Why does the concept of the "bad seed"--the idea that an adopted child might end up being a risk to its nonbiological family--linger in our cultural consciousness, long after it was introduced in the 1950s? (1) The concept first appeared in William March's novel The Bad Seed (1954), part melodrama and part psychological thriller. The protagonist, Christine Penmark, realizes that her seemingly perfect young daughter, Rhoda, is a cold-blooded killer. After researching serial killers, Christine comes to believe that she herself was adopted as a child and that her birth mother was a notorious serial killer. She immediately assumes responsibility for having passed down the "bad seed" of criminality to her daughter. Attempting to right the wrong, Christine poisons Rhoda and then kills herself, though Rhoda survives, presumably to kill again.
March's novel was quickly adapted as a Broadway play in 1954 by Maxwell Anderson, and in 1956 as a film. Across these adaptations, the concept of the bad seed attached itself to adoption, raising the fear that adopted people's hereditary traits might arise and disrupt their nonbiological families. (2) In fact, in her ethnographic study of adoptive families written fifty years after the film's release, Christine Gailey (2006: 74) concludes, "Few movies have had a more negative impact on people's attitudes about adoption than The Bad Seed. It ushered in a 'demon-child' adoption formula that in the following decades took the logical shortcut from evil skipping a generation to the adoptee being the embodiment of evil." (3)
Given the pervasiveness of this trope and the popularity of the bad seed narratives that helped circulate it, one might presume that the bad seed plot reflected a cultural intolerance toward adoption at that time. But the 1950s saw a demand for adoptable children that far exceeded supply. Postwar pronatalism drove prospective parents to seek out adoption to expand their families. At the same time, adoption specialists--psychologists, social workers, and agency professionals--urged caution while they worked to establish best practices to mitigate perceived risks. Concern about the influence of latent inherited traits thus existed in tension with the optimism of those willing to overlook the risk of adoption if it meant having a family. (4)
This essay explores representations of latent heredity in families constructed outside of biological norms--adoptive and fostered--in The Bad Seed and its film adaptation, and in Richard Wright's posthumously published novella, Rite of Passage (1994). Written sometime in the 1940s, Wright's narrative features a black youth, Johnny Gibbs, who learns that he is a foster child and that the "city folks" plan to remove him arbitrarily from his happy home. Rather than succumb to this decision, he runs away and joins a gang of other foster care runaways. Taken together, Rite of Passage and the two bad seed narratives highlight the era's ambivalence over the importance of heredity, expressed through shared formal features, such as the adopted/fostered characters' abrupt discovery of their nontraditional family status and psychological discourses that frame the impact of that new information. Yet even...