Is It Really ?

One hears this a lot from people who want to adopt a baby – “I applaud you for your courageous choice to give your daughter a chance at a better future. There are so many women with infertility issues like myself who would love to adopt a child. Please keep me in your thoughts if you know of other women in your situation. I have a lot of love to give.”

One cannot really say if being adopted gives anyone a “better life”. Both of my parents were adopted. They both would have grown up with some degree of poverty had they remained with their original mothers. And the truth of the matter is, my dad still grew up with some degree of poverty. In fact, he actually experienced food insecurity and hunger as a child. We always had more food on our table at dinner than we could eat. My mom told me that was the reason why. And my dad was so obese as an adult, he relished his nickname Fat Pat.

I do appreciate his adoptive parents. My granny was hugely influential in my life. We often spent days and weekends with her. A word from her that was very serious about some issue had the power to change the direction I was traveling in. Having learned my parents more or less full background stories, I believe had it not been for my granny, my teenage mother who conceived me out of wedlock, would have been sent away as so many girls in the 1950s through 1970s were, to have and give me up. I believe my dad’s adoptive parents insisted he do the right thing and quit college and go to work, after quickly marrying my mother so I would be born legitimate. And my nuclear family experienced hardships but we knew we were loved, even though our parents were strangely detached, having had their own familial bonds broken before the age of one year.

And how about my mother ? Her dad was the vice president at a large bank in downtown El Paso Texas. Her mother was a socialite and charity do-gooder. She was also influential in my own life for different reasons than my granny. She modeled for us good manners and good taste in home decor and clothing. However, my mom – while wanting for nothing of a financial basis – struggle with her adoptive mother. My grandmother was always thin and trim (she would starve herself if necessary, her mother and sister were quite rotund) and my mom’s body type was never going to be that – big boned Scottish farm girl stock that she was. My grandmother also dangled her wealth as a carrot and a stick over my mom.

My mom’s father was very poor and her mother’s family was also poor. My grandmother lost my mom when she gave birth while separated from her lawfully married husband during a massive flood on the Mississippi River. Unable to contact him for support or reconciliation, Georgia Tann along with her enablers the Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley and the Porter-Leath Orphanage supervisor Georgia Robinson (to whom my grandmother turned for temporary care while she tried to get on her feet financially without family support) exploited her financially precarious situation and coerced her into surrendering my mom for adoption. She tried to undo this 4 days after signing the papers but Tann was not letting my mom loose as her soon to be adoptive mother was already on her way from Nogales Arizona by train to Memphis Tennessee to collect her. My grandmother had previously adopted a son from Tann.

One cannot actually say my mom had a “better” life either. The truth about adoption is – the child has a DIFFERENT life from the one they would have had with their original parent(s). Better is a subjective concept that adoptive parents like to believe in order to justify taking a child, due to their own infertility, from another woman. It honestly is that simple.

Honoring My Grandmother

In 1916, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Lou Stark was born to James Coleman and Mabel Irene Stark on this date in Eads Tennessee.  It is my understanding that her father was a difficult man and quite old when he began to have children.  Lizzie was the oldest and her nieces and nephews called her Aunt Lou.

It seems that her siblings and my grandmother each escaped their family home as soon as they could.  One can surmise that my grandmother chose the possible opportunities of the big city, Memphis, to her west.  There she would meet an older man who had become both widowed and had lost one of his children not long before.  Most likely he was attached to a big WPA project building a hospital in Memphis.

So they married but his children and the mother to whom he was devoted and who supported him by caring for one or more of his children caused his heart to remain in Arkansas.  For reasons I will never be able to explain, he left her in Memphis four months pregnant.  Whether it was considered an end or a temporary separation can never be known.

What I do know is that my grandmother was sent away to Virginia to give birth to my mom.  Most likely, she was an embarrassment pregnant with no husband in sight in a very conservatively Christian community.  I suspect she was supposed to leave my mom in Virginia but she could not.

I cannot believe she brought my mom back to Memphis with any intention of giving her up for adoption.  Juvenile Court records do show that she reached out for my mom’s father over in Arkansas but he did not respond.  In his defense, there began a Super Flood on the Mississippi River the month my mom was born.  Refugees poured into Memphis from Arkansas who bore some of the worst destruction.  My grandfather was out shoring up levees.

My grandmother found the going difficult in Memphis.  The people who had been supportive of her previously were suffering from charity fatigue.  In desperation, my grandmother sought temporary care for my mom in an amazing citadel of an orphanage with a storied history.  The superintendent there betrayed her to Georgia Tann who was a master at separating children from their natural parents.

After being given a no win choice (surrender your child or be declared unfit – a threat with teeth in it because the Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley was good friends with Tann), my grandmother tried to get my mom back 4 days later.  But Tann had a paying customer on her way from Arizona by train to pick my mom up and no way would the baby thief give my mom up.

Such a sad story.  She never had another child . . .

Trauma and Stress

The possibility of trauma passing down through generations as genetic mutations affecting health had reason to re-enter my awareness last night.

My mom was an adoptee.  I know for a fact she suffered because of it.  She told me so.  She died believing she had been stolen.  While her made-up story based upon other stories that were sadly all too real under the reign of the notorious Georgia Tann were not entirely accurate, I do believe deep in her soul “stolen” was not that far off.  She died believing it and now that I have her adoption file from the state of Tennessee, I know that her mother never intended to give her up and was trapped into an impossible situation.

She had left my mom at an orphanage in Memphis (Porter-Leath) for temporary care.  That was a decision point from which there was no return of the mother-child bonding for my mom and her mother.  My grandmother was allowed to see my mom one final time before she was ripped away and placed with strangers.  I have those black and white photos now.  The happiness upon seeing her mother again is evident in my mom’s body language.

The adoption file tells me she screamed all the way from Memphis to Nogales Arizona as my adoptive grandmother carried her home.  No wonder my mom felt stolen.  When they reached Arizona, she was drugged to calm her down.  Eventually, with no other choice, she adapted to her circumstances and coped.

Yet, the health impacts left her a medical basket case all her life and I believe her stress at conceiving me as an unwed high school student impacted my health.  And it may go on down the line to my daughter and granddaughter.  Medical science is discovering through research some truth to these theories on my part but they have a lot of work to do yet.

It does appear that genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger.  Some people are born with genetic vulnerabilities and circumstances can then cause those vulnerabilities to manifest as disease.  This is true for every adoptee, regardless of what the manifestations are or how minimally impacted that adoptee may appear.

Do-Gooders

Social workers have been the rank and file workers in the world of adoption, endowing them with authority and expertise was a prerequisite for the professionalization of adoption. Making sure that family-formation would be overseen by professionals was an important part of making adoption modern. Therapeutic perspectives on child placement and adoption grew out of a convergence between social work and science.

In the circumstances surrounding my mom’s surrender and adoption, there were three women who were part of the early profession of social work – whether by education to obtain a degree or simply by choice.

Georgia Tann, who headed the Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, was the central figure in our family’s adoption history. Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley was actively involved in a “social work” perspective as she practiced her legal work centered on juvenile delinquency, family stability and child removal. Georgia Robinson, was the superintendent of the Porter-Leath Orphanage, who agreed to take my mom in temporarily while my grandmother tried to get on her feet. She betrayed both my mom and my grandmother by alerting Georgia Tann, who had a customer waiting for precisely the kind of infant my mom was dating back to before she had even been born in Virginia.

I think of them as the original do-gooders and it is likely that they did some good. However power and money eventually corrupted all of them, resulting in an investigation that included pending criminal charges.

Georgia Tann died 3 days before those criminal charges were to be filed and all of the movers and shakers in Memphis were happy to forget all about it.

H L Mencken is quoted saying – “Whenever A annoys or injures B on the pretense of improving or saving X, A is a scoundrel.” There were scoundrels in Memphis from the 1930s through the 1950s.

Porter-Leath

I went looking for a photo of Georgia Robinson who was the superintendent at Porter-Leath orphanage at the time of my mother’s adoption.  My maternal grandmother walked right into a trap when she sought and was granted TEMPORARY care for my mom while she tried to get on a more solid financial footing – after my mom’s father failed to answer a letter from the Juvenile Court of Memphis about his obligations to them.

It is interesting that there is no photo readily available for this woman but the adoption file clearly indicates that she alerted Georgia Tann almost immediately to my mom’s presence there.  Miss Tann had a repeat customer who had been waiting almost a year for a baby sister to complement the little boy she had adopted a few years earlier.

In the investigation into Georgia Tann’s baby stealing and selling legacy, Miss Robinson appears not to have been directly implicated but it is no small wonder to me that just before the criminality was made public, she suddenly decided to “retire”.  She moved out to California and lived with her sister in good health for over a decade.

In the book, The Baby Thief, the author notes –

“Prominent among them was the superintendent of a Memphis
orphanage that housed over one hundred children. She informed
Georgia of the arrival of particularly attractive children with a
speed that convinced the Children’s Bureau social worker
that the superintendent was being bribed by Georgia. Another
social worker told me that the superintendent was dismissed
from her job in 1950 because of her relationship with Georgia.”

What I found in contemporary newspaper articles was, at the time, Georgia Robinson was lauded for her long years of work there at Porter-Leath and was generally respected.  Though the author doesn’t name the orphanage, I’m relatively certain the vague mention was actually the orphanage that Miss Tann sourced my mom from.

The Baby Thief

Frances Irene Moore age 6 mos

 I have started to re-read The Baby Thief by Barbara Bisantz Raymond.  I first read this in late March 2016, after returning home from beginning the task of closing out my deceased parents’ estate.  I had known since a young age that my mom’s adoption was sourced from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis but I knew nothing about the scandal that was Georgia Tann.  I would not have my mom’s adoption file until late October 2017.

At the time, it was hard reading because many of the stories were much worse than the outcome for my mother and her brother.  They were fortunate ones.  My grandparents loved them and were good to us as their grandchildren.

Look at my mom.  That is not an abused child.  She is healthy, almost fat with infancy’s chubbiness.  Well-fed it could be said.  Her mother had taken good care of her.  My grandmother was not unwed.  However, her husband left her 4 mos pregnant and did not respond when my grandmother reached out to him when my mom was not even yet 3 mos old.

For the life of me, I don’t understand.  He seems like a good man.  And yeah, I know he was poor and had other children he was struggling to support.  But what happened between them?  He didn’t even divorce her for 3 years and by then my mom was out of reach and her adoption had been finalized.

And my great-grandfather denied them shelter in the childhood family home.  It is said he resented her marriage.  I would guess what he resented was my grandfather leaving her 4 mos pregnant.

My desperate grandmother fell into the well-connected Georgia Tann’s trap when she sought temporary care for my mom at the storied Porter-Leath orphanage.  She was trying so hard to find a way to support the two of them on her own with few skills.  Tears form in my eyes just thinking about all of this.

Motherhood Impossible

The Porter Home – Leath Orphanage

My heart breaks for my young grandmother.  I’ve been delving back into the record of my mother’s adoption in the late 1930s that the state of Tennessee delivered to me in October of 2017.  I’m trying to remember how I felt as I first read through these pages now, as I attempt to craft the story of how I finally found out who all 4 of my original grandparents were, for a book I hope to someday publish.

While the adoption file brought a generous amount of detail into our story, it left me with a lot of questions I’ll never be able to answer.  What caused my grandfather leave my grandmother after they had actually married when she was 4 months pregnant ?  Why did she go from Memphis to McLean Virginia to give birth to my mother ?

It is clear she returned to Memphis with a very young infant of about 6 weeks in age and attempted to reach her husband, my mom’s father, via the Juvenile Court in Memphis that was under the direction of a somewhat controversial and yet highly respected Judge Camille Kelley.

It seemed no one much wanted to help my grandmother – not her baby’s father – nor her cousins who appear to have helped her initially but complained about spending $50 on the young mother and her baby’s needs.  Her own cousin told Georgia Tann that my grandmother lacked sufficient skills to financially support the two of them.

My grandmother turned to Porter-Leath, who started caring for children in 1850, for TEMPORARY CARE of her baby while she looked for employment and a means of making a life for the two of them.  It’s not clear when she left my mother in the orphanage, though within a month or two, the superintendent there alerted Georgia Tann to the cute blond white baby who she believed would soon be available for adoption.

Since Miss Tann had a paying customer that had been waiting for 6 months or longer for just such a baby, she went into high gear to pressure and exploit my grandmother’s circumstances and take the baby away from her.  An effort that she succeeded in as my mother was adopted at Memphis and transported by train far away to Nogales Arizona.  It appears my mom was inconsolable during that trip.

She had been placed in an orphanage for at least a couple of months.  Was briefly reunited with her mother to her obvious joy and then taken away by a complete stranger.  My adoptive grandmother noted in a followup letter to the agency that a doctor had my mom calmed down.  Phenobarbital, most likely.

Unidentified nurse holding
my mom at Porter-Leath