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Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption.

Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption. By Barbara Melosh (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2002. x + 326pp. $29.95).

Strangers and Kin is a welcome addition to the spate of recent studies of the history of adoption. (1) Melosh, an adoptive mother and professor of History and English at George Mason University, is one of the first historians to gain access to the confidential case records of an adoption agency. She had done a prodigious amount of research, sampling approximately 400 of the 2,000 records of the Children's Bureau of Delaware (CBD) and reading an additional 500 records of adopters who had been rejected by the agency, 400 files of women who came to the agency but withdrew, and the agency's annual reports, budgets, and committee and board minutes. The result is the most comprehensive look to date at the actual practices of an adoption agency. But the CBD adoption practices are illustrative of the study's larger purpose. Through additional research in the voluminous child adoption manuscript records of the U.S. Children's Bureau, the hitherto unused National Urban League records, combined with the professional literature on adoption, and a wide-ranging interdisciplinary reading of secondary sources, as well as novels and film, Strangers and Kin is nothing less than a broad cultural history of American adoption.

Melosh divides her cultural history of American adoption into three periods. The first, spanning the decades from 1900-1940, marked the rise of modern adoption, characterized by the professionalization of adoption workers, whose claim to authority rested on casework for unmarried women, the development of standards for assessing the "fitness" of prospective adoptive parents for adoption, and especially the ability to "fit" children for new homes. Social workers of this era constructed adoptive families "as if born to," which explains the inordinate emphasis placed on matching the gender (girls were preferred), IQ (a covert category for class), race, ethnicity, and religion of children to the adopters' preferences. Melosh notes that although modem day critics denounce matching because of its denial of "the difference that is at the heart of adoption," she imaginatively suggests that matching "might be seen, instead, as a signally American kind of self-construction: even kinship, the last redoubt of biology and destiny, might be imitated and improved by social engineering" (p. 104).

The second period, the heart of the book, traces the quarter-century after World War II when adoption underwent a cultural sea change from being viewed as an exceptional family arrangement to being "widely accepted as an alternative family form" (p. 105). Moreover, what was once practiced as a limited form of child rescue was now proclaimed "the best solution" to the "problem" of soaring rates of unwed pregnancy. Melosh superbly interprets the dynamics of unplanned pregnancy from the perspective of both the white birth mother and social workers, especially in presenting the spectrum of birth mothers' responses to this controversial issue. Her discussion of how African-American, white rural, working, and evangelical women met resistance from their communities when they wanted to relinquish their children for adoption breaks new ground. Melosh is critical of social workers' endorsement of social conformity but affirms that they "recognized the acute inequalities that bore down upon women, and they resisted the most punitive policing of gender boundaries by refusing to consign gender transgressors to the margins of postwar society" (p. 157). This period also witnessed the origins of transracial and international adoption, which openly violated the principle of "matching" and the fiction that in all adoptions the relationship of members of the family to one another were "as if begotten."

Melosh also probes American attitudes toward secrecy and disclosure as a measure of the cultural status of adoption--"its acceptance by mid-century, its marginality after 1970, its anomalous position throughout" (p. 202). Here, Melosh is particularly acute in describing how social workers, in practicing case work, frequently deceived birth mothers. She correctly states that this deception "amounted to a professional protocol, one intended both to serve therapeutic goals and to express an ethos of compassion" p. (213). Yet shortly thereafter, Melosh labels case records "a crucial technology of collusion" and condemns social workers for committing lies of omission to adopters (p. 217). However, CBD social workers worked in an era of transition between an earlier period of openness and disclosure of information and a newer one dominated by psychoanalytic experts who advised social workers to withhold all information to clients. In reality, CBD social workers, like so many others, chose a middle ground, sanctioned by the 1958 Child Welfare League of America's Standards, which stated that adoptive parents should only be given information that was pertinent to a child's development and were not to be given social or medical information that was irrelevant or would arouse anxiety.

In the last period, which began in 1970 and continues today, Melosh succinctly describes "how the broad consensus that had supported adoption began to crumble" (p. 239). Owing to external social forces such as the legalization of abortion, the increased liberalization of sexual attitudes, new birth control devices, Black Power, and sociobiology, unwanted pregnancies became stigmatized and "relinquishment rapidly lost the respect accorded it under the tenets of the best solution" (p. 239). More importantly, the best solution came under attack internally from adopted adults (joined later by birth mothers), who launched the adoption search movement to locate original family members and open adoption records. Melosh explores this social movement through a brilliant analysis of its literature, concentrating on search narratives and adoption memoirs. She observes that in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a reversal of the postwar consensus: authors expressed guilt and regret over relinquishment and reclaimed the title of mother. Adoption was portrayed as defective, causing lasting pain, though the reunion of long separated family members inevitably healed the wounds of the past. Some popular authors viewed adoption as a pathologizing experience, "a primal wound," from the separation of the child from the biological mother. By the end of the twentieth century, adoption was seen as a rupture and even the professional literature was full of the risks of undertaking such a venture. The demand for open records, however, has led to a movement for open adoption, where to a lesser or greater degree, the identities of the birth and adoptive parents are known to each other. Melosh also notes that there are many hopeful signs that Americans support adoption, from federal legislation to assist special-needs children to the passage of the 2000 Intercountry Adoption Act, which ratified the Hague Convention establishing uniform standards to regulate international adoptions.

Strangers and Kin is an insightful and empathetic history of adoption, which will undoubtedly take its place as one of the best books written on the subject.


1. See, for example, E. Wayne Carp (ed.), Adoption in America: Historical Perspectives (Ann Arbor, MI 2002); Judith Modell, A Sealed and Secret Kinship: The Culture of Policies and Practices in American Adoption (New York, 2002); Claudia Nelson, Little Strangers, Portrayals of Adoption and Foster Care in America, 1850-1929 (Bloomington, IN, 2003); Marianne Novy (ed.), Imagining Adoption: Essays on Literature and Culture (Ann Arbor, MI 2001); Ellen Herman, "The Paradoxical Rationalization of Modem Adoption," Journal of Social History 36:2 (winter 2002): 339-385; Moira J. Maguire, "Foreign Adoptions and the Evolution of Irish Adoption Policy, 1945-52," ibid., 387-404. See also the first web site on the history of child adoption in the United States, The Adoption History Project:

E. Wayne Carp

Pacific Lutheran University
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Carp, E. Wayne
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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