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Girls in Trouble, by Caroline Leavitt

A well-written book by an established author unfortunately fails to reveal the truth about Eliza Newlin Carney

I picked up Caroline Leavitt’s new novel, Girls in Trouble, with a mix of excitement and dread. Excitement that an acclaimed writer had produced a story about adoption, a subject dear to me as an adoptive mom. Dread that, like so much popular fiction, Leavitt’s book would once again get it wrong.

My worst fears were realized in this story of a domestic adoption gone awry. A saga of heartbreak and betrayal, the book reinforces every adoption myth that’s ever fueled a sensational news story or made-for-TV movie.

Girls in Trouble tells us that most birthmothers are teenagers who would stalk their child, that adoption has no legal standing, that adoptees must be emotionally troubled, and that blood ties always trump lifelong familial bonds. To these old delusions, the author adds an emerging misconception—that of the dysfunctional open adoption. Leavitt’s assumption appears to be that open adoption involves an inappropriate lack of boundaries, a kind of new-age “baby sharing” that will inevitably confuse a child.

Leavitt’s reliance on stereotypes is ironic, given her own brush with open adoption. After the birth of their son, Max, in 1996, Leavitt and her husband were unable to conceive a second time, so they tried to adopt. Inspired by a relative who is part of a successful open adoption, Leavitt interviewed dozens of birthmothers in hope that she and her husband could adopt openly, as well.

Ultimately, those plans fell through, but Leavitt could not get the birthmothers out of her mind. As she put it, “I couldn’t forget their stories.” That was the starting point for Girls in Trouble, the tale of Sara Rothman, a 16-year-old honor student living outside Boston who gets pregnant by her boyfriend, Danny, and is pressured into adoption by her parents.

The adoption is portrayed as illegal, a fraud built on lies and deception, and emotionally disastrous for all parties. Sara is miserable and can’t move on; her daughter, Anne, is a sad child who fails to bond with her parents; the adoptive parents, Eva and George, are an aging, awkward couple who hide Anne’s adoption from her like a shameful secret. Dramatic (some would say melodramatic) highlights include: Sara’s kidnapping of Anne, who is returned (after a police chase) to Eva and George; an illegal adoption consent (the papers are signed by Danny’s brother); and Anne’s disappearance when she runs away to find her biological father.

On the positive side, the novel is fluidly written, moves at a lively pace, and has a few convincing moments. Sara’s grief at losing Anne is particularly poignant: She buys birthday presents for baby Anne, which she stashes in her closet with no hope of mailing, a haunting and memorable image.

Moreover, a slightly less gloomy picture emerges at the novel’s close: Anne builds a more trusting relationship with her parents. Sara gains life direction. Anne’s biological and adoptive parents finally learn to get along and treat one another like family.

Still, the tone is profoundly anti-adoption. The plot hinges on Sara’s instant, almost magical connection with her biological daughter. By contrast, Eva has no idea of how to bond with Anne. When Anne is a baby, Sara calms her, while Eva causes her to fuss and turn away. Sara (good Sara!) praises Anne’s first attempts at creative writing, while Eva (bad Eva!) tells her discouragingly: “You can do better.” When teenage Anne reunites with Sara, Anne’s relationship with her parents dissolves like tissue paper.

Fact Versus Fiction

Leavitt seems oblivious to the fact that her novel might offend adoptive families, assuring interviewers that she endorses open adoption and has worked to avoid stereotypes. Reviewers have embraced the book with open arms. It’s received raves in The Boston Globe and The Chicago Tribune, and is already in its third printing.

Whatever Leavitt’s gifts as a writer, she leaves a lot to be desired as an adoption expert. She’s been profiled in The New York Times and interviewed on National Public Radio. Yet her research—which came largely from the Internet—failed to turn up some basic truths about adoption. Most birthmothers making adoptive placements today are older than 18. Far from stalking adoptive families, birthmothers tend to fear intruding on them. Post-placement revocations rarely disrupt adoptions. Research shows that most adoptees are well adjusted and have extremely strong attachments to their adoptive parents. According to adoption professionals, kids in open adoptions have no confusion about who their real (adoptive) parents are.

Let’s not fool ourselves. Adoption is no fairy tale. Any expert will tell you that adoption involves losses, at different stages, for adoptive parents, birthparents, and adoptees. But Leavitt’s dark world of kidnapping, illegal transactions, and runaway teens, all painted in broad-brush strokes of betrayal, secrecy, and shame, is a far cry from the everyday experience of America’s million or so adoptive families.

Perhaps their stories, in which acts of grace and gratitude tend to transcend adoption’s tears and sadness, would not make very exciting reading. As the saying goes, it’s not news when the planes land on time.

Still, a better writer might find plenty of drama in the magic of families bound together by love, not genetics. Perhaps some novelist, somewhere, will one day get it right—but Caroline Leavitt missed her chance.

Eliza Newlin Carney is a freelance writer who contributes regularly to Adoptive Families.

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