Author Lisa Wingate wrote a popular novel in 2017, Before We Were Yours, a fictionalized story about children adopted from the notorious Tennessee Children’s Home Society (“TCHS”). Starting in the 1920s through 1950, a woman named Georgia Tann ran this “questionable” orphanage in Memphis.
Tann grew rich off her scam operation by charging adoptive parents outlandish sums to adopt outside official channels; allowing babies to die from treatable illnesses rather than providing basic medical care; and deceiving birth parents in bad situations. The novel’s popularity led to many TCHS adoptees contacting Wingate to share their stories.
Tann’s black market operation ran fairly openly, offering those exorbitantly priced adoptions to desperate couples (often those too old to adopt through conventional channels). She obtained children through unscrupulous means — pressuring parents, many of whom were poor, through lies, coercion, even kidnapping. Sometimes she didn’t even have to do much, society took care of it for her: “A blend of what was happening in the world, from the Great Depression to World War II and the Holocaust, and including the stigma of unwed motherhood, led to the growth of Tann’s network for obtaining and placing children.”
Tann’s empire at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society… has been built with a combustible blend of desperate pregnant women, shattered children, vulnerable poverty-stricken families, eager adoptive parents, powerful politicians, ego, and greed.
A woman named Connie became the first “Tann baby” to contact Wingate about organizing a reunion, an event that grew to include Wingate and another author, Judy Christie, collecting the adoptees’ stories. “You create these fictional people, and you send them out into the world,” Lisa tells a book group. “And the craziest thing is they come back home, tugging real people by the hand with them.”
Wingate and Christie help organize events and record their histories, giving them control over their narratives and expounding on the conditions and circumstances that shaped their lives. Connie’s drive to connect survivors gave “something important to those from whom Tann took so much: not just the chance to speak their stories out loud but proof that people are interested in hearing what they have to say, that strangers care about this long-ago miscarriage of justice.”
Each adoptee’s story is offset by a short intro or closer from the authors, describing their meeting or emotions around that story and its teller. Although they shaped the adoptees’ stories well, I thought these inserts could’ve been stronger. They felt repetitive, were sometimes about the authors’ themselves, and didn’t contribute much to the overall knowledge or experience.
Some of the actual stories were big-time tearjerkers, others didn’t go in-depth enough. It depends on what the person chose to tell and the authors’ framing. It has a bit of an oral-history feel at times, which I always like. But it means that some context gets left out, in narratives that have enough gaps to begin with. The adoptees’ feelings are complicated. Some understand why their parents gave them up and appreciate that Tann connected them to parents and families they love. Others were forcibly separated from parents without the means or resources to reclaim their children, hard as they may have tried. It’s heartbreaking, and complicated.
The story that affected me most is tied to one of the ugliest aspect of Tann’s business, the deaths of an estimated 500 children during the facility’s three decades of operation. Sick babies were given little to no care, with no effort made to get medical attention for the sickest.
One of those was Lillian, whose adopted father heard her strange crying in a corner of the nursery as Tann tried to give them the sell on a healthy baby boy. He pushed past Tann despite her insistence not to bother and found a tongue-tied baby girl (I didn’t even know that was a real thing) covered in a rash. They insisted on adopting her instead of a healthy baby, and the only problems she had were a cow’s milk allergy causing the rash, and needing her tongue clipped. But Tann would’ve let her die and buried her in the backyard. Even just writing about it overwhelms me.
I had been left in a corner crib, presumably to die because of my physical problems and unattractive appearance. My daddy’s choice and my mother’s sympathy most likely saved me from a backyard grave.
It is haunting. The authors describe returning as part of the group’s reunion to the cemetery in Memphis where some of the children are buried and seeing the monument to those who didn’t survive. It’s a harrowing moment for Lillian, feeling how close she’d been to this fate. It’s hard to know some of these stories, but there’s also the wonder of the good people who rose to challenges, like Lillian’s adoptive parents. Or when one woman, Patricia, reflects on her birth mother, “Thank you for having the courage to give me up. You may not have known that it was your finest moment, but it was.”
The book intends only to tell the stories of the adopted children in their words, deservedly so. But Georgia Tann remains a looming, mysterious villain about whom we know little by the end. Her entire biography wasn’t necessary, but who was she? How did the TCHS begin? Why wasn’t it investigated earlier?
There’s next to no information about how all this happened. It’s clear that was never the intention: this is about giving these people a voice in their own story, for celebrating the families who raised them and lives they lived, and not about dwelling on the misfortunes of the orphanage or Tann’s actions.
But it’s obvious Tann was in deep with politicians, businesses, government — and there’s no explanation of how she was able to perpetrate her scam, rake in massive amounts of money, and bury babies in her backyard for so long with no accountability. Lots of mysteries remain that I think affected these stories, even if the focus was on the adopted children themselves. There’s no way you can read this and not be left curious about the mechanics of it all.
But as it is, it’s an admirable, moving testament of their lives and histories. 3.5/5
Now the triumph belongs to quiet conquerors, who are ready to tell their stories. In a piece of history with so many villains, they are the heroes.
Before and After:
The Incredible Real-Life Stories of Orphans Who Survived the Tennessee Children’s Home Society
by Judy Christie and Lisa Wingate
published October 22, 2019 by Ballantine Books
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.