A Strange Club

I finished reading Before and After yesterday. I don’t think Lisa Wingate expected to open this door when she wrote her bestselling fictional novel based upon the horrors of Georgia Tann’s methods of operating an adoption agency – separating children from their original families purely for profit.

However, as she embarked on book tours across the country, the sheer number of real lives impacted by Georgia Tann made themselves evident.  I believe the reunion in Memphis that the new book is based upon was an effort on Wingate’s part to repay the living victims, many of whom are descendants of those directly impacted, for a good story that made her even more successful than she was before (she had written quite a few books before this phenomenal story).

In the Afterward chapter of Before and After, a story about Georgia Tann adoptees and their remarkable reunion in Memphis –

“We need to be given peace and

freed of the misery that comes

from not knowing,

and allowed to live with the truth

before we pass from this world.”

~ Letter from a TCHS adoptee

to her unknown birth family

The reunion proved that people are interested in hearing what the adoptees and their descendants have to say, that strangers care about this long-ago miscarriage of justice.

Countless families have a connection to the horror of Tann and those movers and shakers of Memphis who let her operate until 1950. This is a story that doesn’t have an ending. It never will. For thousands of families, tens of thousands of lives, it will always be a part of their history.

There’s fear of the unknown. My adoptee father had that and he wasn’t a Tann baby.  The Salvation Army separated him from his unwed, poverty stricken mother.

Many, if not most, adoptees hunger for their personal information – their medical history in particular.

Being a Tann victim is like being a member of a strange club. Those who’s lives are somehow a part of the the Tennessee Children’s Home Society story.  There is a shared experience with all of those who’s lives have been impacted by this.

For many of us (myself included) there is a feeling of kinship when we find our long ago “lost” family members. Not all reunions go happy but mine have.

What I took away from reading this book is that there is a universal aspect to the experience of most adoptees. Though the Georgia Tann/TCHS story was a particularly bad scandal, the effects on the Tann adoptees is so very similar to the wounds and trauma that every adoptee experiences (even the ones who aren’t aware it is there – that is my own opinion about it but from exposure to a diversity of adoptees, I don’t believe I’m far wrong).

Before We Were Yours (the fictional account) is a fast and engaging read.  Before and After is a bit more tedious but the real story of real impacts on real people.  I recommend both books.

Before and After

I’ve only just started reading the nonfiction sequel – Before and After – to Lisa Wingate’s bestselling fictional novel Before We Were Yours.  Sadly, the true life stories of Georgia Tann’s victims are all too familiar to me and her methods clear in my family’s own circumstances.  I may have more to say about the book when I finish reading it.

There actually was an adoption ring in Memphis in the decades from 1930 to 1950.  The movers and shakers in Memphis were all to happy to make Georgia Tann the scapegoat and bury the evidence along with her – when she conveniently died of the complications of cancer.  It was an opportune moment, just before criminal charges were going to be filed against her.  And those charges would have only been profiting illegally from the placements and not the worst accusations against Tann.

Her legacy of wrongs emerged as her story came back to light in the early 1990s and eventually caused a law to open the sealed adoption records for the victims by the state of Tennessee.  I have that law to thank for my mom’s adoption file.  Sealed records remain a hindrance for adoptees in many states even today.  I know, I’ve hit locked doors in California, Virginia and Arizona.

Thanks to Lisa Wingate’s fabulously popular telling of the Georgia Tann scandal in a compelling story, the whole story is being added to and told yet again.  This brings some justice to the victims and their descendants.  I am one of an unfortunate community of such persons.  There are thousands of us.

In our family’s story – the adoption ring was composed of Georgia Robinson (the superintendent at Porter-Leath Orphanage who conveniently retired early just before the scandal report was released), Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley (who was forced to retire because of it) and of course, the Baby Thief herself, Georgia Tann.  Miss Robinson seems to have escaped the scandal with her “good name” intact but it was she who betrayed my original grandmother.  Porter-Leath took my mom in for TEMPORARY CARE.  Miss Robinson alerted Georgia Tann to the presence of a “highly marketable” blond baby girl less than a year old.

Judge Camille Kelley was involved in my original grandmother’s life when she first returned to Memphis, after having given birth to my mom in Virginia.  Since my grandmother’s widowed father and siblings still lived in rural Tennessee east of Memphis, I can only assume her father sent her away to have my mom after her husband seemed to desert them.  I will never have the answer to the questions that weigh heavily on my heart about why that seemingly good man – my original grandfather – did that.  Later, when my adoptive grandmother was on her way to collect her prize, Judge Kelley threatened my original grandfather with a subpoena if he didn’t sign the surrender papers.

There is no doubt in my mind that Georgia Tann exploited my desperate grandmother with a no win demand – surrender or be declared unfit (her only deficiency being a financial one).  It is also clear that 4 days after signing the surrender papers, my grandmother tried to recover my mom – but Georgia Tann had a paying customer and no way was she going to let my mom go out of her control.