In 1961, 16-year-old Margaret Erle fell in love, got pregnant and was sent to a Staten Island maternity home. She gave birth to a boy she named Stephen, but as an unwed mother, she wasn’t allowed to hold her child. She and her boyfriend, George Katz, were saving money to elope (against their parents’ wishes) and wanted to keep their son. Despite their repeated resistance, social workers forced them to sign away their parental rights, and their son was adopted by a loving couple and renamed David Rosenberg.
Fast forward to 2007, when journalist Gabrielle Glaser met Rosenberg in Oregon for an article she was writing about his kidney transplant. Rosenberg revealed that he hoped the article would somehow help him connect with his birth mother. Then in 2014, he called Glaser to say that he had finally located Margaret Erle Katz. George had passed away by then, but his birth parents had indeed married and had three additional children. Rosenberg jubilantly added, “She’s loved me my whole life.”
Glaser realized that Katz’s story represents the experiences of more than 3 million young women who became pregnant in the decades between World War II and 1973, the year that abortion became legal in America. Her resulting chronicle, American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption, tells a heart-wrenching tale that will resonate with many.
“Stephen was part of a vast exercise in social engineering unlike any in American history,” Glaser writes. These closed adoptions made tracking down birth parents or adopted babies nearly impossible before DNA testing. To make matters worse, unscrupulous agencies often lied to both birth mothers and prospective parents. Rosenberg’s parents, for instance, were told that his birth mother was a gifted science student who wanted to continue college rather than become a mother. In truth, Katz longed for and worried about her son every day of her life—for a while they unknowingly lived just blocks away from each other in the Bronx—and her anguish rings loud and clear on the page.
The results of Glaser’s extensive research read like a well-crafted, tension-filled novel. Even though its form is vastly different from Dani Shapiro’s personal DNA memoir, Inheritance, both books deal with reconciling the past and uncovering long-buried secrets.
American Baby is a powerful, memorable story of “two journeys, a lifelong separation, and a bittersweet reunion” shedding light on a chapter of history that changed the lives of millions of Americans.