The Case of Michael B, 1965

This case summary from Louise Wise Services was written when the subject, Michael, was a young adult. It illustrates the conviction that interest in search and reunion was a sign of trouble in adoptees and their adoptive parents, mothers above all, whereas lack of such interest indicated positive adjustment. These beliefs were common among psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, social workers and other helping professionals, especially during the period from 1940-1970. They were the starting point for many psychopathology studies and the basis for home studies that emphasized psychological interpretation. They also served to shore up policies of confidentiality and sealed records.

There was a unique source of data in this case record—the detailed description by a professional observer of a home visit when Michael was 4. His interaction with his mother and his sister is well described. At the same age Michael was tested by a psychologist, some of whose data are also in this record. . . .

Michael was a very bright (IQ 129), handsome, well built, athletic boy. His adoptive parents’ record as applicants to Louise Wise Services unfortunately consisted mostly of correspondence, so there is no data about them prior to adopting Michael. It is clear, however, that they provided well economically, and made an impression upon the agency staff at least to the extent of another placement.

I infer that Mrs. B was able to cope with Michael well prior to Joan’s advent. Her obsessive traits did show up before then—bowel training at 5 months, bladder training at 13 months every hour on the hour, bottle weaning by 8 months—but she was apparently able to control Michael, and thus herself, and not to show overt disturbance until his sister arrived.

Mrs. B was an over-indulgent mother. This lack of realistic setting of limits resulted in Michael’s having an excessive strong reaction to having Joan come into the family. Already very active and assertive, traits praised by Mrs. B and little disciplined by her, he was bossy to Joan, overly possessive about his toys. From his hitting Joan, it is clear that he resented her openly. Mrs. B. was observed as being distressed by this but unable to control it. After much hesitation, she did try to do so by punishing M., but he had a tantrum which further defeated her. . . .

Michael showed definite signs of emotional disequilibrium—nailbiting, bed wetting and tantrums, hyperactivity, all probably clustering about a battle for control between his mother and himself. This he appears to have handled by incorporating some obsessive traits into his own personality—emphasis on achievement, work, appearance.

What was not fought out was the lack of warmth for Michael on his mother’s part. In my opinion, it is this factor which is responsible for most of his current disturbance. He seems to have become overtly disturbed only in late adolescence, when the need for a relationship with a woman became strong. His pattern of searching out a new girl every year and dropping her is evidence both of the strength of this drive in Michael and of his inability to establish a sustained relationship. While he is openly concerned about being abandoned by his natural mother, I suspect this is a displacement from his adoptive mother. I can only speculate that he fails with young women because of his repressed anger at them and mistrust of them, stemming from his relationship with Mrs. B.

How does his being adopted affect his behavior? He has been preoccupied since 5 with the past and with the true identity of his parents. Whatever else it did, Mrs. B’s reading him, The Chosen Child, repeatedly at age 3, did not diminish this curiosity. It is fascinating that Joan does not share his involvement with being adopted. Is this not evidence enough to show that it was not the B’s technique or manner of handling telling of adoption that, per se, was the main dynamic in Michael’s pathologic involvement with it? It suggests that Joan was well integrated into her adoptive parents’ life, whereas Michael was not, for reasons cited earlier.

Michael wants to know all about his mother, but not to meet her. Is this a defense against incest desires?

Mrs. Miller’s handling of her meeting with Michael was excellent. I was particularly impressed by her skill in imparting to him the agency’s knowledge of his past, and her allowing him to take a piece of paper as a tangible, concrete “result” of his long search. Her skillful interpretation of his emotional disturbance, leading him away from his blind search for his mother to the more realistic approach of psychotherapy, was a tour de force.


Source: Dr. Arthur Peck, Summary of B Case, July 16, 1965, Viola W. Bernard Papers, Box 162, Folder 5, Archives and Special Collections, Augustus C. Long Library, Columbia University.

Page Updated: 2-24-2012
Site designed by:

To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
(541) 346-3118
About the Project and the Author
© Ellen Herman