Part 4: Feminism and Fellowship
The second half of the 1970s was a time of growing tension in American society, and in my family. We had had the first real economic crisis since the Great Depression, and people were jumpy. Instead of blaming the changing economy, they blamed the scapegoat du jour, feminism. Feminism took the hit for two trends that had been actually going on for most of the 20th Century.( Collapse ) One of them was the return of the largest number of women to the workforce since WWII. While it was true that feminism encouraged women who wished to work to pursue their dreams, the majority were motivated by the economy. For every woman who went to work to to fulfill her potential there were 20 who did it to put food on the table for their families.
The more serious issue in the opinion of our neighbors that feminism was blamed for was the rising divorce rates. I can remember riding the bus to school and all the other kids were talking about how their parents were getting divorced or had gotten divorced. They thought we had the only parents in the neighborhood who were still together. I couldn't bring myself to tell them that our parents were actually already on their second marriage. They had divorced a decade earlier to beat the rush.
The real culprit was a bad model for marriage. Marriages made in the early 20th Century were encouraged to follow an occupational model where marriage was viewed as a job with fixed rules that could not be deviated from. This meant that nothing could be changed if the marriage wasn't working by those fixed rules. Worse, it encouraged cheating on a spouse by equating it with what was considered the relatively minor offense of cheating on your employer. Consequently there was an epidemic of unhappy marriages, and the divorce rate had climbing steadily since the late 1950s before starting to climb steeply in the late 1960s. The saying, "Marry in haste, repent at leisure" was painfully true for far too many people.
Feminists pushed a partnership model of marriage, where each spouse was an equal partner able to renegotiate when things weren't working out so as to prevent getting a divorce. It also equated cheating on a spouse with the more socially serious offense of cheating on a partner instead of cheating your boss. Starting in the late 1960s more marriages have followed this model, and consequently the divorce rates would decline dramatically in the years to come. But in the late 1970s things had never looked scarier to people who valued traditional marriage.
I don't know which of these pressures was getting under my adoptive mother's skin and turning her into a vindictive jerk, but something was. She didn't like it when the sour economy which forced her to go back to work, even though she had worked until we moved to Birmingham only a few years before. She didn't like it that her second marriage had deteriorated even further, judging from the fact that my adoptive father's coworkers had pity-dumped a multi-year stash of Playboy back issues on him that he had to hide in the basement. She didn't like it that her hair had started to turn grey, which she was camouflaging with the new "frosted highlights" treatment. She didn't like it that I was getting positive attention from being in the gifted program; she let everyone know that even if I was smart I would never amount to anything. She didn't like it that I was starting to ask questions. She took all her myriad dislikes for everything else and focused them on one target -- me.
Honestly, I found life bewildering at that point. I was old enough that my reason was starting to kick into gear. I could figure out logic puzzles, but the real world didn't make much sense. And I dearly wanted it to make sense in such a way where everybody agreed with everybody else and people really loved me. But in the real world the arguments only increased and my mother's abuse only grew more overt.
Well gosh darn it, I was going to try anyway. Both my gifted class and my church taught that reason could and should be used to make the world better, so I was going to use it. But it was hard to reconcile reason and misogyny, especially the virulent misogyny of my adoptive mother, who made Southern men of the 1970s look like die-hard feminists in comparison.
For instance, there was the whole question of women's role in society. My adoptive mother staunchly defended the natural inferiority of women, and more importantly the natural superiority of white women who believed in the natural inferiority of women over those women of any race who did not believe any such thing. This gave her a moderately high position in the hierarchy from which to look down upon others without having the responsibility that went from being at the top of the heap. It was important to her that I uphold the anti-feminist party line. I could not. Much as I wanted to please her, I could not believe in something so -- dumb. I mean, if God intended women to be less intelligent than men, why didn't He make high IQ a sex-linked trait? But He didn't. Therefore, He must have meant women to use the gifts He gave them. Including the gifts He gave me. Including my analytical mind. Which, when I did use, people accused me of not being the kind of girl God wanted me to be.
I was only a kid, and the stress was wearing me down. Finally, one Sunday morning after some especially vicious remarks on the way to church I could stand it no longer. I did something I hadn't done since I was very little. I prayed to God. Not only that, for the first time in my life I prayed to God for a sign. I had always thought that was selfish, but I was desperate to clear up the confusion.
Imagine my surprise when I got one.
It was the Sunday before Easter, which is Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday, for those who haven't been to church in a while was when Jesus led a parade of his followers into Jerusalem in the hopes of making radical changes in the Establishment, hopes which were to be completely dashed by the Old Guard. It was also the first sermon by our brand new preacher, and the first chance for most folks to meet him.
The church was packed with listeners curious to hear the new preacher. He began by saying that he knew everyone expected to hear him speak of Big Things, but he wasn't going to do that today. There was a minor, not really important, matter that had somehow been allowed to get out of hand which had to be addressed first. That matter was the status of women.
He said it seemed like the women of the church, and some of the men, weren't reading their Bibles correctly. They were focusing on the words of Jesus, but when it came to women the words of Jesus were less important than the words of Paul. Paul had the final say on matters.
I wasn't sure who this "Paul" fellow was. I knew the Apostles and the Old Testament figures, but I hadn't heard much of this guy. And how could anybody's words be more important than the words of Jesus? I thought we were the followers in Jesus Christ, not somebody else.
Now, this Paul fellow was a Christian leader who came along after Jesus was dead and started organizing Jesus' followers. He wrote letters telling the other Christian leaders how they were supposed to interpret Jesus. I wondered how those other Christian leaders who had actually met Jesus felt about that.
Paul had strong ideas about women's place in the church. Ideas like:
Women should remain silent in the churches, They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.And:
Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness. A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.We were told that this was obviously the way Jesus wanted things to be, even though it contradicted things Jesus himself had said. We were told that this was the way the church was going to be run from now on. We were told that women should show their assent to the new order by not dressing up for Easter next Sunday.
I sat there in shock. It was...
It was the biggest load of malarkey I had ever heard in my life. I felt astounded to hear such hogwash being spoken seriously and terribly embarrassed on behalf of this grown man that he was being heard saying something so foolish in public.
I thought somebody was going to stand up and call him out for having his first sermon say such crazy and divisive things, but while I could sense the consternation nobody said anything. Now, my adoptive mom didn't sew, but I knew there were ladies who had been working on their dresses for weeks. It was a mean thing to publicly denigrate their work right before they even got to finish it. It was crass and bullying. I decided then and there the God I believed in was not mean, crass, or bullying, and anyone who said He was had just blown his credibility with me.
My adoptive mother was proudly, almost combatively, anti-crafty, so I didn't have a dog in this fight. But I knew there were ladies for whom new clothes on Easter were important, some for showing off, but others got into the whole "rebirth and renewal" aspect. I had also figured out that the church ladies who sewed were proxies for the church ladies who did the other jobs the congregation needed to have done, the ladies who organized the Sunday School, organized the Fellowship Hall, dusted the sanctuary, and ran the office. These were the women whose work was the real draw to come to the church who were being belittled by proxy.
I wondered what would happen if those women stopped coming?
In my naiveté I expected that even if the women didn't confront this new preacher directly, their menfolk would have some strong words with him after the service about insulting their womenfolk from the pulpit. Dumb old me didn't realize that the men's desire to send this very message was what got the guy hired. I would learn that lesson over time, but not that day.
That day, as I sat listening to this man stand at the pulpit and speak the most idiotic drivel I had ever heard, I had a more important lesson to learn. He stood at the pulpit like he was some kind of authority, like he had a right to be there, but his words were not true message that Jesus had brought to Earth and died for. Even though he looked the part, acted the part, and no one openly questioned his right to the part, I knew he was a false prophet. That day I learned to never, EVER accept authority without question. It didn't matter what position he held, it mattered that his words and deeds were in keeping with that position. And if they weren't, he had no business being there.
My shock started to fade, to be replaced by an urge to giggle. Not just giggle, but to guffaw with a transcendent sense of -- joy. I mean, yeah, it was awful that he was up there saying this nonsense, but, as a girl named Sarah would realize in a movie that was to come out ten years later, "You have no power over me."
Never again would I accept without question anyone's authority over me. I was liberated! I walked out of church that day feeling blessed and euphoric in my power to do what Southern Baptists were supposed to do and decide for myself what God's words meant to me.
And that was good, because things were about to get very strange.
Three Steps Part 6: The New Guy
By the mid-1970s my family was settling in to a new life in Birmingham and it seemed like my country was settling in to a new life as well, one that seemed sincerely interested in using reason and compassion to fix the errors of the past. Progress had been made on ending racial and gender discrimination, and more progress was coming. These developments were hailed as Good Things by our leaders and in the press. There were a few people grumbling about the changes in private conversations and letters to the editor, but never in public. It didn't seem important.
School started to become interesting when they decided to start one of those newfangled "gifted" programs. I was ostracized by my peers for reasons I did not understand (high IQ and trauma), classes were deadly dull, and I had stopped paying attention and just sat there reading whatever I had checked out of the library. My reading teacher fought to get me tested for the program even though my grades were poor because I was reading a different book every day. The tests revealed that I was gifted, and I was put into the new class on probation over the strenuous objections of the principal, who apparently thought being bored in his classrooms was somehow inherently immoral.
I learned the two most important things I would learn in elementary school about that time, and oddly enough both of them were taught to me by male military veterans. The first lesson was taught to me by my new gifted-ed teacher, a 50s-era Army veteran who had used his benefits to earn a Master's in Psychology. He taught me that the things which made me look at the world so differently than everyone else and isolated me from my classmates were matters of psychology, not moral failings on my part. They were in the process of being named, studied, and understood. I took a great deal of comfort from this fact. In the lifetimes of my adoptive parents and grandparents these same types of researchers had worked diligently to eradicate so many of the great plagues that had swept over mankind, like smallpox and polio. Surely they would be no less diligent in finding productive ways to deal with depression and anxiety.
The second lesson came from my new P.E. coach, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran who had been stationed in San Francisco and learned about yoga and meditation while he was there. I don't think the school approved of such things, but he would mix in as much yoga and meditation as he could with the soccer and gym hockey. He taught us meditative breathing, and practicing that form of stress relief helped keep me from cracking under the stress.
Meanwhile I was noticing some discrepancies at church. People talked about gender equality in church, but like the Queen's jam in Alice in Wonderland, it was always equality tomorrow, never equality today. Women would be allowed to preach any day now, but somehow never today or any other day on the schedule calendar.
By now I had noticed that most people didn't come to hear the preacher speak in the first place, they came to take part in the activities going on in the Fellowship Hall. These activities were organized by the church ladies. Therefore the big draw at the church was the work of the women, not the work of the all-male clergy. Yet, when the preacher called out the names of the notable members who had helped the church at the beginning of the service and asked them to stand and be recognized he only called on men. After they were honored there would be a general platitude about the "wonderful work done by the ladies of the church", but no women would be named and recognized, and no individual women's work would be held up for commendation.
There were also definite differences between "women's work" and "men's work". Women in the church cooked, cleaned, decorated, organized events, and took care of children. Men in the church wrote and administrated. Even at that age I knew that my God-given gift was writing. There was no place for a women writer at my church, even with a gift coming from God. God had not seen fit to gift me with any talent at all for cleaning, decorating , organizing or anything else which women were allowed to do. In fifty years I have picked up some skills along those lines, but nothing that will ever approach my ability to string words together. So if God truly meant for men and women to occupy different spheres, why had He given me a gift that did not fit in with my gender? It didn't make any sense. Either God had made a mistake, or the church had. The latter seemed far more likely.
Meanwhile our preacher was getting ready to retire. A new minister had been found by the steering committee, and exciting new things were being planned by the church organizers. Maybe it would finally be the day for that equality jam.
I had a lot to learn.
The new computer can handle Minecraft. We have Minecraft, which means there is an 8 year-old breathing down your neck whenever you try to use said new computer.
My eldest is taking college courses. Eeep! OTOH, the girls are finally old enough for shows like Mad Men.
Greg Berlanti is making halfway decent television. Yay!
And since I don't have Netflix, can someone explain to me why we're all stuck in an update of The Orange Buffoon in the High Castle? Yeah, didn't think so.
More to come.
A teacher in my husband's department died at the start of the spring semester, and the subsequent extra work load led to him being very overworked this year.
Owl has started piano lessons. He may have the best ears in the family for identifying notes. Unfortunately our piano teacher seems to have retired on us.
I tried to be a laid-back Mom and let them set their own pace, but they did nothing and then complained about not being able to sleep at night while they dragged themselves around all day. This spring I kicked them out of bed for morning exercises and meditation. They're sleeping better as a result. But now that schedule has to be readjusted for morning class at the college.
After watching various local classes and fitness opportunities crash and burn over the years, I was shocked to find a tiny Shotokan karate class that had been going on for six months in a neighboring town. The children and I signed up, and I am verypleased with it. The teacher, whose kids are also in the class, is great with the children, who are all local homeschoolers. It's wonderful to have someone else tell my kids what to do for a change.
Shotokan karate: in the early 20th Century schoolteacher and karate instructor Ginchin Funakoshi stripped karate down to something that could be taught to young children in a grade school classroom. In the process he also made it very easy for non-athletic adults to pick it up as well. It didn't catch on in Japanese schools the way he hoped it would, but it caught on like wildfire in the rest of the world. The teaching style is meant to reward and encourage youngsters, and it does a pretty good job with anxious grownups as well.
The karate proved helpful with Brighteyes in a most unexpected way. When we started lessons I told my kids that learning martial arts had been on my "to-do" list for a long time, and this was the first opportunity I had had in a long time. As the date for the ACT got nearer, Brighteyes became more and more agitated, until she exploded and accused me of trying to live vicariously through her, expecting her to do all the things I had not had a chance to do. I told her I wanted no such thing. While I had put my other plans on hold to homeschool them, now that they were old enough to start seeing to themselves I was beginning to pursue those plans once again. I didn't want her to pursue my dreams, I wanted her to get out of my way so I could pursue my dreams. Surprisingly, this statement actually calmed her down quite a bit, and she even became more empathetic afterward.
That's all for now. More later.
Part 1: Recollection, Remembrance, and Discovery
Part 2: That Old Time Liberal Religion
And he tells me I am his own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known.
But church wasn't only the calmest place in my life, it was the most intellectually stimulating. School was deadly dull, and there was no other place around me where people were having interesting, open-ended discussions about life's problems. In the early 70s there were a ton of problems to discuss, and many people were getting all gloomy about them. But not the church, which was a haven of optimism and reason.
When we joined a few months ago, the preacher had welcomed us individually, shook my hand, and told me that if I had any problems I could come see him. When I felt comfortable there, I took him at his word.
I must have just turned eight. My sister and I had been dropped off there for some children's function, and I found the opportunity to speak to the minister alone in the sanctuary. I told him that Mom and Dad were doing things to us that they shouldn't, and, maybe, he could talk to them and make them stop?
The preacher thought for a moment and then asked if my father sang in the choir. Yes, he did. He asked if my mother was the treasurer of the PTA. Yes, she was.
He did not ask why I had requested an intervention.
Then he kindly explained things to me. He explained that since my parents were members of the church in good standing, they couldn't possibly be doing anything wrong, especially not to their own children. If I thought that members of the church in good standing were doing something wrong, there could only be one explanation. Somehow I had become possessed by Satan, and Satan was inside me making me believe lies about my parents that could not possibly be true. Then he prayed to Satan to leave my body and stop plaguing my thoughts with such lies, and sent me on my way.
I was dumbfounded. I may have just turned eight, but even then I knew the only thing I was possessed by was the good sense to realize how ridiculous the preacher sounded. It was without question the single stupidest thing I had ever heard in my life, either in stories or in real life. But if he took it seriously, then that could only mean -- dangerous things. I remember staring at the thumbs of his clasped hands in shock, not daring to look him in the face. Then my mind started to work.
This was a modern, liberal church in the early 1970s and he's threatening me with Satan. I don't think half the congregation even believes in Satan! It's not a serious topic of conversation in or out of sermons. Here people talk about using love to solve real problems, they don't threaten people asking for help with stuff that belongs in old movies. It's like be threatened with leeches or water torture or -- or footbinding or some other bit of antique nonsense.
But if there were even a tiny minority out there who actually believed such things, then I could never, ever tell anyone about my own spiritual experiences. I had never told anyone about tallking to God because I had never met anyone who would have a positive reaction to the news. The negative reactions would fall into two camps, the ones who would want me shipped off to a loony bin and the ones who would want me burned at the stake. Of the two I figured I could talk my way out of the loony bin easier than I could talk my way off a burning stake. I seriously thought the latter camp only existed in old books, but apparently I was wrong.
That hurt. I'd been looking forward to talking to someone about it someday.
Obviously I couldn't talk to any spiritual ministers about anything else going on in my life. And I had made a mistake not waiting until I knew someone long enough for them to trust me before asking them for help. Next time I would wait longer.
That was what went through my concious mind at the time. For over 40 years whenever I consciously remembered it, that is all I thought about, that and the image of the thumbs of his clasped hands. It was not until I finally committed to writing about it after years of dithering that I realized my subconscious had ruminated on it for a long time, and reached conclusions that I did not fully realize were connected to this memory.
In my subconscious I realized other things as well. I realized that my parents could do anything they wanted to my little sister and I and no one would rescue us. According to the preacher, they weren't the only ones. Any "member of the church in good standing" could do anything they wanted to us and if my parents didn't stop them no one would. That meant no one would protect me not only from my father but from any man at church who wanted to abuse me in any way. It meant that the church would attract abusers who wanted to be "members in good standing" for the cover it provided for their abuse.
But it's church, right? There can't be many abusers there. At the time I believed that. I didn't have any evidence of any other abusers -- other than the preacher's disturbing response.
Time would prove me wrong. The evidence would mount. And I would have a hard time feeling safe in a church again.
Meanwhile I had a decision to make. I was being abused at home, and apparently the larger community in the form of the my community's spiritual leader thought that my abuse was the right and proper way of the world. Where did that leave me? At this point there were two things I could believe. Either 1) there was something wrong with me that made people think they could get away with treating me like shit, or 2) the whole damn system was fucked.
I'll take Door #1, Monty.
I can hear the chorus now. "You just wanted to be a special snowflake!" Nothing could be further from the truth. I knew that what distinguished the scapegoat from the rest of the herd was the mark that others placed on it. If I could figure out where the scapegoat's mark was on me, I could wash it off and vanish into the crowd. If #1 was correct, that meant I could someday escape. If #2 was correct I could never escape an entire world that saw all children as suitable playthings for monsters. I originally chose to believe #1 not out of shame, despair, or any perverse pride; but out of a desperate, desperate hope. In time that hope would fade, and despair would take it's place. In even more time I would realize that what I had refused to believe was true. The whole damn system was fucked and no one was doing anything to fix it.
And then I would begin to get angry.
But I was eight and still in the grip of Persephone's cruelest demon, hope.
(It would be 41 years later before my husband pointed out the most disturbing part of that conversation: the preacher did not stutter or fumble his words. To the veteran schoolteacher that meant only one thing -- he'd had plenty of practice on other girls and boys.)
**inserts Galaxy Quest with a flourish**
It's gonna be a good New Year's Eve.
The Hollywood Baby Snatcher: The sinister story of the woman who stole children and sold them to the stars
For 30 years, Georgia Tann made millions selling children. A network of scouts, corrupt judges and politicians helped her steal babies. She also targeted youngsters on their way home from school, promising them ice cream to tempt them away from their homes.
As she watched her baby coughing in her cot in a corner of her tiny apartment, Alma Sipple felt increasingly desperate.
A single mother in Tennessee, she could not afford medical care for ten-month-old Irma. Suddenly, a knock on the door heralded a turn in her fate: there stood a woman with close-cropped grey hair, round wireless glasses and a stern air.
She exuded authority as she explained she was the director of a local orphanage and had come to help. Alma rushed to show the lady her sickly child.
Examining the baby, the woman offered to pass her off as her own at the local hospital in order to obtain free treatment. She warned Alma not to accompany her, explaining: ‘If the nurses know you’re the mother, they’ll charge you.’
Lifting the child from the cot, the woman turned on her heel and disappeared. Two days later, Alma was told her baby had died.
In fact, Irma had been flown to an adoptive home in Ohio. Alma would not see her daughter again for 45 years.
For far from being her savior, the woman who had taken Irma was a baby thief.
For 30 years, Georgia Tann made millions selling children. A network of scouts, corrupt judges and politicians helped her steal babies. She also targeted youngsters on their way home from school, promising them ice cream to tempt them away from their homes.
Legal papers would be signed saying they were abandoned – most would never see their families again.
Now, her story has been revealed in a new book. After painstakingly contacting her surviving victims and a forensic search through the archives, Barbara Bisantz Raymond calculates that Tann sold more than 5,000 children – and killed scores through neglect.
During the time she ran her ‘business’, the infant mortality rate in Memphis was the highest in the country.
Tann molested some of the girls in her care and placed children with paedophiles.
She charged fees to couples desperate to be parents
Some victims were sold as underage farm hands or domestic skivvies. Others were starved, beaten and raped. The lucky ones were sold to wealthy parents, with Hollywood stars, including Lana Turner and Joan Crawford – who adopted twins Cathy and Cynthia – lining up for babies.
Some of the children were featured in magazine articles. A number were placed with families in Britain.
So, who was Georgia Tann and how did she come to ruin so many lives?
Born in Hickory, Mississippi, in 1891, her father, George, was a high court judge and her mother, Beulah, a Southern belle. Inside their lavish house, all was not well.
Tann’s father was an arrogant, domineering womanizer. From an early age, it became clear Georgia was a disappointment to her strait-laced parents.
Big-boned and broad-shouldered, she wore flannel shirts and trousers: unacceptable clothing for a woman at the time. A car accident had left her with a limp.
Social work was one of the few acceptable careers for women of Tann’s class, and despite having no empathy with the vulnerable, she saw it as an escape route from her staid home.
She developed her own theories on society. In eugenic language which would be echoed to infamous effect in Nazi Germany, she described wealthy people as ‘of the higher type’.
After getting a job at the Mississippi Children’s Home-Finding Society, she began to translate her beliefs into action.
At the time, adoption was uncommon in the USA. Tann would change that.
At first, she simply placed orphans for adoption. But soon, she realized she could make money by charging hefty fees to couples desperate to become parents.
Mothers were falsely told their newborn had died
By 1920, exploiting the lack of regulations on adoption and her father’s position as a judge, Tann began placing children she had kidnapped from poor women.
Asleep inside was pregnant Rose, who was young, poor, widowed and suffering from diabetes. Her two-year-old son, Onyx, was playing on the back porch.
Tann lured the sturdy, black-haired, brown-eyed boy into her car. Her father signed legal papers declaring Rose to be an unfit mother and Onyx an abandoned child. He was placed with an adoptive family. Rose engaged a lawyer, but was unable to regain custody.
In 1924, Tann started work at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, where she turned part-time baby snatching into big business.
‘I can still hear her steps down the hallway. She had big feet and wore black lace-up shoes,’ says a former resident at the children’s home.
‘She always went upstairs to see the babies. There would be masses of them one day. They’d be gone the next.’
Tann acquired the protection of Memphis’s corrupt and all powerful mayor, Edward Hull Crump, and eventually set up her own orphanage, at 1556 Poplar Avenue.
By then, she had met her lesbian partner, Ann Atwood Hollinsworth, who helped Tann ferry babies around the country – as far from their natural parents as possible.
Tann adopted a daughter, June, in 1922. June’s daughter, Vicci, says: ‘Mother said Georgia Tann was a cold fish; she gave her material things, but nothing else. I don’t know why she bothered to adopt her.’
By the Thirties, Tann was charging wealthy couples up to £100,000 in today’s money for babies. So, how did she arrange a steady flow of children she could sell?
In some cases, single parents would drop off their children at nursery – when they came back to collect them, they would be told they had been taken away by welfare officers.
Tann offered accommodation to children whose parents were in trouble and targeted the most beautiful infants she could find, dressing them in lace outfits to meet prospective clients.
Older children would be instructed to ‘sit on that man’s lap and call him daddy’.
Newborns were most in demand. Tann bribed maternity hospital nurses, who falsely told mothers their babies had died.
Irene Green remembers being told her baby was stillborn. ‘But I heard him cry!’ she protested. She asked to see the body, but was told it had been ‘disposed of’. In fact, Georgia’s workers had snatched the child.
Tann would falsify birth certificates
Mary Reed was a typical victim. In 1943, aged 18, she gave birth to a baby boy. She was barely conscious when she was presented with a ‘routine paper’ to sign by a woman dressed in white.
By the time Mary came round and asked for her baby, the child was in New Jersey.
She hired a lawyer but never got her child back. Tann would alter the children’s records and falsify birth certificates to make them more appealing to prospective adopters.
Their mother would be described as ‘the daughter of a doctor’ who had fallen pregnant accidentally, while the father would be ‘a medical student’.
She knocked years off the children’s age, so they appeared precocious – and to stop them being traced.
Some youngsters were accused of disappointing their adoptive families. Joy Barner was told as a teenager by her father: ‘I paid 500 dollars for you – I could have gotten a good hunting dog for a lot less. You come from the lowest scum on earth.’
She later found out she had been stolen in 1925 from a loving family living on a houseboat.
Many of the children were abused. Jim Lambert and his three siblings were taken from their mother by Tann in 1932.
The Chicago couple he was placed with divorced and Jim’s stepmother hung him up from a hook in the basement.
He and his siblings eventually traced their birth mother, only to find she had died. In her Bible, beside the names of her stolen family she had written: ‘The children of a brokenhearted mother. I have no one to love me now.’
He later said: ‘I feel angry, frustrated, as if I was cheated out of a whole lot of life.’
Billy Hale recalled being driven away from his mother, crying, in a limousine, with two women in black.
His loving adoptive parents repeatedly reassured him no such event had occurred.
Through his childhood, he suffered from seemingly motiveless rages. It was only many years later, when he researched his background, that he realised his memory was correct.
He tracked down his mother, Mollie, only to be told by her brother she had died of cancer eight years previously, calling out for her son at the end.
He was told: ‘She looked for you all her life, Bill.’
‘She was a relentless, cold-blooded demon’
By 1935, Tann had placed children in every U.S. state. A social worker who knew her says: ‘She placed with no regard to whether children would be happy in their adoptive homes. She wanted to get her hands on every child she could.’
Among the most disturbing cases are the adoptions by single men of young teenagers – Bisantz Raymond suspects they were paedophiles.
Keen to make more money, Tann began running ‘Georgia’s Christmas Baby Ads’ in the local newspaper under the headline: ‘Want a real, live Christmas present?’
A brilliant publicist, she gave lectures on adoption, arguing that adopted children ‘turn out better’ than birth children, saying: ‘Ours is a selective process. We select the child and we select the home.’
She was lauded in the national Press as ‘the foremost leading light in adoption laws’.
Eleanor Roosevelt sought her counsel regarding child welfare, and President Truman invited her to his inauguration.
But by 1940, alerted by the rising infant mortality rate in the city, some people were on to Tann.
‘She was a relentless, cold-blooded demon,’ says a paediatrician who tried to curb her. ‘She got bigger and bigger the more power she had. She was pompous and self-important, riding around in a Cadillac driven by a uniformed chauffeur. She terrorised everyone.’
By 1950, officials began a long-overdue investigation into Tann’s business. State investigator Robert Taylor reported the horror of what had taken place at Tann’s orphanage, saying: ‘Her babies died like flies.’
Infants were kept in appalling conditions in suffocating heat. Some were sedated until they could be sold. Many were ill. Some were sexually abused – Tann preyed on young girls and a male caretaker would take little boys into the woods.
A news reporter believed he saw a body being buried in the garden.
In 1945, a bout of dysentery caused the deaths of between 40 and 50 children in less than four months.
The damage suffered at Tann’s hands could never be undone
The net was closing, but Tann would evade justice. Three days before her death due to cancer, the governor of Tennessee revealed at a press conference that Tann was not the ‘angel of adoption’ she claimed to be.
He did not mention the grieving parents or dead babies, but focused on the illegal profits she had made while receiving state funding.
Conveniently for the corrupt politicians who had collaborated in her black market baby trade, Tann was too sick to be questioned about her crimes. She died in her four-poster bed at 4.20am on September 15, 1950.
What became of her victims? Many never saw their families again – after Tann’s crimes came to light, there was no attempt to return children to their rightful homes.
They were granted rights to their birth certificates and adoption records only in 1995, after a long battle. A small number were reunited with their birth mothers, but the damage they had suffered at Tann’s hands could never be undone.
Forty-five years after Tann had walked into her apartment, Alma Sipple finally found Irma, but they were unable to form a lasting relationship.
‘Only someone who has lost a child this way can know how horrible it is,’ says Alma. ‘There’s a hole in my heart that will never be filled.’