If you’re not a member of the so-called adoption triad, the name Betty Jean Lifton may not be familiar to you. But she was a pioneer in adoption reform. In Ms. Lifton’s New York Times obituary, Margalit Fox describes her as “a writer, adoptee and adoption-reform advocate whose books — searing condemnations of the secrecy that traditionally shrouded adoption — became touchstones for adoptees throughout the world.”
Ms. Lifton, who died on November 19 in Boston, was one of the first adoptees to write about the possible psychological harm of adoption. In “Twice Born: Memoirs of an Adopted Daughter,” published in 1975, Ms. Lifton chronicled her search for her birth mother. She covered similar territory in “Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience” and “Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness.”
An outspoken advocate for unsealing adoption records, Ms. Lifton counseled adoptees and their families.
Ms. Lifton grew up in a time where adoptive parents often didn’t even tell their children they were adopted or, as in Ms. Lifton’s case, they waited until they were older before telling them (Ms. Lifton was 7 when she learned she was adopted). Adoptive parents often passed on a feeling of shame to their adoptive children and imparted false information to them (in Ms. Lifton’s case, she was told that her birth parents died, although that wasn’t the case).
Not surprisingly, Ms. Lifton said she suffered from feelings of confusion and loss over the lack of a cohesive personal history. Many adoptees of that generation could relate.
“I say that society, by sealing birth records, by cutting adoptees off from their biological past, by keeping secrets from them, has made them into a separate breed, unreal even to themselves,” she wrote in “Twice Born.”
Ms. Lifton and I grew up in very different adoption climates. While her adoption was shrouded in secrecy and shame, growing up in the 1970s, I was taught to feel special simply because I was “chosen.” My parents told me I was adopted from the time I was a baby. It was never a secret. They shared whatever information they had about my birth family.
Unfortunately, we would later find out that the information the agency had given them was incomplete and misleading.
Although I never met Ms. Lifton, I had a personal connection to her. Back in 2000, before I became a parent, I wrote an essay for Redbook entitled “Why I Don’t Want to Find My Birth Mother.” For my research, I interviewed Ms. Lifton.
She insisted that I was angry about being relinquished for adoption and that if I didn’t want to search for my biological family, I was in denial. She told me that adoptees can only be fulfilled by reuniting with their birth parents.
I still feel strongly that it’s possible for adoptees to be happy whether they search or don’t search for birth parents (adoptees who search are called ungrateful and ones who don’t are accused of being in denial).
But looking back at our conversation now, I see how defensive I was when speaking with Ms. Lifton. She was right that I glossed over the reality of adoption. Along with the tremendous gain (parents gain a child, a child gains a home), there is a loss. Somehow, I had managed to only see the positive in the situation and ignored the fact that as happy as I was with my adoptive family, I had a history before I was placed with them.
I couldn’t know when speaking with Ms. Lifton that five years later, I would be contacted by Louise Wise Services, the adoption agency that had placed me. They had news for me: I had an identical twin sister and she was looking for me. Together, my newfound sister and I teamed up to research our birth family and the reasons for our separation. We wrote a book, “Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited” about our experience.
Luckily, thanks to Ms. Lifton and other adoption crusaders, the face of adoption continues to change and there are now more open adoptions. As I’ve written before for Strollerderby, I’m in favor of full disclosure about adoptions. I only wish I had another chance to speak to Ms. Lifton and tell her about my own adoption journey.