E. Wayne Carp. Jean Paton and the Struggle to Reform American Adoption. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014. xvii + 403 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-472-11910-3.
Reviewed by Rachel R. Winslow (Westmont College)
Published on H-Childhood (May, 2016)
Commissioned by Meredith Bak
E. Wayne Carp stumbled into every historian’s dream—a carefully chronicled body of sources in the hands of one key player. Jean Paton, the subject of Carp’s latest book, saved every letter she received and then carbon copied every response, endowing Carp with the necessary pieces to reconstruct her contributions to the adoption reform movement. Such detailed habits seem excessive until the reader becomes fully acquainted with Paton in this over three-hundred-page account of her life, after which point her excessiveness makes perfect sense.
Jean Paton and the Struggle to Reform American Adoption chronicles the life and influence of the adoption reformer from her birth in Detroit, Michigan, in 1908 to her death in 2002. Over the course of her long life, Paton devoted herself fully to working on behalf of adult adoptees and birthparents. To support these aims, Paton started or assisted in starting several key organizations, including Orphan Voyage, the Life History Study Center, Concerned United Birthparents, and the American Adoption Congress. An adoptee herself, Paton also wrote tirelessly on behalf of her cause. She authored The Adopted Break Silence in 1954 and followed it up fourteen years later with Orphan Voyage. Additionally she published a long-running newsletter titled “The LOG of Orphans Voyage.” Carp devotes the first half of the book to a chronological survey of Paton’s life. In the second half, he divides the chapters thematically to provide a deeper examination into the adoption rights movement. To contextualize Paton’s perspectives, he weaves her story into the larger narrative of adoption reform and post-World War II social history. Along the way, the reader encounters many of the key players in twentieth-century adoption reform, including Florence Fisher, H. David Kirk, Arthur D. Sorosky, Reuben Pannor, Annette Baran, and Madalyn Murray. While many of their stories have been well documented, their encounters with Paton have been less so. Carp’s account not only traces the influence of the adoption reform movement in particular but also illuminates the contested nature of social movements in general.
Carp stresses that, unlike most activists, Paton was a social reformer, less interested in changing laws than cultural norms. This focus issued from her experience as a social worker in her early career, which shaped her advocacy in two specific ways. First, Paton could never forget the stories she heard from birthmothers about the agonizing process of surrender. Haunting her, these encounters contributed to her belief that adoption’s fundamental problem was the cultural stigma of “illegitimacy,” leading her to contend that “illegitimacy colors all adoption practice” (p. 87). Such thinking reinforced Paton’s commitment to prioritizing birthparents and adult adoptees in the adoption triad. Second, this “essentialist” focus, as Carp terms it, contributed to her initial distrust and eventual disdain of the social welfare profession (p. 45). Social workers, in Paton’s view, were too disinterested to be effective when it came to adoption. Indeed, Paton argued that interested parties—namely, adult adoptees—were the only ones with the necessary social and emotional background to adequately research adoption. A decade before the “personal is political” became the motto of feminist consciousness-raising groups, Paton demonstrated this sensibility in the social welfare space. Yet, as Carp details, her bias against social workers obscured Paton’s ability to collaborate and ultimately hampered her effectiveness.
While Paton’s views and ideals vacillated frequently in her decades of reform work, she maintained a deep ambivalence toward adoption and her own role as a reformer. Influenced by evangelical Christianity, the psychotherapist Abram Kardiner, and French mystic Simone Weil, Paton saw adoption as both a “trauma” and “affliction” for adult adoptees and birthparents—a trauma that could only be healed through the search process, reunion, and forgiveness. These beliefs shaped Paton’s style as a reformer. Unlike the activists in the Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association (ALMA), who were principally concerned with lobbying and legislation, Paton stressed the importance of changing the social milieu for adoptees and birthmothers so that they could enjoy widespread validation. Her personal focus meant that she devoted hours every day to answering stacks of letters from those seeking her help. Not a traditional leader or movement organizer, Paton experienced frustration when her organizations, such as Orphans Voyage, eventually lost their membership and effectiveness as more dynamic leaders eclipsed her own work. Furthermore, as Carp stresses, her communication style did not help. Paton had an impenetrable writing style, which the reader learns quickly because Carp chose to incorporate her own words whenever possible. This made her prose widely inaccessible and limited her reach. Despite such setbacks, Paton persisted, continuing her work into her final years. Fittingly, in chapter 12, Carp identifies that Paton’s chief role was as a self-appointed adoption ombudsman. As ombudsman, Paton was quick to correct misimpressions of the institution, explain the merits of reunion, or justify the importance of her work. This watchdog position made sense for a woman whom Carp labels “a radical individualist” who struggled throughout her career to work well with others (p. 70).
Carp is the consummate researcher—methodologically rigorous and historiographically savvy. Biographies require balancing subject empathy with objectivity and Carp navigates this well. Given his expertise in domestic adoption’s history, he is unafraid, for instance, to correct Paton’s memory or reframe her critiques of scholars and colleagues. And he also manages a good deal of compassion for a protagonist who, at times, came across as maddeningly self-absorbed and callous, even to her allies. In a final gesture to her own sense of self-importance, Paton allowed Carp access to her extensive records, the reader learns in the preface and epilogue, so that she could carve out “an honest place in history” (p. 304). It is to Carp’s credit that he has done just that.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-childhood.
Rachel R. Winslow. Review of Carp, E. Wayne, Jean Paton and the Struggle to Reform American Adoption.
H-Childhood, H-Net Reviews.
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