What do Nancy Reagan, Steve Jobs, Babe Ruth, Leo Tolstoy, and John Hancock all have in common besides being famous? All of them were adopted. And their adoptions were not simply incidental or something they endured, but life-changing events that played a crucial and positive role in their accomplishments and success.
In his new book, Chosen for Greatness, How Adoption Changes the World, author Paul J. Batura demonstrates how adoption has influenced and reshaped the world in ways most of us don’t even realize. He illustrates his point in 16 biographical stories of famous people both living and deceased, culminating in the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Batura spoke to Zoe Romanowsky about his book and about how adoption continues to change the course of history.
Zoe Romanowsky: Why did you want to write about adoption by telling biographical stories?
Paul J. Batura: I’m an adoptive parent of three boys ages 11, 6, and 4, all of whom were adopted at birth. We tried to make sure they knew they were adopted before they even understood what the word meant, and as they grow and mature, they understand more. I wanted to find real-life examples of people who were adopted and made wonderful contributions to culture and society. As I started to research, I realized that so many of the biographies on these individuals centered on what they did later in life, and very little of it had to do with their actual adoptions. As I dug into these stories, I discovered that the adoption was really the turning point for them — it put them on a path that they otherwise would never have been on, and it was that path which led them to achieve what they did. Every single one of the people in the book is probably a household name — everyone knows who they are — but a lot of people don’t know they were adopted.
You have a really diverse range of stories in this book — how did you choose the ones you wanted to feature?
I chose people whom everyone would recognize and who also illustrate the premise of the book which is that if you don’t think your life has been changed by adoption, you really need to look around you. If you have an iPhone, or you’ve ever been to Wendy’s, or you’ve listened to Bach, your life has been touched by adoption. So I tried to find real-life examples that people could relate to. And then, I tried to find individuals who have a good story — something uplifting, encouraging, redemptive. Not perfect, because as you know from the book, not everyone has an upward trajectory, there are ups and downs in every life and not every adoption goes smoothly. But my goal was to try and find great stories and shine a light on the good that’s out there.
There are various narratives about adoption today, and adoption is complicated because it’s always predicated by loss and tragedy, particularly for the adoptee. What is the perspective you take on adoption in this book, and why?
Well, generally, I think adoption is a good thing. It tends to bring order to chaos, so it’s a good thing, especially given the alternatives. There are too many horror stories of children being abandoned, or growing up without parents, or sadly, not growing up at all because of abortion.
But regarding the imperfection of it all, for sure that is a common theme in the book. I think of Dave Thomas, for example, the founder of Wendy’s, who is well-known in the adoption space. His adoption story certainly isn’t a glowing one, but he turned a difficult situation into something very positive. So I do try and acknowledge that the adoptions are complicated; they’re not cookie-cutter, neat and tidy. And at the end of the book I draw the parallel with Jesus and how he came into the world under dramatic circumstances and his life wasn’t neat and tidy either.
You say that these famous people didn’t succeed in spite of their adoptions, but because of it. Is there a quality they all possessed, because of their adoptions, that helped them to become successful?
I think so. I think the ability to plow through adversity is a common theme. And if you’re a person of faith, recognizing that God is sovereign, and that you may not always like what you’re going through, but it is for a purpose and you are not some happenstance. Another common theme is the ability to connect with other people and how adoption can lead to wonderful opportunities.
Do you have a favorite story in the book, or one that was particularly inspirational for you?
They’re all so interesting to me, of course, but Nancy Reagan’s story was particularly intriguing … She was born “Ann Nancy Robbins” to parents in Queens, New York, who divorced early on, and then she went to live with an aunt for many years in Bethesda, Maryland. But then her mom remarried a doctor by the name of Loyal Davis and that connection with him changed history. Because Nancy changed her name to “Davis” when she was adopted by him she officially became “Ann Nancy Davis.” And then Nancy Davis moved to California to pursue acting, but there was another woman by the same name on the Communist sympathizer list so people told Nancy she needed to go talk to the president of the Screen Actor’s Guild to clear her name and reputation. And she did, and that president was Ronald Reagan.
The point I make, that I’ve never seen made before, was that had Nancy not been adopted, had she not changed her name, she would not have had the opportunity, the excuse, to meet Ronald Reagan. And Loyal Davis influenced Ronald Reagan — he was a Democrat who said “I never left my party, my party left me” — for 10 years before Ronald Reagan ultimately became a Republican and ran for governor of California and then president. Without Nancy I don’t think Ronald Reagan would have done either.
It’s fascinating how the world turns on these kinds of things…
Yes, it’s fun to look at history and try to connect dots. What I tried to do with this project is to say “What if they had not been adopted?” And I think it’s pretty clear that had they not, they would not have done what they did.
How would you articulate what is uniquely Christian about adoption?
If you are Christian, you’ve been adopted into God’s family. When you adopt a child, they assume your family’s name and assume all the rights and privileges that are assigned to that birthright. That’s what we are as Christians, too. We didn’t do anything to earn God’s favor and we certainly haven’t warranted eternal salvation and yet it’s given to us because we’re taken into His family.
The act of caring for the orphan, and for those in need, is inherently Christian — Scripture is replete with commands to do that … In the US, there are currently about 400,000 kids in foster care and about 100,000 of them are available for adoption, and there’s a huge international need as well. If you have a heart that is open to this, you can be used in a mighty mighty way.
The subtitle of your book is “how adoption changes the world.” If you were to sum up how it does that what you would you say?
Adoption has changed, and continues to change, the world in every segment of life. Obviously, from the personal side — because it changes your family, and the dynamics within the home, and also changes that particular life. But it changes everyone’s life. Look at Nelson Mandela who liberated his people in South Africa because his adoptive father taught him the leadership skills he needed. Adoption has touched every aspect of life and it’s a profound thing that we often take for granted or treat as a footnote.
I think adoption has also probably done more for race relations in the United States in recent years than anything else. We’re a multiethnic family — my wife and I are white and two of our three boys are Hispanic — and 25 years ago that would have turned heads, but not anymore. It’s become a very normal site — certainly in churches and many parts of the culture people no longer do a double take. And I think that’s a very good thing. Families like ours are walking billboards for how it can be, how it should be, and how, I think, God wants it to be.
Paul J. Batura’s new book Chosen for Greatness: How Adoption Changes the World is published by Regency Faith.