Betty Jean Lifton

Born 1926 – Died 2010 at age 84

I didn’t know of her until today. One of the many defining things that BJ was – she was adopted. And those of us who are adopted ones know that the world infantilizes us and constantly refers to us as ‘adopted children’ even when we are 30, 40, 50, 70 and so on.

BJ was “an adopted child” and it is fitting that she be referred to that way, because she kept a clear and present focus on children, on children’s issues, and on children’s literature. Though I have personally pretty much maxed out on my own adoption related reading, if you have not, she is a good author to look up and read.

BJ is described as being swan-like, quiet but magnetic, slowly turning her head left and right in regal greeting whenever she made her way to a podium at a speaking engagement related to adoption. There was an old-Hollywood glamour to this Staten Island-born, Cincinnati-bred, first-wave adoptee. Her birth name was Blanche. That somehow fit her with her clipped consonants and languid vowels, dramatic mien and throaty chuckle. She easily managed to come across as both mysterious (what did that smirk of hers signify ?) and searingly direct, when discussing the issue closest to her heart: openness meaning open records, openness about origins, open acknowledgement of the adoption experience’s impact on all members of the triad.

She had been adopted through Louise Wise Services. At the time, the only option for Jewish birth mothers and adoptive parents in New York City. She seven years old when she learned about her adoption. She was told her adoption was “a secret.” She described herself as a “good adoptee” — unrebellious, eager to please and to belong. She had an idea of “shadow selves.” Meaning the child the birth parents lost, the child the adoptive parents couldn’t have, and the person the adoptee might have been if raised elsewhere. I get this concept related to my adoptee parents.

Her adoption related books include – Journey of the Adopted Self and Lost and Found, as well as her 1975 memoir, Twice Born. BJ is described as a wise woman and an amazing and magical writer. She has been referred to as the Gloria Steinem of adoption. She saw things through a prism that included more than what most people saw, or wanted to see in the world of adoption. She was a pioneer.

BJ told many tales – like this one about the ‘possible self. To illustrate that, she would give an adoptee two dolls: one was who the adoptee would have been, if she had stayed on the course that she came into the world as – her birth self – and the other was who she actually became in real life. I think my own adoptee mother would have related well to that tale. BJ stated that ‘our possible selves’, as adopted ones, had a huge influence on our current selves and only by bringing them together would we be whole. As the child of two adoptees who now has two kinds of families – the ones my parents were born into and the ones that adoption gave us, I also understand and though it IS complicated, I have that sense of wholeness that I didn’t ever fully know I lacked before I found out during my roots journey.

BJ was a storyteller. Like the one called The Deep Sleep. In adoption circles, the fog may be a similar concept. This is that state that people go into when their original lives are taken from them and are made a secret. She also told stories of brave people who saved children and the brave children who asked questions and found the truth that saved the grownups.

BJ made an amazing difference in the lives of adopted people, birthparents, and adoptive parents as well as professionals in the field. She never wavered in her beliefs, and in her stand for human rights in adoption. She helped the individuals that she spoke with, testified with, did therapy with, worked with and played with. She helped the adoption reform movement and left her indelible mark is on everything that has evolved in adoption reform. She bequeathed us with a passion for the truth.

I credit a lot of my content today to two essays about Betty Jean Lifton – [1] “Goodbye, Betty Jean” by Sarah Saffian at the LINK> Adoptive Families website and [2] to an essay simply titled, LINK> Betty Jean Lifton, by Joyce Maguire Pavao at the Jewish Women’s Archive website.

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