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.

Betrayal After Betrayal

Today’s story courtesy of the LINK> Huffington Post – My Dad Hid My Sister From Me For Decades. Then I Learned That Wasn’t Our Only Family Secret by Sarah Leibov. I share excerpts. You can read the whole story at the link.

Her dad had impregnated his girlfriend long before he met her mom and she was placed for adoption. The truth was revealed because the woman was coming to Chicago where the author lived and not only her mother (who had divorced her father 20 years ago) and her brother (who also knew about this secret sister) thought Sarah might want to meet her.

Her brother knew because he was going through their dad’s briefcase seven years ago and discovered letters from this woman and began corresponding with her. The mother discovered the secret when she asked who sent an email she saw on her son’s computer.

Sarah describes her reaction to the shock of learning about this sister. I only noticed that I was crying when people passing me on the street gave me sympathetic looks. I sat down on the curb, shaking. I was in shock, but another part of me was relieved. Intuitively, I’d always felt that my father was hiding something from me. Hearing the news validated the fear I’d buried inside for years. I was confused as to why he had kept this secret. My parents had divorced and married other partners when I was young, and I’d already had every kind of sibling imaginable ― my brother, a stepsister from my mother’s next marriage, and three half siblings from my father’s second marriage. Why would he keep quiet about this one? I didn’t know why my brother had never confronted my father, or shared the news with me. It was betrayal after betrayal.

She didn’t want to meet her father’s hidden daughter behind his back, or hide it from him, as he had from her. She called her brother and told him, “Call Dad now, and tell him what you know, or I will.” The next day, her father asked Sarah and her brother to meet him at a deli she’d never heard of. She thinks he thought she wouldn’t make a scene in an unfamiliar public setting, but admits, “I upset his plan. Tears flowed down my face as I ignored inquisitive looks from people trying to enjoy their matzo ball soup.”

Her father told them that when his girlfriend discovered that she was pregnant, she told him that she was moving to another state and planned to place the baby for adoption. Two decades later, the hidden sister gained access to her adoption papers and reached out to both her birth parents. Their father had then started corresponding with her and even met with her several times over the years.

Sarah writes about their first meeting – My fiancé and I met my new sister at a restaurant the following evening. My father was right ― she was lovely, kind and unassuming. I noticed that we both had inherited my father’s dark eyes and curly hair. She seemed a bit nervous and just as intent on making a good impression as I was. In her warm presence, all my envy disappeared.

And in the years since, we have bonded over our mutual interests in music and meditation, both on the phone and in person. I am very fond of her, but it’s so much more than that. I admire her political activism and ideals. She is a health care worker, and I’ve never heard her blame anyone for the difficulties she has endured. She lives with an easy, open acceptance that is challenging for me.

The hidden sister turned out not to be the only secret in their family. Turns out that her maternal grandfather had an affair during his marriage to her grandmother. Her mother and this half-sister (discovered thanks to Ancestry.com) were born only a few months apart, but on opposite sides of the country. When asked if her father had ever traveled to the East Coast, her mother explained that he was a traveling salesman. “We hear that a lot,” the geneticist told her mother.

Upon learning about this, Sarah was angry at her grandfather for deceiving her mother, similar to how she had been angry at her father for withholding a sister from her. It was frustrating that because the grandfather was deceased they couldn’t get answers from him. I know the feeling. I would love to know why my maternal grandfather appears to have abandoned my maternal grandmother and the baby that was my adoptee mother.

When she saw how overjoyed her mother was to have discovered a sister so late in her life, Sarah’s perspectives changed. It wasn’t their actions that were reprehensible, their decisions to hide what happened had caused pain.

She ends her essay with this – “Enough time has been stolen from me and now its my responsibility to recover what has been lost.” I understand. Building relationships with people who didn’t know you existed for over 60 years isn’t easy. I simply keep trying to stay connected with my “new” genetic family.

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The Fog

In adoptee centric communities, one quickly learns about “the fog”. This is the feel good narrative that adoption agencies and adoptive parents “feed” their adopted child. Many adoptees never come out of the fog. Most do not come out until maturity, maybe when they give birth to a biological child genetically related to them and begin searching the adoption related literature, a prominent one is The Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier. This is the preverbal, subconscious trauma experienced by a baby when they are taken from the mother who gestated them and then gave birth. It matters not a lot whether this separation occurs immediately after birth or months later. My parents were 6 mos and 8 mos old at the time they were separated from their mothers – so preverbal. The trauma is real and has ongoing effects.

So, I was attracted to an article in The Guardian titled Brain fog: how trauma, uncertainty and isolation have affected our minds and memory in the Health & wellbeing section by Moya Sarner. A feeling of brain fog has become more common as a result of the collective trauma of the COVID pandemic. It is described as a feeling of being unable to concentrate. There’s this sense of debilitation or of losing ordinary facility with everyday life.

It could be helpful for an adoptee to understand that this feeling isn’t unusual or weird. There isn’t something wrong with you. It’s a completely normal reaction to a seriously traumatic experience. This can affect you ability to problem-solve, your capacity to be creative in the face of life’s challenges. There can be a lot of different factors that taken together and interacting with each other, can cause these impairments, attentional deficits and other processing difficulties. Humans have effectively evolved to stop paying attention when nothing changes, but to pay particular attention when things do change.

For an adoptee, it is life changes such has giving birth that can begin the process of waking up from the fog. The adoptive parents dying, so freeing the adopted child from a need to remain loyal to the people who cared and nurtured them growing up that may kindle a need for their own personal truth. Who were the people that gave them life ? Are they still living ? What is the background story ? Are there other genetic relations ? What can they learn about their familial medical history ? What is their cultural identity ? Waking up to the reality of who the adopted person actually is.

Brain fog is a common experience but it’s very complex. It is the cognitive equivalent of feeling emotionally distressed; it’s almost the way the brain expresses sadness, beyond the emotion. One needs to think about the mind, the brain, the immune and the hormonal systems to understand the various mental and physical processes that might underlie this consequence of stress.  

When our mind appraises a situation as stressful, our brain immediately transmits the message to our immune and endocrine systems. These systems respond in exactly the same way they did in early humans – with what may feel like an irrational fear.  The heart beats faster so we can run away, inflammation is initiated by the immune system and the hormone cortisol is released. A dose of cortisol will lower a person’s attention, concentration and memory for their immediate environment. 

An experience of the fog is one of the most disturbing aspects of the unconscious. Recognizing the fog is our body and our brain telling us something, a signal – an alarm bell. We should stop and ask ourselves, why am I feeling this way ? What is the trigger ? What is the source ?  The idea is that we have a force inside us that is propelling us towards life. What has been hidden from us is now pushing us into a discovery. To make connections with our familial tribe and seek to expand the meaning of our very own life with the truth. 

The mental weight of our unknowns becomes harder to drag around. We have – at some moment in our lifetime – a will to know something about ourselves and our lives, even when that knowledge is profoundly painful. Paradoxically, there is also a powerful will not to know, a wish to defend against this awareness so that we can continue to live cosseted by lies. An adoptee might chose to live in the misty, murky fog rather than to face, to suffer, the painful truth and horror of their origin situation because the truth of the experience of how and why they were separated from their natural mother is too hard to bear.

We all experience grief, times in our lives where we feel like we can’t function at all. If you find yourself here, may it be mercifully temporary and may you recover from the shocks of reality and move forward, feeling a new wholeness in an expanded identity of yourself.