Rest in Peace, BJ. You were one of the first adoptees in the adoption reform movement to write and tell the adoptee’s truth. Thank you for that, and thank you for your friendship. – Joan Wheeler
New York Times Obit for Betty Jean Lifton
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: November 26, 2010
Betty Jean Lifton, a writer, adoptee and adoption-reform advocate whose books — searing condemnations of the secrecy that traditionally shrouded adoption — became touchstones for adoptees throughout the world, died on Nov. 19 in Boston. She was 84 and lived in Cambridge, Mass.
Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times
Betty Jean Lifton in 1985. She lectured widely about potential psychological effects.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, her husband, the psychiatrist and author Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, said.
Ms. Lifton, who lectured widely about the potential psychological effects of adoption, was best known for a nonfiction trilogy: “Twice Born: Memoirs of an Adopted Daughter” (McGraw Hill, 1975), in which she recounts her adulthood search for her birth mother; “Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience” (Dial, 1979); and “Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness” (Basic Books, 1994).
An outspoken proponent of open adoption, Ms. Lifton was often interviewed on the issue in the news media. (Nine states now allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates.)
She was a past board member of the American Adoption Congress; in recent years she also worked as a psychological counselor, with a practice centered on adoptees and their families.
When “Twice Born” was first published, there were few books about the adoptee experience. Adoption in general was a veiled topic, and adoptees — assuming they were told anything — rarely knew their given names, their birth parents’ identities or the precise circumstances of their adoptions.
As a result, generations of adoptees grew up with a void where their personal histories should be and, Ms. Lifton argued, with deep feelings of confusion, grief and loss.
“When I was born, society prophesied that I would bring disgrace to my mother, kill her reputation, destroy her chances for a good bourgeois life,” she wrote in “Twice Born.”
She added: “I say that society, by sealing birth records, by cutting adoptees off from their biological past, by keeping secrets from them, has made them into a separate breed, unreal even to themselves.”
The book’s publication, which gave momentum to the emerging adoption-reform movement, prompted an outpouring of mail from people with similar stories. These letters, and subsequent interviews with adoptees, informed the next installments in Ms. Lifton’s trilogy, in which she examined the psychological toll that closed adoption can take, and the psychological affinities many adoptees appear to share.
While some critics seemed discomforted by Ms. Lifton’s use of mythic metaphor (“I write of perilous journeys of the spirit, of labyrinths, of ghosts, of strangers with mysterious origins, of princesses and princes asleep under spells,” she said in “Twice Born”), others praised her willingness to speak frankly about a taboo subject.
Her other books include “The King of Children” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988), a biography of the Polish Jewish doctor, writer and children’s advocate Janusz Korczak, who was killed in Treblinka. She also wrote for children, including books about adoption and many titles inspired by Japanese folk tales.
Blanche Rosenblatt, as she later learned she was originally named, was born in Staten Island on June 11, 1926. Her mother, Rae Rosenblatt, who was 17 when Blanche was born, and her father, a bootlegger and bon vivant, were unmarried, a scandalous condition then. (In the first edition of “Twice Born,” Ms. Lifton gives her birth mother the pseudonym Bea Silverstein.)
Ms. Rosenblatt eventually gave up Blanche to a foster home. At 2 ½, she was adopted by a Cincinnati couple, Oscar and Hilda Kirschner, who renamed her Betty Jean.
When Betty Jean was 7, Hilda Kirschner informed her that she was adopted, adding that her birth parents were dead. Such falsehoods, Ms. Lifton later wrote, were par for the course at the time.
Betty Jean Kirschner earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Barnard College in 1948; in the 1990s, she earned a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from the Union Institute.
In 1952 she married Dr. Lifton, a psychiatrist who went on to write many influential books, including psychological studies of war and the Holocaust. The couple lived for several years in Hong Kong and Japan.
After returning to the United States, Ms. Lifton, long haunted by her opaque past, contacted the agency that had handled her adoption. She learned that her parents were probably still alive and began scouring public records for traces of them. Bit by bit, the information she gleaned led her to her birth mother.
They met several times in the years that followed. Though their communication was often strained, for Ms. Lifton, as she made clear in her writing, it was absolutely necessary. She later searched for her birth father, only to learn he had died not long before.
Besides her husband, Ms. Lifton is survived by their two children, Kenneth and Natasha Lifton; four grandchildren; and a half-brother, Donald Billings.
She dedicated “Journey of the Adopted Self” to her two mothers, who, she wrote, “might have known and even liked each other in another life and another adoption system.”
A version of this article appeared in print on November 27, 2010, on page A17 of the New York edition.