Finding Me in a Paper Bag:
Searching for Both Sides Now
by Sally Howard
Gateway Press, Inc., 2003

Reviewed by Barbara Free

     This book is a first-person account of the author, who is both an adoptee and a birth parent. The title refers to the fact that she was literally left in a paper bag on someone’s porch, as a newborn infant, in the winter of 1939. Brought inside by the family who lived in that house, she was taken to the hospital, where the nurses named her Judy. After several weeks, when no trace of her birth parents could be found, a dentist and his wife, who had read about her in the paper, adopted her and gave her the name Sarah Jeannette Miller.
     Throughout her life, from the time she was told of her adoption at age five, Sally, as she was called, tried to find out about her origins. Later, as a young adult, she conceives a daughter through rape, and relinquishes her with a broken heart. This book, then, is the story of both her searches—for her own birth parents, and for her birth daughter.
     The author learns a great deal about herself in the process, even though she never learns all the facts about her origins. This is a compelling book to read, with all the twists and turns as she attempts to find out her true history.
      It is also a compelling argument against anonymous baby abandonment. In 1939, a young, single mother had few options, and must have been terribly desperate and frightened when she dressed that tiny baby, wrapped her in a blanket and put her in the bag, and deposited her on that porch. In those days, there was no public assistance for single parents, no day-care, no WIC program; only shame and social disapproval for having a child outside of marriage.
     It is difficult to compare that woman’s situation with society today, hut the abandoned person’s situation is little different, growing up without knowledge of birth family, medical history, and only a supposition of ethnic identity.
     Sally’s pain as she searches is not just for her birth mother’s name or identity, but the yearning to know who she is and why she was abandoned. Her pain is deepened by her own reluctant relinquishment of her daughter. Her grief is compounded by guilt. Only her persistence persuaded a nurse to give her the barest of information, that she had given birth to a daughter.
     The hospital’s policy was that relinquishing mothers would feel less pain if they were unconscious for the delivery, given no information about their child, not even the sex, and certainly not allowed to see this baby they had carried all those months. In 1959, and even much later, this was the policy of many hospitals and so-called “unwed mother’s homes.”
     While this is not a happily-ever-after story—for either of Sally Howard’s searches—it is an important book for reading by anyone searching, and should be read by anyone seeking to understand the impacts of the closed-adoption system, closed records, and anonymous child abandonment. Such policies were originally put in place to alleviate someone’s personal pain, but the results have been more pain, not less.

Excerpted from the April 2004 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2004 Operation Identity