Author’s introduction: Months after giving birth to her firstborn son as an unmarried teenager in 1961, Margaret Erle Katz became one of an estimated three million young women in the decades after World War II and before Roe v. Wade who was forced—by her family; by society; and even New York State law, which until 1971 criminalized premarital sex—to surrender her firstborn son into an adoption system designed to keep the identities of birth families, adoptees, and adoptive families a secret. Margaret, the 17-year-old daughter of Jewish refugees in Manhattan, did all she could to maintain custody of her son. She pushed aside the shaming admonitions of her parents, maternity home officials, and social workers, who told her she would “forget” her baby and move on. She eloped with her son’s father, George Katz, but was no match for the predatory industry intent on delivering white infants to the homes of hopeful couples who were unable to conceive in a period—the Baby Boom—in which creating families was a national fetish.
Margaret and George Katz had had three more children and were raising their family in New Jersey in 1981. Unbeknownst to anyone, even George, Margaret still thought daily about the son she’d been coerced into relinquishing to Louise Wise Services, the Manhattan adoption agency into whose custody her mother had signed her. Over the years, she had called the agency to warn the son she’d named Stephen of the illnesses in the family tree. When Stephen was a young adult, Margaret herself was becoming politicized by adoptee-rights activists in New York and began trying to find him herself. Thwarted by New York’s byzantine secrecy laws, she resolved to leave her contact information for him at the agency’s Upper East Side offices.
As much as Margaret sought to ignore the topic of adoption, it continued to bubble to the surface. One day, during a quiet moment, she picked up a newspaper and saw a headline that read “Parents Want Proposal Defeated.” The article addressed the concerns of adoptive parents, who were trying to block the passage of a bill to allow New Jersey adoptees access to their original birth certificates. In the brief piece, a woman who represented the group Concerned Adoptive Parents said such a bill represented an “intrusion into the sanctity of the home and personal lives,” and was a “betrayal” that would benefit no one.
How, exactly, was the legislation a “betrayal”? Margaret wondered. She certainly wouldn’t feel that way if Stephen found her and got in touch. Didn’t Stephen have the right to learn more about himself? And didn’t she have the right to learn what had happened to him, her own flesh and blood?
Focus, Margaret, she told herself. Focus. Look at your beautiful family. She envisioned Stephen at the Louvre; at the Colosseum; praying at Jerusalem’s Western Wall—and above all, with the loving parents who were raising him. She turned the page.
When Gertrude died of metastatic cancer in 1978—Margaret cared for her till the end—she felt a complex range of emotions: sadness, guilt, and a feeling that a weight had lifted. The secret remained, but with Gertrude gone, the force of its hurt had begun to diminish ever so slightly. After the funeral and shiva, Margaret turned her attention to Josef. Ill with emphysema, he fell into a deep depression. When he wasn’t silent, he’d have angry outbursts. “Let me die,” he’d say when doctors tried to drain his lungs. As she often did, Margaret winced with remorse as she remembered how she’d shamed her parents with the pregnancy. Was it somehow, after all these years, worsening his anguish? She tried to put her invisible son out of her mind.
But one day in early 1980, she looked down at the classifieds section of a New York newspaper that was sitting on the kitchen countertop. She saw a notice for an ALMA meeting the following week at a large Protestant church in midtown Manhattan. She took it as a sign that she couldn’t wait to find Stephen a moment longer.
On the appointed evening, after an early dinner, she told George she had to attend a school meeting in another town. “It will go very late,” she told him. She dressed in her best slacks and jacket, raced in her wood-paneled station wagon to a parking lot at Princeton Junction, and took a train into the city. She took the subway uptown, exiting a few blocks from the church. She anxiously glanced to see if anyone she knew was behind her as she double-checked the address, and scanned the street again as she stepped gingerly up the steps of the red sandstone church. She walked upstairs to the second floor, where she heard voices floating from the social hall. A woman in the doorway noticed her standing there.
“You’re here for the ALMA meeting?” she asked. Margaret nodded, too shy to speak.
“Come on in,” the woman said.
More than a dozen people stood near a table in the meeting room, drinking coffee and eating cocktail nuts. Most of them were women. Margaret, anxious, glanced around the room. She didn’t recognize a single face, but she sat on a metal folding chair in the back just in case. Then a woman about Margaret’s age stood up before a lectern. “Can everyone hear me?” she asked in a clear, calm voice. She wore overalls and had creamy, pale skin and thick chestnut hair in a braid that dangled over one shoulder. When she smiled, deep dimples punctured both cheeks. She introduced herself as Pam Hasegawa.
She was born, she said, in New York City in 1943, the year before Margaret, and adopted at birth by a Manhattan couple. She was their only child. She had never touched a blood relative until she delivered her firstborn, Sergei, a boy she and her Japanese-born husband named after the composer Rachmaninoff.
She spoke about the profound need for adoptees to have access to their original birth certificates, and how state laws in all but Kansas and Alaska prevented them from doing so. She spoke kindly about her gentle adoptive father, but did not shy away from her lonely childhood, and the difficulties she’d had with her late mother. Her mother had been mentally ill and was often institutionalized during severe mood swings in which she lost touch with reality. Pam was candid: when her adoptive mother died when she was 12, she felt a burden fade.
At the same time, though, her relief seemed to fuel even more frequent fantasies about finding her birth mother. Pam said she envisioned her as a kind, steady presence who liked classical music as much as she did.
Her mission, and ALMA’s—Pam was also helping to lead legislative efforts in New Jersey—was to learn the most basic of truths: who she was, and where she came from. She smiled sadly as she ended her brief talk. “I know many of you will understand me when I say this much: whenever I see people with dimples, or wavy brown hair that’s the same color as mine, it’s really hard not to stare,” she said. “You always wonder: Are you my mother? My sister? My brother? My father?”
By then, Margaret was rapt. She hadn’t spoken a word about her missing son in years. She’d spent 17 years looking for him in crowds, wondering if boys with dimpled chins might be him, then reminding herself that it couldn’t possibly be him—Stephen, after all, lived abroad. Margaret had been riveted by Florence Fisher’s story, but she’d wanted to believe her rocky childhood had been the exception. Adoptees were supposed to have better lives. Better parents. A new start.
Now she was hearing about the experience of another adoptee, in person, whose experiences echoed both Fisher’s and her own. Did Stephen think she had rejected him, or was a “bad girl”? What if he was angry at her and never wanted to meet her? Worse, what if he was sick? Or, like Pam, felt unloved? As Pam’s words sank in, Margaret tried not to cry. Maybe Stephen missed her, too, and was looking for her. Maybe he had questions about his heritage. What if his adoptive parents were dead, and he had nobody?
Pam—a lost daughter—had kept her composure, so Margaret—a lost mother—resolved that she could too. Margaret, of course, had met many other pregnant girls at Lakeview. But the national scope of adoption had never dawned on her. Pam’s passionate discourse spelled it out: What had happened to mothers like Margaret and to the children from whom they were separated was a profound, cruel wrong with corrupt roots. Together, they could help set things right.
As Margaret listened, she began to understand, for the first time, the enormity of what she had endured. Pam, who had become a close friend of Florence Fisher’s, described the experience as a massive injustice. It wasn’t just Margaret, George, and Stephen who suffered from the silence, secrecy, and judgments surrounding adoption, it was in fact millions of others. Hasegawa, citing figures widely circulating at the time, said that in 1980 there were more than 5 million living adoptees. And despite the claims of adoption workers, adopted people were not tabula rasa, and adoption was not a discrete event: it affected everyone involved, for generations. According to Pam, few people in the United States could claim that adoption didn’t touch them. By adding birth and adoptive parents, plus siblings, half siblings, and eight grandparents, she said, adoptee- rights advocates estimated that approximately a third of Americans had a link to adoption in their direct immediate families.
After the talk, Margaret mustered the courage to introduce herself and ask what she could do to find Stephen. She had no desire to register with ALMA; what would postal workers think if they saw a letter from the organization? Worse, what if the kids found it? Pam suggested they sit down, and as they faced each other at a plastic folding table, Pam explained the steps Margaret could take to search for her son. Luckily, Pam said, Stephen had been born in New York City. Pam explained that in New York City, the birth of every child is recorded in an index with a number that also appears on his birth certificate; at the time, the indexes were stored in giant ledgers at the main branch of the New York Public Library.
For New York City adoptees, the same number issued on the city index appeared on four records: in the index with their birth names, on their original birth certificates, in the birth index with the adoptive name, and on the amended birth certificate. Pam told Margaret to search through the ledgers to find Stephen’s number in the birth index. It would appear with Stephen’s name, his birth date, and a code noting that he had been born on Staten Island. Once Margaret found Stephen’s index number, Pam explained, she could use it to match him with his adoptive name.
Margaret left the meeting feeling almost giddy. Now she had a map. But every time she thought of making the trip to the library, some urgent matter arose. Josef was increasingly ill, and with three small children, it seemed too risky to sneak into Manhattan for the day.
Then, in April 1981, Josef died.
She loved her father, but as she cleared out his clothes after the shiva, she also realized that now she had more freedom than ever to begin her search. The children were all in school, and while the tasks of cooking, cleaning, and carpooling were almost entirely hers, she finally had time to herself. After nearly two decades, her yearning to find her son had only intensified. She could go into New York City without having to worry or explain herself—at least not too much.
One day in late spring, she planned her trip with great care. She told George she needed to buy some sheets on sale at Macy’s near Herald Square, and made a show out of clipping some coupons from the local newspaper. Once George left for work, and the children for school, she dressed in a skirt and blouse, packed herself a turkey sandwich, and drove to the station. She got off the bus at Port Authority, striding past the very same gate where she caught the bus to elope. Nearly 18 years had passed since that moment, and Margaret took it as a sign. In Judaism, 18 is the symbol for the letter Chai, and the number and its multiples are symbols of luck.
She walked the three long blocks east to the majestic library, past the marble lions and up the worn steps to the entrance. She knew the place well, of course—she had also come to the library to study bus schedules and the state rules for marriage. Now she was coming to try to find her son.
The librarian in charge of the birth indexes demanded her driver’s license. Margaret sensed that the man knew why she was searching the records, and her heart fluttered at what she felt was a disapproving glance. She made sure to display her left, wedding-ringed hand when reaching for the first giant brown ledger of 1961 births. The man issued a warning, already posted in several places. “No purses, no bags, no pens, pencils, or paper allowed,” he bellowed.
She almost didn’t know where to start. Pam had explained that the births were listed alphabetically by surname, but when Margaret took down the first ledger of surnames from A to K to find Erle, she was so overcome by nerves she couldn’t focus. She returned the ledger, her search yielding nothing. She checked her watch every few minutes, terrified she’d be late to pick up the linens, terrified she’d miss the bus back to Roosevelt. Terrified someone would find her out.
Finally, she left empty-handed—and dejected. She rushed eight blocks south to Macy’s and bought the first set of sheets she put her hands on.
On her return to Roosevelt, she caught sight of her reflection in the window. She was about to turn 36. Her hair was long and wavy. Her eyelashes were long, her almond eyes were rimmed with liner, and her face still looked youthful. Or did it? In the bright afternoon light, she noticed the faintest of crow’s feet and a small crease between her eyebrows.
A few weeks later, Margaret told George she had to visit a sick friend in Manhattan. She got off the bus, raced toward the library, and confidently asked for the ledger containing the E’s. This time, she found the listing immediately. It was proof of her son’s birth—and her as his mother—in black and white. As Pam had promised, Stephen’s name, the date and location of his arrival, and the last four digits of his city birth record number were all there. When she saw the listing—she committed the numbers to memory—her heart leapt. Now all she had to do was find the matching number in the index next to his adoptive name.
She devised new excuses to go into the city. George didn’t ask questions, and by now, her trips to the library were almost routine. Margaret was on a mission as she returned to the room of ledgers. She had Stephen’s birth date and the four-digit ending as clues, but had little else to go on as she sought the index entry of his new name. The indexes were arranged alphabetically by year, and Margaret assumed that Stephen had been adopted shortly after she had signed the surrender papers in May 1962. Hour after hour, trip after exhausting trip, she combed through seven months of 1962 ledgers looking for the numeric match that would reveal her son’s adoptive name.
She tried to push away haunting thoughts, remembering those months after Stephen’s birth when she lived at the YWCA, so desperate to get him back. She thought of the weeks she’d spent in this very building, scouring bus routes in her naive belief that eloping would keep her new family together. She thought of the tiny images of Stephen as a somber three-month-old, and of his giggling the last time she saw him. What did he look like now? Surely he was in college: Did he live at home with his parents and commute to school, or did he live on a campus? What did he like to eat? Did he like sports, like his father and Mark? Was he artistic, like Lisa? Did he like Billy Joel? Did he like show tunes and jazz, like her? Did he have a knack for singing and performing, like Cheri? Already the little girl had a powerful voice that belied her small body. With perfect pitch, she’d already begun singing complex lyrics into a toy microphone.
One day, not long after Thanksgiving, Margaret stepped out of the bus terminal, greeted by canned Christmas music, bright lights, and Santas ringing Salvation Army bells. It was cold and rainy, and she wore galoshes and a rain bonnet to cover her hair. She had been searching for six months, combing through hundreds of columns for the matching digits, with her eye especially on common Jewish surnames. She raked through names from Ackerman to Cohen, from Franken to Mossberg, from Pasternak to Wasserman.
When she was down to the letters between W and Z, she gave herself a pep talk. Maybe he’d been adopted by some Weissmans. Or someone whose last name started with Z. But when her eyes finally made it through the Zwerdlings, she wanted to cry. All those books, all those names: Had she missed one? Could she have? Should she start again? And then she told herself no. She had been so careful. She had used an index card to guide her descent through each page so she wouldn’t skip a line, so her eyes wouldn’t play tricks if she was tired. She’d read each 1962 book twice, scanning for the four-digit match that would give her her son’s new name. It never dawned on her that the adoption had happened nearly two years after he was born. His name would not be anywhere she was looking.
On that dreary day, when she got up to return the final ledger to the librarian, she felt some hope flee. Maybe he’d been adopted in Israel. Or Italy. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.
She stifled tears as she shuffled back through the crowds to Port Authority and forced herself to think about what she did have: a husband and three children she cherished. She climbed aboard the bus feeling despondent. But then something strange happened: she got angry—an emotion she hadn’t felt, not really, since the days in the hospital when she demanded to see her son. She thought of Florence Fisher and the failed legislation. She thought of Pam, and the crowd of others at the church. She thought of the futility of her search at the library. Why was this so hard? And wasn’t there something more she could do? Margaret did what she usually did with her mind and hands and made herself busy. Hanukkah was approaching, so that evening on her way home from the station, she stopped at the store to buy the potatoes and onions she would make into pancakes and freeze for the first night of the holiday later that month. She was quiet that night as she made dinner; she was quiet as she helped the kids with their homework. George watched hockey on television, and after she kissed Lisa, Mark, and Cheri good night, she retreated to her bathroom and drew herself a hot bath. She poured in a cup of Epsom salts and stepped in as the water lapped around her, muffling her sobs.
She woke up the next morning, made breakfast for everyone, and set about grating the vegetables and frying the latkes. She made stack after stack—enough for her family, enough for the neighbor kids, and enough to give her time to think as the smell of the oniony oil permeated her kitchen. Instead of focusing on her first, fruitless search, she thought of a new way to find Stephen. Her mind was a jumble.
She knew this much: Her son would be 20 in a few weeks, a legal adult in New York. The Twenty-Sixth Amendment, passed in 1971 during the Vietnam War, had lowered the minimum voting age to 18 in all states; in New York it had become the age of majority for both men and women. What was stopping her from going directly to Louise Wise? After her dozens of calls about the family’s medical issues, certainly they had a decent file on him; maybe they even knew where he was.
She pushed aside her memories of the time she’d been there, arriving through the hidden entrance and then waiting, pregnant and terrified, as Gertrude and a social worker plotted her and her baby’s future. But now she was someone different: Mrs. Margaret Katz. She would enter through the front steps and leave her contact information. Now the staff would treat her with respect. Surely, she believed, they would help her. Things were different now: a woman had just been appointed to the Supreme Court. She dialed Louise Wise’s number; she hadn’t forgotten it from the clandestine calls from phone booths. This time, she made up a name and a story about how she and her husband were interested in adopting a child. She wanted to come in, she said, and needed to know their office hours. For the first time ever, the woman who answered the phone at Louise Wise Services was kind.
“Nine to five, Mrs. Meyer,” she told Margaret. “Thank you very much,” Margaret responded.
“We hope to be seeing you soon, Mrs. Meyer,” the receptionist said. “Please call to schedule an appointment when you are ready.”
As she wrapped the latkes in tinfoil, she glanced at her kitchen calendar. She would visit the agency’s elegant brownstone on East Ninety-Fourth Street on December 18, a Friday, 20 years and a day after she’d given birth to Stephen. He was a grown man now and had the right to know his origins if he wished—to know she’d never stopped thinking about him. Never stopped wondering. Never stopped loving him. Maybe he would even want to meet. She’d seen tearful reunions of mothers who’d lost their children to adoption on television. Maybe, she thought, Stephen would want the same. She imagined embracing him; she imagined George embracing him; she imagined all four siblings embracing one another. Who would he most look like?
The morning of her journey, she announced to George nonchalantly that she had to buy Hanukkah gifts for the holiday’s start two days later. He didn’t flinch. If he suspected anything—and she believed he didn’t—he never let on.
On that morning, a Friday, she saw everyone off and took a few bites of toast. She put on her best pantsuit and her long winter coat and pulled on her brown leather gloves. It was cold, and she drove herself to the station with a single-minded purpose.
She brought a book to read on the 45-minute bus ride to Manhattan, but she was so excited, she couldn’t concentrate. She tried praying. She tried breathing exercises. Her mind raced—what if there was a note from Stephen already waiting for her? The ride seemed to take forever, and Margaret checked her watch every few minutes as the bus chugged north in pre-Christmas traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Finally, it pulled into Port Authority. Margaret pushed her way through the midmorning holiday crowds to the ladies’ room. As she touched up her hair and freshened her makeup, she decided to splurge on a taxi. She looked pretty. Respectable. Ready to be received at Louise Wise.
When she stepped into the cab, her heart still fluttering, she again tried to visualize getting some brief news of her son. Maybe there’d be word about his wonderful childhood. She felt the same surge of hope she had felt as a teenager when the social workers reassured her about his bris. In her head, she practiced what she was going to tell the receptionist, making sure the words came out evenly.
As the cab traveled uptown and then across the park festooned with Christmas lights, Margaret again tried to calm her ragged breathing. When the driver inched toward the brownstone on East Ninety-Fourth Street, she felt buoyed with confidence. She hoped she’d return triumphantly to George that night with wonderful news of their son’s whereabouts. Her mind flashed briefly to Florence Fisher’s recalcitrant mother, so fearful of what her second family might think. Such worries could not have been further from Margaret’s mind. Everybody who had been ashamed of her was dead. If the neighbors made a fuss, tough—they’d have to cope. Lisa, Mark, and Cheri would adore their big brother.
She’d even read some more recent stories about ALMA. There were lots of people out there looking for their parents. Surely her Jewish son, adopted by Jewish parents through a Jewish agency founded by the wife of one of America’s most prominent rabbis, wanted to find her too. Despite how Gertrude and Fritz had acted, she reasoned, Jews, as a people, cared about family, above all else. Didn’t they?
She looked up at the elegant building and the gleaming Palladian window she’d only glimpsed from the inside, walked up the front steps, and rang the buzzer with her gloved index finger. She heard a click and pushed open the door to the vestibule. She closed the heavy outside door behind her, stepped onto the black-and-white-tile floor, and pressed another bell.
“May I help you?” said a woman’s voice.
“My name is Margaret Erle Katz,” she said, making sure to keep her tone measured. “I’m here to leave contact information for my son. I gave birth to him on Dec. 17, 1961.”
There was no response. Margaret touched the buzzer again.
“Yes?” the same voice asked.
“His father and I are married, and he has three siblings. I’ve called many times with medical information.” She paused. “I don’t want to interfere with his life, but I’d like to leave my number and address for him,” Margaret said.
There was no response.
Through the vestibule’s glass panels, Margaret could see a woman in an office at the end of the hallway. The woman did not look up at her. Margaret rang the buzzer again.
She could hear a click, but this time, no voice. Margaret continued: “I’d like to leave contact information for our son, so that if he ever looks, he’ll know how to find us. Can I please come talk to someone, so I can leave him our number?”
Her assurance began to flee; her indignation, to rise. All the years she’d called in secret; all those years fearing someone would expose her. All the years she’d wanted to write but didn’t, afraid a return letter would reveal her secret.
She rang the bell a fourth time, aware, as she stood in the drafty space on marble tiles, just how cold it was outside. “Hello?” Margaret said again. “May I please come in?”
There was a pause. This time, the woman’s voice was threatening, not aloof. “You’d better leave, or we’ll call the police. You’re trespassing.” It took a moment for the words to sink in. Then Margaret felt her knees buckle, and she crumpled to the floor. Curled into a fetal position, at first she was mute. When a cry finally emerged, it seemed disembodied, hanging in the air as if it had come from far away. Then she began to sob. Panic, rage, fear, and shame sprang from such a deep well, all she could do to gather her emotions was cross her arms and rock herself from side to side, as if trying to mother herself. Was Stephen dead, and they weren’t telling her? Had he died of illness as a child? In a horrible accident as a teenager? Was that the reason she’d had those nightmares?
The voice called to her again. “If you don’t leave now, we’ll call the police.”
Margaret forced herself to stand up and go.
As she turned to face the door, she shuddered uncontrollably. It was near-freezing outdoors. Her limbs were cold, but her body, under layers of clothing, began to perspire profusely. As resolved as she’d been as a teenager to claim her son as her own, this time, she felt the optimism she’d maintained for two decades drain through the soles of her black pumps.
From AMERICAN BABY by Gabrielle Glaser, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Gabrielle Glaser.