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

  • Review
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.

Deb­o­rah Miller received rab­bini­cal ordi­na­tion at the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary. She lives in New Jer­sey with her hus­band and daugh­ter, where she serves as a hos­pice chap­lain and teacher.

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