I’ve always been fascinated by adoption; a lot of the books I read when I was younger featured characters who had been adopted or spoke about adoption in some way (looking back, it’s likely that adoption was finally becoming more normalized in the culture at that time and that this was likely the start of representation for people touched by adoption in kid lit). I’ve continued reading about it as an adult, delving into a lot of memoirs that focus on the different sides of adoption and the many emotions behind it. I was shocked when I read The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption by Barbara Bisantz Raymond, and depressed and full of rage after reading The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe V. Wade by Ann Fessler. Those two book are why I knew immediately that I wanted to read American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption by Gabrielle Glaser (Viking, 2021) the second I learned about it.
Margaret Erle was an average Jewish Baby Boomer teenager, in love with her boyfriend George in the early 1960s. When Margaret became unexpectedly pregnant, however, she fell prey to the societal shame of the time, shame that told her she was a sexual deviant, that she wasn’t capable of raising a child, that girls who had sex before marriage were the scourge of the earth and their babies deserved better than to be raised by them. Despite she and George wanting to get married, Margaret was sent to a home for unwed mothers to wait out her pregnancy. When she gave birth, her baby was taken from her and placed into foster care. Margaret never lost hope that she and George could get him back, but when the agency told her that if she didn’t sign papers relinquishing her son for adoption, they would send her to prison (a threat that, thanks to the wayward girl laws at the time, they could have legally followed through with. But hey, who needs feminism, right???), and Margaret knew she was out of luck.
Despite the agency’s demand that she forget this ever happened, Margaret unsurprisingly never forgot her son, never stopped looking for him or wondering where he was…or worrying if he was okay. Not when she and George got married just a few months after the baby’s birth. Not when she gave birth to her son’s full siblings. Not when they grew to adults and she became a grandmother. And thanks to a series of both fortunate and unfortunate events, her son eventually began looking for her, too.
Interspersed with the story of Margaret and her son are the history of those homes for unwed girls in the United States, where young girls who fell pregnant outside of marriage were sent so that they didn’t bring shame to their families and instead were forced into a lifetime of depression, rage, and trauma. The homes ranged from adequate to treating the young women like chattel slaves. Their babies were a product in high demand; the mothers were given all the respect of a wrapper stuck to one’s shoe.
This is an amazing book, highly emotional and disturbing in what our country did (and what a disturbing amount of people want to go back to). It bears a lot of resemblance to The Girls Who Went Away, but with one family (as it is) at the forefront, with history being the background. The Girls Who Went Away is more history, with various interviewees scattered around to illustrate the damage the history caused. Both are utterly incredible books; I can’t recommend either highly enough.
American Baby is the story of an unnecessary tragedy, of pain that never had to happen and a family that never needed to be separated. While the agency responsible for separating Margaret from her son no longer exists, but there are still homes like this, and while the coercion may not be entirely the same, I’m looking at the website for the home for pregnant girls in my hometown, and…they seem like they heavily push adoption. And adoption can be a great thing, but it’s not without its own trauma for both birthmother and child, and shouldn’t be something entered into lightly (and I’m deeply uncomfortable with the forced-religious aspect of this particular home. “Girls MUST go to church and participate in weekly Bible study.” Sigh) Anyway, beware of places like these and vet them before giving them your money. There’s no need to support places that give adoption a bad name and further the trauma that mothers and children already endure.