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Book excerpt: "American Baby," on the shadow history of adoption

In her new book, "American Baby: A Mother, A Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption" (Viking), journalist Gabrielle Glaser writes a story familiar to millions of Americans – one of loss, love, and a search for identity – about a woman who lost her first born, and the grown child wondering from where he had come.

Read the prologue of "American Baby" below, and don't miss Rita Braver's interview with Gabrielle Glaser on "CBS Sunday Morning" March 21.



I met David Rosenberg for the first time on a rainy spring afternoon in 2007, at a dialysis center just outside Portland. He was sitting in a beige vinyl chair, tethered to the machine cleaning his blood. I was an Oregonian reporter writing about the kidney transplant David was soon to undergo, thanks to the organ donation from a friend. We had spoken on the phone to arrange the interview, and I was surprised that David suggested we meet for the first time in what felt like such an intimate setting. He immediately disarmed me with his sense of humor: "Are you kidding? I'm stuck there for four hours three times a week," he said. "It's not like I could be out doing errands." When asked how I would find him, he laughed out loud. "I'm the olive-skinned bald Jewish guy with glasses," he said. "Can't miss me."

David's description was accurate, and in the crowd of mostly quite-pale descendants of Scandinavians, he was easy to spot. Within a moment of my sitting down, we started playing Jewish Geography, the game in which Jews who meet each other for the first time try to identify people they have in common. Even before I took out my notebook, it was clear how forthcoming he was. Maybe it was that dialysis centers, sitting so squarely at the intersection between life and death, aren't conducive to small talk.

The kidney donation tale was uplifting, and I planned to follow the two men and their families for an article about the Jewish concept of tikkun olam – healing the world – that would run just before the Jewish New Year, four months away. But as David began to talk, I realized that the story was deeper. A cantor in a large Portland synagogue, David had been adopted as a baby and had no known biological relatives who could give him a kidney. He was a beloved guy, and many people in his tightly knit community had stepped up to offer theirs. Doctors had decided the best match was his friend Marshal Spector. Early in their relationship, they'd discovered an uncanny connection: Marshal's great-grandfather had been a rabbinical teacher of David's adoptive father in a Romanian city before World War II.

Midway through that first long interview, David mentioned – not boastingly – that he was such a news hound, he read several online papers a day. As a clergyman, he presided over more personal events, participating in his congregation's greatest joys and deepest sorrows. "Especially private ones," he said, tapping his broad chest. I wondered where our chat was headed. I was there as a reporter, not a confidante, and my job was to take down everything he said in the reporter's notebook I had on my lap. Dialysis centers are loud – the machines whizz and whir incessantly, and it's hard to hear above the noise. He moved toward me as if to convey something intimate.

David told me he had another motive for publicizing his circumstances.  Videos and newspaper articles posted on social media had started to go viral, and David said that he hoped the story about two guys on the frontier whose ties stretched back to the Old Country would circulate among Jews nationwide. He knew only one detail about his own past, he said: In 1961, the year he was born, his mother had been a Jewish girl "in trouble" in New York City.  He paused for a moment, and looked away.

His wish was that somewhere on the vast Internet, she would see his black eyes, his thick, strong hands, cleft chin and broad smile, and recognize him as her son.

David wasn't looking for new parents; the couple who adopted him after surviving the Holocaust loved him deeply – and he them -- and gave him every advantage. Both had died long ago, and David didn't feel he was betraying their love to discover more about his identity, medical history, and the woman who, as he put it, gave him up. "I want to know more," he told me that day. He pointed to the blood-filled tubes that crisscrossed his body. "You know, for my kids."  

Over the next year, I grew close to David, his wife Kim Danish Rosenberg, and Marshal. I got to know their six children – David and Kim's Sam, Noah, and Estee, and Marshal's Max, Joseph and Jennie. After I moved from Portland to New Jersey in 2008, we stayed in touch and visited occasionally when I returned to Oregon to see my family. Things with David weren't good: Despite the new kidney, his health was failing. Just months after the transplant, he had been diagnosed with a lethal form of thyroid cancer. He was, he told me one time when I met him at a hipster coffee shop in Portland where he walked in carrying his own Diet Coke, still hoping to find some relatives. He just didn't know how.

As the years passed, David's interest in finding his biological mother, even as he was running out of time – especially as he was running out of time – never really left my mind.  I understood how difficult it would be for him to find her, given that the laws in New York, like many other states, kept the original birth certificates of adoptees closed – meaning that only state officials and adoption agency social workers were allowed to see them. Years before, David had inquired briefly about his adoption, but learned that searching would require the written permission of his dead adoptive parents. That brief interaction was enough to confirm David's suspicions that he was unwanted.  So, perhaps fearing more rejection, he let it go. We didn't really talk about it, and it seemed too painful for me to ask. I wasn't a journalist covering him any longer; I'd become his friend. Yet whenever I was in Manhattan, I'd find myself absentmindedly looking at Jewish grandmothers on the bus, in supermarkets: Could that be her?

Issues of family identity long fascinated me. My own ancestors were tailors from a Polish shtetl who reinvented themselves as gentile farmers in Oregon. From 2003 to 2008, I covered adoption, surrogacy, and reproductive technologies as a beat at the Oregonian.  I was drawn to stories about the increasingly complex, scientifically enabled ways of creating families. But it was only when I saw Philomena, the 2013 biopic about a mother's search for the son she was coerced into relinquishing for adoption in postwar Ireland, that I started thinking more broadly about how adoption in the same period might have affected Americans.

The movie focuses on Philomena Lee, a young woman who became pregnant after a brief romance. Shamed by her family and small community for having premarital sex, she was forced to live in a convent where she worked as a laundress along with other young unmarried pregnant women.  When she almost died in labor, the Mother Superior told Philomena it was fitting punishment for her sins.  She stayed there, paying off the purported debts incurred for her room, board, and delivery until her son was three years old, and then watched in horror as a wealthy American couple drove away with him after offering a sizeable "donation" to the Mother Superior. The nuns told Philomena to forget about her boy, as he would most certainly have forgotten about her. This proved untrue.

I read the book that spawned the movie and my thoughts returned to David and the woman who gave birth to him. I began asking myself some questions that even I, as a mother of three daughters and as someone familiar with this topic, hadn't fully considered. How could a woman be expected ever to forget a baby she had carried for nine months?  What would it take to "move on" from the experience, especially if one knew nothing about where the child had ended up being raised and by whom? From my coverage of open adoption, in which the birth mother chooses, and often remains in contact with the adoptive family, I knew that that process was wrenching for birth mothers, despite their continued presence in their children's lives.  Many of those I'd interviewed described a deep, longing sadness that never quite went away.

Philomena, of course, always remembered her baby, and never gave up hope of finding him. I found myself wondering whether David's mother might have had a parallel experience, then dismissed the thought. Adoption in the U.S. in the postwar years was surely different from the cold, moralistic, and secretive approach of the Irish Catholic Church. It had to be. Didn't it?

In early May of 2014, I was leaving my house when David's name popped up on my caller ID. I was late to catch a train, but I picked it up. Cancer had dwindled his sonorous tenor to a whisper that was hard to hear. He asked me if I was sitting down. "I am now," I said, and took a seat on my bed. Kim had given him a kit from 23andMe, the DNA-testing company, for his birthday. Five months later, he had big news.

"I found my birth mother," he said, his excitement uncontainable. "Her name is Margaret Erle Katz, and she lives 45 minutes from you." He had already plotted the distance between our addresses on Google Maps. "You have to meet her," he said.

It turned out that his birth parents had married, and he had three full siblings. He'd spoken with the youngest, Cheri, a woman he'd embraced as his "baby sister." Like him, she was a professional vocalist: she was an opera singer in Berlin. He'd watched her performances on YouTube, and she was his female clone.

"Margaret didn't want to give me up," he told me. I heard David's voice catch. "She loved me my whole life."

I began to realize that the story of how David and Margaret lost and then found each other – and of the political, scientific, cultural and economic forces that caused and then enforced their separation – was, I would learn, part of a far larger reproductive- and human-rights story, that encompassed generations of American women and their sons and daughters, many of whom were exploited for profit and for science. It was an important chapter of American social and cultural history hiding in plain sight, undergirded by a soothing narrative that had repackaged the reality of what it meant to adopt, what it meant to be adopted, and what it meant to surrender a baby you gave birth to. Margaret Erle, I would be stunned to learn, was one of more than 3 million mostly unmarried young women who conceived during the decades after World War II and found themselves funneled into an often-coercive system they could neither understand nor resist. They endured their pregnancies in secret, sometimes with distant relatives, or as servants to strangers. Many were shipped far from their families to the hundreds of maternity homes that dotted cities and towns in nearly every state. They gave birth alone, and were then pressured or forced to surrender their newborns to strangers who hadn't explained that in doing so, many of these young mothers would never see or hear about their children again. This unheralded surge in births out of wedlock came just as battles over contraception and abortion were beginning to dominate the public conversation, and continued until 1973, the year Roe v. Wade made abortion legal nationwide. 

The silence surrounding this massive experiment in social engineering is hardly surprising. In the decades after World War II, America embarked on a frenzy of homemaking and family-building unlike any previous period of history. Images from the baby boom during the postwar Baby Boom portrayed an ideal (white) breadwinning father and a beautiful mother who stayed home with several children, all living happily in a pretty new suburb. But in fact, there were lots of families living outside that tidy picture. Millions of couples were unable to conceive and did not yet have the benefit of advanced reproductive medicine. The need to adopt was viewed as shameful as becoming inconveniently pregnant. A woman who had engaged in out-of-wedlock sex and one who was embarrassingly infertile in an era of relentless fecundity had both failed some new test of social acceptability, and the solutions to the problems they represented were found in silence and secrecy.

Many of the same demographic and social forces that had launched the baby boom propelled the explosion in unwanted pregnancies and adoptions. Birth rates had dropped during the Depression and war, but now the prosperous postwar economy, fueled by generous government loans for college and new suburban homes, catapulted millions of white Americans into the growing middle class. In previous generations, young, unwed couples who found themselves with unexpected pregnancies married quickly and kept their babies. But the shifting cultural landscape had made shotgun weddings for teenagers much less appealing, at least to rules-following parents who had withstood the deprivations of the Depression and World War II and now had aspirations to achievement. These surprise pregnancies were an obstacle to a better life that needed to "go away." For the millions of couples who could not conceive and were longing to join the baby boom, the plight of those women was an opportunity, the ideal solution to a painful problem. The babies were desirable; the mothers were not.  

The adoption business comprised an array of individuals and institutions, from researchers whose pseudoscience justified the advantages of unproven practices in child assessment, to the social workers addressing family crises, and adoption agencies that frequently benefited economically and professionally from each woman they persuaded to relinquish a child. When it was publicly discussed at all, the accepted narrative was that adoption was in the best interests of everyone involved: It gave birth mothers the chance to escape the stigma of unwed motherhood; spared their children the shame of illegitimacy, and offered married infertile couples the chance to become parents.

The one thing that few, it seemed, thought to consider was the lifelong emotional impact on women who were hidden away in shame during pregnancy, expected to lie about it ever after, and then told to put their babies out of their minds. Few invested much thought about the feelings of the adoptees who were brought up to think they were their birth parents didn't want them, and that – regardless of how cherished they were – they were their adoptive parents' "second choice" to biological offspring. Family members, social workers, obstetricians, agency officials, clergy and lawyers all promised that adoption worked out for everyone for "the better." Adoptees would blend seamlessly into their new families, and if they wanted to know about their origins one day, the theory went, they could "look" when they were adults. (Although with families who had wanted and loved them so much, why would they?)

But as David and millions of other adopted people would come to learn when they turned 18, the idea of finding birth parents was largely an illusion. Nearly every state had laws that sealed the records that would allow children to find their original identities. The adoption agencies involved in many of these arrangements said they had a duty to protect the privacy of the birth mothers, even though there was little, if any, evidence that they had either been promised confidentiality nor were continuing to insist upon it.

As I dug into the archives and interviewed scores of birth mothers and adoptees, I came to understand the dynamics behind these decades of entrenched secrecy. I realized that the way the United States had dealt with unplanned babies in the decades after World War II – when abortion was illegal, contraception was forbidden even for married couples, and discussion of sex and reproduction was taboo – revealed a great deal about this country. Again and again, the national's powerful religious and political institutions collaborated to control women's lives and the destinies of babies born out of wedlock. Today it is socially acceptable for women (and men) to raise children on their own. But for many adoptees and their birth mothers, the shame lingers, the skewed principles of the past remain in place – and the conflict about whose rights deserve protection rages on.

For David and Margaret, and for countless others, the miracle of modern genetics smashed open the secrecy created by the politicians of the twentieth century. DNA testing kits made it possible for David and so many others to spit into a vial and track down distant, or not-so-distant family members, facilitating reunions that seemed unimaginable just a decade ago. Through the advocacy of adoption reformers, who argue that access to the birth certificates is a human and civil right, several states have finally opened their records, turning the random chance of a DNA search into a certainty for people who happened to be born in them. This transparency has come at an incalculable emotional cost. Even the joyful reunions are bittersweet, shadowed by the fundamental, unanswerable question: Why did you give me away? 

Every family, every adoptee, every birth mother, has their story. This is David and Margaret's.

Their tale – one they share with millions of Americans – is one of loss, love, and parallel search for identity: one a mother who lost her first born; the other as a child grafted on to a family of loving strangers, wondering where he had come from.

From "American Baby: A Mother, A Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption" by Gabrielle Glaser. Reprinted with permission by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Gabrielle Glaser. 

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