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Barbara D'Amato Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Barbara D'Amato

Barbara D'Amato

An interview with Barbara D'Amato

Barbara D'Amato explains the background to Death of a Thousand Cuts - a murder mystery set in a school for autistic children run by a charismatic director who is based on real life Bruno Bettelheim, the man who ran the Orthogenic School in Chicago and wrote many, now controversial, books about autism.

You have said in the past that "getting angry at something" fuels your books. Is that true in Death of a Thousand Cuts?
One source of energy for me is a sense of trying to right a wrong. Also, I think the villain’s character is enriched if there is more than just personal hatred or greed going on. In Death of a Thousand Cuts, the murder victim’s life was motivated by self-aggrandizement. But in a larger way he had the arrogance of professional authority, the view that he was always right because he had training and a degree. That kind of paternalism makes me angry.

What is Death of a Thousand Cuts about?
Hawthorne House, a residential treatment facility for autistic children, is holding a reunion fifteen years after closing its doors. Jeffrey Clifford, a young mildly autistic man, was a patient there for seven years. Clifford, other patients, staff members, and therapists plan to spend the reunion weekend at the old mansion. During the first night, Dr. Jay Schermerhorn, the charismatic and authoritarian director, is murdered.

Why did you want to write this particular book?
I had heard for some years that Bruno Bettelheim told the parents of his patients that they had caused their children's autism through cold parenting. Even at the time he was running his school, most authorities did not believe that was the case, or at any rate did not believe it was the whole explanation. It seemed horribly cruel to me that he would destroy families on what was no more than speculation. I had thought for several years that I would write a book like this some day.

You use quotations from Sigmund Freud at the beginning of each section. Why?
The loony notions of Sigmund Freud made it possible for all sorts of people to make up explanations for illnesses like autism, tracing each case to some early infant trauma. In actuality, the cause is physical and probably partly genetic. These therapists then charged families huge sums for talk therapy. You might as well try to talk somebody out of appendicitis.

The character of Dr. Jay Schermerhorn has many similarities to Bruno Bettelheim, the man who ran the Orthogenic School in Chicago and wrote many books about autism. Why did he attract your attention? I had long been outraged that Bettelheim blamed parents for their children’s autism. He said, "I state my belief that the precipitating factor in infantile autism is the parent’s wish that the child should not exist." [Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self 1967] Bettelheim told the parents of his patients that they had caused their child’s trouble. How cruel! No parent believes he or she has done everything right. Bettelheim’s saying this destroyed lives. Although some of Bettelheim’s students are alleging sexual improprieties, I chose not to do that with my character.

Autism was little known thirty years ago. But it's becoming talked about now, isn't it?
They didn’t know then, and it’s not clear now either. Although even then people realized it was, in some sense, physical. Autism wasn't discussed as much in the past, I think – partly because the constellation of symptoms weren't clearly described. There are 500,000 people in the United States today diagnosed with autism. It's four to ten times more common in boys. If one twin is autistic, it's twelve times more likely than the average rate that the other twin is autistic. This was known decades ago and was the reason people, even back in Bettelheim's day, believed the condition was at least partly genetic, not the result of bad child rearing. For reasons nobody yet knows, the incidence of autism in California has doubled in four years, and the experts don't think the increase is the result of better diagnosis.

What would you like people to take away from Death of a Thousand Cuts?
Well, I hope it's absorbing reading. But I would also like it if people came away with the resolve not just to accept what "authorities" say at face value. Some people who claim expertise really don't know what they're talking about.

How do you schedule your work day?
For years I tried to get four pages written a day, even if it took until evening. I'm a little easier on myself now, but I still feel guilty if I don't get something done every day, seven days a week.

Q & A With Barbara D'Amato about White Male Infant

How does one go about legally adopting a child?
There are several options, including:

  • private adoptions in which the adopting parents deal directly with the birth mother.
  • lawyer-brokered adoptions utilizing attorneys who specialize in arranging adoptions
  • specialists called "facilitators
  • adoption agencies.

What is considered an 'illegal adoption'? What percentage of adoptions are illegal?
No one really knows the number of illegal adoptions. Some are completely informal - a relative taking over when the parent has died or disappeared. Some are as horrible as a kidnapped children being passed off for as one's own, sometimes for years. To adopt legally you have to qualify in a number of ways. You must be not too young or too old. In most states you will need one or more home visits to check out both you and the home environment. Various states have other requirements. Two states - New Hampshire and Florida - do not permit gay persons to adopt.

What kinds of scams surround adoptions that adopting parents should be on the lookout for?
The most common scam is this: A woman puts an ad in the newspapers or on the Net, saying she is pregnant and in exchange for living expenses and medical care will sign her baby over to parents of her choice. She gets several couples to provide her with money, and then she disappears. She may never have been pregnant in the first place. Another scam involves facilitators who charge "costs" but never come up with a baby.

What are some of the most reputable organizations that can facilitate an adoption?
There are a few organizations now that vet adoption agencies. The Child Welfare League of America is working to promulgate agency standards. Also, local scam artists may be known to the police. But private adoptions are essentially unregulated. Your safest bet in adopting is to go to a recognized agency with an established reputation for ethical behavior. Unfortunately, they do not have many babies available these days.

Why is there such a shortage of babies?
Lack of supply and not an increase in demand. In the 1950s, there was one white baby available per couple wanting to adopt. Now, according to the National Survey of Family Growth, it's six couples per one baby, and the National Committee on Adoption believes the ratio is closer to twenty couples per available baby. Back thirty or forty years ago, there was such stigma attached to having a baby out of wedlock that most women, 80% or so, gave their babies up for adoption, often having delivered them in a hospital far from home, later hiding the fact that they had ever been pregnant. Now a majority of unmarried women keep their babies. I believe the availability of contraception has made a difference, too. In the 1950s contraception was less easy to use and in some parts of the U.S., believe it or not, illegal!

We understand there is a broad price range when adopting a child. What is the range, and why do prices differ so much?
Sadly, there is just more demand for some babies than others. As implied by my title, a white infant "goes" for more money. Babies with health problems and babies of color are less frequently adopted. The range is from a few thousand to as much as $50,000.

How do domestic adoptions differ from foreign adoptions?
There is much more paperwork in foreign adoptions. You have to satisfy our immigration laws and may have to stay in the foreign country several weeks. You also have to provide all the basic adoption documents that your state requires, like health and home studies, then satisfy the foreign country, and then satisfy the U.S. when you bring the baby back to ensure that he or she was properly adopted. However, foreign adoptions differ in positive ways as well. They take less time, as there are many babies available in certain countries, and the age of adopting parents is not as much a factor. You also have the satisfaction that you have adopted a child who might have died otherwise.

From which countries is it easiest for an American family to adopt a child?
According to The Adoption Guide, currently it's China, with 4,000 adoptions a year by United States families, and Russia, also with 4,000 a year. But political situations change all the time.

How easy is it to adopt an American infant?
It isn't terribly difficult to adopt an older child, who is probably currently in foster care, or a child with medical or psychological problems, or a child of color. But if you want a white infant in good health, it can be very difficult. That is the reason for the title of the book - White Male Infant.

How long does it normally take a person to adopt an American child? Again, it depends on what kind of child. An older child, or one of color, or one who has physical or mental disabilities may be available quickly. If you want to adopt a healthy white infant, it may take two to seven years, and you may also pass out of the optimal adopting-parent age range in the meantime.

How many children are adopted each year in the United States?
The numbers aren't definite. Nineteen thousand are adopted from abroad. If you include private adoptions, family adoptions, informal adoptions, formal adoptions and agency adoptions, the number seems to be well over 100,000.

What is the average age at which children are adopted?
Couples or individuals usually want to adopt infants and will wait for an infant or go abroad. That is why so many children in foster homes just wait and wait for a family. However, a large category of adoptions are in-family. These are situations where a child, say a daughter with children, becomes incapacitated or dies, and the grandparents or aunts and uncles adopt. This is a large proportion of the annual adoptions.

What can adoptive parents do to check out the true background of the child they are adopting?
In the United States, the best guarantee is going to a well-respected agency with a track record. However, adoptions from such agencies are slow, may never happen, and you may become too old to adopt while you're waiting. Private adoption from birth mothers or facilitators is fraught with difficulties. I would advise having an investigative agency - in other words - a private detective agency with a track record do a parallel investigation. As far as adoption from abroad is concerned, get a known religious organization involved, or an established governmental organization, or get lots of testimonials and net-searching done before you send money. In the United States, 28% of insured adoptions fail.

How did you become interested in the adoption issue?
My husband is a professor of law, specializing in international law and jurisprudence. For decades, he has been involved in cases of divided families that is, cases such as those where a father takes the children to his homeland and won't let them come back to their mother in the U.S. My husband recently became an advocate for the development of better transnational adoptions. He wants easier but more validated international adoption. All over the world there are children dying from starvation and neglect, while childless people strive to adopt and find themselves stymied at every turn.

You mention inconsistencies and confusion in American adoption policies. Please elaborate.
In some states, a pregnant woman can advertise for prospective adoptive parents, and can potentially interview them. In other states, certain advertising is prohibited. In still other states, all advertising is illegal. Of course, the Net is awash in ads. In some states a woman who has delivered a baby and wants to give him or her up for adoption is given 24 hours to change her mind. In some states it's a month. In some states it's a year. Twenty-four hours is clearly too short for the mother. She is still suffering the hormonal changes and damage of childbirth and shouldn't be making lifetime decisions. A year is too long for the baby. He or she will have bonded to the birth parents long before that.

If you could revamp American adoption policies, what would you like to see happen?
I'd like to see some medical input on how long after birth a woman should have to make a decision to give a child up for adoption. There should also be more severe punishment for adoption scams and better federal surveillance of potential scams. And much as I don't wish for more federal input in our lives, I'd like a national vetting system for adoption agencies, so that people would have an idea which agencies were borderline or unethical, a kind of "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval." There is a push now to some such approval systems, but it is optional for the agencies. I would like the Immigration and Naturalization Service to behave in a more uniform way across the country and to move faster. Adoption processing can take years in some offices, while others may be as short as a month to complete.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Books by Barbara D'Amato at BookBrowse
Death of a Thousand Cuts jacket White Male Infant jacket
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All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for Barbara D'Amato but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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