Adoption Narratives


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

This drawing, titled “Legitimate and Illegitimate,” was based on a sculpture by artist and activist Jean M. Paton, who included it in her pioneering collection of adoption narratives, The Adopted Break Silence, 1954. Paton's vision of “the adoptive character” illustrated the painfully divided self that often appeared in adoption stories and provided the rationale for search and reunion.



Telling stories about adoption has played a crucial role in shaping and reshaping the modern adoption experience. Today, autobiographical narratives by birth parents, adoptees, and adoptive parents are as likely to appear on the Internet or in broadcast media as in print. But stories have served historically as crucial vehicles for adoption reform, facilitating the formation of adoption communities and altering the way the parties to adoption felt about themselves and one another. They have also helped to bring adoption to the attention of a broad public and have effectively conveyed the message—present in bible stories and fairy tales—that adoption is at once unique and universal. Only a tiny minority of children and families are touched by adoption, but as a symbol of identity and belonging, adoption speaks to us all.

Early in the twentieth century, when children available for adoption were suspected of being “bad seeds,” their birth parents were presumed to be morally flawed, and child welfare professionals believed that adoption should be avoided at all costs, it took courage to come forward and share adoption stories. Fictional portrayals of adoption were more common than real-life stories, and they often took the form of formulaic and sentimental moral parables. Most people who wrote about actual experiences were adoptive mothers, perhaps because their claim to voluntary motherhood made them appear more virtuous than birth mothers, who had violated the rules of maternity by giving their children away. These brave souls often told their stories anonymously, as if to acknowledge that adoption evoked as much dismay as curiosity.

Narratives by adult adoptees were scarce before 1940, but they invariably raised elemental questions about identity and belonging and described early quests for community among adopted persons who wished to find others like themselves. By midcentury, policies of confidentiality and sealed records had been instituted by most states. Their benign goal—to protect children from the pain of being different—paradoxically reinforced the stigma associated with natal families, life before adoption, and efforts to locate relatives, making these stories even more difficult to tell openly.

Adoption stories have often been narrated indirectly, in the third person as well as the first. Social workers recorded their impressions and countless details in case files and conferences. Researchers conducting outcome studies compiled what amounted to collective adoption biographies. Lawyers deployed personal testimonies to persuade judges and juries of the emotional damage done by the culture of secrecy. Curiously enough, “telling” was not an invitation to share autobiographical details. It described a mandatory ritual, dreaded by many parents, of informing children about their adopted status. Telling was a story, but one that included few or no references to specific narrative details.

Adoption was a very sensitive subject, connected to other sensitive subjects like infertility and illegitimacy. The result was that magazine articles and books describing the personal joys and sorrows of adoption attracted a great deal of curiosity from the general public. The Family Nobody Wanted (1954) was such a popular narrative that Hollywood made two films out of it. Narratives touching on controversial issues, such as transracial adoptions, have been the most likely to be told through the medium of television or in feature films. But adoption stories of all kinds were eagerly read by people relieved to discover that others felt as they did. When Jean Paton interviewed adult adoptees and published their thoughts and feelings in 1954, she established an organization called the Life History Study Center and called her book The Adopted Break Silence.

Stories were the antidote to secrecy. They pointed the way out of the adoption closet. That is what made them powerful, frightening, and enticing all at the same time. Narratives in which adults adoptees described the pain associated with mysterious origins, the need to search for natal kin, and the deep longing for the connection of physical resemblance were significant in launching a movement for search and reunion. The Search for Anna Fisher (1973) was a classic in this genre, along with Betty Jean Lifton’s Twice Born: Memoirs of an Adopted Daughter (1975).

Adoptee narratives were soon joined by a flood of accounts by birth mothers who testified to the long-term grief associated with surrender, figured blood as an essential component of healthy identity, and insisted that adoption had far more to do with coercion than with choice. Stories like Carol Schaefer’s The Other Mother (1991), which was turned into a television movie, brought renewed attention to such organizations as Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association and Concerned United Birthparents. These groups were pioneers in mobilizing narratives for political purposes. In the 1970s and 1980s, stories figured prominently in lawsuits, such as ALMA v. Lefkowitz, that sought access to adoption records on the theory that adoptees’ biographies had been buried and distorted along with their birth certificates.

Since 1970, narratives have chronicled a sea change in thinking about adoption and have also given expression to a multiplicity of adoption experiences, such as transracial, special needs, international, and gay and lesbian adoptions. Some grew out of notorious cases of conflict and tragedy. Robby DeBoer’s Losing Jessica recounted a widely publicized case of contested adoption. Michele Launders’ I Wish You Didn’t Know My Name was written by the birth mother of Lisa Steinberg, a child who died at the hands of her abusive adopters.

During the past three decades, more stories have described more adoptions more openly than in the past, but they have done so with more ambivalence. Margaret Moorman’s Waiting to Forget (by a birth mother), Ann Kimble Loux’s The Limits of Hope (by an adoptive mother), and Deann Borshay Liem’s documentary film, “First Person Plural” (by an adoptee) are eloquent examples. They testify that adoption is an always distinctive, often difficult, form of family.

One thing that has changed very little in adoption narratives is the female voice. Stories by male adoptees and adoptive fathers are rare, and birth fathers’ stories are even rarer. Adoption memoirs are still overwhelming authored by women. Is this because women are considered specialists in “private” life experiences such as childhood and family? Because women are more comfortable with the confessional and emotional style of autobiography? Whatever the reason, this gendered dimension of adoption narratives contrasts sharply with the fact that adoption is a very public family-making operation, and one that has been the target of almost constant political and legal change throughout its modern history.


Document Excerpts

Page Updated: 2-24-2012
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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
(541) 346-3699
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