201: Beyond The Shadow History of Adoption: A Look Back At 20th Century Adoption Practices With Bestselling Author Gabrielle Glaser Transcript

Episode 201 Podcast > Full Transcript

Lori Holden, Greeting:
Welcome to Season Two. We're so excited to bring you another set of fascinating interviews with super-insightful people. We're glad to be back and proud to announce that we've been named to the Top Adoption Podcast List as compiled by Feedspot. Thanks to all of you for tuning in and for spreading the word about Adoption: The Long View.

Lori Holden, Intro:
Today, we have a very special guest. Gabrielle Glaser is going to talk with us about the then and now of ethics in adoption; what adoptive parents still need to know. And so much of what we know about adoption comes from a bygone era; the days of closed adoption.

Even though we've been in the era of open adoption for several decades now, what we see in films and on the cover of magazines and from stories of people who grew up in the fifties, sixties, seventies, and even eighties, all of that is still steeped in the closed adoption era, which yields lots of drama because of the separation, and also sometimes, because of the reunion.

In this period, also known as the Baby Scoop era, policies became more about finding babies for homes than about finding homes for babies, to quote Dr. Joyce McGuire Pivo.

Because of the secrecy in which adoption professionals operated, they had lots of power and very little oversight. In the closed-adoption era, we adhered to practices that since have been debunked, such as thinking of babies as “blank slates” – More about that in Episode 11, if you're curious – and the idea that social workers, who held tremendous power over two different groups of desperate people, they could and would match babies and families together well.

I call this closed-adoption era, which informs what the general population knows about adoption, I call it a failed experiment. But people still think it's the way we should do things.

But it makes sense, if you think about it, that something rooted in shame and secrecy will not turn out as well as it can for the people involved. And we're going to hear more about that today.

The push, I believe, along with other adoption activists, needs to be towards practices and policies with truth and transparency as the guide. And if you want more about that, check out Episode 4.

Gabrielle Glaser is the author, most recently, of American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption. I highly recommend you go out and get it right now. Well, not right now; finish listening and then go get it.

This tells the shocking truth about post-war adoption in America, through the bittersweet story of one teenager; the son she was forced to relinquish, and their lifelong search to find each other.

I've invited Gabrielle to talk with us because ethics in adoption is something adoptive parents will always need to consider; not just at the beginning, but all the way through. And the time to begin doing this is as early as possible.

Gabrielle has covered the intersection of health, medicine, and culture for the New York times and many other publications. She is the mother of three grown daughters. That makes me smile. Welcome Gabrielle.

Gabrielle Glaser:
Thank you so much for having me and for that lovely introduction,

It's wonderful to be able to talk with you. I just adored your book. And well, it was a hard read in some ways, but it was such a lovely read and such a wonderful tribute to the people that you were writing about.

Now, you don't have, as far as I can tell, any direct experience with adoption. So, tell us briefly how you became interested in the subject of adoption, which had resulted in this book. You met David through a different story that was not adoption related, is that correct?

Yes, I did. I met David in 2007. I was a newspaper reporter at the Oregonian, assigned to cover a kidney donation that he was about to receive from a friend. And because he was adopted, he was getting a kidney donation from a friend. He couldn't find anyone. He had three children, but they were too young to even consider donating a kidney.

So, the story, ostensibly, was about the importance of living kidney donors and how that they were gaining popularity, not popularity, but how the concept of becoming a living kidney donor was gathering steam.

But when I met David at the Dialysis Center for the first time, that was where we had our first interview. He mentioned that he hoped the story would go viral and that his birthmother would somehow see the story and recognize him as her son.

And he was very clear. He wasn't searching for his birth mother for emotional reasons. He said he was very circumspect about it, but said that he hoped that he would be able to learn more medical information for his kids, because he did, as I said, have three children.

So, that story always stayed with me. And I moved from Portland in 2008. The story did not go viral. His birth mother did not see it. But he had mentioned several things in that first interview. He said, “All I know about my birthmother is that she was a girl in trouble in New York city in 1961. And she wanted me to be raised by an Orthodox Jewish family.” And that was his blank slate. Speaking of blank slates; that was his blank slate.

The story stayed with me. I moved to, back East, to New Jersey in 2008. And in 2014, David called me to tell me that he had located his birthmother through the help of 23 & Me. And the first thing he said was, “She didn't want to give me up. She's loved me my whole life.”

And those words were so hauntingly human and beautiful that all I could do was just listen. They were healing for him. It had to have been healing for her. And the words were healing for me as a human being to take in.


There's another question that I wanted to ask you, and that is, as part of writing this book, you interviewed a lot of other people. What did you find can be the impact of a child or an adult, when they do think they were discarded by their first set of parents as often happened in those days?

Oh, I think it's absolutely devastating. And the literature surrounding it is quite clear about that. You know, narrative, myth that was always put forth to adoptees is, “Your mother loved you so much that she gave you up.” Well, just think about the logic of that. I never met anyone who loved someone so much that they gave them up, let alone a mother and her child.

So the consequences of that methodology, that was really – I'm sure nobody was malicious about it. I don't think that they were trying to be hurtful, but the concept of having been rejected.

And the other thing that David heard, and many other adoptees heard, was, “We chose you. Your mother didn't want you. She gave you up. We chose you and everything is tidy.”

But again, from a child's perspective, from an adult's perspective, that blank slate of this unknown mother out there, the question for the adoptee is always, or very often, anyway, “Why didn't you choose me? Great that my adoptive parents chose me, but why didn't my birth mother choose me?”

So, right off the bat, those comments from that era had really negative undermining consequences for an adoptee’s self-confidence. They certainly amplified and ignited anxiety and depression, and just the feelings of rejection that adoptees carried with them, along with that baggage that was, for them, so frequently not even remotely true.

And those feelings of rejection are something that no amount of love from adoptive parents can fill, because it's not really about the adoptive parents. And what I've heard adoptees is that at some point in their cognitive development of what adoption means, what my being adopted means is that to be chosen means that prior to that, they had to be unchosen. And that rejection is pre-verbal, it's so deep, and then it can't really be touched by adoptive parents.

So if we want to do something to help heal that, we don't tell that narrative that they loved you so much. It makes getting close to anybody hard. If you think loving leads to abandonment.

Absolutely. Absolutely.

And what it often leads to for many people is avoidance.

Yes. Yes.

So, let's talk about how we got there in the 20th century. You go into your book, some of the factors of the time; the political, the cultural, the scientific, the economic factors, post-World War II, that led to what people in it called the Baby Scoop era. Can you talk about those?


In the years after the war, the sexual revolution was simmering. At the same time, there was this incredible conservative demand that a woman had one role in life, which was to – actually, she had several roles. The first was that she'd be a virgin until she got married. And then once she got married, she was supposed to be fruitful and create a large family in this demographic wave called The Baby Boom.

Behind the scenes, however, as I said, the sexual revolution was simmering. Think about the music from the 1950s, Rock ‘n Roll. Rock ‘n Roll itself was African-American slang for sex. And young people had privacy for the first time, they were living in these new, suburban bedrooms. They didn't share with anybody else. They also had basement rec rooms that were private. And most importantly, they had the rolling motel of the family Buick, which is a place where a lot of young women conceived.

And there was a huge spike in unwed pregnancies that it tripled in two decades after the war. And prior to the war, prior to this new suburban dream land that was being presented to the American public as something that everybody, white people, needed to aspire to, if you had gotten pregnant out of wedlock, you would have had a shotgun wedding.

But suddenly, as a result of this new middle class, that was just within reach for many working class families, the idea that an unmarried pregnancy would thwart that a college education, would somehow stand in the way of gaining this new lifestyle that was being promoted in television, in magazines, certainly funded by the US government in the form of home loans for white GIs, it was just not acceptable to have a child, in the parlance of the day, out of wedlock.

So, parents sent their girls away to a secluded set of maternity homes. There were more than 200 of them nationwide. The girls were coerced, and for the most part, forced to surrender their children into a very predatory adoption system that really ran from Seattle to Miami

And girls got really blamed for being pregnant. Talk a little bit about prevention of pregnancy. What about sex ed? What about contraception?

Oh, absolutely. Yes, sorry. A glaring omission there.

No sex ed, no birth control, abortion was illegal, and girls didn't even know what was happening in their bodies. I read some how-to guides for how to be the right kind of girl, that were really popular after the war. And they basically put all of the pressure on young women to never invite any sort of sexual activity whatsoever. If you feel that things are getting a little racy there, girls, it is your responsibility to get up and take a walk around the block, go get a Coke, or really what you really should be doing is bowling, in the first place, anyway. Don't ever let yourself get into the kind of position that you could ever go down that road.

Bowling as birth control.

Bowling as birth control.

And it made so clear that all of the responsibility for anything that was going to happen was on the girl's shoulders. And the pop popular culture at the time, I Love Lucy, for example, which was everybody watched, I Love Lucy. But like so many other married couples, Lucy was America's favorite mom.

But even when she was pregnant, she was pregnant in real life and pregnant on the show, which her show runners didn't want to even dream of letting America glimpse, she and Desi Arnaz slept in separate twin beds. And so did Dick van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. Just the question of how these babies were being created during the Baby Boom. And likewise, for unmarried young women who happen to find themselves pregnant, was a huge mystery.

And it seems like being sent away to some of those maternity homes wasn't just about hiding the pregnancy, as I read your book and when I read, The Girls Who Went Away, and the movie, Philomena. It wasn't just about hiding the pregnancy. There was a punishment for the girls who got themselves into this predicament and they needed to be redeemed. And sometimes, it was through labor and laundry and harsh treatment and birth practices were somewhat barbaric. I think we'll get into that. Maybe you can talk about that now

These homes, Margaret David's mother, Margaret Katz, was one of thousands and thousands and thousands of young women, possibly millions; we don't have any records of how many girls actually went through these homes.

And this was not limited to just Jewish homes. There we're sorts of catholic homes, there were all sorts of –

No, no, no, no, no. There were more than 3 million young women who got pregnant and got sent away, whether they got sent to these homes. Sometimes, people went to stay with an aunt or a couple who needed a nanny.

But regardless, these homes, which existed nationwide, there were more than, as I said, 200 of them. They functioned like low-security prisons. The girls’ male was read; going out, coming in, their diary entries were read; their reading material had to be pre-approved.

In home, after home, after home, I heard stories of young women who had to put on fake wedding bands, if they were allowed to go out into any sort of excursion into town.

And they were, as you said, the theory behind being confined to these places, typically it would happen in the last trimester of a pregnancy where you just couldn't hide the pregnancy any longer. So, families would send their girls to these homes.

And they were really harshly treated, as you say. They were taught by really strict, punitive women who would lecture them, “Well, if you're lucky enough to ever put this behind you, you're going to need this skill. If a man will ever look past your being damaged goods.”

It was really just extraordinarily layer upon layer upon layer, upon layer of shame. First, the girls were shamed by their parents; there was no forgiveness there. I didn't turn up anybody who was kindly treated by their parents in this era. And then more shaming and humiliation at the maternity home.

And then during labor, the girls were absolutely, completely unprepared for this huge transformation that the human body can go through, which is delivering a baby. They didn't know what was going to happen. They were sent to the hospitals or clinics where they would labor alone, deliver by themselves. They were struck down. They were knocked out. And the vast majority of them were not even allowed to even so much as hold their babies.

Margaret, she wanted to stay alert and awake, and she asked them, please, not to knock her out. Of course, they didn't listen to her. She was strapped down and had no say in the matter. And when she finally came to, when it was time for her to push and she knew – She said, “What did I have? They said, “We got a baby boy.” She said, “Please let me hold my baby.” And the nurses in the delivery room said, “You don't get to hold your baby. You're one of the girls from Lakeview.”

So just again, the layers of the institutions that really were designed to separate these young girls from the sons and daughters they'd given birth to. It was religious. It was political. It was cultural. It was medical.

And Margaret, ultimately, in New York State at the time – And this was shocking to me to learn – In New York State at the time, it was illegal to have premarital sex until 1971. And maybe we'll get into this, but Margaret did everything she could – Margaret and her boyfriend, who she later married. And with him, she had three more children – They did everything they could to try to convey their fitness as parents to this predatory system that really, there was a waitlist of, in the United States at the time, there was a waitlist of 10 families for every baby who had been surrendered for adoption.

If you were an infertile couple in the years after the war, the only way essentially, to create a family would be to adopt. So there was, in this pressure to have the perfect family in the Baby Boom, if you couldn't conceive, turning to an adoption agency was your only hope.

And behind the scenes, of course, they were very coercive. And to Margaret, in fact, they ultimately threatened her with juvenile detention, if she didn't sign the surrender papers. And that was for her at the last straw. She had tried for five and a half months to get custody of her baby. And ultimately, she was a month away from her 18th birthday and would not have been a minor in New York, but she was over barrel with the agency and ultimately had to sign those papers.

I'm struck by how powerless these women were; voiceless and choiceless and nobody was there advocating for them. Because the separation from their families had already happened; their support system. So, they had nothing.

So, now that we know some of the factors that led to all this shame and secrecy, let's talk about what the shame and secrecy led to. We've talked about some of that; some of the policies. But I'm curious; what did we have to do? The framework of the day was, let's just pretend it never happened.

So, what we're pretending didn't happen for Margaret, and women in her situation, was a childectomy. And that's not a small thing. And what we're pretending didn't happen for David's parents, and people like me, is a grafting onto a family tree. And that's not nothing. And what we're pretending didn't happen for the baby, the child at the center, is a complete switcheroo sometime in their first few minutes, days, weeks of life, where everything that they had ever sensed, in terms of sound and smell and rhythm goes away, and nothing is familiar.

Caretaker changes. Sometimes, as you said in your books, sometimes that caretaker changes a couple of times, because the babies weren't placed right away. There was a matching thing going on, which I hope you'll also talk about.

So what did we have to do? What policies did we come up with, practices, that helped us pretend like these big things didn't happen? What did all that lead to?

That led to decades more of shame and secrecy. It started out as shame and secrecy. The pregnancy was a shameful secret. The pregnancy was lived out in shameful secrecy. The birth was a shameful secret.

I found evidence of some maternity homes that offered special massages for the girls, so that they wouldn't have stretchmarks and that they would be presentable to some sort of secret future husband down the line. The secrecy, do you mean emotionally? Is that what you're talking about?

Yeah. Yeah.

And what did it mean for the people involved? One of the practices that came out of this, that you illustrate so well in your book, is let's talk about Louise Wise Services, the agency that brokered all of these adoptions from Lakeview. There was a time when the baby had no parents, because they'd been separated from the birth mom, the adoptive parents weren't quite in the picture yet.

So tell us what's could happen in that gap, when we're pretending that it doesn't matter?

Louise Wise in New York City, adoptions at the time were approached, and by law, if a birth mother was Catholic, Catholic charities or another Catholic adoption agency had to handle that adoption and place the child in a Catholic family; likewise for Protestants and Jews.

So, Louise Wise was the premier Jewish adoption agency in New York city at the time. And they developed a series of matching techniques that they were very proud of. And actually, the Louise Wise babies were in a way, sort of branded as these premium babies that would go to premium parents.

And behind the scenes, the adoption agencies would tell adoptive parents that, “All right, well, we're observing this baby for three months and we want to be able to provide you with a child who will look as if he or she has been born to you.”

To the birth mother, they would say, and this was the case of Margaret, “A diplomat wants to adopt your baby this week. And if you don't sign the papers, he's going to languish in foster care.”

None of those things were true. In fact, Louise Wise routinely kept babies for at least six months in order to conduct a series of really horrific experiments on them, in order to produce the same matching that I described earlier.

These were child welfare advocates, pediatricians, a child psychiatrist, a family court judge, people on the board of this agency – I can't say this strongly enough – were dedicated on the surface to child welfare. And yet, they were completely ignoring the importance of having these babies be able to attach and to bond to a caregiver, by putting them through a series of, they let them languish in foster care for at least, as I said, six months. They would, in order to try to match their skin tone and to make sure that a very white baby would go to a very white family, social workers from the agency would trot babies over to the American Museum of Natural History where a forensic anthropologist would examine and inspect the hair follicles and nail beds and skull shapes of tiny infants, in order to offer assurances about their future looks; whether or not they were going to be dark skinned, whether or not they might be of mixed race. So that was one thing.

And he {indistinct 25:29} was Harry Shapiro. And he refused to offer his race-based guarantees on any child younger than six months. So, that was one thing that the agency did. And meanwhile, these little babies were in foster care.

But most alarmingly, what they did was in order to assure adoptive parents, that they were receiving the cream of the crop – And it's really hard to say this, but that was the language that was being used in the documentation at the time. In order to match a doctor or maybe a lawyer with a very smart baby, they came up with a theory – A pediatrician on board came up with a theory that intelligence was linked to crying.

And he devised a series of experiments, funded by the United States government that shot a rubber band gun at a 10-minute-old baby's foot in order to measure his or her cry. And if the baby didn't cry for 60 full seconds, the experiment was repeated as much as seven times.

And this is so harrowing to discover, it was harrowing to have my hands on those documents. It's harrowing to talk about. It's harrowing to imagine. But going back to secrecy, I don't think anybody knew. Well, actually, some people did know about those studies. Because Dr. Joyce Brothers, who was the sort of pop psychologist, the psychological Dear Abby at the time, praised these experiments as a wonderful diagnostic tool to figure out whether a baby was going to be smart.

And she sort of winked and nod at a parent in a column and said, “You know, folks, if you've got a colic baby, don't worry.” Dr. Carolyn said, “Long Island Jewish hospital has determined this test. And babies who cry the most are the smartest.”

So this was going on behind the scenes and these agencies were allowed to carry on without any oversight. And the damage that was done to each of the three parties; the adoptive parents who were often lied to about the origins of their children. Many children were born in psychiatric hospitals and then were presented to adoptive parents as, “Oh, this child comes from a woman who's a concert pianist” or “Is a budding artist.” In the case of Margaret, she was presented as a budding scientist. That wasn't true.

To the birth parents, birth parents were also promised a glittering wonderful home for their son or daughter that was no match for what a teenager would be able to provide; a girl who hadn't even graduated from high school. So, that was sort of an irresistible lie.

And then to the adoptees themselves, the narrative, as we were saying earlier, was presented in such a way that was incredibly undermining, “Your mother gave you up, but we, the agency, has placed you correctly with the proper parents, better than nature could have ever done herself.”

And it's that secrecy that allowed that added trauma. You know, I think of the tenderness of a newborn foot. And I think of somebody deliberately hurting that foot when that baby is minutes old, hours old, and how no parent would allow that to happen; birth or adoptive. But because of the secrecy of the day, that child didn't have anybody saying, “No, you can't do that. You can't do that to my baby.” And so that added trauma. We already know that adoption has the trauma of separation, but also to be born into the world, have everything changed and then be hurt without being protected.

Without being protected. And the agencies really, in so many ways in those days, acted as God. And the it's really hard to believe that – it's hard to get my mind around. It's hard to believe that, in any way, that could have been for the best interests of the child.


And these agencies did have custody of the children, because of the mothers having been potential criminals under wayward minor laws that, as I said, remained on the books in many States, long past their 19th century origins. And the agencies just operated as they wished.

We see so many places where secrecy has led to atrocities. And for me, this is one of the major arguments for truth and transparency. Besides the fact that the child can gather all their pieces and know all their stuff and talk with their adoptive parents about stuff; that's all part of openness too. But also, let's make sure that evil things that happened in the dark can't happen in the light. Let's keep things in the open.

So we might think that with open adoption and with DNA testing that we have now, that we're out of the closed adoption era for good. But what do you think needs to be done to further improve the state of adoption policies and practices to be more humane for placing parents, for adoptees themselves, and for adoptive parents? You've kind of talked about this a little bit. Do you have anything further to say on that?

One thing that I think is just so important that people need to realize is that in closed adoptions, the secrecy that was inherent really began with the documentation of sealed original birth certificates, that in 40 States, adoptees still do not have the right to access.

So, in these secret adoptions, an original birth certificate would be placed in a file with the adoptees original name and then sealed to all, but state officials and some social workers. Amended adoptive birth certificate would be issued in its place, listing the adoptees adoptive name and his adoptive parents as his original mother and father.

For so many adoptees who are well into middle age, so many millions of adoptees still do not have the right, the human and civil right, to obtain their original birth certificate.

And yes, while DNA has been an incredibly helpful tool in helping link adoptees to their birth kin, it isn't a substitute for that really important vital document that gives you a key to your original identity. So that's one thing, I think, that people really need to be aware. Again, in 40 States.

So maybe you could say we're only 20% out of secrecy. We got 80% left to go by that measure.

Exactly. California, Texas, Florida, Minnesota, Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut. Yes. I think Colorado is open.

We're open. Yeah. Yeah, that happened as a result of some activist efforts a few years ago.

David's story led to Margaret. And David and Margaret both were seeking each other or were open to seeking each other, which is probably the best combination. Or if neither are seeking each other; if they both want the same thing, that's good.

But sometimes, it can get really hard if like, for example, if David's story had led to a woman who hadn't wanted to be found, which happens in a very small percentage of reunions attempted by adult adoptees.

How do you think the story might be told then? In other words, do you think the policies of that era served these women well?

Oh, I love that question. I think they were devastating for these women as well. Because to have, as you put it, a childectomy and to maintain the energy required to keep that secret one's whole life must be exhausting.

And since the publication of the book, I have heard from a handful of people whose mothers have not wanted to make contact, they will be cordial and forthright and forthcoming with information, with medical information, but are not interested in a relationship.

And I'm surprised actually, because I do know the numbers. They were really, really minuscule; half of 1%, in States that birth mothers have been allowed to redact their names, in legislation allowing adoptees access to their original birth certificate, such a small fraction of women don't want to be found.

But I think that whole narrative that we started out, the conversation that we started out with, even if a woman did feel coerced and forced to surrender a child, to carry on into her seventies, over time, maybe that belief of having had to give up a child becomes part of her own identity.

And maybe it's one of those – Like I hate these expressions – but maybe, “Fake it till you make it.” And once you faked it until you've made it, all the way into your seventies, and you have another family that you created, who you haven't told this secret to, that reverses another narrative that might just be too overwhelming to confront.

And I have such empathy for – I just have such empathy for everybody in this situation, but I do believe adoptees more than, you know, full-stop, adoptees deserve the right to know. And as painful as it is to be rejected again, I think these women should take a very deep look at what that means to a son or daughter who had no choice in how they arrived in the world. They have the right to know.

Yeah. Yeah.

So we're at the last question. And this is one I'm going to ask of all Season 2 guests. What do you think people need to know to adopt well and to adoptive-parent well?

As hard as it is to say, I think the most important truth is that adoption begins with loss. And you were speaking earlier about all of the sensations that an infant coming into the world has for nine months, shift dramatically when an adoption takes place.

So to understand that as happy as it is to have a new family, a newly created family, to really be aware of what the adoptee is experiencing at every stage of development. And to be prepared, to be accepting, to be understanding in order to be able to forge ahead as this new family.

It's excellent advice. Excellent advice.

I really appreciate your being here with us today, Gabrielle. Thank you for being so generous with your time.

Oh, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Special thanks to Adopting.com for producing and sponsoring this podcast. With each episode of Adoption: The Long View, we bring you guests that expand your knowledge of adoptive parenting. Please subscribe, give this episode of rating and share with others who are on the journey of adoptive parenting.

Thanks to each of your listeners for tuning in and for investing in your adoptions, long view. May you meet everything on your road ahead with confidence, capability and compassion. And please make sure you read American Baby by Gabrielle Glaser.