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Betty Jean Lifton

Author and Proponent of Open Adoption
1926 – 2010

Betty Jean Lifton was born to an unmarried couple on June 11, 1926 in Staten Island, NY. Her 17-year-old birth mother eventually gave the baby up to a foster home. At two and a half, she was adopted by a Cincinnati couple, Oscar and Hilda Kirschner, who renamed her Betty Jean. When the little girl was 7, Hilda Kirschner informed her that she was adopted, and told her the story so common at the time — that her birth parents were dead. Betty Jean Kirschner earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Barnard College in 1948; four years later, she married psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, author of influential books on the psychological impact of war and the Holocaust. B.J, Lifton was best known as the author of three classic works about adoption and its psychological impact: Twice Born: Memoirs of an Adopted Daughter (1975); Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience (1979), and Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness (1994). As the New York Times wrote when she died, her “searing condemnations of the secrecy that traditionally shrouded adoption became touchstones for adoptees throughout the world.”

by Joyce Maguire Pavao

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

Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao is CEO and Founder of Center for Family Connections in Cambridge, MA and New York and is a Lecturer in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Joyce is adopted and has love and admiration for her families by birth and by adoption.


She was this brave, almost rebel-like hero to me. She was a hero. I’m not a religious person, but I am spiritual. I’d like to think that BJ now knows how she impacted so many adoptees. She made them feel normal for daring to love...for daring to acknowledge their loss. 

Realdaughter blog

Elsewhere on the web


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.

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...

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

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Betty Jean Lifton, 1926 - 2010." (Viewed on January 16, 2019) <>.

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