Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Helen Gurley Brown Gave Early Ink to Adoption Reform

Helen Gurley Brown in 1964
Helen Gurley Brown was a friend of mine. She was one of the few editors back in the day when I was "coming out" of the birth mother closet who supported me, gave me a pat on the back, and gave me an assignment. It was for Cosmopolitan with Brown as editor-in-chief I wrote my first piece about adoption reform, after reading a story in The New York Times about this woman named Florence Fisher and how she was shaking up adoption and demanding that adopted individuals be given their original birth certificates.

When Birthmark came out in 1979, I happened by the office and gave Helen an autographed copy; she wrote me a nice note later that I must have somewhere in my files. Although she was reviled by some of the feminists for her stance on using sex as a means to security and a better life, Helen went her own way and was certainly a feminist in the Madonna mold.

During my free-lance career, I wrote a number of pieces, many of them personal essays, for Cosmo while Helen was editor: my own battle with PMS and the amazing relief I found with progesterone; a lengthy prose poem about the end of my first marriage; how to tell when your marriage is over. I also wrote several reported pieces about subjects as varied as sperm banks (back to that, I see) and sex pheromones. (Well, sex was the focus of the magazine.) When I wrote a diet book--How to Eat Like a Thin Person: The Dieter's Handbook of Do's and Don'ts--Helen twice excerpted it and used the title as a cover line, just as I'd written the title. Sales jumped immediately and impressively. One of the editor's assistants and I  became good friends and later we were roommates in Manhattan.

Lorraine in 1967 with leg cast
So when I read this morning that Helen died, I pulled out my old piece about adoption that I wrote for her Cosmo. (Now it is edited by a woman who is not a friend of mine, but that is another story.) Here is an excerpt of my upcoming memoir about that story and how it led to my lifelong friendship with Florence Fisher:
Within days I convinced my editor at Cosmopolitan to let me write an as-told-to story that would be called, “I Found my Mother.” I called up Florence to lead me to someone I could interview, and we met one blistering hot September afternoon at her apartment in upper Manhattan. I didn’t blurt out my personal connection to the story, but before I left she knew about my daughter. She said she suspected I had this secret from the moment we sat down. She’s uncanny that way, and I was probably on the verge of tears as I listened. Telling your story about the daughter that was, but isn’t, is always—always—an emotional firecracker, and it is such a relief when the words finally tumble out, you see the light of perception in the listener’s eyes, the secret is no longer secret. Sometimes people even have a hard time understanding what you are saying and ask you to repeat what you have just revealed. I was beginning to learn what it felt like to tell a stranger: I had a daughter and I gave her up for adoption. It’s not at all like saying where you went to school. But Florence? She was sympatico, a soul sister. She was the other half of the equation in the soul-numbing agony that is called adoption. I bared my heart. She made me iced tea and patted my knee.
                                               
The Cosmo story* was that of a woman who had learned she was adopted when she was a youngster from a cousin, a fact her parents could not admit themselves. Though she caught her mother in several lies about her birth—where and when she was born kept changing—but it was not until she was twenty-one that her mother fessed up. In her quest to ferret out her identity, the woman became a nurse, and went to work at the hospital where she was born, hoping she would be able to unearth her records: “I would look at the babies headed for the foundling home and feel an acute kinship: We’re in this together, and it’s not as easy as everyone thinks, growing up and never knowing the truth about yourself….”   When the hospital job yielded nothing, she moved on to the Catholic home from which she had been adopted. Again she was thwarted, as the records were stashed on microfilm in the basement. Pleading her case to a friendly nun didn’t work either because the sister did not have the keys to the filing cabinets. Only when a priest—the brother of the man she became engaged to—told her story to the Mother Superior did the woman get her records. After that, finding her mother turned out to be amazingly simple because her mother still lived at the same address. When she phoned, her mother’s first words were: “I always thought you’d find me.”
There’s a paragraph in the story that sums up so much of the thrust of most adoptee memoirs: “My natural mother and I got off to not too good a start when she asked, with what I considered rather too much casualness, how life had gone for me. “Just fine!” I said sarcastically, and wanted to add, “what do you really care?” In the story, however, that anger led to resolution. “My resentfulness dissolved, however, when she told me how painful it had been for her to live through my birthdays, and how she never stopped wondering about me. Eventually, of course, we got down to the most basic matter: Why? Why did you give me away? She said she’d always been sorry but that she knew I’d probably never be able to understand. I guess I never will fully grasp her reasons, but when I left two days later, I felt I’d found a friend.”
For a time her adoptive mother stopped talking to the young woman, but they eventually reconciled, and she was able to have a relationship with both mothers: “I’m no longer troubled by unanswered questions, I’m a whole person with my own past; this new tranquility makes all the difference for the future.” Would these be my daughter’s feelings? I agonized as I wrote. Please please, let her be like this woman.
After the story appeared, Florence was inundated with letters from both adoptees and mothers looking for each other, as was Jean Paton, an earlier pioneer against closed records, whose name and address I also had included in the box at the end of the story. Though it said nowhere in the piece that the “as told to story” was “told” by a first mother, Florence says she was thrilled that that a mother wrote it, for was proof—yes, by a party of one—that at least some mothers who gave up their children did not forget, did yearn for reunion.
While I still had not come out publicly, I was firmly established as part of the early group around Florence and her burgeoning organization, the Adoptee Liberty Movement Association (ALMA). Together—a mother and an adoptee—we both understood, we were stronger than each of us alone. The more media we got, the more we could awake others like us in the same boat and make this movement stronger than it had been before. We never had this conversation, we just assumed it to be obvious. When Florence took ALMA non-profit, I was one of the members of the board at that first meeting at the Manhattan apartment of adoptee-rights activist and author Betty Jean Lifton. I didn’t realize that I really was on my way to a life that centered around all things adoption, but I was.--lorraine


* Dusky, “I Found My Mother,” Cosmopolitan, June, 1974, pps. 69-62, 134-142.

Sex and The Single Girl: Before There Was Sex in the City, There Was (Cult Classics)

Yes, I read it and yes it is fun to read. I had a paperback edition and amazingly enough it had some great recipes which I made for my daughter's father. For that reason alone, I kept it for years but it appears to have disappeared. I'm going to order another copy! 

And that is my diet book. First mothers do more than brood about their babies. First they eat; then they diet. Click on icons or title to order from Amazon.

8 comments :

  1. She was a very kind woman. I met her once at a party where I was working and she was the nicest person there. My sincere condolences to her family, she was a damn fine woman. I'm not surprised she was kind and gracious to you too. A beautiful post too, thank you for this.

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  2. Her book was published at the right time all right and it was a big success. Thanks for the great article Lorraine.

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  3. Edith Zimmerman recently had a piece in the NYT Magazine called "99 Ways to Be Naughty in Kazakhstan, How Cosmo Conquered the World." She was interviewed on NPR yesterday which drew my attention to the article. Ms. Brown will continue to influence women around the world even in her absence!

    Check out the article here:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/05/magazine/how-cosmo-conquered-the-world.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all

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  4. What a great story and part of the history of adoption activism.

    Marianne

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  5. Great article Lorraine. I was a Cosmo Girl for many years and always had the greatest admiration for Helen Gurley Brown... It doesn't surprise me that was so gracious in "real life", kind to you and even supportive of Adoption Reform.

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  6. Thank you for the backstory and my condolences to you for the loss of your friend

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  7. I subscribed to "Cosmopolitan" for years and I am sure I read that article! I know that I first joined ALMA. I know I contacted Jean Paton within that timeframe.

    I always knew I would find him or he would find me. He would have been 9 years old when the article came out.

    You didn't know how your life would become immersed in adoption -- and I couldn't have imagined I would be Facebook(!!!! Computer!!) friends with all these people some day!

    Thank you. Joy Pantelis

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  8. It doesn't surprise me that HGB would support adoption reform. I suspect she would have supported single mothers keeping their babies. She was one of the early advocates of women enjoying a sex life even if they weren't married. After all, wasn't her first claim to fame the publication of her book "Sex and the Single Girl?"

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