Judging The Past By Present Values

Lily MacLeod and Gillian Shaw
~ photo by Carlos Osorio for the Toronto Star, 2012

As a Gemini, twins have always fascinated me. I have wondered if I once had a twin in utero who vanished. Having gone through assisted reproductive medical interventions, I know this happens. It happened with my older son when my pregnancy originally appeared to be twins. I really didn’t want the challenge but in my mom’s group we have several pairs of twins and one set of triplets. The father of the man I am married to was a twin. Both my father in law and his twin brother are now deceased.

The less than common occurrence of multiple births has my attention this morning after watching the documentary – Three Identical Strangers. The story tells how these men were separated at 6 mos and adopted out with strategic intent by the clinical psychiatrist, Peter Neubauer, through the cooperation of the Louise Wise adoption agency. Psychology Today did an article entitled The Truth About “Three Identical Strangers.” The article explains – Dr Viola Bernard was the chief psychiatric consultant to the Wise agency. In the late 1950s (before Dr Peter Neubauer was involved), Dr Bernard created a policy of separating identical twins when they were adopted. Dr Bernard’s intentions are described as benign. In a memo subsequently recovered, she expresses her hope that “early mothering would be less burdened and divided and the child’s developing individuality would be facilitated” by this separation. It wasn’t only the Wise agency but many other agencies that also practiced the separation of twins at the time of adoption.

The conclusion by Dr Lois Oppenheim in the Psychology Today article is – The basic premise of the film, that the triplets’ separation was a heartless scheme undertaken at the expense of the children’s well-being to enable a scientific study, is fiction. The filmmakers could have created a documentary about the complexities of the twin study, its origins and context, and the changing standards of ethical norms and lessons learned. This might have been less dramatic, but it would have made an important contribution to our understanding of gene research and parenting.

Yet, the practice of separating identical or even non-identical siblings in the adoption industry continues and the study and research of such persons continues to this day. Regarding my photo above of Lily MacLeod and Gillian Shaw, the story in The Toronto Star by Amy Dempsey tells us that the 12-year-olds were separated as babies in China but reunited after the two separate Ontario couples adopted them. When their separate/different adoptive parents made the startling discovery that their two daughters were identical twins, they vowed to raise the girls as sisters. Their situation is highly unusual: Lily and Gillian are two of only a handful of twin pairs – mostly Chinese children adopted by North American parents – who are being raised, knowing they are siblings but separately apart. For scientific researchers, the girls are yet another opportunity to study the effects of nature vs nurture in real-time. As for their families – strangers thrown together by the most unusual of circumstances – their situation explores a new kind of blended family, with unique and fascinating joys and challenges.

The Toronto Star goes beyond the story of the twin Chinese girls to note that in the late 1970s, scientists at the Minnesota Center for Twin and Adoption Research began studying what was then a new category of multiples — adopted twins who were separated at birth and reunited as adults. Dr Thomas Bouchard’s landmark paper was titled “Minnesota Study of Identical Twins Reared Apart.” The study shook the scientific community by demonstrating, across a number of traits, that twins raised apart are as similar as twins raised together. The study’s evidence of genetic influence in traits such as personality (50 per cent heritable) and intelligence (70 per cent heritable) overturned conventional ideas about parenting and teaching. And findings of genetic influence on physiological characteristics have led to new ways of fighting and preventing disease.

While I was yet pregnant with my oldest son, I chose to read a book titled Mother Nature by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy which had just come out in the year before. So my interest is long standing and it is little wonder that the issues continue to capture my interest. For centuries, the self-sacrificing mother who places her child’s needs and desires above her own has defined womanhood. Designed by nature for the task of rearing offspring, women are “naturally” tender, selfless and compassionate where their progeny are concerned. Those who reject childbearing or fail to nurture their offspring directly are typed as pathological, “unnatural” women. In traditional Darwinian evolutionary biology, the female of any species has evolved to produce and nurture the species; one could say it is her only role. Feminist treatises have long argued against the necessary conflation of “woman” with “mother,” and classics such as Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born have cogently argued that such altruistic maternity is a cultural construct and not a biological given.

From a review (link above) of Hrdy’s book Mother Nature – US anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy strides into the minefield, examining motherhood across cultures, historical periods, evolutionary tracts and biological species to better understand human maternity. Hrdy’s book resides in that rare space between academic disciplines (she is a professor emerita at the University of California-Davis and she has been schooled in anthropology, primatology, evolutionary theory, history and feminism). Her work can be situated somewhere between specialist treatise and popular biological science. Hrdy’s unique placement enables her to combine the best of Darwinian evolutionary biology with feminist cultural theory, without falling into the political entrapments of either camp.

Heartening for me, as a biological/genetic mother who lost physical (but not legal) custody of her daughter when she was only 3 years old, I am reminded in this review of Hrdy’s book that stay-at-home mothers are rare in the historical and evolutionary archives; community caregiving is an age-old model of childrearing. Throughout history in primate and human communities, mothering techniques involve “allomothers”: the delegation of child caretaking to other members (male and female) of the community. “Mothers have worked for as long as our species has existed, and they have depended on others to help them rear their children,” Hrdy writes. That means I was not the abject failure I believed my self to be for over 60 years but just another kind of mother. Motherhood today often includes women who have jobs and incomes of their own. Hrdy sees this as an evolutionary process to ensure long and safe lives for these mother’s child(ren). A lack of financial resources most certainly drove me to leave my daughter with her paternal grandmother, while I took a risk to see if I could earn some decent money driving an 18-wheel truck. There never was the intention to permanently abandon my child to other people. Thankfully, as adults we are happily close enough at heart and I believe love one another as fully as any mom could hope for. It is actually the lack of financial resources that is at cause for most adoptions.

In “60 Years On, Twin/Triplet Study Still Raises Questions” – an interview of Dr Leon Hoffman by Elizabeth Hlavinka for Medpage Today looks at the ethics of that study, which began in 1960 (the documents from which are sealed in the archives at Yale University until 2065). This tells me that Peter Neubauer, who died in 2008, eventually had his own qualms about the ethics of what he had perpetrated, though he is judged to have mostly been concerned with confidentiality issues that (until open adoptions began) were the rule in commercial closed adoptions (the effects of which continue to obstruct and vex adult adoptees to this day – change comes slowly). My blog today takes it title from an observation by Dr Hoffman – that the problem with a lot of “exposés” is that we judge the past by our present values.  That is an important point. He also notes that at the time of the Neubauer project, there was a prevailing belief that twins would be better off separated, if they were going to be adopted. That twins were more difficult for the mother and that it would be easier for the mother to take care of one child instead of two children. I understand. In our mom’s group, those with twins often hired au pairs to assist them in those early days.

In this interview, Dr Hoffman notes – I always tell parents of kids that I see, “How much is genetic and how much is environment?” and I always say, “It’s 100% of both,” because those two are always interacting with one another. More and more data has shown that genetic variations get very much affected by the environment. I believe this is also evident in the story about the triplets. They even admit that during that time of their own high publicity, they amplified their similarities because that is what people were curious about. It is clear that they each had unique personalities that do seem to have been affected by their adoptive parents and the differing environmental situations they were raised in. As aging adults, the two surviving individuals have very different surface appearances while retaining many similarities.

Since I have looked at mother/child separations now for several years and am against the practice of adoption generally and in favor of family preservation, I was emotionally triggered last night by thinking about the amplifying effect of separation trauma (which IS mentioned by the triplets in their documentary) as yet another separation wound for babies who grew into their humanity in the same womb. Fortunately for the children in my mom’s group, they don’t have either of those added traumas. “The twin relationship, particularly with (identical) twins, is probably the closest of human social ties,” says Nancy Segal, who is herself a twin. This is why it’s so important for multiples to grow up together. Segal, now a psychology professor at California State University, has found about 15 more sets of adopted twin children being raised by different families, most of them Chinese girls. Researchers attribute this phenomenon to China’s one-child policy, which led to the abandonment of thousands of female babies. Though China’s official adoption rules state that twins should be placed together, pairs like Lily and Gillian prove things don’t always happen that way.

I found one other article that I’m not going to say very much about. You can read the story – Stories of Twins Separated at Birth by Pamela Prindle Fierro at the VeryWell Family website. There are the two sisters – Anais Bordier and Samantha Futerman. They found each other through Facebook and YouTube. They had been raised on different continents. The article includes information about the “Jim Twins” – James Arthur Springer and James Edward Lewis who found each other at the age of 39 in 1979. And there are actually MORE stories at this link.

The important thing to learn is that every action taken, that affects another human being, has the possibility of unintended consequences and that there is always the need for a fully informed consent in the interest of human well-being. An issue with adoptees is that due to their young age, they are never able to give informed consent and therefore, their rights are never considered. This is an issue with many adoptees who feel they are treated like second-class citizens with important basic human rights withheld from them – identity and medical issues foremost. An evolving issue with donor conceptions is similar. The human being conceived in that manner had no ability to consent to the method of their conception. Realistically, none of us consents (in a human sense, but I believe we do in non-physical prior to birth as I believe we are eternal souls).

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.