I am privileged to be one of the women interviewed for the book and it means a great deal to me, more than I can ever adequately put into words, to finally have our voices heard.
The Girls Who Went Away
The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade
By Ann Fessler
THE PENGUIN PRESS; 354 PAGES; $24.95
In 1989, when Ann Fessler was 40, she saw an older woman across the room at an art exhibition who looked "very familiar." Later this woman approached her and, she writes, "with no introduction said, 'You could be my long-lost daughter. You look like the perfect combination of myself and the father of my child.' "
Fessler replied, "You don't know what you're saying to me. I could be your daughter -- I was adopted."
The two women compared dates, but the births were 13 months apart. They continued to talk. The stranger asked Fessler if she had looked for her birth mother. No, Fessler replied, she didn't want to invade her privacy.
"You should find her," the stranger then said. "She probably worries every day about what happened to you and whether you've had a good life."
As the woman talked about the pain and loss she'd felt, and continued to feel, from losing her baby, Fessler realized "that I had never heard the story of adoption from the perspective of a mother who had surrendered her child."
That evening she went home and wrote down every word of their conversation. As she was doing so, she realized why the woman had seemed so familiar to her: She'd had a dream the night before in which they'd been talking together.
Soon after, Fessler started looking for her birth mother.
The search did not take long, but Fessler could not bring herself to take the last step and make actual contact. She was still afraid of invading her mother's privacy, so she decided to wait. She waited 14 years.
In the meantime, she began to focus her work as a photographer and videographer on the subject of adoption. Fessler is a professor of photography at Rhode Island School of Design with a specialty in video-installation art, and her groundbreaking book, "The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade," is the result of her biggest project to date.
Most Americans who came of age in the 1950s or '60s know exactly what the book's title refers to. They can remember at least one girl in their class who suddenly left high school and dropped out of sight, often in a cloud of rumors involving out-of-wedlock sex and pregnancy. These girls simply "went away."
And their history was indeed hidden, as the book's subtitle states. In the years between the end of World War II, in 1945, and the legalization of abortion, in 1973, more than 1.5 million young women surrendered their babies for adoption, almost all of them secretly. In many of these cases, these girls were shunned by family and friends, shamed by priests and pastors, kicked out of school and sent away to "homes for unwed mothers," where they had their babies alone. Often they were still children themselves.
The dominant mythology is that they made well-considered choices leading to adoption, that they chose to give up their babies to "good families" who could take better care of them. The truth is far different. These girls faced so much family and social pressure to relinquish their children that they really had no choice. They were forced to do it, and the loss of their babies has haunted them for the rest of their lives.
Fessler interviewed more than 100 women across the country who surrendered their children, and she gives them ample opportunity to tell their stories in their own words and for the first time, weaving their oral histories together with a perceptive and telling description of the social climate that pressured them so heavily.
The result is a collection of deeply moving personal tales bolstered by solid sociological analysis -- journalism of the first order, moving and informative in equal measure. It's impossible to read this book without feeling tremendous compassion for these women, many who have been, as one of them put it, "an unwilling accomplice to the kidnapping of my own child."
It's easy to forget, in this era of innovation and change in the structure of the American family, just how puritanical white, middle-class society was 40 or 45 years ago. Sex outside of marriage was considered shameful, birth control was hard to obtain, and abortion was either available only to well-to-do families with the right connections or was life-endangering. The suffering experienced by the 1.5 million women represented in this book testifies to the damage such rigidity produced.
For all the concerns we may have about the permissiveness and pervasive sexualization of modern life, Fessler's book reminds us that we have made real progress. The era when young women who found themselves pregnant were coerced into giving up their babies is over. Today they have choices, and all of us, men, women and children, are better off for it.
Robert Speer is a screenwriter and journalist who lives in Chico.
#1) "I was terrified to give birth. I'd never been in a hospital. The nun took me over and pulled up in front of the hospital and let me out. At seventeen, I went in and admitted myself. I had to labor in the hall. I couldn't be in the labor room because all the women in that room were married."
#2) "The first few weeks at home, I cried al the time. I'd lock myself in the bathroom or go to my room. I cried all night but I didn't let anybody hear me because I felt like I was being bad. I wasn't doing what they said I was supposed to do, which was: "Get over it. Move on with your life and put it behind you." I thought, "Crap, I can't even do this right."
#3) Sometimes when I meet birth mothers who fought tooth and nail for their babies I feel so ashamed of myself, that I didn't have the fight. How does a woman separate from her own flesh? Only by dissociating--I don't think there's any other way you can do it. I met one woman who wouldn't sign the papers and she was put in a mental institution by her parents and kept there for a year until she signed. I thought, "Oh, why couldn't I have been that one?"
Interview w/ Robin Roberts of Good Morning America