narratives written by adoptees themselves were rare during the
first half of the twentieth century. In this report, the author
informally surveyed nine acquaintances who had also been adopted
around 1900. Her stories of success and failure reinforced the professional
consensus about telling. The
anecdotes about adoptees who never were told, and turned out badly
as a result, suggested that a fair number of adoptive parents kept
the fact of adoption secret for a very long time, or even forever.
Roger and Mary and Jack, Alice and Harold, Hermione, Jane, the
sisters Marie and Monica, and I myself were all children together—children
who started out in life inauspiciously, who were gathered up by
society and redistributed among those who wanted us instead of being
left with those who didn’t. Where are we today? . . .
One or two of us are doing credit enough to our families, notably
the gay and pretty Alice, and Roger, who fitted into a family of
“real” children with surprising success. Several others,
particularly the sisters and Jack, are making their own way in the
world, and so am I; though our parents are not particularly impressed
over the means we have chosen. But Mary, through no fault of her
own, is an anxious and unhappy person, Harold is almost the stock
example of a failure and a drifter, Jane is a flourishing prostitute,
and Hermione is dead.
What was the matter with us, anyway? . . .
Some time ago I inquired of several adoption agencies whether
they had any information on the adult lives of the children they
had placed; and as none had any real material on the subject I determined
to find out what I could for myself, by looking up the histories
of the adopted children I had known. I wanted to discover how much
the fact of adoption had to do with the adult success or failure
of each one. I could only conclude, from what I found out, that
it had almost everything to do with it. . . .
The danger that threatens an adopted child is not his uncertain
heredity, his obscure background or doubtful legitimacy, but the
fact that his foster-parents take him ready-made, and then expect
him to grow and evolve according to specifications which they set
down as definitely as they select his sex or the color of his hair.
When in any way he disappoints them, the trouble begins. . . .
Jane. . .was five years old at the time of her adoption,
and she was taken by neighbors of my family, so that I saw her many
times. . . . Jane had brains, good looks, and a way
with her which won over governesses and tutors, who were inclined
to spoil her. Her parents on the other hand were strict, as they
had determined to make her into an impossible creature, gay but
sedate, lively but content to keep her liveliness exclusively for
Jane came to adolescence very early, and began to run around with
boys in a perfectly natural fashion. . . . Adopted
children, with their uncertain parentage, were notably immoral of
course, so Jane was warned, scolded, and beaten for doing what other
girls of her age were allowed to do.
One day, when she was tired of so much opposition, and protested
more than usual about being kept from the amusements that others
enjoyed, the parents’ patience gave out and they told her
that she was not behaving as a child of theirs, and indeed was none,
but the true daughter of her mother, who had never been married.
This was meant as a moral lesson, but it was such a shock to Jane
that it resulted in her running away. . . . Her career
as a prostitute had begun, and the family cast her off. . . .
I have never understood why people supposed that a child would
not love them or be devoted to them if it knew it was not their
own. I really believe this idea is caused by the latent fear on
their part that they may not love the strange child. They transfer
the doubt over to the child, and suppose he will not love anyone
to whom he does not belong by blood.
In my own case, I never thought for a moment that I was the child
of those who brought me up; and yet I loved them devotedly, as least
as much as their own children love them. They had the sense to tell
me about my real origin so early that I took it quite for granted,
and never felt that there was anything odd about my situation. I
knew that both of my real parents had been related to my foster-parents,
and that the latter had disliked my father and been devoted to my
mother. The qualifies of both were talked about so much in my presence
that I soon learned the reasons for their feelings, and also discovered
why I had been taken into the new family.
It was not from love but from a sense of duty. The more I happened
to resemble my mother, the more comfortable life became for me;
and the more I indulged in any of the interests of my father, the
more difficult it became, so that quite naturally I fell into the
habit of suppressing whatever in me was like my father, even to
his hobbies and his taste in colors or in things to eat, and making
the most of whatever endowments I had from my mother. . . .
I grew up among several sisters and brothers who were “real”
children of the family, and who were, it is true, better treated
than I was. But at least I knew why, and with a child’s lurid
imagination I pictured to myself what might have happened if nobody
had taken me in, and so I was grateful. My foster-parents were wise,
and I really loved them, and I cannot feel at all sorry for the
early responsibilities which were mine, nor think I had a hard time,
as children’s times go. I wanted all along to grow up and
make my own way in the world. I never wanted to keep on being a
child. And my foster brothers and sisters have had a harder time
of it in the world than I have, for they did not discover until
they were grown up that the world is a rough place.