Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours provides a glimpse into the dark, abusive, and criminal world of Georgia Tann. Although the specific events and most of the characters in Wingate’s novel are fictional, Georgia Tann was a real woman who operated a child trafficking ring in Memphis, Tennessee, from 1924 until 1950. In 1939, Rill Foss and her siblings—Camellia, Lark, Fern, and Gabion—are kidnapped by men who work for Tann and brought to live in one of the Memphis orphanages that Tann operates out of. In the orphanage, Rill and her siblings not only witness horrific abuse and neglect but become victims of it themselves. Through Rill and her siblings, Wingate provides an emotional glimpse into the grim world of child trafficking in mid-20th-century America. In Before We Were Yours, Wingate examines child trafficking as a dark form of rewriting history, removing children from their true homes and families and forcing them to adopt new names, heritages, and lives.
Children—and especially young ones—are malleable, which makes it possible for Tann to rewrite their personal histories in order to make them more appealing to potential adopters. Tann tells reporters and charitable women interested in her orphanage that children “can become anything you want them to be.” While this is meant to send a positive message to adopters, it also contains a sinister one—that children’s true histories and natures can be ignored and rewritten. Tann does this through systematic abuse (such as locking kids in a dark closet) that scares children into conforming to her wishes. After losing three of the four siblings Rill was brought to the orphanage with, she writes that “This pain is changing me into a girl I don’t even know.” This highlights how the pain of forced separation also helps Tann get her victims to conform to her expectations—as the children lose ties to their personal histories, they lose sight of their personal identities and begin to accept their new lives.
The children in Tann’s orphanage that do not allow themselves to be molded or conform to Tann’s expectations are systematically victimized. Fearing punishment, many allow their pasts to be obliterated just to survive. Rill notes that “The helpers here like to thump kids on the head where it won’t show” to punish them. This comparatively mild form of punishment is meant to remind the children that they are expected to adapt to every detail of their surroundings, including their new personal identities. However, there is also a more sinister method of forcing the children to accept the changes being made to their personal lives: the children who prove stubborn and do not submit to Tann’s demands are made to disappear, thus eliminating them from history entirely. After Camellia mysteriously disappears, Rill asks Tann where Camellia went and Tann says, “There never was any… Camellia” and asks Rill if she understands this. This denial of Camellia’s existence both implies that Camellia is gone forever (she is presumably dead) and serves as a challenge to Rill: either accept Tann’s assertion that Camellia never existed, or risk meeting the same fate. Rill accepts and is therefore allowed to live.
The long-term result of Tann’s child trafficking and abuse is that thousands of people don’t know their true heritage (although they might believe they do), but others triumph over Tann by reclaiming their personal histories later in life. Though Georgia Tann renamed Trent Turner Sr., calling him Stevie, he grew up to “reclaim a birth name and a heritage” after discovering he was adopted and hunting down his birth parents. His story is the most successful because he was able to openly reclaim his name and live happily. Rill, on the other hand, accepts her new identity as May Weathers even though she also harbors memories of her true identity. When she finally shares her entire story with Avery Stafford, she says, “I’ve always wondered how you young ones would feel.” This indicates the concern Rill and many others (including her sisters) have that their children and grandchildren would be devastated to learn the truth about their family history and helps explain why Rill, Judy Stafford, and others kept their histories a secret. However, the greatest tragedy of all is that many of the victims of Tann’s child trafficking ring were simply lost, leaving their parents to wonder what happened to their children. As Rill tells Avery in the present day, “There are no stones to lay flowers on,” meaning that these parents don’t have the closure of a grave—they must perpetually wonder what became of their children. In this way, the novel highlights how Tann rewrote the personal histories of entire families by simply removing their children from existence, leaving no trace or visible evidence for their families to mourn over.
Child Trafficking, Heritage, and Rewriting History ThemeTracker
Child Trafficking, Heritage, and Rewriting History Quotes in Before We Were Yours
“Poor little waifs,” she says to the man. “We take them in when they are unwanted and unloved. We provide them with all that their parents cannot or will not give them.”
I bolt my eyes to the ground and make fists behind my back. It’s a lie, I wish I could scream at the man. My mama and daddy want us. They love us. So did the father who came to see his little boy, Lonnie, and ended up broke down on the porch crying like a baby when they said Lonnie’d been adopted.
I lose track of her voice as the car goes over a hill and comes within sight of the river. May fades like a speck of sun on the water, and Rill comes out. She stretches toward the crack at the top of the window, and pulls in air and catches all the familiar scents.
For just a minute, she’s home.
“They’re perfect in every way,” she says to the guests over and over. “Wonderful physical specimens and mentally advanced for their ages as well. Many come from parents with talents in music and art. Blank slates just waiting to be filled. They can become anything you want them to be.”
Inside my skin, I’m empty and cold, like the Indian caves where Briny took us camping one time when we hiked up over the bluffs. There were bones in the caves. Dead bones of people who are gone. There are dead bones in me.
Rill Foss can’t breathe in this place. She doesn’t live here. Only May Weathers does. Rill Foss lives down on the river. She’s the princess of Kingdom Arcadia.
Her hand is knotted in a fist between us. I take it in mine, pry open her fingers to see what she’s holding, and the minute I do, all the cookies and ice cream from the party come up in my throat. Dirty, round peppermints are stuck so tight to my sister’s palm, they’re melted into her skin.
I close my eyes and shake my head and try not to know, but I do. My mind drags me kicking and screaming to Mrs. Murphy’s cellar, into the dark corner behind the stairs where ash coats the coal bin and the boiler furnace. I see thin, strong arms fighting, legs thrashing around. I see a big hand closing over a screaming mouth, the dirty, oily fingers squeezing so hard they leave four round bruises.
Even the name sounds strange in my mind now. People keep calling me May. Maybe Rill’s still on the river someplace with Camellia, and Lark, and Fern, and Gabion. Maybe they’re drifting down in the lazy low-water summer currents, watching boats pass and barges go by and Cooper’s hawks circle wide and slow, hunting for fish to dive after.
Maybe Rill is only a story I read, like Huck Finn and Jim. Maybe I’m not even Rill and never was.
I turn and run down the steps and across the yard, my dress sweeping up around my legs. I stretch out my arms and throw back my head and make my own breeze, and for a minute, I find Rill again. I’m her.
I drop her on the cot and turn away and grab my hair and pull until it hurts. I want to pull all of it out. I want a pain that has a beginning and an end, not one that goes on forever and cuts all the way to the bone.
This pain is changing me into a girl I don’t even know.
“Perhaps you should have thought of that before you invented some ridiculous story about your fictitious sister and poor Mr. Riggs.”
Blood pounds in my head. I try to make sense of what she’s saying, but I can’t.
“There never was any… Camellia. You and I both know that, don’t we, May? There were four of you when you came here. Two little sisters and one little brother. Only four. And we’ve done a marvelous job in finding homes, thus far. Good homes. And for that, you are most grateful, aren’t you?” She motions to Mrs. Pulnik. […] “There will be no more of this nonsense out of you. Do you understand?”
I crave a simple answer to all of this. One I can live with. I don’t want to find out that my grandmother was somehow paying penance for our family’s involvement with the Tennessee Children’s Home Society—that my grandfathers were among the many politicians who protected Georgia Tann and her network, who turned a blind eye to atrocities because powerful families did not want her crimes revealed or their own adoptions nullified.
I think of the way May explained their choices: We were young women with lives and husbands and children by the time we were brought together again. We chose not to interfere with one another. It was enough for each of us to know that the others were well…
But the truth is, it wasn’t enough. Even the ramparts of reputation, and ambition, and social position couldn’t erase the love of sisters, their bond with one another. Suddenly, the barriers that created their need for hidden lives and secret meeting places seem almost as cruel as those of brokered adoptions, altered paperwork, and forced separations.
The trees lean close after we turn, and I take one look back. I let the river wash away something inside of me.
It washes away the last of Rill Foss.
Rill Foss is princess of Kingdom Arcadia. The king is gone, and so is the kingdom.
Rill Foss has to die with it.
I’m May Weathers now.
May turns to me with purpose, stretches intimately close as if she plans to impart a secret. “A woman’s past need not predict her future. She can dance to new music if she chooses. Her own music. To hear the tune, she must only stop talking. To herself, I mean. We’re always trying to persuade ourselves of things.”