Betty Jean Lifton

Author and Proponent of Open Adoption
1926 – 2010
by Joyce Maguire Pavao

Author and proponent of open adoption, Betty Jean "B.J." Lifton (1926-2010).

One of the many defining things that BJ was —
was adopted.
And we all know
— those of us who are adopted ones —
that the world infantilizes us and constantly
refers to us as ‘adopted children’
Even when we are 30, 40, 50, 70 and on.
BJ was “an adopted child” and it is fitting that she be referred to that way,
because she kept a clear and present focus on children,
on children’s issues, and on children’s literature.
I met BJ in 1975.
She had published Twice Born, and I was doing some research into adoption and had met my birth
family a few years before.
I gobbled up her book, put it down, and wrote her a letter.
(this was before email and Facebook)
She responded in kind, and we became
friends, colleagues, clinicians, and
crusaders for civil rights in adoption.
BJ was a wise woman, and was an amazing and magical writer.
She was referred to recently as the Gloria Steinem of adoption
She saw things through a prism vision that included more than what most people saw, or wanted to
see in the world of adoption.
She was a pioneer.
When my daughter was small, BJ would set her up to paint and to read when we went to visit at the
Liftons’ in Wellfleet. There was always a space for children to be creative and to tend to the many
animals and iggys that lounged about.
BJ would always have a magical amulet, a tiny gift of some exotic nature, and often a small card with
a tale she had woven to match the item. I have a collection of the BJ amulets and of the tales.
One of my favorite tales is the one about ‘my possible self’…she gave me two dolls:
▪ one was who I would have been if I had stayed on the course that I came into the world on — my
birth self.
▪ and the other was who I became in real life.
BJ stated that ‘our possible selves’,
as adopted ones,
had a huge influence on our current selves
and only by bringing them together would we be whole.

BJ spoke at many conferences nationally and internationally.
She told stories in her magical voice
of the Ghost Kingdom
and of the Deep Sleep that people go into when
their lives are taken from them, and are made secret.
She told stories of brave people, who saved children
brave children who asked questions and
found the truth and saved the grownups.
BJ was a storyteller.
She was also a story.
She gave us her story.
Her life.
Her wonderings.
And she gave us our own stories.
BJ made an amazing difference in the lives of adopted people, birthparents, and adoptive parents
and professionals.
She never wavered in her beliefs, and in her stand for human rights in adoption.
She helped the individuals that she
spoke with,
testified with,
did therapy with,
worked with and
played with and
she helped the adoption reform movement.
Her indelible mark is on everything that has evolved in adoption reform.
BJ may have left us, but she has bequeathed us a passion for the truth.

I once found a book at one of those used bookstores on Rte 6A in Brewster or Barnstable, on the
It was called Queen of the Air, and it was illustrated by someone like Rackham.
I gave it to BJ because even the way she walked
seemed as if she was floating.
She was the Queen of the Air.
“When she died she stopped doing things visibly,
but the real BJ – the Sand Dobbie part of her —
her possible self and her real self —
is in the dunes and
the seagrass and
the ocean and in
her beloved New York and all around us
because BJ will always be.

January 29, 2011


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WWII orphan in England w/AC & BC & when Peace broke out was adopted into the family I was evacuated to '45. Mother of my childhood would not speak of where I came from other than to mutter dire comments which only now, in my 77th year, I'm understanding as I've been FOUND by a young nephew the son of the older brother I never knew I had & who knew of me & kept on searching even on his deathbed. Nephew & Me are enjoying each other's company via emails cuz there's no cell service where I live. I finally have a photo of the Mother who gave me life & her mother who brought her 3 children by train from Berehove Ukraine to England '38. Another child Hitler didn't get, yeah! Praise Be ;-D Oh, yeah, I'd read Betty Lean's Journey of the Adopted Self & had many affirmations & lessons of my experience & wrote a review on Amazon & the book review site I founded which is now defunct. Betty Jean wrote to thank me & I just found her email & wanted to let her know my gladsome news ;-D

I'm adopted and at the age of 64 have just discovered Betty's books. They have revealed to me the oppressive role of the secrecy that surrounded me growing up. I am also having great difficulty in coming to terms with the role a GP played in the inhumane and underhand way my adoption was carried out. She was a famous GP, not least because as a Jewish woman doctor (unusual enough then) she escaped the Nazi's and came to England where she practised in a poor London suburb until well in to her 90's. When I approached her for details about my adoption she refused to tell me anything because she did not agree with the law that had been passed to allow me to trace my birth family. This from a woman who had experienced the breaking up of families in the Holocaust. Or perhaps she was worried that the role she had played would be investigated. Her name was Hannah Streisow. I did find my birth family and the impact is on-going. I am finding it very difficult to move on.

Being a Jew seems to be a dark experience for everyone, especially so for an adoptee. Just once I'd like to read a book about adoption that wasn't written by a Jew.

In reply to by Adult Adoptee

Primal Wound by Nancy Newton Verrier?

with gratitude for her work for peace on many levels; for her gracious support of ArtPeace the year it appeared on Hiroshima Day in 1984; for standing up for peace in Wellfleet every August 6; for all the cranes and stories and encouragement...

with gratitude for her work for peace on many levels; for her gracious support of ArtPeace the year it appeared on Hiroshima Day in 1984; for standing up for peace in Wellfleet every August 6; for all the cranes and stories and encouragement...


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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Betty Jean Lifton, 1926 - 2010." (Viewed on April 20, 2024) <>.