Betty Jean Lifton — author, counselor, advocate — wasn’t a morning person. At the various adoption conferences that we participated in together over the years, she always made sure that she was featured on the afternoon program. No breakfast panels or early-bird keynotes for her. Simply put, BJ was no opening act.
But come one, two, three p.m., the crowd warmed up by non-headliners like me from the morning program, BJ would swan in. She actually was swan-like, quiet but magnetic, slowly turning her head left and right in regal greeting as she made her way to the podium. There was an old-Hollywood glamour to this Staten Island-born, Cincinnati-bred, first-wave adoptee — her birth name, Blanche, somehow fitting — with her clipped consonants and languid vowels, dramatic mien, throaty chuckle. She managed to come across as both mysterious — what did that smirk of hers signify? — and searingly direct, when discussing the issue closest to her heart: Openness. Open records, openness about origins, open acknowledgement of the adoption experience’s impact on all members of the triad.
Our stories, though 43 years apart, were similar in several ways. We were both adopted through Louise Wise Services, at one time the only option for Jewish birth mothers and adoptive parents in New York City. We were both seven years old when we learned about our adoptions, but how different those conversations were: She was told her adoption was “a secret,” while two generations later, I was told I’d been “chosen.” We were both, to borrow BJ’s phrase, “good adoptees” — unrebellious, eager to please, to belong.
But BJ and I also had our differences. I was resistant to her idea of “shadow selves” — the child the birth parents lost, the child the adoptive parents couldn’t have, the person the adoptee might have been if raised elsewhere — and I didn’t accept that adoptees were necessarily less than whole. Every time we met — and this became a joke between us — she’d ask hopefully, “So have your two families met?” only to shake her head disappointedly when my inevitable answer was, “No, not yet” (sorry, BJ, but it’s still the answer).
That said, I must have absorbed BJ’s message when reading Journey of the Adopted Self and Lost and Found in preparation for writing my own book. In my copy of her bold 1975 memoir, Twice Born, she inscribed: “For Sarah — About to be born again with your wonderful new book — With love, BJ.” Sure enough, in Ithaka, I titled two chapters “Origin” — one about my birth, and one about my adoption.
When I learned of BJ Lifton’s death on November 19, 2010, after my initial shock and sadness, my next reaction was, “She was 84?” That poised, fierce, inimitably ageless woman? However, when you consider her numerous books (for adults and children, on adoption and various other topics), her stints living in Hong Kong and Japan, her children and grandchildren, her tireless reform work that helped take us from the shrouded, shameful days of her own adoption to the relatively open, multicultural climate of today — 84 years seems impossibly brief.