American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Secret History of Adoption

American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Secret History of Adoption

by Gabrielle Glaser
American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Secret History of Adoption

American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Secret History of Adoption

by Gabrielle Glaser


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A New York Times Notable Book

The shocking truth about postwar adoption in America, told through the bittersweet story of one teenager, the son she was forced to relinquish, and their search to find each other.

“[T]his book about the past might foreshadow a coming shift in the future… ‘I don’t think any legislators in those states who are anti-abortion are actually thinking, “Oh, great, these single women are gonna raise more children.” No, their hope is that those children will be placed for adoption. But is that the reality? I doubt it.’”[says Glaser]” -Mother Jones

During the Baby Boom in 1960s America, women were encouraged to stay home and raise large families, but sex and childbirth were taboo subjects. Premarital sex was common, but birth control was hard to get and abortion was illegal. In 1961, sixteen-year-old Margaret Erle fell in love and became pregnant. Her enraged family sent her to a maternity home, where social workers threatened her with jail until she signed away her parental rights. Her son vanished, his whereabouts and new identity known only to an adoption agency that would never share the slightest detail about his fate.

The adoption business was founded on secrecy and lies. American Baby lays out how a lucrative and exploitative industry removed children from their birth mothers and placed them with hopeful families, fabricating stories about infants' origins and destinations, then closing the door firmly between the parties forever. Adoption agencies and other organizations that purported to help pregnant women struck unethical deals with doctors and researchers for pseudoscientific "assessments," and shamed millions of women into surrendering their children.

The identities of many who were adopted or who surrendered a child in the postwar decades are still locked in sealed files. Gabrielle Glaser dramatically illustrates in Margaret and David’s tale—one they share with millions of Americans—a story of loss, love, and the search for identity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780735224704
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/25/2022
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 524,762
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Gabrielle Glaser is a New York Times bestselling author and journalist whose work on mental health, medicine, and culture has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, and many other publications. She has appeared on many national radio and television programs, including NPR's Fresh Air, All Things Considered, WNYC's On the Media, and The Brian Lehrer Show, NBC's Nightly News, and ABC's World NewsTonight.

Read an Excerpt



Family Matters


When Margaret Erle was six years old, her favorite toys were dolls. She combed their hair and bathed them, kissed their hard plastic foreheads, and rocked them to sleep. Margaret liked to imagine what her own grown-up life would be like one day, away from her New York City apartment. She imagined a spacious house with lots of rooms and even more trees, a big, strong husband, plenty of children, and a menagerie of animals. Whenever she had time to herself, she retreated to her soft pink room and sang lullabies to her little figures. She swaddled them, talked to them, washed and pressed their dresses.


Soon enough, her desire for make-believe had faded: By the time she was eight, she had real babies to tend to. The outgoing Margaret was so trustworthy, parents in her neighborhood asked her to watch their children. Her mother, Gertrude, fretted that she was too young, but Margaret pointed out that she'd had plenty of experience taking care of her little brother, Allen, who was two years younger. And by the time she was finishing fourth grade, Margaret had a busy after-school and weekend schedule, wrangling strollers up and down stairwells and wheeling babies around her block. She boiled bottles and knew instinctively how to hold infants' heads and change their diapers. The giant pins made her a little nervous at first-what if she poked a leg?-but she got the hang of it quickly. She got a dime each time she babysat.


After school she helped Gertrude in the kitchen, peeling carrots and potatoes as soon as her hands were deft enough. She wasn't allowed to touch knives-she could hurt herself, hurt someone else, be reckless. Margaret was helpful and eager, but also careful. Gertrude, who showed little approval and even less affection, had rules, and one was expected to obey.


Like most of her friends in Manhattan's Washington Heights in the 1950s, Margaret was the child of Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe. Her German-born parents never spoke of their past comfortable lives, of the tragedy they'd evaded. Now they waited for disaster in America, even as their kids plunged into its promise. Nobody was warier than Gertrude, who had wounds she both felt and wore. Deserted by her first husband, fate dealt an even crueler blow when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at fifty. She felt that the surgeons who removed her breast also stripped her of identity as a woman, leaving her with scars that stretched from her collarbone to the bottom of her ribcage, red ropes beneath her porcelain skin. A few months after the operation, Margaret came home unexpectedly and caught a glimpse of Gertrude as she dressed behind the bathroom door, opened to let steam escape. Gertrude, suddenly aware of her daughter's gaze, slammed the door shut with one hand as she tucked her bulky foam prosthesis into her bra with the other one.


Silence was how the family coped with their pain: Nobody talked about the breast cancer that had also maimed Margaret's aunt and grandmother. And nobody ever mentioned the relatives the Nazis murdered, or for that matter, the war itself. In fact, any longing for the bourgeois world of music, food, art, and culture Gertrude and Josef had left behind in Europe was also unspoken. While Margaret felt loved by her extended family-cousins, a grandmother, and aunts and uncles who had miraculously reassembled nearby-what the family had lost hung over her childhood like an invisible veil. Her parents spoke German to relatives, and to each other when they were angry, but Margaret knew better than to ever ask questions about what they were discussing. She also didn't ask questions about the pretty blonde that Josef met when he took her and Allen to a nearby park on weekends. Josef always greeted the young woman, Irene, warmly. A few minutes later, Irene's mother would show up to push the children on the swings while Josef and Irene"disappeared" they said, to go chat at a diner for an hour. Margaret somehow understood that coffee was a euphemism. When the two returned, they always seemed in high spirits.


Silence extended to puberty and sex as well. When she got her period at twelve, Margaret had no idea what was happening, so she asked a girlfriend what to do. The friend instructed her how to use sanitary napkins, and Margaret, embarrassed by her own lack of knowledge, pretended to know more than she did. Older girls called menstruation "the curse," and that's certainly what it felt like, another secret not to be broached. Although no one explained its meaning to her, Margaret sensed that it was some kind of milestone in her own femininity. The timing couldn't have been worse: It seemed to have arrived just as her mother's had vanished. She borrowed pads from her aunt, and wadded up the used ones at the bottom of the garbage can.


The Erles were modern Orthodox, abiding by kosher dietary laws and strictly observing the Sabbath as a day of prayer and rest. Margaret was an active member in her synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, where she attended Hebrew school and joined her peers for Torah study groups over bagels on Sunday mornings. She learned to read Hebrew, and drew strength from the ancient prayers she chanted in the separate women's section. While other girls gossiped, Margaret would concentrate on studying. But the synagogue offered another outlet: it was a sanctioned escape from home.


Gertrude had grown up comfortably in Fulda, a small German city with a medieval monastery, a town square with brick Gothic arches, and timbered buildings with fairy-tale spires. Gertrude's father, a shoemaker, had a shop on the ground floor, while the family lived in an airy apartment on the floor above. After high school, the striking brunette took a job as a bookkeeper, and yearned for horizons beyond Fulda. Alone, she set out for the United States, landing in New York in 1927, where she became a governess. One day, a photographer who admired her high cheekbones, ruby lips, and patrician carriage approached her to offer her work as a hat model. Before long, her elegance attracted the notice of a debonair young printer, and they married after a brief courtship. But when the stock market collapsed in 1929, his business did, too, and a year later he"disappeared"without a word. Gertrude came home from work one day to find herself locked out of her apartment. Her husband had failed to pay rent for months.


Humiliated, she had to rely on friends for help, and later learned that her spouse had taken up with a wealthy woman. Eventually they dissolved their marriage. Divorce was shameful, and rare. For a religious Jew, it was more stigmatizing still, and Gertrude fell into deep despair. After a few years, she rallied, forcing herself to socialize at a club for German Žmigrés. There she met a baker named Josef Erle.


The son of a cattle dealer, Josef was the oldest son of thirteen children. He had held a respected job as a yeshiva teacher in the small town of Baisingen and had grown increasingly concerned after the Nazis came to power in 1933. When his father died in 1935, Josef became adamant that the family flee. Two of his married sisters already lived in the United States, and signed the required affidavits promising they would financially support their immigrant relatives. Josef drained the family resources, selling cattle, the house, silver, and china to secure visas for eleven family members before finally leaving Germany himself in 1938. Exhausted and penniless, he arrived in New York at age thirty-five. He shortened his name from Erlebacher to Erle on Ellis Island, still harboring hopes for a new start. It didn't take long for his dreams to dwindle: New York was saturated with Jewish refugee-scholars, and without fluency in English, a teaching position-or any office job-was impossible to obtain. So Josef took the work he could find, landing a job in a relative's bakery. The focus of his life shifted from intellectual inquiry-starting out the day dressed in a tailored jacket and tie-to grueling manual labor. Every morning he rose before sunrise and walked to the bakery, where he put on a white apron and cap and learned to make yeasty challahs and sandwich bread. Josef never complained about his new vocation, but after work, he spent a good half hour coughing before he'd light the first of his many evening cigarettes. Inhaling flour and powdered sugar all day further strained his lungs.


As the war raged in Europe, Gertrude and Josef, by then in their late thirties, put their faith in the future, marrying in 1940. Gertrude was thirty-nine when she had Margaret in 1944, and forty-one when she gave birth to Allen two years later. On the outside, they seemed like the ideal American family. But photographs show more than just new-parent fatigue: although they proudly held their hopeful new Americans-the symbol of their family's unlikely survival-their faces looked worn and solemn, as if the future itself was not to be trusted. Little, it seemed, was going their way.


Shortly after the war ended, Josef bought a pastry shop of his own, where he crafted jam-filled rugelach, rich chocolate babkas, and elaborate wedding cakes. His creations were as delicious as they were beautiful, but his timing could not have been worse. By the late 1940s, New York supermarkets had begun overtaking smaller specialty stores, and the one near Josef's shop offered cheap, mass-produced cookies and cakes. The new bakery lost money from the start, and went under two years later. Colleagues and friends urged him to declare bankruptcy and walk away, but Josef refused. He insisted on paying back all the relatives from whom he'd borrowed.


Josef's economic misfortune was at odds with the boom times that defined postwar America. By the mid-1950s, the easy lives of the lucky were on national display on television, in newspapers, and in women's magazines designed to advise women how to navigate their newfound affluence. Slim mothers in high heels smiled as they loaded dishwashers in their spacious suburban homes, and handsome fathers in fedoras sailed their shiny new cars along ribbons of new highways. This dazzling universe eluded Gertrude and Josef, who lived in a noisy railroad flat three floors up from belching buses at the foot of the George Washington Bridge. But Josef told his children they should aspire to a more comfortable, secure life.


Gertrude, who woke daily to her scars, fears, and indignities, did not share his optimism. Once slender and glamorous, she was now a plus-size housewife, flying into rages at a moment's provocation. She may have lacked power over her larger world, but within her apartment, her will reigned. Mild-mannered Josef, who often worked double shifts, was no match for her. Money was tight in the Erle home, and Josef, bowed by his failure as a provider, kept track of finances to the nickel. Often the couple bickered over bills, but even at her young age, Margaret understood that the disputes were about something larger.


Many adults who knew them sensed the tension and showed Margaret extra affection. A doting aunt and uncle, tailors, made her beautiful woolen coat-and-hat sets. A friend of her mother's, a divorcée without children, took her to the ballet, to movies, and to watch kids dive for coins in Sheepshead Bay. Sometimes Margaret took the bus to visit Josef's sister at her sprawling suburban house in New Jersey. In the summer, she went to Jewish summer camps in upstate New York. Margaret loved the outdoors, and looked forward to a month of fresh air and sunshine. But she welcomed an even greater freedom: being far from her mother.


One emotion Gertrude did not withhold was her contempt for men. Even on hot days, she insisted that Margaret wear cardigans, never showing her bare shoulders. She grudgingly permitted Margaret to go out on a few dates, but when it came to physical contact, she had strict rules. "Don't let them touch you," she warned. "Don't give them the wrong idea."


Margaret-no surprise-spent as much time out of the apartment as she could. She took on even more babysitting jobs so she could have her own spending money, and after school went home with classmates to do homework and try on new makeup and hairstyles like teenage girls across the country. In the evenings at home, she focused her attention on the larger world. She watched the nightly news with Josef, horrified at reports from the growing unrest in the Jim Crow South. She read articles on South Africa's apartheid and wrote a school paper arguing for its abolition. She often talked to Josef about the news, and he reminded her that injustice existed everywhere. He led by example with kindness. He knew all the families-Puerto Rican, Italian, and Greek-in their nineteenth-century brick building, and always asked after everyone's health.


Josef reserved a special understanding for Old Lady Rosen, a Holocaust survivor who wagged her crooked finger at all children who crossed her path. At some point, Mrs. Rosen learned that Allen charged kids in the building a dime to watch the woman in the building opposite as she took off her clothes, and then paraded naked, in front of the window each night. "HaShem will punish you all!" she warned them. Yet Josef instructed his children to treat everyone with respect-especially Mrs. Rosen.


"God loves everybody," he told his daughter. "You never know what someone else has gone through," he added. "Have compassion. Don't ever think you're better than someone else."


When Margaret entered junior high school in 1956, she got good grades and threw herself into the arts. She sang in the school choir, helped sew costumes, painted elaborate set backdrops, and relished the camaraderie of her fellow theater lovers. Teachers rewarded her with roles in musicals and a prized spot on the dance team, where she stood out enough that recruiters from disc jockey Alan Freed's The Big Beat, the television precursor to American Bandstand, invited her to be a regular background dancer. Gertrude objected at first, but when neighbors commented that they'd seen Margaret on TV, her doubts gave way to tight-lipped pride.


Margaret had always been pretty, with wavy thick brown hair and dark almond-shaped eyes, but in seventh grade her tomboy's frame bloomed into an hourglass figure, and she started sensing a shift in the way people reacted to her. She felt as if she'd gone from a sweet little girl to an object-whose, she wasn't sure. At home, Gertrude hectored her to cover up, cover up, cover up. Her uncles started giving her quick pecks on the cheek, not their customary hugs. Margaret was baffled when suddenly bus drivers waited for her. Strangers whistled, men she'd known her whole life held open doors, and high school athletes asked her out on dates.

Table of Contents

Prologue 1

1 Family Matters 11

2 Teenagers in Love 19

3 "We're Going to Have to Take Care of This" 27

4 Girls in Trouble 39

5 "Children of Your Own One Day" 49

6 "You Don't Get to Hold Your Baby" 71

7 "This Never Happened" 81

8 Blue-Ribbon Babies 95

9 "Better" Families 117

10 The Right Future 133

11 Childless Mother 145

12 Breathing Exercises 165

13 Agency 191

14 "You Are a Man" 215

15 Going West 231

16 Deferred Love 249

17 No More Secrets 269

Acknowledgments 283

Author's Note 288

Notes 291

Index 328

Resource List 340

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