Friday, March 28, 2008

The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler

This is a non-fiction book. The subtitle is The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade. Before I read this book I knew very little about adoption, and I had an especially naïve view of infant adoption: I thought it was a win-win situation. A mother who is not ready to care for a child can provide one to parents who are unable to conceive their own. What is wrong with that? This book provides a counterpoint to this long-held belief.

In the 1950’s, ‘60’s and early 1970’s, thousands of young women in the U.S. gave their babies up for adoption. But here’s what I didn’t know about adoption in that era: that a large number of the women who surrendered their babies were victims of coercion, pressured by their families, their clergy, and their social workers (in other words, by the very people who were supposed to be helping them) into surrendering their children against their will.

Ann Fessler, who is herself an adoptee, interviewed hundreds of women who gave babies up during those years. The tales they tell are heart-rending, of being whisked away to a home for wayward girls in the middle of the night, of delivering their babies alone and unprepared in hospitals where the nurses told them, when they complained of labor pain, that “they should have thought of that nine months ago.” In many cases these young women were shamed and threatened with disownment by their families if they didn’t give their babies up, they were told by social workers (often falsely) that if they didn’t surrender their babies they would have to repay the maternity home and the hospital thousands of dollars for their time there. They were denied information about support services that were available to them. They were threatened with eternal damnation by their clergy. They were in many cases (but not all) abandoned by their baby’s father, who suffered no repercussions for his part in the pregnancy. They were also frequently lied to about the adoptive couple who would receive their baby; for example Fessler’s birth mother was told that the baby would be adopted by a factory owner, when in fact her adoptive father was a factory worker.

It’s like Fessler has revealed a tacit conspiracy of social workers, clergy, and unenlightened parents that worked to keep girls compliant, and provided babies for infertile couples. This conspiracy thrived in an era when conformity was a must, and when options for women (educational and professional) were few. Some of the adults who were complicit believed they were doing so in the best interests of the girls. Fessler describes deathbed apologies from parents who forced their daughters to give their babies up. But some of the adults must have understood the ramifications of what they were doing. That is the part I found most galling.

The 1950’s and ‘60’s were a different world for girls. I was shocked to read about how voiceless these girls were, how at the mercy they were of their parents and other authority figures. While many of the women in this book acknowledge that they were ill-equipped to care for a child, they all wished they had been given a chance to do so. All of them say that if they had had some support and acceptance from their families and from society that they felt they could have been good mothers, and that none of their subsequent achievements (achievements that would have been impossible if they not given their babies up) made up for the loss of that child. They all agree that being forced to give their babies up was the single most devastating thing that ever happened to them. Many suffered from long term depression and substance abuse, and while some went on to marry and have more children, many found themselves unable to sustain productive relationships ever again.

This is a sad sad book. I cried for these women many times. It was hard to read each woman’s story, but I made myself do it. Here is a quote from a woman named Karen that illustrates feelings that are expressed in this book:

All of our rights were abused. Ignored and abused. The rights that people take for granted today, we were denied. We didn’t know because we were young, and we trusted our parents, and we trusted authority. We trusted our elders and we were taught to respect them. They would tell us what was best. So we figured if that’s what was best, then that was what we needed to do. They’ve injured and damaged millions of people.

…I’m sure there are women who suppress the experience, but I don’t think it ever goes away. There is not a day since I was fifteen years old that I haven’t thought about him [her child]. I will live with this for the rest of my life. Criminals sometimes get a life sentence and that’s what I feel like I got. I think that’s what people don’t understand. The expectation is that you will get over it. I will never have peace. I will never have peace.

I know this is a topic about which people have strong feelings. I’m not trying to begin a dialogue about the pros and cons of adoption. I’m just writing about what I learned from this book, which is, sometimes you can think a thing is simple, when it’s not.

(Book 11, 2008)


Anonymous said...

Thank you for opening yourself up to the truth about what us Mothers of adoption loss have endured by those whom we trusted.Needless to say having trust issues is common for us Mothers.Mothers such as myself was also hurt by those who have taken the oath to "First do no harm"because many Doctors and nurses took advantage of our youth and treated our bodies and minds with contempt.They did indeed do harm.What do I want? I want the abuse acknowledged ,by those who abused us, so their deeds won't be repeated and I and my sisters can fully heal.Actually, we want what any victim/survivor wants.Too much to ask for huh? By you opening yourself up to hearing the truth ,the hole in my heart became a bit smaller ,so I thank you for that.Now if only those who participated in the cruelty would follow suit.BTW,everthing old is new again.Check out" The infant adoption awareness Act".It is the Bush Admin.attempt to bring back those good ole days complete with a prettied up "Home for un-wed Mothers "group home'" in his great state of Texas.See, what happens when we open up our minds and become aware of those things we only thought we had awareness of?

Ungrateful Little Bastard said...

Thank you very much for your book review. Ann Fessler's book, the first time I read it, gave me a great perspective to what my mother endured. This book is so important, not only to anyone who was adopted or lost a child to adoption, but also as a reminder into women's history.

Have you read 'The Baby Thief' by Barbara Raymond?
It provides a good prequel to the years leading up to the Baby Scoop Era.

Jeane said...

Wow. This sounds like a powerful book on a topic I know nothing about. I had no idea so many women were forced to give up their children. I may want to read it myself.

Anonymous said...

"Last Act: The Madhouse" in Rachel Ingalls' story collection, "Times Like These," is one of the most haunting tales I have ever read of a woman forced into giving a baby up for adoption. Sounds quite a bit like the novel described here. Actually, most of the stories in TLT are first rate. She's the woman who wrote the little feminist classic, "Mrs. Caliban," also a very cool novel (and way short) if you've never read it.

Anonymous said...

Excuse me; I didn't mean to refer to Fessler's non-fiction expose as a novel.

Becky Holmes said...

Susan, don't you hate it that you can't edit comments? I knew what you meant.

heather (errantdreams) said...

Wow. That's incredibly powerful. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

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