The Family Nobody Wanted, 1954

Source: Copyright Wayne F. Miller, Magnum Photos, available in "Life Visits a One-Family U.N." Life Magazine, November 1951.

Americans saw this picture of the Dosses, a “One-Family United Nations,” in Life in 1951.

Source: Copyright Wayne F. Miller, Magnum Photos, available in "Life Visits a One-Family U.N." Life Magazine, November 1951.

Two of the Doss children recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school. Their story suggested that making families internationally and transracially could be patriotic.

Stories about adoptive families who defied matching at midcentury were important because they offered examples of how love might triumph over difference at a time when difference was presumed to be an obstacle to stability and realness in family life. The Family Nobody Wanted was the single most popular story of this kind, effectively translating the ideas of such critics as Pearl S. Buck and Justine Wise Polier into narrative form and advancing the case for transracial and international adoptions. The book was serialized, picked up by major book clubs, and dramatized on film. It went through two dozen printings, was translated into seven languages, and remained in print for three decades.

The Doss family came to public attention in the pages of Reader’s Digest and Life in the late 1940s and early 1950s, where they were presented as a “United Nations Family” that was endearingly ordinary at the same time as it offered a glimpse at difference that was unusual and unsettling. The Family Nobody Wanted, written by Helen Doss and published in 1954, told the full story. Helen Doss and her minister-in-training husband Carl were a young California couple. Infertile at a time when motherhood was the prerequisite to female fulfillment, Helen wanted nothing in the world more than to have a “happy, normal little family.” After adopting one infant who matched them perfectly, they wanted more children but were frustrated by the lengthy waiting periods for white babies. And so Helen and Carl Doss, whose only desire was to expand their family, ended up with twelve children: Filipino, Hawaiian, Balinese, Malayan, Indian, Mexican, and Native American, in various combinations.

Some were afflicted by a host of other special needs—one child had a tumor on her forehead, another was described as mentally retarded—but these defects quickly disappeared and the Doss children blossomed in their family filled with acceptance, faith, and love. Separately, they appeared exotic, but together they were just adorable American kids. Nor were their parents unusual. The Dosses just happened to think that love had more to do with making kinship than blood. Even so, The Family Nobody Wanted was more than a heart-warming story. It was good propaganda at a time of global anti-communism and domestic racial strife. Familial harmony among races and nations, however rare, was an answer to the accusation that Cold War policy hypocritically insisted on equality abroad while tolerating inequality at home. The Dosses proved that Americans believed prejudice was irrational and unpatriotic.

Their story hinted at racial realities so virulent that not even love could overcome them. In all the years they adopted and raised children, the Dosses never once adopted an African-American child. Their only effort to adopt a half-black German war orphan, four-year-old Gretchen, met such resistance among friends and family members (Carl’s own mother swore that “no nigger will call me Grandma”) that they finally gave up and helped to locate a “Negro” couple interested in adopting the child. Helen Doss was happy when Gretchen found parents exactly “the same warm toast shade that she was.”

It is revealing that the publication of The Family Nobody Wanted coincided with Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court case that ended segregated schooling and also ushered in a lengthy period of violent resistance to integration. For the African-American children whose fates were most closely tied to that legal revolution, love most certainly did have a color.

 

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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
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