It was 1961, and Margaret Erle was 16 and pregnant. She knew her Jewish immigrant parents would not approve. Yet she remained hopeful. She was a good girl: didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, donated her babysitting money to war orphans in Israel. And she and the baby’s father, her high-school sweetheart, George Katz, planned to marry. They would raise the baby together.
Instead, Margaret’s mother banished her from their Washington Heights apartment to a maternity home on Staten Island. She gave birth — alone — to a son, Stephen, whom she was not allowed to hold. The agency that ran the home coerced her into signing adoption papers by threatening to send her to juvenile prison. Besides, they assured her, a wealthy diplomat, who could give her son the kind of privileged life she never could, wanted to adopt him that very week.
Margaret ended up marrying George, and the couple had three more children and moved to suburban New Jersey. But she always wondered about her lost son.
It took more than 50 years, but in 2014, she met him. Their joyous reunion — and twin searches for one another — forms the heart of journalist Gabrielle Glaser’s new book, “American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption” (Viking), out Jan. 26. But, as Glaser reveals, it also made Margaret realize just how much the adoption agency had deceived her.
She was not alone: In the decades after World War II, more than 3 million women would give up their children for adoption — most, like Margaret, young, unmarried girls who, according to Glaser, “found themselves funneled into an often-coercive system they could neither understand nor resist.” They were exploited for profit and science. And it would take decades to change that.
Had Margaret and George met and fallen in love in the 1920s or ’30s, things would probably have worked out differently.
In those days, if a girl got pregnant out of wedlock, her parents quickly organized a shotgun wedding. But after World War II, parents had greater aspirations for their daughters and sons. They wanted them to attend college, move to the suburbs and join America’s growing middle class. A surprise pregnancy wasn’t just an embarrassment, but also, writes Glaser, “an obstacle to a better life that needed to ‘go away.’ ”
Ironically during this time, unwed pregnancies soared — from 125,200 cases in 1946 to 403,200 in 1972 — and maternity homes sprang up across the country to hide young pregnant women and facilitate adoptions.
Some of these homes resembled swanky rehab facilities, such as The Willows, in Kansas City, Mo., where upper-class gals could wait out their pregnancies in luxury, practicing their piano and enjoying massages. Known as “the Ritz for unwed mothers,” it cost more to send your daughter there than to finishing school.
Most had a more Dickensian ambiance. As many as 20 girls would share the same cramped dorm room. Some homes were so crowded that girls had to sleep on sofas or examining tables. Others, such as the Florence Crittenton home in Phoenix, felt like prisons. When charges there “dared step outside for fresh (hot) air,” writes Glaser, “they were . . . surrounded by a 12-foot chain-link fence that was topped with barbed wire. They were told that it was for their ‘protection.’ ”
Girls whose parents couldn’t afford the hefty fees associated with even the more modest houses worked to earn their keep, doing laundry, scrubbing the floors and peeling potatoes — even when heavily pregnant.
Lakeview — the Staten Island maternity home where Margaret stayed — was by no means the worst of these institutions. The home, owned by the Jewish adoption agency Louise Wise, allowed George to visit and the girls went on chaperoned excursions to town. But the staff weren’t exactly kind. Supervisors read the girls’ mail and sometimes their journal entries. No one prepared the girls — mostly teens with little awareness of their bodies or even sex — for the trauma of childbirth. The young mothers delivered their babies alone and were quickly separated from their little ones. (When Margaret asked if she could hold her son after he emerged from her womb, the delivery nurse sneered, “Of course not.”)
Once the babies were born, they were placed not with new prospective parents, but in foster care or boarding homes for at least three months. This allowed the agencies and the various doctors they employed to “observe” babies in order to match them with the right couple. But it also allowed them to keep extracting money from adoptive parents, who had to pay to remain on waiting lists. This enabled these so-called nonprofits, writes Glaser, “to expand both their bankrolls and their reputations.” (And it worked: Glaser reports that between 1950 and 1966, Louise Wise’s budget rose more than 600 percent, from $190,000 to $1.34 million.)
Yet, the medical and psychological analyses these agencies conducted were actually harmful for the child. Researchers who worked with Louise Wise conducted all sorts of hare-brained experiments on newborns — shooting rubber bands from a specially designed gun at an infant’s foot to “measure” their cries, which would supposedly gauge their intelligence. (It wouldn’t.) Some agencies placed infants as young as a day old on college campuses for a rotating cast of home economics students to take care of as part of their coursework. Most disturbingly, agencies routinely separated twins and triplets and placed them with different families — in order to track their development over many years. Many of these children — suffering from separation anxiety that they could not understand or explain — would go on to have a host of psychological issues, as demonstrated in the shocking 2018 documentary “Three Identical Strangers,” about triplets separated at birth as part of a nature vs. nurture study. Most adoptive parents had no idea their child was initially part of a set.
Agencies lied about other things, too. They would often obscure the race of a baby. (Since most white couples wanted white babies, biracial children often languished in foster care till adulthood.) They lied about the provenance (if they had snatched the baby from a Native American reservation, for instance). They also embellished the biographies of the baby’s birth parents. For instance, Louise Wise wrote that Margaret was a gifted scholar who wanted to continue her studies at a prestigious science school (untrue), and that George was a fair-skinned, freckled college student (he was swarthy and still in high school). Couples who couldn’t conceive were so desperate for a child that they didn’t ask questions.
There was almost no way to find out the truth anyway. The vast majority of states, including New York, sealed an adoptive child’s original birth certificate. When an adoption was finalized, the baby got a new birth certificate, with their new name and the names of their adoptive parents. If they wanted to find their birth parents, they only could get the original birth certificate with their adoptive parents’ permission — and most children were too timid to ask.
As for Margaret, she tried to find out her son’s whereabouts. She continued to call Louise Wise every time George had a heart attack or was diagnosed with diabetes or had any kind of health issue that could be hereditary, so that the agency could let her son’s new family know. But after one too many dismissive remarks and humiliations from them, she resorted to just praying for her son’s happiness and safety.
In 2014, Margaret received a phone call. It was a man named David Rosenberg, a cantor in his 50s living in Portland, Ore., and he was pretty sure he was her birth son.
It turned out David had a wonderful life, with caring adoptive parents. But it was clear that the agency had lied to Margaret all those years ago. David was not adopted by a diplomat right away, but spent eight months in foster care, subjected to those horrific pain-inflicting tests that measured babies’ cries. His first adoptive parents “returned” him after just 11 days, saying that the arrangement wasn’t working out. (His foster mother reported that “for days afterward, he was upset, and seemed troubled by nightmares.”)
Nearly two years after his birth, David was finally adopted by Ephraim and Esther Rosenberg, Holocaust survivors who lived in The Bronx, before moving to Toronto. Ephraim was a beloved cantor and Jewish scholar, and the couple lavished David with love and were upfront about his adoption. Still, David always wondered about his birth mother, why she abandoned him, but he didn’t want to risk hurting his adoptive parents’ feelings by asking too many questions.
Finally in December 2013, David — now married with three children of his own — did a DNA test through 23andMe, which led him to find Margaret a few months later, in May 2014. He also connected with his full siblings and was delighted that his “baby sister” was a singer just like him. The rise of DNA testing helped connect adopted children with their birth parents. But attitudes about sex and adoption were changing, too. The legalization of abortion in 1973 drastically reduced the number of unwed mothers. Women who wanted to have children without being married could now do so without being ostracized from society. And adoption-rights advocates had helped push states to unseal their birth certificates and encourage open adoptions, where mothers connect with prospective adoptive parents before the birth of a baby — and often maintain a relationship with them and the child.
Margaret and her opera-singer daughter Cheri finally met David in person in July 2014, staying with him in Portland for several weeks. It was bittersweet: David was dying of thyroid cancer, and he was weak and frail. But he embraced his long-lost family with vigor, showing them around Portland and happily eating the chocolate cakes Margaret baked for him. When they left in mid-August, he cried, “I don’t want you to leave.”
In November, he called his mom one last time.
“I love you,” he said to her. “Thank you so much for trying so hard to find me.”