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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. Wade
Release Date: June, 2007
Publisher: Penguin Books
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.
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Posted by William S. Grigsby on 9/27/2007
I got this for a family member who was/is one of the 'Girls Who Went Away'. Turned out that my younger brother had already sent her a copy. She rated it 5 stars as an accurate depiction of the subject in that era (I remember her going passing through the extremities of the family structure on her way to a Salvation Army home).
Read this if you don't understand why reproductive freedom is so important.
Posted by Caryss Wood-Behan on 3/9/2009
In "The Girls Who Went Away," Ann Fessler interviews several women who surrendered their babies for adoption in the years before Roe v. Wade (1973). Fessler spares the reader historical fill-in facts and avoids covering the pages with interview-style "Q & As." Instead, she points her recorder in the direction of the women, and lets them talk. Their accounts, spoken candidly and without self-pity, left me with a sense that they had actually sat with me at my table, sipping tea, when not wiping away bitter tears. What makes these stories and, indeed, the entire book so special is the author's personal familiarity with the subject (her own story's reveal comes at the end).
The women recall the moments they first discovered they were pregnant and then relate the shock, disgust and, often, condemnation expressed by their parents after being told the news. Some of these memories include accounts in which the boyfriend or lover of the unwed mother demonstrated a desire to marry his pregnant girlfriend, only to have the request refused by one or both sets of parents.
One woman remembers aloud the afternoon her father arrived home early from work to find his daughter and her boyfriend making love on the rec room floor, and goes on to tell the repercussions.
In most of the accounts, after the girls revealed their pregnancies, they had no choice but to comply with their elders' decisions to send them away. Some of the girls' parents permitted them to live at home until their pregnancies became physically obvious. At some point, however, all of the girls went away to give birth, and returned with empty arms. Once home, parental and societal expectations called for the young women to resume living their lives as though nothing had happened, while enduring placating reassurances that they would have other children some day.
The book is a testament to the closed-minded, "only one way out" system that once existed in the adoption business. It examines adoption workers' dismissive attitudes toward birthmothers who desired to keep their babies, and the persuasive tactics they employed to convince such women to change their minds.
The common themes are many, but none so wrenching as the one in which a birthmother recalls savoring each second with her newborn before he leaves with his new family. One woman recalls going to the nursery to see her baby a few days after giving birth. Instead, she finds the baby's empty cot, a seering visual confirmation of the permanence of adoption and the infinite nature of her loss.
Perhaps the most enduring footprint left behind by the majority of the birthmothers was one that time could not erase: The desire to see their babies again, no matter that those infants had grown up. The mothers go on to explain the decision to enroll in an adoption search registry system, as they relive the nail-biting wait for answers. Although the first reunions of birthmothers and adoptees are not covered in great detail, the author does capture the universal emotions that precede, accompany and occur during the process.
The "Girls who Went Away" answers questions that evidently no one but the birthmothers deemed important enough to ask in the years before 1973. Thankfully, Ann Fessler has pushed those questions out into the spotlight while the courageous women in her book supply all of the answers and more. A compelling, stunning expose' about a formerly exploitative industry and the women who became its unwitting victims.
A Moving, Stunning, Must Read
Posted by Linda on 6/22/2006
In Lois Lowry's young adult science fiction book The Giver, a young girl hopes to receive a birthmother assignment. Her mother's sharp response was, "Lily!...Don't say that. There's very little honor in that Assignment. The birthmothers never even get to see the new children."
Very little honor indeed. I've been a member of the birthmother sisterhood for 30 years. I relinquished my daughter to adoption in 1976, three years after Roe v. Wade. Thankfully I wasn't forced to go away, had a strong say in my decision, and was spared much of the guilt and shame expressed by the courageous, selfless women featured in The Girls Who Went Away. In fact, I received a lot of negative criticism for choosing to have my child. I heard "why didn't you just get rid of it" from "friends" and acquaintances and even the nurse who was in the room when I awoke from the anesthesia. Just try to imagine delivering a baby with no one holding your hand or soothing your brow. There are simply no words for what has to be one of the loneliest, most tragic human experiences. Regardless of the paths traveled by young women faced with a crisis pregnancy, the results are all the same: their lives are dramatically, permanently altered and they all share the same harsh reality--they're childless mothers.
Why revisit such a painful, tragic part of my history? Why let myself get a lump in my throat after reading a few pages? Because I owe it to these women who, some for the very first time, had the courage to speak out and reveal the inhumane treatment they experienced during what should have been the most wonderful moment in their lives. Their stories deserve to be heard, need to be heard. Those unfamiliar with this embarrassing moment of our country's history will be stunned by the punishments that hardly fit the "crimes" of these incredible, tenacious women. In one of my favorite passages,
Yvonne discusses how her whole life has been based on shame: "You hear about people's lives being touched by adoption. It's no damn touch. I mean, that just drives me nuts. You're smashed by adoption. I mean, it alters the mothers' lives forever." I have used the phrase "touched by adoption" regularly over the years, but Yvonne's description is far more accurate. Everyone facing a crisis pregnancy--the ill-prepared mother and father, their parents, siblings, and beyond--are smashed to pieces from the fallout of adoption.
Read it slowly, carefully. The Girls Who Went Away should be required reading for every high school and college student; I'm certain it would help young adults be more thoughtful and mindful about sex. More importantly, The Girls Who Went Away should be read by every single person who is considering creating a family by adoption. While adoption has mercifully become kinder and gentler over the past 25 years or so, it's still not an ideal institution, there's still a great deal of work to be done. It's time of all of us to get our heads out of the sand and work together. Whatever side of the right to life/pro choice fence you sit on, I'm sure you'll rethink your position after meeting the wonderful women of The Girls Who Went Away.
Ann Fessler deserves all the great reviews and high praise she's received for raising awareness and shedding light on this controversial subject; indeed, I hope she's recognized with several awards. Should the reader be interested in futher enlightenment, the movie The Magdalene Sisters is highly recommended.
Posted by Woman Anon on 3/3/2008
Every heart rending story is told by a birth mother who was made to feel ashamed and guilty about her pregnancy before marriage. Most of these young women were coerced into giving their babies up for adoption. These are eye-opening accounts of young women abandoned by their families, lovers and the social systems of the time.