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Rewired Attitudes about Adoption

Marietta E. Bunzel Spencer ’44

Marietta was a pioneering social worker who revolutionized attitudes towards adoption. She established terminology that removed the stigma of being adopted and was a fierce advocate for the rights of adoptees to have access to their medical history throughout their lives.

She grew up in Vienna, the youngest of two children born to a merchant family in the jewelry trade, and moved to the United States during World War II after receiving an academic scholarship to Reed. An anthropology major, Marietta wrote her thesis, “Acculturation Among the Austrian Refugees of Portland, Oregon,” with Prof. David French ’39 [anthropology 1947–88] and met her life partner and collaborator, Prof. Robert Spencer [sociology 1946], who taught at Reed.

“Reed College shaped my life,” she said. “It gave me knowledge, a social sense of belonging, and also led to my marriage. My husband, Robert Spencer, was a brilliant anthropologist, a heavyweight wrestling champion, and he was caring and fun to live with.”

The couple moved to the Twin Cities, where Robert became an acclaimed professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Minnesota. Marietta collaborated with him on his field research, including months in the Arctic studying the Inuit population, where she did the drawings for the book he wrote.

Marietta earned a master’s in social work from the University of Minnesota in 1952 and began studying child-rearing customs of other cultures to help adoptive parents. In 1974, she founded the postadoption department of Children’s Home Society of Minnesota (CHS). At the time, many adoption agencies did a poor job of collecting background information. There was no clear sense of when or how to tell a child that he or she was adopted, or even how to define adoption. Marietta disliked the term “adoptee,” feeling that it labeled the child based solely on his or her adoptive status. “When a woman gets married,” she pointed out, “you do not say that she is a marriagee.” Marietta defined adoption as “family building by way of social contract.” In the same way that a man and woman become a family through the social contract of marriage, so do children become family members through the social contract of adoption.

In her 1979 article “The Terminology of Adoption,” she pressed relentlessly for clear language that demystified adoption and wiped away stigmatizing terms that made adoption appear illegitimate or suggested a lack of caring by birth parents. In her vocabulary, there were no “real parents,” but rather “birth parents” and “adoptive parents.” Children were not “surrendered” or “given up”; instead, families made a “loving plan” for a child. While controversial at the time, Spencer’s vocabulary has been credited with helping adoption gain broader acceptance worldwide.

Filmmaker Jennifer Arndt-Johns produced Crossing Chasms, a documentary about trying to locate her biological relatives in South Korea. After a showing of the film, Marietta approached Arndt-Johns  and insisted on correcting a statement she made in the film about being “abandoned on the doorsteps of a police station” in South Korea. “Marietta literally took my hand and said, ‘I want to let you know you were not abandoned, but you were placed upon that doorstep to be found,’” said Arndt-John. “I remember tears filling my eyes. With that single sentence, she changed my whole concept of myself. . . . It was a reminder of the powerful resonance that words have.”

“My mind always searches for something that will be useful,” Marietta said of her life of service.

Asked whether Reed had prepared her for life in general, Marietta replied, “It did exactly what it promised to do: set high ideals, gave one confidence, motivation, and the guts to achieve positive goals. What a break for me to receive a scholarship.” Throughout her life, she generously supported the college.

Marietta is survived by her son, Paul Spencer. Her husband, and daughter, Claudia, predeceased her.

Appeared in Reed magazine: September 2017

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