A Reunion That Came Almost Too Late

David Rosenberg and Margaret Katz

50 years after the unwed teenage mother gave birth in a maternity home and lost her son to adoption through the Louise Wise agency, mother and son finally were reunited not long before David died of thyroid cancer. She was a victim of the baby scoop era. Their story really isn’t all that remarkable to anyone who has been deeply researching all things adoption for any length of time.

However, thanks to a new book – American Baby: A Mother, A Child, And The Shadow History Of Adoption by journalist Gabrielle Glaser recently published, their story joins legions of others who have endured similar trajectories. And like many others, the revelations they were hoping for came by way of inexpensive, publicly available DNA testing. In this case, 23 and Me.

The journalist was working on an article about kidney transplants in 2007 when she met David Rosenberg. He admitted to her that that one reason he’d agreed to media coverage was his dream that “somewhere on the vast internet,” a young Jewish woman who’d given up a baby for adoption in 1961 would see his picture, “his black eyes, his thick, strong hands, cleft chin, and broad smile” — and recognize her son. Even so, it would be another 7 years before his dream came true.

There was a woman, Margaret Katz, who had a matching dream of finding the son she lost in 1961, when she was a 16 year old and rather than let her marry her high school sweetheart, her parents sent her away to a maternity home on Staten Island. These stories hit “close” to home for me personally. My mom was that 16 year old unwed mother. Her high school sweetheart was my dad. They have both passed away. I sincerely believe that if my dad’s humble adoptive parents had not intervened to encourage him to forgo his dreams of a college diploma (which he had only just embarked upon) and marry her, I would have been adopted similarly. In learning about the stories of both of my parents, both of whom were adopted, the surprising realization for me has been the miracle I was not given up, that my mom wasn’t sent away by her banker dad and socialite mother to have and give me up.

Many people have heard about the Georgia Tann scandal involving the Tennessee Children’s Home in Memphis Tennessee. She was involved in my mom’s adoption. Some people may have been aware that The Salvation Army was known for its own homes for unwed mothers. My dad was born at their Door of Hope in Ocean Beach, a suburb of San Diego, California. Some people are aware of the role that Catholic Charities has played in the adoption – for profit – industry. Some may have watched the old movie, Blossoms in the Dust, about Edna Gladney who also became renown for facilitating adoptions.

In the case of David and Margaret and the new book, it is the Louise Wise agency – which I have had less awareness of except – oh yes, there were the relatively recent revelations known as “Three Identical Strangers,” about triplets separated at birth as part of a nature vs nurture study. Louise Wise is notorious for the medical and psychological analyses, hare-brained experiments on newborns, that she is pilloried for today. In the meantime, having separated the baby from the mother (who wasn’t even allowed to hold him after his birth), these infants were kept in foster care for months, while the agency extracted money from hopeful adoptive parents, who had to pay to remain on waiting lists. 

Many adoption agencies lied, as I now know Georgia Tann did in the case of my mother. They would often obscure the race of a baby. (Since most white couples wanted white babies, biracial children often languished in foster care till adulthood.) They lied about how they came by a baby (if they had snatched the baby from a Native American reservation, for instance). They also embellished the biographies of the baby’s birth parents. And this is what happened in my own mother’s case – where her poverty stricken parents were presented as unfortunate college students who got caught by pregnancy for having sex before marriage (all of that untrue and they were married but separated).

In the case of this new book’s story, Louise Wise wrote that Margaret was a gifted scholar who wanted to continue her studies at a prestigious science school (untrue), and that George was a fair-skinned, freckled college student (he was swarthy and still in high school). Couples who couldn’t conceive were so desperate for a child that they didn’t ask questions.  Also true of my own mother’s financially comfortable parents when they adopted her, only to later discover what they were told and some of the information in the surrender papers was contradictory. By then she had been in their home for a couple of years and they were not going to give her up, though they lacked complete peace of mind about her pre-adoption circumstances.

I don’t know if I will actually read this new book. I’m certain it is a good one and it is easy to find rather detailed reviews simply by doing a Google search. I’ve just read so many and I have more or less moved on from that intensive research period I went through myself, as I learned my own parents pre-adoption stories.

Blossoms in the Dust

Not having a Netflix dvd available in our house last night, for the second time, I watched this dvd that my brother in law (an avid classic, old tyme, movie fanatic) suggested when I shared with him all I was learning about my family’s adoption stories.  Not long ago, I actually met online a woman who was adopted through Edna Gladney (not the woman herself but the organization that continues to this day).  My oldest son asked if the text that appears with a patriotic musical background has held up well since 1941 and I told him not really.

It is a feel good story and I did enjoy the historical scenes of life in a different time period which is usually what I enjoy most in any really old movie.   It tells the mostly true but fictionalized story of Edna Gladney, who helped orphaned children find homes and began a campaign to remove the word “illegitimate” from Texas birth certificates, despite the opposition of “good” citizens. The movie was well-received in it’s 1940s time period.

When the film premiered at Radio City Music Hall, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote “There is a shade too much of shining nobility in this film, too often tiny fingers tug deliberately on the heartstrings. And the dramatic continuity seems less spontaneous than contrived. The career of Mrs. Gladney is drawn out over a tedious stretch of time. But it is an affecting story and one which commands great respect … As pure inspirational drama with a pleasant flavor of romance, ‘Blossoms in the Dust’ should reach a great many hearts.” I find that an accurate assessment.

I am ready to GIVE away FREE my dvd copy of Blossoms in the Dust.  If you would like to receive this (given the flaws acknowledged above), you can email me at dhyemm@hughes.net.  Please put “Blossoms in the Dust” in the subject line.  I will respond as soon as I see your email.  I generally monitor it often.

 

Secrecy

Secrecy in adoption was always meant to protect the adoptive parents from the original parents after a child was taken in adoption.

These concepts were not true –

Actions once thought natural, such as attempts by adoptees to learn information about their birth families, came to be socially disfavored and considered abnormal.

They were the psychologically unhealthful product of unsuccessful adoptions that had failed to create perfect substitutes for natural families created by childbirth, and they indicated adoptees’ rejection of and ingratitude toward adoptive parents.

Secrecy was viewed as an essential feature of adoptions in which birth and adoptive parents did not know one another.

Here is how hiding an adoptee became the law of the land –

Edna Gladney who was an illegitimate child but later went into the adoption profession and Georgia Tann whose name became associated with a scandal of stealing and selling babies were the prime movers for concealing an adoptees identity by falsifying their birth certificates and allowing adoptive parents to change the name the child was born with.  Then, the original records were sealed.

In the 1990s, a renewed media attention on the Memphis Tennessee Children’s Home Society scandal resulted in activists finally breaking open the secrecy contained in Tann’s adoption files for those persons affected (including descendants).

There are still many states who continue to maintain sealed records.  In my own efforts to discover who my own original grandparents were, I bumped up against the solid walls in Arizona, California and Virginia.