforts to find out more information about David and to pass on essential information to Louise Wise. For that, she was cruelly treated, psychologically manipulated, and ultimately so worn down that she surrendered a second time years later and, out of pure self-preservation, worked to do what adoption had asked of her decades before: put it all behind her.
Secrecy, when embedded into the facts of a person’s own origins, is a divisive force. It works to to pit “deserving” adoptees against “undeserving” adoptees, birthparents and adoptive parents against their own children, and the government against the person whose very birth is certified and recorded in that government’s files. Adoption agencies, attorneys, and professionals often seek to mediate these issues, but in nearly every case of professional involvement they have placed their fingers heavily on the scale in favor of securing and increasing adoptions by assuring that the dominant narrative—controlled openness, a win-win solution for everyone, perpetual secrecy for already shamed birthparents—is the narrative that continues. That’s why, as Glaser recounts, people like Margaret Katz are ultimately worn down, humiliated, and demeaned, to the point that Louise Wise Services wouldn’t let her through the front office door to drop off a letter, ultimately threatening to call the police and arrest her for trespass.
American Baby is a compelling and rich story, and parts of it nearly brought me to tears, especially in Glaser’s retelling of David’s discovery of his birth name, recitating “Stephen Erle” to himself and somewhat mystically asking “what do we do now?” It is also a story of adoption that hews to history, told truthfully through the eyes of what it is like to live adoption and not what it is like to mythologize it. It is a compelling and heartbreaking story of how hundreds of thousands of (primarily) white women relinquished their children in the middle of the twentieth century, not as a true choice but as a compelled decision. And it is a story of the impact and reach of secrecy on adoptees throughout the United States, a punishing secrecy that continues to this day.
Adoption remains an unfinished if not perpetually broken promise. In return for relinquishing a child, birthparents are assured that it is the best thing they could do for themselves, the child, and the world around them. That they will move on largely unaffected in their lives. That promise, even in today’s more “open” adoptions, is almost always oversold, if not immediately broken. To suggest that a woman will forget that she gave birth to a child is absurd. Recognizing the absurdity of that today, the marketing of adoption to birthparents has moved away from punishing secrecy and instead relies on the mythology of being brave and heroic by surrendering a child for a different life. Yet in all but a few states secrecy over a person’s own identity remains a core component, and the financial inequities between birthparents and adoptive parents have never failed to be at the center of the adoptive transaction, particularly those involving infants.
For the adopted person, the unfinished promise sticks to a lie that you are “as if born” to your new adoptive parents. All history and documentation of your birth is erased and packed away, sealed under penalty of law and made unavailable to you and to millions of other adopted people, no matter their ages. You are reborn to new parents and are expected to set aside the curiosity about your past, lest you disappoint your parents and the world around you, who—through the ongoing secrecy surrounding your birth—question why you even need to know. David struggled with this in American Baby, and it was telling that he did not actively seek to know who he was until after his adoptive parents had passed away. That too is typical of many adopted people.
American Baby weaves truth into the adoptions that predominated the second half of the twentieth century, a time of locked down records, secret transactions, and scandals every few years involving baby brokers, secret experiments, and the trafficking of children. That adoption is still mired in corruption today is not news to many of us, but it may have shifted instead to a different market. Just this month the Netherlands halted all intercountry adoptions into the country, citing continuing abuses in all countries, not just the five countries it specifically studied. The commission investigating the issue concluded in part that:
Regardless of the different contexts, it has been shown that abuses related to intercountry adoption continue to occur to this day, all over the world. The most important factors that maintain this situation are the demand for children and the international adoption market, which is driven by financial incentives and where socioeconomic inequality, poverty[,] and the act of transforming children into commodities come together.