Amer­i­can Baby: A Moth­er, a Child, and the Shad­ow His­to­ry of Adoption

By – July 14, 2021

In this metic­u­lous­ly researched book, Gabrielle Glaser gives her read­ers a detailed and empa­thet­ic por­trait of adop­tion in twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. Glaser cen­ters her writ­ing on the expe­ri­ences of Mar­garet Erle and the baby boy she gave up for adop­tion in 1961, fol­low­ing the impact of this deci­sion across coun­tries and upon gen­er­a­tions of fam­i­lies. The his­to­ry that she uncov­ers is often dis­com­fit­ing, and often sim­ply cru­el; par­ents, doc­tors, and ser­vice work­ers con­sid­ered it more impor­tant to uphold the stan­dards of pro­pri­ety and social engi­neer­ing than to pro­vide care.

After fif­teen-year-old Mar­garet begins a romance with high school class­mate George Katz, much to both their par­ents’ dis­ap­proval, she becomes preg­nant after los­ing her vir­gin­i­ty. Her moth­er places her in Lake­view, a home for unwed preg­nant women. After the baby, David, is born, Mar­garet and George insist on rais­ing him them­selves, until a social work­er threat­ens Mar­garet with juve­nile delin­quen­cy. The rest of the sto­ry fol­lows David’s expe­ri­ence as an adoptee and the even­tu­al reuni­fi­ca­tion of moth­er and son.

Glaser’s writ­ing about adop­tion also depicts the broad­er cul­tur­al his­to­ry of the North Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Erle’s sto­ry begins with a fam­i­ly trau­ma­tized by their escape from the Nazis and the pres­sures of start­ing over again in a new coun­try. Both the young birth par­ents and the old­er adop­tive par­ents (who are also Holo­caust sur­vivors) find them­selves at the mer­cy of the insti­tu­tions estab­lished by New York’s wealthy Jew­ish elite. The decades imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing the war were full of oppor­tu­ni­ty for bright, aspir­ing young Jew­ish adults, but upward social and eco­nom­ic mobil­i­ty also had costs.

The book does not shy away from the iden­ti­ty crises from which adopt­ed chil­dren often suf­fer. Even as Glaser acknowl­edges the love that adopt­ed fam­i­lies share, this is not a warm and fuzzy tale from the cab­bage patch. With the end of the book focus­ing on advo­ca­cy work being done by and on behalf of adopt­ed chil­dren (and those who are now adults), Glaser suc­ceeds at point­ing out the impact of past adop­tion prac­tices and how they con­tin­ue to res­onate today.

The emo­tion­al charge of Glaser’s writ­ing gives it a sense of urgency, and the sto­ries she tells will deeply res­onate with readers.

Deb­by Miller is a long-time board mem­ber of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, serv­ing on its Fic­tion com­mit­tee, and lat­er found­ing the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for Book Clubs. She is cur­rent­ly a Vice Pres­i­dent of the orga­ni­za­tion. Deb­by is based in Greens­boro, NC and has been involved in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty through Nation­al Coun­cil of Jew­ish Women (NCJW), AIPAC, B’nai Shalom and the Fed­er­a­tion. She was pres­i­dent of the local Women’s Divi­sion and cam­paign chair, and also got involved in the Nation­al Women’s Divi­sion. One of her pri­ma­ry phil­an­thropic endeav­ors is her work with JDC, where she has been a mem­ber of the board since 1994

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Gabrielle Glaser

  1. Every fam­i­ly is built on a series of inter­re­la­tion­ships that every­one under­stands — or at least thinks they do. When reunions like David’s and Mar­garet’s occur, the process of entire­ly reimag­in­ing the fam­i­ly struc­ture is often fraught. Imag­ine mem­bers of your fam­i­ly sud­den­ly dis­cov­er­ing they had an addi­tion­al child or sib­ling. Adoptees, mean­while, meet an entire­ly new branch of fam­i­ly who are unknown but deeply imag­ined. What that might be like? How would you and your close rel­a­tives feel about meet­ing and accept­ing anoth­er branch of your fam­i­ly tree? How would you feel meet­ing sib­lings and cousins you nev­er knew existed?

  2. AMER­I­CAN BABY is a book with many lay­ers. It exam­ines Mar­garet’s sto­ry as a young Jew­ish woman in New York City most ful­ly, but it also explores a peri­od in which the abil­i­ty of young women to con­trol their own lives was lim­it­ed by law; med­i­cine; and soci­etal norms. If you did expe­ri­ence those pre-Pill, pre-Roe years as a young woman, what is it like to reflect on your own choic­es about dat­ing and sex? If you are in a younger gen­er­a­tion, could you imag­ine com­ing of age in those years? Do you ever dis­cuss the expec­ta­tions of women in the 1950s and 60s? 

  3. This book chal­lenges the long­stand­ing nar­ra­tive about closed adop­tions of the post­war years — that it was in the best inter­ests of every­one involved, and that the social engi­neer­ing of adop­tion would be seam­less. The adopt­ed sons and daugh­ters would grow up in fam­i­lies that wel­comed them, and the shamed unwed preg­nant girls could for­ev­er for­get their shame. To what extent did learn­ing about Mar­garet’s and David’s expe­ri­ences change your view? If so, how?

  4. In an era in which many in the U.S. soci­ety are shift­ing lan­guage to reflect a more sen­si­tive inclu­sion of race and gen­der, adoptees are still fight­ing for changes in the most basic terms. Many birth par­ents — who until the 1980s were often referred to as real par­ents” — now pre­fer the terms nat­ur­al par­ents” or first par­ents.” Peo­ple who were adopt­ed often pre­fer the phrase adopt­ed per­son” over adoptee.” Many of those adopt­ed dur­ing the peri­od this book cov­ers, now mid­dle-aged adults, object when they are described as babies” or chil­dren” rather than sons and daugh­ters. How do you feel about such changes in ter­mi­nol­o­gy? Do they change how you see adoption? 

  5. The Nazis’ slaugh­ter of six mil­lion Euro­pean Jews is the his­tor­i­cal back­drop for the Erle, Katz, and Rosen­berg fam­i­lies. The loss­es suf­fered by Mar­garet’s and George’s par­ents — of fam­i­ly mem­bers, of a cul­ture, of a birth­place — are cen­tral to their iden­ti­ty. How does the weight of his­to­ry play out in the lives of this very ordi­nary peo­ple try­ing to sur­vive in a coun­try and cul­ture very dif­fer­ent from where they had been born? And what do you think they told them­selves about sur­ren­der­ing their first­born grandson? 

  6. Judaism has a cod­i­fied set of rit­u­als aimed at help­ing mourn­ers grieve the loss of loved ones, from pre-bur­ial mourn­ing to shi­va; from shloshim to the first year. Mar­garet and George lost a son, but he was not dead, and their fam­i­lies did not rec­og­nize his dis­ap­pear­ance. Psy­chol­o­gists describe the kind of mourn­ing Mar­garet and George expe­ri­enced as dis­en­fran­chised grief,” one that is not rec­og­nized by soci­ety. Many peo­ple expe­ri­ence loss­es that are dif­fi­cult to acknowl­edge, includ­ing mis­car­riages, or the stig­ma­tized deaths of loved ones due to sui­cide or over­dos­es. Yet there are few sup­port sys­tems and tra­di­tions in place for those expe­ri­enc­ing dis­en­fran­chised grief. Have you ever felt a loss that those around you did not acknowl­edge? How did you cope with it? 

  7. It’s clear today that nei­ther nature nor nur­ture shape us entire­ly. The Rosen­bergs, for exam­ple, taught David the litur­gi­cal tra­di­tions of Cen­tral Euro­pean Jew­ry, at which he excelled. In a par­al­lel devel­op­ment, his birth sis­ter Cheri Rose Katz became a suc­cess­ful opera singer in Europe. How are ways in which nature and nur­ture have com­bined to shape your work life? Your tal­ents? Do you think one out­weighs the other? 

  8. Tens of thou­sands of human beings are cre­at­ed every year in the Unit­ed States with the help of third-par­ty eggs and/​or sperm. Typ­i­cal­ly, these donors are anony­mous, cho­sen from books with short bios, med­ical his­to­ry, and a pho­to or two. Many con­ceived using those meth­ods are already ask­ing about their bio­log­i­cal ori­gins, and wish to know their genet­ic par­ent. What rights do you think they have to locate the per­son whose DNA they share? 

  9. Mar­garet is buoyed by her faith, and has been through­out her life. Despite los­ing David twice, she takes great solace in know­ing Kim, Sam, Noah and Estee, and some­times thinks about the chance meet­ing with Rab­bi Geller’s grand­daugh­ter she had at the Berlin syn­a­gogue. Have you ever expe­ri­enced a sur­pris­ing encounter of geog­ra­phy or cir­cum­stance? An unex­pect­ed con­nec­tion or run-in? What was it?