Jean M. Paton, The Adopted Break Silence, 1954


Source: Jean M. Paton, The Adopted Break Silence (Philadelphia: Life History Study Center, 1954).

A sculpture by Jean Paton titled “Insight” was the inspiration for this illustration, which appeared on the cover of The Adopted Break Silence.

Jean Paton was a pioneering reformer and founder of the adoptee support and search network, Orphan Voyage, established in 1953. She was a talented sculptor as well as a tireless activist trained in social work. Born in Detroit in 1908, she had no difficulty obtaining her own adoption records and original birth certificate, including her birth parents’ names, from the probate court in 1942. Several years later, she met her birth mother, and the experience changed her forever. By the time she began collecting the forty life stories that appeared in The Adopted Break Silence, most states in the country had instituted policies of confidentiality and sealed records, making search and reunion a virtual impossibility. Paton spent her adult life seeking to overturn adoption secrecy and frequently took positions well in advance of her contemporaries. She suggested the creation of a mutual consent registry as early as 1949, for example, and embraced the term “bastard” in the 1970s, declaring “Bastards Are Beautiful” long before the era of Bastard Nation. One of her most important arguments, evident in this excerpt, was that forever considering adoptees as children made the lifelong impact of adoption invisible. Hearing the voices of adult adoptees, she believed, was essential to learning more about the diversity of adoption experiences. Jean Paton died in 2002. For more on Paton, see Wayne Carp's blog, The Biography of Jean Paton.

Everyone except the adopted has been talking about adoption. About certain parts of adoption, the parts that can be seen and the parts that can be heard. The rest is silence—or was.

What other human institution has so little comment from those within it? Of what other group is so much said from without and so little from within? How has it been that the adopted seem to have had nothing to say, whereas it is conspicuous herein that they have waited only for an invitation, and that their thoughts have been long?

These questions put us to wondering if there is not some taboo within the institution of adoption which serves to forbid or at least to discourage speech. . . .

These obstacles to the understanding of adoption cannot be moved. The adopted, and their natural and adopted parents, must themselves come to a solution without benefit of a general understanding. Let them look away from their paralyzing silences and their secrets and see whether speech has something to offer them. . . .

In August of 1953, we decided to attempt to get in touch with other adopted adults, and to obtain reports of the adoptions. We had no knowledge that any similar effort had been attempted, but felt that it was more than possible that many adults besides ourselves had outspoken views on the subject of adoption, and that, if properly approached, they would cooperate. In order to give some beginning effect to our attempt we established, in informal fashion, the Life History Study Center and assigned to it the task of gathering and publishing such material. The Center’s name was selected in order to give emphasis to the view that adoption—among other human institutions—is a process which influences an individual life for many years beyond its initiation.

For the first request, we selected a medium which was available at moderate cost and one through which we hoped to reach a sufficient number of responsive adopted people. The following notice was inserted, for 7 weeks, between September 19 and November 14 in the Personals Column of the classified advertising section of the Saturday Review of Literature.

“Were you adopted before 1932? Your experience may assist research in adoption from the point of view of experienced adult. For details write: Life History Study Center, 222 N. Hicks St., Philadelphia 2, Penna.” . . .

It was our hope, by these procedures, to obtain source material; to learn as directly as possible the nature of the elements in the fringe around the group known as “the adopted”; and to moderate all individual prejudice (including our own) while at the same time emphasizing the fact that the adoptive status is properly a matter of adult concern and should so be considered in all studies and methods. Beyond this, it seemed good that the people most directly involved with an institution should take voice concerning it. . . .


Group A (It worked) 5 men; 17 women

Simply stated:
I was loved and treated as their own child.

It has always seemed logical, natural, and undoubtedly was beneficial.

The adopted parents were wise and loving people. Also I was 12 years old at the time of the adoption.

To me, my adopted parents are my real parents. . . .

Next, Advantages received:
Any alternative possible would have been institutional life. My adopted parents were fine people. I was carefully brought up as their own, given a university education.

I received opportunities (college education, travel, etc.) which I’m sure I wouldn’t have received from my real parent. Although I have no idea what my life would have been if my mother had kept me, I have never doubted that I fared better by being adopted. . . .

Group B (It did and it didn’t) 5 men; 3 women

So hard to say—generally I would say it had its moments, as a small child and before I really knew what things were all about. Adolescence was awful, marriage. . .and then a return and a fairly pleasant relationship until their death.

What shall be the criteria? A happy, wholesome relationship, or the production of a useful, fairly well-adjusted individual? The relationship was neither wholesome nor happy, but I have lived on, finished college, married. . . We have two sons.

I was given a fine education, a most comfortable home and, in material things, pretty much what I desired. And you might say it didn’t work in that within a week after my 21st birthday, I had to leave home. My foster parents and I have not seen each other since. . . .

Group C (It didn’t work) 4 men; 5 women

No pretenses:
I didn’t like my foster parents, and it is my belief they didn’t like me.

It seemed to me they took me as an obligation and only as a maid in the home.

Foster parent inadequacy (illustrated in reports):
My foster parents separated when I was 12 years old after battling for many years. I have supported myself from age 15.

My foster mother was and is a psychopath with whom I had and have absolutely nothing in common. She is a brutal and domineering woman. My foster mother was emotionally unfitted to rear a child. Left me with a feeling of insecurity and an inferiority complex. Made for an unhappy childhood.

It didn’t work for the reason that the people that adopted me were emotionally immature.

Subjective elements and apparent misplacements:
Too pronounced a gap between intellectual level of foster-parents and that of the child. Too much religious fanaticism on part of foster-mother, with the inevitable concomitant of authoritarianism, anti-sexuality, etc.

I am not secure. I know very little about my background.

Group A

My experience as an adopted person has seemed neither tragic nor traumatic to me. In this regard I have been fortunate, more fortunate than many adopted persons, and many persons who were [not] adopted but born into families who did not truly want them. Living is a series of circumstances.

My family position has always been secure; in the community, I have never encountered any situation where my adoptive status has made me feel insecure. Even as a child, I can recall no situation where I was taunted for being adopted. . . . I think that I became so well adjusted to the situation that I am unable to answer your final questions. I suppose the important thing to adopted people is that the adoption work out so well that you never think of yourself as being adopted. . . .

Group B

It is very difficult to say which problems of one’s life may be ascribed to being an adopted person. Some, I think, would take the experience in stride; others would go to pieces. But then, would these particular persons have been very different if they had had “normal” lives?

On the whole I think it is certainly preferable for a deserted or unwanted child to be given the advantages of a family rather than an institutional life. At the time I was adopted I think that there was probably little attention paid to “matching” the parties involved. With the personality and other tests which are available today they are probably doing a better job. . . .

Group C

I would have preferred to have had parents who really wanted a child. My own parents never needed me, I was left in their hands. I am now forced to be grateful for something I never asked for and never wanted. I feel that children who are adopted should, since early age, be told of their adoption. They should also be told that they are wanted and loved. Affection makes a child feel secure. I don’t think children should be adopted by wealthy people, not unless in extraordinary cases. The wealthier the parents, the more a child feels like a luxury toy, or the victim of people’s wish to show off their 'kindness'. . . .

Adoption of a child is something that should be approached with care. Only kind, intelligent people should adopt children. It is quite a problem to cope with an adopted child because we are all so different. What might hurt me, wouldn’t have hurt another, and so on. . . .

I do not believe that I lived through the years of torment I have described simply because I was an adopted child. The desire to belong is universal and everyone, who, through any set of circumstances, has lost his home moorings, or been deprived of them, has that longing. One finds it just as tragically present in the thousands of past-middle-age men and women who have lost their mates, whose children no longer need them, as one does among children. The natural moorings are gone and they can’t seem to realize, or haven’t made the effort to establish them, that there are real substitutes. We have compassion, sympathy, and understanding, usually, as experience has taught us the need for such qualities. I don’t think the adopted are a heterogeneous group. I think some have experiences which they can share and find mutual help in the sharing. But they are experiences which they might just as profitably share with others, who, while not adopted, for one reason or another feel alone. I think we can help children who are adopted, or have been, by helping them to realize that their position is not un-natural and not unique. Some are very happy, well adjusted and content—some are not, but so, too, it is with children and adults everywhere. . . .


Source: Jean M. Paton, The Adopted Break Silence (Philadelphia: Life History Study Center, 1954), 3, 6-8, 49-51, 143, 148, 151-152, 155.

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