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The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe V. Wadeby Ann Fessler
"Through hundreds of interviews with women who gave up babies for adoption between 1945 and 1973, The Girls Who Went Away provides a revelatory account of the fifties, illuminating it as an anomalous period beset by social contradictions. It airs a secret that still shapes our society, and it provides a window into what it would mean if the social agenda of the Christian right were to prevail." Carolyn McConnell, The Iowa Review (read the entire review from the Iowa Review)
Synopses & Reviews
A powerful and groundbreaking revelation of the secret history of the 1.5 million women who surrendered children for adoption in the several decades before Roe v. Wade.
In this deeply moving work, Ann Fessler brings to light the lives of hundreds of thousands of young single American women forced to give up their newborn children in the years following World War II and before Roe v. Wade. The Girls Who Went Away tells a story not of wild and carefree sexual liberation, but rather of a devastating double standard that has had punishing long-term effects on these women and on the children they gave up for adoption. Based on Fessler's groundbreaking interviews, it brings to brilliant life these women's voices and the spirit of the time, allowing each to share her own experience in gripping and intimate detail. Today, when the future of the Roe decision and women's reproductive rights stand squarely at the front of a divisive national debate, Fessler brings to the fore a long-overlooked history of single women in the fifties, sixties, and early seventies.
In 2002, Fessler, an adoptee herself, traveled the country interviewing women willing to speak publicly about why they relinquished their children. Researching archival records and the political and social climate of the time, she uncovered a story of three decades of women who, under enormous social and family pressure, were coerced or outright forced to give their babies up for adoption. Fessler deftly describes the impossible position in which these women found themselves: as a sexual revolution heated up in the postwar years, birth control was tightly restricted, and abortion proved prohibitively expensive or life endangering. At the same time, a postwar economic boom brought millions of American families into the middle class, exerting its own pressures to conform to a model of family perfection. Caught in the middle, single pregnant women were shunned by family and friends, evicted from schools, sent away to maternity homes to have their children alone, and often treated with cold contempt by doctors, nurses, and clergy.
The majority of the women Fessler interviewed have never spoken of their experiences, and most have been haunted by grief and shame their entire adult lives. A searing and important look into a long-overlooked social history, The Girls Who Went Away is their story.
"'Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to keep the baby,' says Joyce, in a story typical of the birth mothers, mostly white and middle-class, who vent here about being forced to give up their babies for adoption from the 1950s through the early '70s. They recall callous parents obsessed with what their neighbors would say; maternity homes run by unfeeling nuns who sowed the seeds of lifelong guilt and shame; and social workers who treated unwed mothers like incubators for married couples. More than one birth mother was emotionally paralyzed until she finally met the child she'd relinquished years earlier. In these pages, which are sure to provoke controversy among adoptive parents, birth mothers repeatedly insist that their babies were unwanted by society, not by them. Fessler, a photography professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, is an adoptee whose birth mother confessed that she had given her away even though her fiancé, who wasn't Fessler's father, was willing to raise her. Although at times rambling and self-pitying, these knowing oral histories are an emotional boon for birth mothers and adoptees struggling to make sense of troubled pasts." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Given the queasy ambivalence that is still attached to adoption, statistics on the subject remain notoriously unreliable. Scholars and social workers estimate that between 5 million and 10 million American mothers have relinquished children for adoption. But little hard data exist on individual women, and next to nothing is known about the emotional consequences of their experiences. Shrouded in secrecy,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) skewed by locker-room gossip and old wives' tales, the stories of generations of unmarried pregnant girls have gone largely untold. In an admirable effort to remedy this, Ann Fessler, a professor of photography and a specialist in video installation art, interviewed more than a hundred women who volunteered to break their silence and contribute to 'The Girls Who Went Away,' which examines the stories of women who gave up children before Roe v. Wade. While striving for diversity of age, race and social background, Fessler discovered that her sources spoke with one voice about the early trauma that continues, in their telling, to blight their lives, scar their psyches and undermine their marriages and their relationships with their parents. Open the book to any page, and sad refrains repeat themselves with the plangency of a ballad. Barely beyond childhood, hounded by families, clergy and societal strictures, these girls felt they had no choice. Isolated in maternity homes, often given no counseling or blatantly bogus advice, and never offered access to legal alternatives, Fessler's sources uniformly claim that they didn't so much relinquish their babies as have them taken away by adults who had their own religious, social or financial agendas. To have a baby die, they point out, is every woman's nightmare, but to have a baby ripped from your arms and handed over to strangers is equally horrendous. 'You hear about people's lives being touched by adoption,' one woman keens. 'It's no damn touch. I mean, that just drives me nuts. You're smashed by adoption.' It would take a heart of stone not to be moved by the oral histories of these women and by the courage and candor with which they express themselves. Fessler, an adoptee who begins and ends the book with the story of her search for her birth mother, deserves credit for the diligence and tact that must have been key ingredients in her interviews. And she's certainly correct to criticize the double standard that stigmatizes pregnant girls but tends to forgive as youthful oat-sowing the behavior of their impregnators. Yet perhaps for fear of alienating her sources, she seems to avoid hard questions and fails to follow up on explanations that don't hang together. Or maybe her methodology accounts for the dubious aspects of her survey. Rather than a scientific sampling, her interviewees were self-selected, which likely eliminated whole categories of respondents — i.e., those not traumatized, not convinced that adoption is central to their lives and not interested in reuniting with adoptees. Fessler's group contains just one woman who acknowledges she was complicit in sex and in the decision to relinquish her child. By contrast, the others cite ignorance, immaturity and outright date rape as the primary factors in their pregnancies. None of them, all now middle-age, concedes that sexual desire might have played a part in her adolescent behavior. If any of them ever believed that pregnancy might nudge a man toward the altar, they don't admit it here. Nor do they allow that the childhood abuse, parental neglect and deep psychological disorders they describe might have caused the later problems — broken marriages, other illegitimate children — that they blame on losing their first babies. If her pool of respondents lacked insight, the author could have supplied it. A constant theme, which Fessler appears to support without reservation, is that these girls, some barely pubescent, should have been allowed to keep their children. But how would having kids raise kids lead to happier endings? To the contrary, that would be more likely to lead to an oral history of teenage single motherhood — one every bit as tragic as the voices collected in this heartbreaking volume." Reviewed by Michael Mewshaw, whose most recent book is "If You Could See Me Now: A Chronicle of Identity and Adoption", Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"[A]n incredible and deeply moving look at the personal cost suffered by the women who gave up their babies, voluntarily and involuntarily....
"By giving voice to these women, Fessler has enabled adoptees to view the circumstances of their birth with greater understanding. A valuable contribution to the literature on adoption." Kirkus Reviews
"Fessler successfully intertwines the women's personal stories with descriptive text, placing the accounts in historical context....Thought-provoking and thoroughly researched..." Library Journal
"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." San Francisco Chronicle
In this deeply moving and myth-shattering work, Ann Fessler brings out into the open for the first time the astonishing untold history of the million and a half women who surrendered children for adoption due to enormous family and social pressure in the decades before Roe v. Wade. An adoptee who was herself surrendered during those years and recently made contact with her mother, Ann Fessler brilliantly brings to life the voices of more than a hundred women, as well as the spirit of those times, allowing the women to tell their stories in gripping and intimate detail.
This powerful revelation uncovers the astonishing, untold history of the million-and-a-half women who surrendered children for adoption in the decades before "Roe v. Wade."
About the Author
Ann Fessler is professor of photography at Rhode Island School of Design and a specialist in video-installation art. She won a prestigious Radcliffe Fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, for 2004, to complete her extensive research for this book. She is also the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts; the LEF Foundation, Boston; the Rhode Island Foundation; the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities; Art Matters, New York; and the Maryland State Arts Council. An adoptee herself, she begins and ends the book with the story of her own successful quest to find her birth mother.
Table of Contents
The Girls Who Went Away 1. My Own Story as an Adoptee
2. Breaking the Silence
3. Good Girls v. Bad Girls
4. Discovery and Shame
5. The Family's Fears
6. Going Away
7. Birth and Surrender
8. The Aftermath
9. Search and Reunion
10. Talking and Listening
11. Every Mother but My Own
A Note on the Interviews
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