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'American Baby': Harrowing tale of mother's separation from her child

"American Baby" is a new book by Gabrielle

"American Baby" is a new book by Gabrielle Glaser. Credit: Viking Press

AMERICAN BABY: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption by Gabrielle Glaser (Viking, 343 pp., $28)

For years, Margaret Katz had a recurring nightmare: From a dark alley, she could hear her young son cry out desperately for her, screaming that he needed help. She'd race toward him, only to wake before reaching the boy.

Again and again and again. She could never get to her son. Never wrap him in her arms, lay her cheek against his head, whisper that she was there, that everything would be OK. And for years she woke up from that dream only to remember that the nightmare was real.

In "American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption," Gabrielle Glaser tells the story of Katz and the boy she could never reach, whom she was forced, as a teenager, to give up for adoption. But really she tells the story of all parents and children torn apart from each other against their will.

Glaser came to Katz's story by way of her long-lost son, an adult in need of a new kidney by the time the author met him. It's not a spoiler to disclose that Katz's son eventually locates his birth mother. Through interviews with both of them and members of their families, Glaser is able to meticulously re-create their tale.

Katz (born Margaret Erle) was a daughter of Jewish refugees who fled the Nazis and settled in New York. In high school she fell in love with a slightly older baseball player. She was 16 when she found out she was pregnant after having sex for the first time.

Immediately, Katz and her boyfriend, George, decided to keep the baby. He'd forgo his baseball scholarship, they'd get married. But as minors, they needed parental permission to wed, and their parents refused to give it. Instead Katz was sent to a home for unwed mothers, where she was visited routinely by social workers who pressured her to sign papers giving their child up for adoption. Katz was cowed but didn't sign.

She was sedated against her will during childbirth and not allowed to hold her baby after he was born. For months, while the boy, named Stephen, stayed with foster parents, Katz resisted demands that she formally put him up for adoption.

Finally, when their baby was five months old, the couple was allowed to meet him for the second time. While they were visiting, a social worker asked Katz to step into a private room. There, the entreaties turned to threats.

"We can put you in juvenile hall," the woman told her. "Think of how that will look for your parents. First your pregnancy. Want to get locked up now, too?"

Katz signed the papers and began a lifetime of longing. All she had left of her baby was a couple of Polaroid pictures her boyfriend had snapped during their visits. "When she felt hopeless or angry," Glaser writes, "she would pull out Stephen's blurry little picture and kiss it."

"American Baby" is a bone-deep exploration of the agony felt by parents forcibly removed from their child. It should serve as a reminder of those parents still experiencing that agony. And of the only thing they can offer their children, from such a painful remove.

"At night, after everyone was asleep, and before her nightmares interrupted, she envisioned her love reaching out from her heart to his, and hoped it was received."

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