I’m happy to report that my forthcoming book, “Jean Paton and the Struggle to Reform American Adoption,” now has a jacket cover.
Jean Paton was well aware of the computer revolution and what could be accomplished, as she put it, “by this modern magic.” She was profoundly ambivalent about the new technology and ultimately rejected it.
Paton was proud of her long-standing interest in computers, often citing that she approached Remington Rand in the 1950s for help in setting up the Reunion File, her national mutual consent adoption registry, and that she enrolled in an RCA computer correspondence course in the 1960s. In 1984, Paton had even purchased a Commodore 64, an 8-bit home computer with 64 kilobytes of memory, replacing her trusty IBM Selectric electric typewriter, but she quickly abandoned it for an electronic typewriter, a Brother EM-200.
Two years later, Paton confessed to a correspondent that she wished she were into computers, but thought it was “perhaps too late for me to get buried in its particular language.” She would get by with her memory, correspondence, and files. By 1993, she had acquired a Canon Starwriter 80, a word processor. Armed with two word processors, Paton “resisted a computer with all my strength,” although several correspondents urged her to join them. She parried their well-intentioned hectoring with a variety of justifications: The house was too small. There was no room for a computer in her office. Words spoken on the phone or written on paper were more efficacious than those sent electronically.
In addition to Jean Paton’s many activities pioneering the adoption reform movement in the 1950s—setting up the Life History Study Center, writing The Adopted Break Silence, traveling around the country interviewing adult adoptees—she was an omnivorous reader, revealing a remarkable appetite for interdisciplinary study, including history, religion, politics, psychology, science, genealogy, anthropology, and sociology. In 1957 alone, Jean read nineteen books and in the next year and a half she consumed another twenty-five. In addition, Paton read for the first time a number of books written by or about adopted or orphaned individuals. For example, she read William March’s 1954 novel, The Bad Seed, which centered on Christine Penmark, a young mother who discovered that her eight-year-old daughter, Rhoda had murdered three people and a little dog. For a variety of reasons, Penmark discovers that she had been adopted, that her mother was a notorious serial killer, and fears that she has passed on to Rhoda her criminal genes. The subject of eugenics and the inheritance of personality traits was topic that Paton began during this period and developed a life-long interest in. She also read A Cornish Waif’s Story: An Autobiography, which told the story of the pseudonymous Emma Smith, who had been born out of wedlock and abandoned by her family. Smith endured slave-like labor conditions at the hands of an itinerant organ grinder and his wife from age five on, escaping at to take refuge in a convent. Ultimately, Emma Smith found happiness and marriage with a home and family of her own.
Below is a partial list of the books that Jean Paton compiled with her notes during the years 1956-1959.
STRONG VOCATIONAL INTEREST TEST
English Teacher C
Social Worker B-Psychologist B
Lawyer B-Social Science Teacher C·
YMCA Secretary C
Life Insur. Saleswoman C
Elementary Teacher C
Office Worker B-
Stenog. – Secretary C
Business Ed. Teacher C
Home Econ. Teacher C+
Physical Ed. Teacher B
Occup. Therapist B
Math.-Science Teacher B
Laboratory Technician B+
This is a photo of Jean Paton being presented by Don Humphrey and Joe Soll with a sealed “birth certificate” at the “Red Tape Ceremony” that took place at the 1989 AAC conference in New York. From left to right: Don Humphrey, the AAC’s legal adviser at the time; Nancy Horgan; Joe Soll, founder of AdoptionCrossroads; the ACC’s president Kate Burke, and, of course, Jean Paton. I am greatly indebted to Joe Soll, who identified the conference location, date, and all the folks in this photo.
In these early days, Paton rarely took any time off, even though her friends urged her to take a vacation. But at age 51, on Dec 1, 1960, “a beautiful day” in the desert with warmth that made Paton, the Easterner, think of spring and its promise, she decided to take the advice and refrain from “writing a sober and complicated release on Petulant Plato or Freud Fulfilled.” Instead, after mailing this little note, she was going to:
“plant succulents, burn brush, prune junipers, rake away weeds, plan a studio-garage, tramp the acreage of Golden Hills [near Acton, California], and in general express the thankfulness we feel at least at this moment, but nonetheless a thankfulness that recurs and feels extremely secure.”
Jean Paton fired off what she called her “annual Christmas letter,” which was published by the Los Angeles Times on December 24, 1959, under the heading, “Remembered.” It began,
“In remembrance of today’s forgotten women, the one who has given her child to adoption, never to hear of him again.
To such mothers, to those who grieve, may I send assurance that not everyone had forgotten them, especially not their children, many of whom when grown, think of them with growing wisdom and in the spirit of forgiveness.
Those of us, who are less than perfect can never understand the reason for this lifelong punishment for what is, often enough, scarcely a sin, certainly not the mortal one.”
Jean Paton delighted in growing vegetables and flowers, which she took up in earnest for the first time in Ojai, California in the late-1950s. Jean spent hours in her garden, cultivating sweet peas, Swiss chard, beets, lettuce, and broccoli, as well carnations and roses. Such activities would remain a life-long pursuit. This photo is unidentified but it is probably taken in the backyard of Jean’s home in Harrison, Arkansas, during the summer. It looks as if Jean is inspecting the tomato patch.