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Book Review: The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames by Justine Cowan

Editor's Note: Here's a summary of accolades found on

Recommended by The New York Times, The Saturday Evening Post, Amazon Book Review, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus and more, Justine Cowan’s remarkable true story of how she uncovered her mother’s upbringing as a foundling at London’s Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children has received acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. In the U.K., it has been featured in The Mail on Sunday, The Daily Mail, The Daily Mirror and The Spectator. The Telegraph calls it “extraordinary and Glamour

magazine chose it as the best new book based on real life. Published by HarperCollins. Learn more about the author and the book at 

I was driving back from my grandson’s college graduation and needed a book to listen to so the drive would seem shorter.  I picked the above book with no idea what it was about.  I was shocked that it concerned the abusive and inhumane treatment of single mothers and their babies from the middle of the 18th century until 1954 in England.   Mothers without resources were forced to turn their children over to the Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children.  In most cases mothers never saw their children again. Children’s names were changed upon admission.  Sound familiar?  Children were prepared for lives in service to the rich, were told that they were evil because they were illegitimate and were often severely physically abused.

The book is written by a lawyer who had a very contentious relationship with her erratic mother even though she was raised in luxury. She spent most of her adult life trying to stay away from her mother and only explores a manuscript that her mother wrote about her own childhood after her mother has died. Once she learns that her mother was raised at the above named institution, severely abused and neglected, the author embarks on a two year journey to uncover the truth about her mother, her grandmother and the realities of living at the “school” where her mother was placed at two months of age.   Her mother had created a fantasy life in England for public consumption that had no basis in reality and Justine had to make the huge adjustment to acknowledge that her mother may have come to be so difficult due to a childhood full of deprivation, fear, abuse and neglect at the hands of her “carers”. 

The author’s journey to understand her mother is compelling.  She travels to England and researches the institution, engages with survivors of the Hospital, interviews former staff and spends many hours researching in the institutional archives. Despite all of this, it is very difficult for her to develop empathy for her mother due to her own trauma.

I believe that this book is an important one for those of us in the adoption world to read. We can relate to a great deal of it but the horrors bestowed upon “illegitimate children” in England until 1954 shocked this old lady.  It is a difficult story to read and the anger that arises concerning the inhumane treatment of single mothers and their children just adds one more layer of sadness for people like us. While painful, the story of yet another horrendous scenario affecting single mothers and their children is crucial to our understanding of how we got where we are.  In order to move forward with compassion, we must understand the past.   

While I usually prefer reading, I listened to this book on Audible.  It was very well done. -Patricia Taylor, Reunited Mom, Author of Shadow Train


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