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COLLECTION Identifier: MC 778: T-504

Papers of Betty Jean Lifton, 1884-2010 (inclusive), 1939-2010 (bulk)


Correspondence, journals, writing and research materials, illustrations, questionnaires, photographs, audiotapes, etc., of Betty Jean Lifton, children's author and adoption counselor and author.


  • Creation: 1884-2010
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1939-2010

Language of Materials

Materials in English, Polish, Hebrew, German, or Japanese.

Access Restrictions:

Access. Most of the collection is open for research. An appointment is necessary to use any audiovisual material.

Folders #28.7, 28.9, 28.11-28.12, 31.4, 31.6, 31.13-31.14, 32.1, 32.4-32.5, 32.8-32.10, 32.13, 32.16, 33.10, 33.12, 34.2, 34.5-34.6, 34.21, 35.4, 35.7, 36.1-36.2, 36.5, 36.7-36.10, 36.15, 36.17, 37.3, 37.6, 38.3, 38.5, 38.14, 39.14, 43.4, 44.1, 44.6, 45.8, 45.15, 46.6, 17.6, 47.7, 50.7 are closed until January 1, 2020 though January 1, 2080 as noted below. These files, where access would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy for third party individuals, are closed for a period of 90 years from the date of birth of the individual discussed in the file.

Folders #86.1-107.20 are closed until January 1, 2027 through January 1, 2096 and folders #108.6-108.15 are closed until January 1, 2042 through January 1, 2070 as noted below. Client files are closed for a period of 90 years from the date of birth of the youngest client discussed in the file.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright. Copyright in the papers created by Betty Jean Lifton is held by the estate of Betty Jean Lifton. Copyright in other papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns.

Copying. Open papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.


45.04 linear feet ((108 file boxes) plus 3 folio folders, 2 folio+ folders, 1 oversize folders, 25 photograph folders, 58 audiotapes)

The bulk of the papers of Betty Jean Lifton document her early career as a children's writer and her second career as a writer, researcher, and counselor on the subject of adoption, as well the research and writing of her book King of Children. This material consists of draft writings, research material, correspondence, client files, interview notes and transcripts, etc. Lifton's journals, correspondence, unpublished autobiographical novel, etc., document both her search for her own birth mother and family, as well as her time in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam from the time her husband was stationed in Japan during the Allied occupation to early unrest in Vietnam in the 1950s. Other material includes itineraries, programs, speeches, illustrations, clippings, notes, etc.

Series I, PERSONAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL,1884-2009 (#1.1-8.2), includes correspondence, diaries, medical records, awards, education records, etc. The bulk of the series is comprised of correspondence and Lifton's diaries, which are not traditional bound diaries, but typed or handwritten daily entries intermingled with correspondence, book chapters (possibly used in one or more of her adoption books or in an early unpublished autobiography), manuscript and published articles, etc. Both document the couple's residencies in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, etc., during the 1940s-1960s during the Allied occupation of Japan, the Korean War, and early unrest in Vietnam, as well as travels to London, England; Munich, Germany; Israel; Formosa (now Taiwan); and Hawaii. They also document Lifton's work on an United States Information Service film entitled The Bridge of Arts regarding the arts of Japan; her work as a reporter for the Nippon Times and the Asahi Evening News (and submissions to various American publications regarding events in Japan, Korea, and Formosa); her search for her birth mother and their subsequent reunion; the couple's attempt in 1960 to adopt a Japanese or German Jewish child, a process that was abandoned when she became pregnant with her son Ken. They also contain descriptions and interpretations of Lifton's dreams. Additional diary fragments are scattered throughout Series IV, Subseries A. Diaries regarding her time conducting research in Poland for her book, The King of Children, is located in Series IV, Subseries B. Also documented in this series is the East West Discussion Group which was founded by the Liftons in Tokyo (1952) in an attempt to establish the exchange of opinions and ideas between Westerners and Japanese students and businessmen. Correspondence in this series relates events in the lives of Lifton's biological and adoptive families; news from Japanese friends; and messages from Lifton's collaborators on her books and other writing. For additional diary entries and fragments see Series IV, Subseries A and B. Original folder titles were retained. Series is arranged alphabetically.

Series II, ENGAGEMENTS AND TEACHING, ca.1950-2010 (#8.3-14.17), includes correspondence, itineraries, speeches, notes, programs, schedules, etc., regarding conferences at which Lifton spoke or attended as a participant. The vast majority of these were adoption-related conferences at which Lifton presented one or more sessions regarding the psychological effects of adoption on the adoptive child. Hosting institutions ranged from prominent universities to international adoption organizations. A small number of engagements are related to her work as a children's author or biographer of Janusz Korczak. Teaching materials consist of course descriptions, correspondence, notes, syllabi, and session notes for a small number of classes that Lifton taught on adoption at the New School for Social Research and Seminars for Professional Advancement Incorporated. Published titles of talks appear in italics. Original folder titles were retained. The series is arranged chronologically. Additional material on presentations regarding Janusz Korczak and The King of Children can be found in Series IV, Subseries B.

Series III, WRITINGS FOR CHILDREN, ca.1935-2010 (#15.1-27.7, FD.2, FD.3, F+D.2), includes draft and final manuscripts; play scripts; contracts; correspondence with publishers, collaborators, illustrators, and agents; clippings; notes; illustrations and photographs; galley proofs; fan letters from adults and children; mock-ups and hand-bound versions of books, etc. Most of Lifton's early writing for children was based on Japanese folk tales that were researched while living in Japan, perhaps while working on the United States Information Service film The Bridge of Arts. One of her most popular works Kap, the Kappa, was based on the mischievous Japanese kappa, or water elf. Other early books featured mythical Japanese characters such as Joji (a scarecrow) and the Amanojaku (a goblin). During the 1960s and 1970s, Lifton became interested in children's theater and adapted a number of her early books for the stage including Kap the Kappa and Joji and the Dragon which appeared at the Act IV Children's Theatre in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Automation House in New York City, and wrote original plays such as Moon Walk: A Rock Musical which appeared at The Electric Circus in New York City. In 1972 she incorporated a multi-media theater troupe for children called The Jugglers which operated on grants from the New York State Council of the Arts, the Astor Foundation, The Electric Circus, and donations from private individuals (see #17.1). It is unclear how long this theater troupe operated. Many of her later children's books featured animals as main characters and were often based on actual stories found in newspapers and magazines (these clippings remain with Lifton's manuscripts). An example of this is Lifton's book "Yellow Duck's Journey" (unpublished) based on a newspaper article regarding a cargo container filled with bathtub ducks that fell from a cargo deck in the Pacific Ocean and the ducks subsequently arriving on the shores of New England eleven years later. Although she continued to write and submit children's books for publication until her death, it appears that publishers began to consider her style antiquated and unsalable in the modern market. As a result most of her later children's books remain unpublished. One exception to this is her book, Tell Me a Real Adoption Story, which was published in 1993. Although she continued to try to have her earlier books reissued because of regular requests from fans, few were reissued and those that were, were in limited numbers. Most recently the New York Review of Books reissued Taka-chan and I: A Dog's Journey to Japan by Runcible. Currently there is work being done on an animated film based on another of her children's books, Joji and the Fog. Original folder titles were retained. The series is arranged alphabetically.

Series IV, WRITINGS FOR ADULTS, 1923-2010 (#27.8-85.20, E.1-E.4), includes research notes; correspondence; speeches; journal fragments; notes from client and "rap group" sessions; draft writings; draft and completed questionnaires; interview transcripts, illustrations; etc., for Lifton's adoption-related writings; her writings regarding Janusz Korczak; her early articles and essays for the Nippon Times, Asahi Evening News, and a number of American newspapers and magazines; and her unpublished, autobiographical novel "Visions of the Far East." The series is divided into three subseries.

Subseries A, Adoption writing and research, 1940-2010 (#27.8-65.7, E.5), includes research notes; correspondence; speeches; conference notes and ephemera; journal fragments; notes from client sessions and "rap group" sessions; draft and completed questionnaires from birth parents and adoptees; published articles; etc. It appears that Lifton used this material repeatedly for her adoption-related writing, including Twice Born, Lost & Found, and Journey of the Adopted Self, as well as articles and at least one unpublished book initially titled "The Age of Search and Reunion." Lifton's research notes consist of notes on reading as well as re: her interviews of professional psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists on a variety of topics related to adoption and their writings. These individuals include Erik Erikson, David Kirschner, and Joyce Pavao, among others, with many of whom she developed personal relationships. Lifton also conducted interviews of adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth parents whom she met at various talks she gave and conferences she attended, regarding their experiences with adoption. Some of these individuals completed questionnaires that Lifton had created as part of her research for her several books. Lifton also published her questionnaires in various adoption-related newsletters and circulated them through adoption rights organizations including the American Adoption Congress and Concerned United Birthparents and many were completed by individuals unknown to her previously. Occasionally she also asked those who wrote her fan letters to complete questionnaires, many of whom complied. Since she assured individuals completing questionnaires anonymity most original questionnaires are closed to research. Electronic access to redacted copies of these questionnaires is provided in folder #E.1. Notations appear on folders that contain original questionnaires where those individuals waived their right to privacy, did not include identifying information, or are deceased. Lifton often used information gained while counseling patients in her books. Files related to these patients have been closed. Also included in this subseries are personal reminiscences, unpublished manuscripts for books and articles, and interviews of a number of adoptees, birth parents, etc., who shared their personal stories with Lifton. It is assumed that much of this material was used in her books. The material was originally arranged alphabetically by topic/book title by Lifton. While the original alphabetical arrangement was maintained, many smaller folders containing few documents were combined and either titled with Lifton's original group heading or folder titles were combined and separated by forward slashes. Most original folder titles were retained. Those appearing in brackets were created by the processor.

Subseries B, The King of Children, 1923-2010 (#65.8-81.7), includes research materials and notes; interview transcripts, fragments, and notes; translations; speeches, draft writing, published articles, and letters to the editor; correspondence; meeting notes; publicity material; clippings, etc. Material in this series consists of research materials gathered for Lifton's book The King of Children (first published in 1988) and a number of articles on Janusz Korczak and his time as a pediatrician and running an orphanage in Warsaw, Poland. Lifton contacted many former orphans, friends, etc., of Korczak and conducted interviews to gather information for her book. Transcripts of these interviews and correspondence with the interviewees are included in this series. Lifton used both Polish and anglicized versions of individuals' names. The spelling used most frequently to identify individuals was used on folder titles. Lifton also worked with assistants in Poland and Israel to have archival and published material, as well as correspondence in Polish and Hebrew, translated into English. Translations (many annotated by Lifton) were retained, although copies of material from other archives, most notably the Ghetto Fighters House Museum in Israel, were removed from the collection. Lifton was invited to a number of conferences and other speaking engagements to speak about Korczak and his work. Correspondence, speeches, notes, program materials, etc. for these engagements is included in the series. Other material regarding speaking engagements about Korczak as well as other topics is located in Series II. Lifton was also in discussions with a number of agents, directors, and actors (including Jon Voight and Jim Hunt) in an effort to have a television and/or film version of The King of Children developed, and to provide expert advice on potential documentary films about Korczak. Although actor Jon Voight and his film production company Crystal Sky signed and renewed an option on the project for several years, it never came to fruition. Correspondence, contracts, film treatments, etc., documenting these discussions are included in the series. Following the 1988 publication of her book, several foreign publishers contacted her to discuss foreign language versions of her book as did American publishers who wanted to reprint the book once it went out of print. A number of these were successful, and correspondence, contracts, and publicity for later editions are included in the series. The series was originally arranged alphabetically by topic. This arrangement has been retained, but a number of folders containing small amounts of material were combined and their titles combined separated by forward slashes. Most original folder titles were retained. Those appearing in brackets were created by the processor. See also Series VII.

Subseries C, Other writing, ca.1939-2005 (#81.8-85.20), includes draft and published articles for the Nippon Times, Asahi Evening News, and several American newspapers and magazines including Mademoiselle and The New Journal. The bulk of these articles were written for newspapers and focus on the condition of Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese women during the Allied occupation of Japan, the early part of the Korean War, or during early Communist agitation in Vietnam, and were written during Lifton's stays in or visits to these countries. Also included is correspondence, journal fragments; draft writings; research materials, etc., for Lifton's unpublished autobiographical novel, "Visions of the Far East," which documents her time spent in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and India. Research notes, draft scripts, etc., for the United States Information Service film Bridge of the Arts (re: the arts of Japan) is also included in this series. Original folder titles were retained. The series is arranged alphabetically.

Series V, CLIENT FILES, 1985-2010 (#86.1-108.15, E.5), includes correspondence; adoption narratives, fiction, and poetry sent by clients; client session notes; clippings; completed questionnaires; notations regarding session schedules and payments; notes from supervised counseling sessions; etc. The bulk of this series consists of correspondence, client session notes; notations regarding session schedules and payments; etc., from counseling sessions (by phone or in person) of adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents who saw Lifton as patients in order to address adoption-related issues. They are highly personal in nature and often include discussions of other family members, adoptive children, etc. With the exception of the files of two patients who are now deceased, the bulk of these files are closed to research for ninety years from the birth of the patient. Many patients also completed questionnaires that Lifton used to gather information for her adoption-related writing. Original patient questionnaires are closed to research. Electronic access to redacted copies of these questionnaires is provided in folder #E.2. Patients also frequently sent Lifton adoption narratives, poetry, and narratives thinly disguised as fiction which are included in their patient files. Additional material included in this series consists of what Lifton referred to as "supervised counseling." Lifton saw several therapists during her career as an adoption therapist in order to discuss patient sessions and her diagnoses. She used these "supervisory" therapists to more clearly formulate her diagnoses in order to better assist her clients. Since clients are clearly identified in these files, they are also closed. Original folder titles were retained. The series is arranged alphabetically by client beginning with closed client files, followed by open client files and general files related to counseling.

Series VI. PHOTOGRAPHS AND OVERSIZED, ca.1940-1997 (PD.1-PD.25, FD.1-FD.3, F+D.1-F+D.2, OD.1), includes photographs and negatives of Betty Jean Lifton and her husband, Robert J. Lifton, as well as members of Lifton's biological and adoptive families. Also included are photographs produced as potential illustrations for several of her articles and books, including Red Horse of the Mountain, Children of Vietnam and her unpublished autobiographical novel, "Visions of the Far East." Others are photographs of friends Lifton met in Japan, individuals interviewed for her book King of Children. Most of these photographs were found with other papers and relocated to this series in the order that they were found. They are followed by two folders of loose photographs and oversized material. Most of the photographs in this collection are or will be digitized and available online. Oversized material consists of documents described previously in other series as well as items originally found with other documents in previous series. This listing serves as a shelf list for all oversized material in the collection.

Series VII. AUDIO, 1979-1981, n.d. (#T-504.1 - T-504.58), includes recordings related to Lifton's research for the King of Children. Most individuals interviewed by Lifton knew Janusz Korczak personally, having either been orphans, teachers, administrators, etc., in one of the orphanages he operated (in Palestine or Warsaw, Poland). Other individuals interviewed include those who knew Stepha Wilcynska (in charge of management of the orphanage in Warsaw) or who lived in the Warsaw ghetto and were able to describe her and/or the area in great detail. Additional interviews were conducted with professors who either studied Korczak or eastern Europe during Korczak's lifetime. A number of interviewees speak in Polish with English translations provided by an interpreter. Others were conducted by Lifton in Israel in which Lifton speaks to many of the interviewees in Hebrew and repeats their answers in English. Other recordings consist of Lifton dictating from interview notes in English. Those cassettes which contain Polish or Hebrew are noted in their individual descriptions. Titles were created by the processor. The series is arranged alphabetically by the name of the first interviewee appearing on the cassette.


Betty Jean Lifton, born Blanche Rosenblatt, to Rae Rosenblatt (later Billings) in Staten Island, New York, in 1926, was adopted at the age of two by Oscar and Hilda Kirschner of Cincinnati, Ohio. She was informed of her adopted status at the age of seven and told that her birth parents were deceased. She attended Barnard College, earning a BA in English in 1948. After graduation she worked as a "production assistant for the NBC and CBS packaging companies." In 1952 she married Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist who conducted psychological studies on the effects of war and the Holocaust as well as authoring a number of influential books. They had two children, Kenneth and Karen (who later changed her name to Natasha). While Robert J. Lifton served as an Air Force psychiatrist, the couple resided in Japan and Hong Kong for a number of years. While in Japan Betty Jean Lifton "was a reporter for two English-language Japanese newspapers, the Nippon Times and the Asahi Evening News; wrote the script for a United States Information Service movie, The Bridge of Arts (on Japanese art); [and] organized the East West discussion group…" with her husband.

Following the couple's return to the United States, Lifton began to make inquiries into her adoption, contacting the agency responsible for her adoption. She learned that her birth parents were likely to still be alive and began searching public records in an effort to locate them. Eventually she was able to identify and locate her birth mother and they met several times, although their relationship was somewhat strained. She later attempted to locate her birth father, only to learn that he had died shortly before her search.

In the 1950s Lifton began writing children's books based on Japanese culture and folklore including The Dwarf Pine Tree, Kap the Kappa, Joji and the Dragon, and The Rice-cake Rabbit, and later collaborated on three other books with Japanese photographer Eikoh Hosoe. In 1975 she published Twice Born: Memoirs of an Adopted Daughter which marked the beginning of her second career as an adoption-rights advocate, writer, and counselor. She wrote a number of other books and articles on adoption including Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience, and Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness, and was an outspoken advocate for open adoption. She also served on the board of the American Adoption Congress.

In addition to her children's books and books on adoption, Lifton wrote King of Children, a biography of Janusz Korczak (pen name of Henryk Goldszmit), who was a Polish-Jewish educator, children's author, and pediatrician. After spending many years working as director of an orphanage in Warsaw, he refused freedom and stayed with his orphans when the institution was sent from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka concentration camp by the German army in 1942. It is assumed that they were killed in a gas chamber upon their arrival at Treblinka.

In the 1990s she completed her PhD in counseling psychology from the Union Institute based in Cincinnati, Ohio. She began taking on adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents as clients and offered advice to fans who had read her books. She spoke widely on the topic of the psychological effects of adoption on adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents. Lifton lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and died in 2010 from complications from pneumonia at the age of 84.


The collection is arranged in seven series:

  1. Series I. Biographical and Personal, 1884-2009 (#1.1-8.2)
  2. Series II. Engagements and teaching, ca.1950-2010 (#8.3-14.17)
  3. Series III. Writings for children, ca.1935-2010 (#15.1-27.7, FD.2, FD.3, F+D.2)
  4. Series IV. Writings for adults, 1923-2010 (#27.8-85.20, E.1-E.4)
  5. ___Subseries A. Adoption research and writing, 1940-2010 (#27.8-65.7, E.1-E.4)
  6. ___Subseries B. The King of Children, 1923-2010 (#65.8-81.7)
  7. ___Subseries C. Other writing, ca.1939-2005 (#81.8-85.20)
  8. Series V. Client files, 1985-2010 (#86.1-108.15, E.5)
  9. Series VI. Photographs and oversized, ca.1940-1997 (PD.1-PD.25, FD.1-FD.3, F+D.1-F+D.2, OD.1)
  10. Series VII. Audio, 1979-1981, n.d. (#T-504.1 - T-504.58)

Physical Location

Collection stored off site: researchers must request access 36 hours before use.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accession number: 2011-M125

The papers of Betty Jean Lifton were given to the Schlesinger Library by her husband, Robert Jay Lifton, in 2011.

Processing Information

Processed: October 2014

By: Mark Vassar with the assistance of Caitlin Jones and Henry Shull.

Lifton, Betty Jean. Papers of Betty Jean Lifton, 1884-2010 (inclusive), 1939-2010 (bulk): A Finding Aid
Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute Repository

The preeminent research library on the history of women in the United States, the Schlesinger Library documents women's lives from the past and present for the future. In addition to its traditional strengths in the history of feminisms, women’s health, and women’s activism, the Schlesinger collections document the intersectional workings of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class in American history.

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