Book review: “The Baby Thief” by Barbara Bisantz Raymond

Unfortunately, this book is not fiction. This is a true story about adoption. Most of the babies and children were white, blue-eyed, blond. They nearly all came from one US state: Tennessee.

Barbara Bisantz Raymond describes events which took place between 1920 and 1950. Her story also deals with preliminaries and aftermath. It focuses on the legal – but mostly illegal – dealings of one person. It is hard to believe, at times horrifying to read, yet true. Worse: the illegal practises it describes continue in other parts of the world.

It seems many living in Hickory still think the world of Georgia Tann. When Barbara Bisantz Raymond visits Georgia Tann’s home-town to research a story she came across in 1990, she is not exactly welcome and after less than two days in Hickory, Barbara leaves in a hurry.

Baby ThiefGeorgia Tann and her adoption practises are the book’s main subject. But it also tells the stories of a few of Tann’s victims – some adopted, some not. It describes the fight for US adoptees to get access to information about their true identities and family history. It describes the story of one of the author’s children who is adopted.

The first of the book’s three parts, deals with Georgia Tann’s world. Barbara Bisants makes a strong case for Memphis’ history and especially the devastating yellow fever epidemics to have created an environment which fostered illegal practises. For though Tann grew up in Hickory, she spent most of her life in Memphis.

When Georgia grew up, women born in influential and well-to-do families did not have many career opportunities. Georgia’s brother was adopted and her mother’s favourite. Georgia’s relationship with her father was not easy.

Georgia went to an all-female university, where she may have realised she was a lesbian. Even if she did not, she may have witnessed women having same-sex crushes and friendships, called each-other sister. She later lived with her female partner and created a family by adopting a girl.

When Georgia graduated, her father forbade her to practise law. She opted for a career in social services and dedicated herself to “saving” children from poverty. This may all sound admirable, but Barbara Bisants shows how Georgia Tann started as an unethical social worker and became one who used her legal knowledge, connections, social network and society’s gullibility, to earn money from trading children

Worse: most of these children were not even orphans or abandoned. Georgia and her helpers targeted pregnant women, single parents – women and men – , relations, older siblings: nobody was safe. Children were stolen, parents pressurised in signing documents while being unaware of their contents, and worse. People were powerless to intervene, as the legal system and local government were corrupt and backed Georgia. Doctors, lawyers and others who tried to stop her, had to leave Tennessee.

Whole families were torn apart, with siblings often placed with different families in different towns, states, possibly even countries. Nuns working in orphanages tried to hide children to prevent them being stolen. This is no cozy tale.

As for the children: many were abused. Either by Georgia, her staff, adoptive parents, or if they were institutionalised: there. Georgia did not bother to vet prospective adoptive parents, nor staff, nor bothered much with children and babies. In her “children homes”, the death rate could be high. Though possibly not as appalling as the 100% in a few 19th century children’s homes.

Yet, as the author points out, Georgia’s legacy was not 100% bad, worse, awful. She made adoption acceptable. For in the early chapters of her book, Barbara goes into the history of adoption. Unwanted, abandoned, orphaned children were often treated like slaves. She explains what indenture meant and how whole groups of orphans were sometimes auctioned to farmers.

You may raise an eyebrow, but Barbara’s descriptions reminded me of the real stories behind childrens’ tales like those of for instance the brothers Grimm. Don’t belief me? Reread the first chapters of the first book of the “Anne of Green Gables” series.

The last few chapters of Barbara’s book describe the aftermath of the Georgia Tann affair. Many parents, children, siblings, never gave up trying to find each other. A few were lucky; the majority were not. It is extremely shocking to read that as late as 1999, US preachers, lawyers and others fought hard to deny adopted children access to information, archives, document, which the rest of us can access at will. If you think such groups are right, please think again. Why should non-adoptees have total access to family history, be able to trace relatives, tell doctors about genetically inherited diseases within their family – and adoptees be denied all this?

This book is rightly described as a social history and detective story describing a scandal. Yet despite the scandal, it is a well-balanced book and not a black-and-white story. At times, the various threads which weave this story, might have been easier to follow with a slightly clearer structure, though.

The story does not end with Georgia’s death, or the changes in laws granting adoptees access to information. It begins with a recent case in which social services wrongfully separated parents and their children. It ends with recent cases describing how children ended up being adopted by perverts because nobody bothered to vet the prospective parents, or where children were stolen and illegally traded – not just in the US.

“The Baby Thief; the true story of the woman who sold over five thousand neglected, abused and stolen babies in the 1950s”, Barbara Bisantz Raymond, Metro Publishing,England, hard back ed 2009, paperback ed 2013 304 pp

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2 thoughts on “Book review: “The Baby Thief” by Barbara Bisantz Raymond

    • Thank you for writing this impressive book with a deep message. The horrible thing is of course, that such things continue to take place.
      Hope to find & read more by you!

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