Thursday, October 5, 2023

RIP: The fire behind adoption reform, Florence Fisher

Florence Fisher, the spark plug who ignited the adoption-reform movement in 1971, died peacefully on Sunday, October 1. She was 95, and in failing health for several months. 
While she has long been retired from active work in adoption, she founded the largest adoptee-rights organization, Adoptee Rights Liberty Movement, better known as ALMA, which at its heyday in the Eighties had 50 chapters in cities large and small across America and about 50,000 members. At the time, it was the largest national reunion registry, numbering about 340,000 searching adult adoptees, natural/first/birth mothers and fathers, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents and others hoping to find family members. It operated out of walk-up couple of rooms in a midtown Manhattan office building, staffed largely by volunteers and Florence, who welcomed all who climbed those stairs. 
I was one of them. 
By the time I met Florence, she was well on her way. In March of 1971, she placed a small want ad in The New York Times: " Adult who was adopted as a child desires contact with other adoptees to exchange views on adoptive situation and for mutual assistance in search for natural parents." 
Florence Fisher and her natural father
Initially the ad was refused, she told me, because, as the ad taker stated, "We can't control the outcome of what happens as a result of an ad like this." Florence said that was on a Friday. In a followup call from someone else in the ad department on Saturday, she played dumb about the ad having a explosive effect. It was scheduled to run on Sunday.

She waited for Sunday, had trouble sleeping the night before, she told me years ago when I interviewed her for the purpose of writing about her today. The ad appeared as she wrote it. I did not see it.
A deluge of mail from all over the country followed, including some hate mail from adoptive parents. As someone who gave up a child for adoption in 1966, I was deep in the closet of secrecy. I knew nothing of this going on, all the while wondering: Will I ever meet my daughter? Will she hate me? Does she ever think about me? Do adopted people want to meet their natural parents? Will my daughter want to meet me?
But I knew none of this until a year later when I read a piece by Enid Nemy in The New York Times headlined, "Adopted Children Who Wonder, 'What Was Mother Like?'" (July 25, 1972) As I read about Florence, and the desire of some adoptees to know their natural parents, I felt as if I had been thrown a lifeline: I wasn't crazy, my desire to know my daughter was valid, and most exciting--at least some adopted people wanted to know their natural parents! (The words birth mother and birth parents were not yet in use. We were "natural parents.") At the time, my hasty marriage after I relinquished my daughter was breaking up. Alone in my Manhattan apartment that morning, I felt an eerie calm: There was hope that I would know my daughter one day. 
When something is in the air, it pops up everywhere. That very July, my own piece about giving up a daughter was on the news stands in a new magazine called New Woman under the absurd headline: "Things Your Husband/Lover Never Told You about Sex." Like, you could get pregnant when not married? Since I had asked that the piece be anonymous, the byline read, "Phyllis Bernard," a name made up by an editor. It was my story in brief; I didn't imagine then that I would ever write a memoir. But the story was coming out of me.
By the end of the day the Times piece appeared, I had typed a proposal off to my editor at Cosmopolitan magazine, the late Mallen de Santis. I did not reveal my connection; I was just on top of what's new! I ended up with an assignment to write a as-told-to-story about an adopted woman who searched and found. 
Now where would I find such a woman? Why I would call Florence Fisher and meet her myself! Surely she would know the right woman to interview. So on a blistering hot day--it was late September by then--I showed up at Florence's turquoise apartment in upper Manhattan and tremulously began interviewing her. She made me iced tea. We sat side-by-side on her couch. I was fighting back tears when I could no longer keep inside what was bursting to come out: I told her I had given up a child for adoption six years earlier. 
I thought so, she said, patting my knee, I could tell that you were not simply here as a writer.  I finally let my tears emerge.

That afternoon of several hours of talking began our deep and lasting friendship. I started going to ALMA meetings where I could connect with other women like myself and adoptees who looked upon us with wonderment: Could my own mother be like them? Because searching was so daring, Florence would not let mothers with children under 18, nor adopted people underage, into the search sessions that followed the public part of the meeting. I really don't remember much about the meetings except that it was a place where it was safe to be who we were: women deeply traumatized by the loss of our children. The adopted people there made us feel comfortable too, hoping, I imagine, that their own mothers felt as we did. We were renegades and we knew there were millions of others like us, both mothers and adoptees.

To the outside world, I was deep in the closet as someone who relinquished a child. To admit my awful sin to the world was unthinkable! My soon-to-be ex-husband knew, but not my own family--certainly not his family!--and none of my friends, save two. One of them was a new friend who revealed that she too was a natural mother the afternoon I told her. 
At the time, both Florence and I understood that all publicity was good because a new flood of letters and calls would ensue as word spread. More people would join her growing registry; more matches would be made; we would have a stronger case to make to legislators. The Cosmo piece did just that, appearing in the June, 1974 issue with this line on the cover: "I Found My Mother." Editor-in-chief Helen Gurley Brown understood the power of this story.  I found my mother. Not birth mother. Mother. It was a victory for us all. By then, Florence's memoir, The Search for Anna Fisher (1973) had come out and she had appeared on numerous talk shows. Talk of a movie came and went. We heard of movie stars who didn't want the part; we never heard why. We assumed it was because the character was shaking up the status quo, was attacking adoption as America knew it. 

In 1975, Florence asked if I would appear as a witness for an adoptee searching for her records; I did and realized that the case could be covered by the press. The attorney, Gertrude Mainzer, said that I could be anonymous, but it was time to be public. Whatever good I could do would be halfway unless I used my name. Florence agreed: Lorraine Dusky was a real person; an anonymous mother was...maybe a fake. We sat side by side until we were called to the stand. I got through the cross examination that ended when I resolutely stated: "You don't have someone in your body for nine months and forget." Within weeks of the trial, I went home to Michigan, told my mother, told my brothers, and announced I was going to write about the issue and use my name. My father was deceased by then, but I would have told him the same. My family never questioned my decision and gave me their full support. And so I went forward, coming out publicly as a woman who relinquished a child in an op-ed piece called "Yearning" in The New York Times. The following year I wrote a long a long essay on my experience for Town & Country magazine, which landed me on the Today show, interviewed by Jane Pauley. Later that year I published a piece that appeared in surprising location, Parent's magazine, with an even more surprising headline: "The Adopted Child Has a Right to Know EVERYTHING" (Oct. 1975), written just like that.
When Florence took ALMA non-profit, I was part of the inner circle and one of the original board members. We met at Betty Jean Lifton's apartment in Manhattan's west side. B.J.-- adoptee, author and therapist--remained the cool intellectual, with credentials of her own and through her well-known husband and author, Robert Jay Lifton, but Florence was always the engine behind the movement. Short in stature, long on passion, she was quick to laugh and just as quick to push back against critics. She began appearing more in the media, taking on adoption attorneys, adoptive parents, a man named Bill Pierce who was the founder of the National Coalition for Adoption (NCFA) and the enemy of unsealing birth records until he died.

By 1976, we had gained enough ground that the New York legislature took up a bill to unseal the records of adoptees. Florence, B. J. and I testified in Albany before a joint Senate/Assembly hearing. My picture was on the front page of the Albany Knickerbocker News, as that is where I fled and worked as a reporter after I gave up my baby in Rochester, New York. Instead of reporting the news, now I was the News. It felt somewhat disconcerting, but so be it. A higher calling was at work to combat any regrets I might have had about going public as one of  "those women."

The bill died because Florence would not accept that the bill would only apply to adoptions going forward 18 years from the date it was enacted. Everybody born and adopted before 1976 (or before 1936 when New York sealed its records) would still have their records sealed. I kept writing, essays that were rejected by numerous publications, essays that would later become part of my first memoir.

Florence wasted no time. Working with a sympathetic New York University Law School professor, Cyril Means, Florence filed a class-action suit in federal court (ALMA Society v. Mellon, 1979). We lost. We lost on appeal. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, so the lower court ruling stood. My first memoir, Birthmark, came out that same year in the fall. It was the first memoir by a established publisher from the point-of-view of a mother who had relinquished a child. Now I was on a number of talk shows coast to coast, and in numerous newspaper stories, but sealed records remained the norm. Was it disheartening? Yes. But we knew we had the winds of justice behind our backs. And every time one of us was in the media, more people came out of the proverbial woodwork and the movement gained momentum. 

But others were at work too. Lee Campbell had come out of the cloak of anonymity--she previously had appeared on talk shows with a veil covering her face--and had founded Concerned United Birthparents, better known to us as CUB. What was then the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), with Lee on the advisory committee, came up with a bill in 1980 that would unseal all records everywhere. Now Florence and I were invited to appear before a joint Senate-House subcommittee, and together we trooped up to DC, sharing a hotel room, again sitting side-by-side until called to address the committee. NCFA brought forth its own anti-witnesses and sponsored a letter-writing drive against the bill that elicited thousands of negative letters from adoptive parents. The senator heading the sub-committee was adoptive father, John Tower, known all over DC as a drunk and a womanizer. But he held the power, and that terrific bill also went nowhere.

Florence persevered. In time, states began unsealing their records. But New York held firm. I wrote about other things, wrote other books, always fitting in here and there pieces about adoption reform, and published my second memoir, Hole In My Heart in 2015, with a new (and better, if I say so myself) edition earlier this year. Florence gave me a cover blurb, as she had for Birthmark. There were long gaps in our conversations, but once in a while one or the other would call and we would chat for at least an hour. In 1994 the records were still sealed in New York, and she spoke about realizing that if she had gone along with the 1976 reform bill, adoptees born that year and after would have been able to get their birth records. It wasn't that either of us were sorry she hadn't made a different decision, it was simply a reckoning of what might have been.

At some point, well after computers became the new thing, Florence stepped away from ALMA. She knew it was time for a new guard. But sometimes she would tell me about some case that she had gotten involved in, even though she had vowed to stay out of adoption work. She never used a computer or email. The telephone was her medium, and she could talk for hours. 
When Florence's beloved husband, Stanley Eigenfeld, died in 2013, she was inconsolable, and inconsolable she remained for the next decade. She said that when the money at ALMA ran out, Stanley paid the bills, sometimes covering the rent on the Manhattan office. Phone calls to her since his death always ended up with her talking about wanting to join Stanley in the next life, with her in tears. I listened. It was pointless to try to bolster her spirits. She only needed to talk. I can't think of a single subject I couldn't talk to her about--in my personal or professional life. We talked the day in 2019 when the New York legislature voted to unseal the original birth records of adoptees, and in doing so, became the 13th state to do so. What a long fight it had been, we agreed. In the last months she sometimes hallucinated, but I did have the opportunity one night when she was clear to tell her how much her work meant to so many. I knew it was near the end, and I wept.
As the years went on, ALMA was not the powerhouse organization it had been when she was at the helm. States had their own organizations, and one after another began unsealing the records. Today we stand at 14--perhaps soon to be 15--where adoptees can request their original birth records without restrictions. Nineteen states have halfway laws, where the law has loosened up some but still have restrictions. While others, such as Jean Paton had been quietly working in the background, Florence Fisher brought the movement into the light and created a force that cannot be stopped. Someday every state will have open records for adoptees, and Florence deserves a lion's share of the credit. She changed the law and in doing so, she changed lives, mine included. 
Florence Fisher was a big soul, an old soul, an empathetic soul. I remember her telling me that ALMA in Spanish means "soul," and that was the reason she crafted that name. Tonight I mourn her presence, but know that she did so much for so many, and am at peace knowing that the work she started cannot be stopped. --lorraine dusky
PS: I'll be talking about Florence this evening (10/6) at the NAAP Happy Hour. Sign up here: 
It's late tonight. Later I will post some of the links to other blog posts about her, and some of the above stories. Unfortunately, I have no photo of us together.









  1. Thank you so much for sharing. I did not now about Florence until your initial post on Facebook. How profound her life and life’s work was to your own! Someone needs to write up this history! Maybe Lorraine Dusky has another book in her? :-)

  2. I learned about Florence and Alma in 1988. I was at the Salem, Oregon library and happened to see a copy of Florence's book, "The Search for Anna Fisher" on a table. I knew instantly what it was about. I picked it up and snuck off to a table in the stacks and read the whole book. The daughter I lost to adoption had been born 22 years earlier and I was totally in the closet. I did not want anyone to see me with the book lest they guess my secret. "Search" was a inspiration. My daughter might search for me which she was in fact doing.

    Now thousands, yea millions of adopted persons and their natural mothers have been reunited. More than half the states have opened records. Florence made the unthinkable routine.

  3. "I was alone in my Manhattan apartment and felt an eerie calm. There was hope that I would know my daughter one day." I remember picking up the morning paper and seeing a small block ad; "Adoption Issues?" with an invitation to attend a support group meeting in a local library basement. Although I felt outed and naked as I knew it pertained to me, I also felt that "eerie calm" as I knew THEN that I was not the only one thinking of a two decades old trauma --and that the hope and camaraderie of others might help me figure out what to do. We all stood on the strong shoulders of Florence and I did me best to carry her fight for justice onward in my state until my surrendered son had every single right he deserved. I remain eternally grateful for the tireless efforts of Florence. Yes, and thanks to the dedication of a determined adoption community, "the work she started CAN NOT be stopped !" RIP Anna Fisher and TY Lorraine for the heavy torch you continue to carry for so many.

  4. What an inspiring, touching, informative tribute about a wonderful woman and her work. Thank you for sharing with those of us who did not have the privilege to know her. Thank YOU for continuing to advocate for the adoption community.

  5. I love that picture of Florence with her father, Fred. She looks like a happy little girl being held and loved by her daddy.

    1. Robin, she loved it to and had it on display at her apartment.

  6. To add to my comment. When my daughter was born, I was distraught. "What's the matter" asked an aid. "I'm afraid the people who adopt her won't understand her soul." I cried. Of course that didn't make sense to the aid. I knew my family was different, a little odd, and that others outside the family would not understand her. Florence's organization ALMA, soul in Spanish, told me immediately she understood blood mattered.

  7. Hi Lorraine Tx for article as I google Florence regularly …knowing this day was coming. I ran San Diego chapter ALMA for yrs so know of you and was close to Florence and the lovely missed Stan … I visited them over the years. Found my birth family in Ireland so she would send me the foreign searches (which were easier than Ca! ) Talked last Xmas…
    was due to talk this week.. she has been ready to join Stan for a decade so am happy for her. She was amazing…changed the culture, won a place high in heaven. She healed lots of broken hearts when laws changed thanks to her cheerleading, Glad I found your newsxxxBridie Kelly O’Shaughnessy County Limerick Ireland



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