"American Baby" - A Comprehensive Look at Adoption in the USA

Gabrielle Glaser tells an important but often overlooked story in American Baby: A Mother, A Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption

By Albert Stern / BJV Editor

When I was about 37 years old, I went to a new optometrist to get stronger reading glasses, the only type of corrective eyewear I had ever been prescribed.  After examining me, this doctor informed me that I had astigmatisms in both eyes. That was news to me – in 20 plus years of going to optometrists, the problem had never been diagnosed.

The doctor seemed surprised. He asked me a series of questions about how I perceived things – for example, at night, did I see lines emanating from streetlights and stoplights? I replied that of course, I did – doesn’t everybody? The doctor laughed and said, “No, they don’t.” When I first put on my new glasses, not only was I amazed how different everything appeared (especially at night), but that I’d lived 37 years without an inkling that I was seeing things differently from most other people.

I had a similar type of revelation – albeit one that was psychological rather than optic – while reading Gabrielle Glaser’s important new book, American Baby, which explores adoption in the United States through the story of two birth parents and the child they gave up. (I’ll get to what my revelation was later.) The “American baby” she writes about, David Rosenberg, and I happened to be born months apart; we were both adopted by Jewish parents in 1962. Although our circumstances are otherwise quite divergent, thanks to American Baby, I better understand social attitudes (particularly Jewish ones) about adoption in the post-World War II baby boom era, the mores and mindsets that shaped the lives of all of us in the adoption triad – children, birth parents, and adoptive parents.

I also have a better understanding of the legal and psychotherapeutic institutions that established laws and policies to deal with those of us in the triad – the former creating a system of sealed records barring us from accessing fundamental information about ourselves, and the latter assuring us that not being able to know was all for the best. For those of us who wanted more information about our histories, the laws always seemed unfair, and the consolation that we’d be better off not knowing seemed to be cold comfort, at best. In documenting the reasoning that created that system, Glaser shows that the way America dealt with adoption in the mid-20th century was not only unjust but also, at times, inhumane.

American Baby covers many aspects of the adoption story: the historical, the personal, the institutional, the psychological, and the activist. It is an important book because, as Glaser writes in her introduction, the narrative is:

…representative of a much 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. More than 3 million mostly unmarried young women who conceived during the decades after World War II … found themselves funneled into an often-coercive system they could neither understand nor resist.

Adoption activists have labeled the post-war decades as ‘The Baby Scoop Era’ to reflect the way infants were summarily separated from their birth mothers by what Glaser terms the ‘adoption-industrial complex.’ When the author and I spoke about her book in February, she explained:  “First of all, in the baby boom era, there was a sexual revolution simmering. World War II veterans came back having had sexual experiences overseas, and they were very unlikely to remain celibate once they returned. They're stateside, and they had sex with their stateside girlfriends, even though there was this conservative, conformist, ‘back to the hearth’ picture of American society at the time.” Women, too, became more independent during the war years, for the first time working in large numbers outside the home, many in once-male-dominated workplaces like factories.

With the war over, Glaser says, “there was also a new middle class society that people were aspiring to.” With suburbanization, young people had more space and privacy and, “most importantly, the back seat of the family Buick.”

According to the Kinsey report, “overwhelming numbers of people had had premarital sex,” says Glaser, “and yet at that time there was certainly no sex education, and there was no birth control even for married people, in many states. And abortion was illegal until Roe v Wade (in 1973), in most states.” Conditions were ripe for a boom in unwed pregnancies, which in fact tripled.

The middle class dream that developed during the post-war years centered around marriage between a breadwinning man and a woman who attended to the domestic realm – a dream that was necessarily incomplete without children in the mix. The attitude, according to Glaser, was that “we're another world war against the Soviets, and you need to have babies – that's your patriotic duty. Your patriotic duty used to be that you were out of the house and fighting, and now you've got to stay home and tend to house and home.

“If you were left out of that paradigm because one or both partners were unable to conceive, it was deeply painful. If you didn't have this perfect family behind the picket fence, if you couldn't create that yourself, where were you going to get it? The solution was the young girls who were in trouble, and this predatory adoption system that developed.”

In American Baby, Glaser describes the evolution of that system as the United States developed from a primarily rural nation to one that was industrial and urban. In the absence of modern medicine, the early death of one or more parents was not uncommon. Extended families, if close-knit, might take in an orphaned child, but in crowded urban centers, parentless or unwanted children were often left to fend for themselves. A philanthropic movement developed to house and feed these children, and to integrate them into society by placing them with foster or adoptive parents.

“Originally, the founding members of these adoption agencies did have altruism in mind,” says Glaser. However, she adds: “A lot of eugenics was involved initially. The thought was, ‘Alright well, they might be society's castoffs, but with the proper training we can make them…into better human beings.’” Some operators of maternity homes made reforming wayward girls a primary mission of their facilities.

Social engineering guided by eugenics was in the DNA of many of the adoption agencies operating after World War II, notably Louise Wise Services, founded in New York City by the wife of noted Reform Rabbi Stephen Wise in 1916 to match parentless immigrant children with middle class Jewish families. New York State then mandated that the religion of the birth mother had to match that of the adoptive parents; given that by the 1950s, there were ten couples for each available child, Louise Wise Services wielded a great deal of power over Jewish couples wishing to adopt.

As Glaser chronicles in the book, the agency evaluated parents based on income and professional status, and endeavored to match them with a child most suited to them. How Louise Wise Services determined compatibility is a darkness that looms throughout American Baby.

A cohort of social scientists and physicians used the adoption agency as a veritable laboratory to examine nature-vs.-nurture issues relating to human development. If you’ve seen the acclaimed and heartbreaking film 3 Identical Strangers, you know about the agency’s ghoulish practice of separating twins and triplets, and placing them in divergent family settings in order to study them (often resulting in disastrous consequences). In American Baby, Glaser relates some of the crackpot psychotherapeutic practices – “as plausible as medieval ideas about the four humors,” as she puts it – conducted by Louise Wise staff:

  • Viola Bernard, the principal consulting psychiatrist, devised the study that separated twins and then tracked their development – some prospective parents were even told they wouldn’t be able to adopt if researchers could not study the child.
  • Harry Shapiro, a forensic anthropologist, analyzed the racial characteristics of infants using principles of physiognomy, the practice of evaluating a person’s character based on his appearance.
  • Psychiatrist Samuel Karelitz, who believed an infant’s crying correlated with its intelligence, and experimented by snapping rubber bands on the soles of infants, measuring the loudness of their shrieks.

Perhaps most brutal, researchers kept babies awaiting adoption in institutional settings for six months or more in order to study them, ostensibly to determine the best parental match for them. These researchers thus robbed those children of the most crucial period of bonding between a child and parent and this, as Glaser wrote in an article for The Forward, “despite research widely available at the time that documented the danger of separation anxiety and emotional scarring that resulted from depriving infants of maternal attachment.”

Glaser finds this combination of eugenics and Freudianism especially appalling given the fact that the experimentation followed so closely on the heels of World War II and the inhuman studies conducted by Nazi doctors. “The United States had the Nuremberg Accords in 1947 because of the horrors that happened in Nazi Europe,” she says. “And yet 10 years later, Samuel Karelitz got the first grant from the federal government to conduct those equally sinister experiments on 10-minute-old newborns – in the name of this new adoption industrial complex that could deliver to a set of parents a child almost better than what Mother Nature could deliver herself.” Sadly, this is a Jewish story, as well, one that made me uneasy not just as an adoptee, but also as a Jew.

Yet Louise Wise Services retained a tremendous amount of influence. It was well-funded and well-connected, and played a crucial role in providing Jewish babies to influential people. Glaser writes about how lawyers would not take cases against Louise Wise Services, fearing that the agency might respond by scuttling their own (or their business partners and clients’) hopes of adopting children. As depicted so powerfully in 3 Identical Strangers, adoptees wishing to access information about themselves amassed by Louise Wise Services will find their records legally sealed for decades into the future.

As exasperating as Glaser’s portrait of adoption institutions can seem, the heart of American Baby is the story of Margaret Erle who, as a 16-year-old, gave up her son through Louise Wise Services. Under pressure from her disdainful family, she was sent to Lakeview, a maternity home on Staten Island owned by the agency. Glaser recounts Erle’s experience there, replete with heartbreaking details – how ersatz gold wedding bands were placed by the door for the unwed mothers to wear when they went out; how passersby would hiss at the pregnant girls; how clueless so many of the young women were about the reproductive process, much less about delivering a child; and how Margaret’s desperate efforts to see her child before he was adopted (she managed to see him twice) were thwarted.

When Margaret initially balked at signing the adoption papers, she was threatened by a social worker, who said the child would be kept in foster care unless she did and that she, as a minor, would be declared a ward of the state. As Glaser recounts: “’You’ve got nothing to offer him,’ the social worker said. ‘This nice Jewish family will give him a wonderful life with every comfort.’”

Throughout their experience, the girls were told to “forget this ever happened.” The ministrations of the staff at Lakeview were on the surface beneficent, but all a part of a coercive process designed to separate the mother from her child so it could be adopted. It’s fair to say that the young women were gaslit into thinking nothing significant was happening to them, that they could move on from the experience and live happily only if they rejected the idea that something significant had just happened to them. It was all for the best, they were told.

Margaret later married the boy’s father, George Katz, and they had three more children.

Esther and Ephraim Rosenberg, childless Holocaust survivors who came to the United States in the early 1950s, were able to adopt the boy surrendered by Margaret Erle, whom they named David. He was 10-and-a-half months old. Ephraim was a cantor, and David followed in his adoptive father’s footsteps.

Mother and child reunited in 2014, after they matched through a DNA test. Sadly, David was dying from thyroid cancer, and passed soon after he met Margaret. Glaser tells their story beautifully, and I urge you to read it for yourself.

As an adoptee, I reacted with strong emotions to American Baby – I mean, I was one of the children Gabrielle Glaser describes. No doubt my adoptive parents, a Jewish couple from New York, at some point tried to go through Louise Wise Services, and were rejected – my cousins tell me they moved to Florida in order to privately adopt my sister and me. No doubt my birth mother had an experience similar to Margaret Erle’s. But, thanks to DNA testing, my story took a lucky turn – I matched with my birth father in California and have developed a close relationship with him and my half-sister.

While the particular family story Glaser tells is sad and the social history she shares often infuriating, it wasn’t until she reached her impassioned concluding chapter, “No More Secrets,” that I had the revelation I referred to earlier in this story.

About her hundreds of interviews with adopted people, she writes: “Sooner or later, nearly every conversation with them circled back to the foundational fact of closed adoption: it begins with an erased past, and facts replaced with myths.” Myths that stressed how everything was all for the best, that one family’s joy was not predicated upon one woman’s sorrow, that genetics are not necessarily important, that your historical backstory ought to be jettisoned to preserve your mental wellbeing, and so forth. All the while, the adoptee knows that the answers to all his questions exist in some file somewhere – but he is prohibited from finding out basic personal knowledge that any non-adoptee might consider to be a basic right.

“Why should adoptees have to live their lives with so many unknowns?,” writes Glaser, summarizing the thinking of adoptee-rights activist Shawna Hodgson. “People…are not secrets.”

Reading that, I had my ‘Aha!’ moment: “Other people in my situation also see things that way.” I’d considered that some of us might feel like that – I had no idea that most of us did. These are emotions all of us on the adoption triad have been urged to shunt aside, to compartmentalize and devalue, to even feel guilty about. In American Baby, Glaser demonstrates how that response was inculcated within us by those who controlled adoption in America, how that was part of their plan for us. As an adoptee – even one who has been fortunate in having the chance to untangle that knot of mystery and lies – I found myself more receptive toward an activist point of view.

Again, American Baby succeeds in three ways: as a history of adoption in the United States; as a narrative of what the members of the adoption triad live through; and as an affirmation of adoptees’ identity and rights. As an adoptee, my feeling is that Gabrielle Glaser has written the most essential and humane book about adoption out there. For anyone wishing to understand the subject, this is where to start.