Journalist Gabrielle Glaser met David Rosenberg in 2007 while working on an article about his kidney transplant. In the course of their interview, the 46-year-old cantor explained that one reason he'd agreed to media coverage was his dream that "somewhere on the vast internet," a young Jewish woman who'd given up a baby for adoption in 1961 would see his picture, "his black eyes, his thick, strong hands, cleft chin, and broad smile" — and recognize her son.
With this scene, Glaser begins her book "American Baby" at just the right place — with the longing, undimmed after decades, of an adopted child to know the truth about his life. When Rosenberg did find his mother seven years later (thank genetic testing service 23andMe), he learned that his longing was only exceeded by hers — she had been looking for him all his life.
"I began to realize that the story of how David and Margaret lost and then found each other — and of the political, scientific, cultural and economic forces that caused and then enforced their separation — was part of a far larger story," writes Glaser. She tells both of them in lucid and often pleasurably novelistic detail, based on years of research and interviews. The inclusion of family photos — for example, of David's adorable teenage parents, who eloped as soon as they were able and spent months trying to get him back — adds even more emotional punch. Many readers will find themselves moved to tears in the culminating scenes, perfectly orchestrated by all that has come before.
The number of children born to unmarried mothers more than tripled during the postwar baby boom; the yearnings of David and Margaret were mirrored in innumerable stories of mothers and children separated during decades of coerced, closed, often deeply corrupt adoptions. As Glaser shows, a nasty network of maternity homes, adoption agencies, legislation and pseudo-scientific research amounted to an "adoption-industrial complex." One scientist tortured babies awaiting adoption with a gun that shot rubber bands because the intensity of their crying was supposedly a predictor of their future IQ.
Glaser gives a chilling picture of the Louise Wise adoption agency, founded in 1916 to find homes for the hordes of Jewish immigrant children abandoned or orphaned in New York. Despite its original good intentions, the agency is as much a villain in this story as it is in the 2018 documentary "Three Identical Strangers," the story of triplets separated in one of the nefarious experiments it was involved with.
She also documents the rise of the adoption rights movement, the explosion of reunions that came with genetic testing, and the international adoption boom.
Readers who enjoyed memoirs such as Dani Shapiro's "Inheritance" and Nicole Chung's "All You Can Ever Know" will find "American Baby" an excellent follow-up. Also included is a list of resources for adoptees and birth parents seeking to reunite with family.
Based on the statistics that Glaser cites, many readers will have a personal connection to this story, but a connection isn't required to be moved and enriched by reading it.
Marion Winik is a Baltimore-based professor and book critic.
By: Gabrielle Glaser.
Publisher: Viking, 352 pages, $28.