I was surprised today to learn there may be a new “Georgia Tann” movie coming based upon the first book I ever read about her, The Baby Thief by Barbara Raymond. One of my favorite actresses, Octavia Spencer, has optioned it. I should not be surprised because it is a story that returns time and time again.
The story is personal to me. My mom was adopted from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, from the Memphis branch that Tann was in charge of for decades. The book is hair raising. I read it just one month after my dad died, only four months after my mom first died. All I could think of as I read so many horrendous and tragic stories was “thank god my mom and her brother ended up with the Dittmers”.
The truth is it was a comfortable placement. My grandfather was a banker, my grandmother a socialite. My mom disrupted their fondest hopes and dreams for her life when she conceived me out of wedlock while only a junior in high school. Thus my mom was never a debutante nor did she marry “well”. Instead we grew up the working class children of a oil refinery worker. Even so, we had good enough lives.
My grandmother was over the moon happy about both of her Georgia Tann babies, considering them to be geniuses and brilliant. As my mom grew up, tensions occurred. I understand, having spent some one-on-one time with my grandmother when she took me to Cambridge University in England with her for a summer session.
My grandmother was always very concerned about her body image. Her mom and sister were rotund Missouri farm gals. Not my grandmother, who artistically made herself into a remarkable woman. So my mom never felt she lived up to her adoptive mother’s expectations. Turns out biology gave us big bones and stocky frames from our Arkansas/Tennessee farm stock.
My mom died believing she had been stolen from her parents due to the stories she consumed about Georgia Tann and her methods and the odd circumstance of being born in Virginia but adopted as an infant in Memphis Tennessee.
Octavia Spencer with author, Barbara Raymond
After Good Housekeeping ran an article written by Raymond, she received many letters from people asking her if she could help them find their child who had been stolen. She decided to research and write a book about Tann. She placed ads in newspapers and received 900 replies.
Because of Tann’s ties to Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley and Memphis political Boss E H Crump, as well as other important people around town, she was able to falsify birth certificates as well as hide or destroy records. In my mom’s adoption file, I found clear evidence that Tann was certainly not above fudging some details. Tann’s efforts to hide her criminal activities were instrumental in the extensive use of sealed adoption records all over the United States. I have my mom’s records (which she was denied in the early 1990s) only because Tennessee decided to make them available to the victims.