July 14th, 2007
I just finished reading 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, and I have to say I’m impressed.
I love reading books that challenge me, that show me something I haven’t seen before. Like a lot of people (I would assume, anyway), I thought that girls who got pregnant and “went away” and “gave” their babies away were relieved to have that “burden” off their hands. I assumed that giving up their babies for adoption would give them a better life and give their babies a better life.
The writer herself also surprised me, because I’m prejudiced against artist types. I tend to expect artists to be dumb, but Ann Fessler is an intelligent, engaging, coherent, and logical writer. The only beef I have with the book is the title (perhaps the fault of the publisher and not Fessler)—in the decades before Roe v. Wade seems to imply that these women should have had the right to an abortion. I happen to personally believe they should have that right, but all the evidence in the book (both Fessler’s examination of historical statistics and the women’s personal narratives) suggests that these women would more than anything have wanted either proper sex education (birth control… even just the “facts of life” about how one gets pregnant) or single motherhood (the option to keep the baby). Only one person mentioned abortion and said it was traumatic but less traumatic than having your baby forcibly taken away from you.
The book made me realize women can get extremely attached to their babies even when they haven’t seen them, being forced to give away your baby affects your entire life, and people who forced women to give up their babies were generally well-intentioned or themselves felt powerless to social forces (fear of being ostracized, being labeled a communist, losing a job). I was amazed at how little sex education there was in the 50s (and even 60s), how the shame of getting knocked up and the shame of giving up your baby can haunt you decades later, how women desperately loved their babies even when those babies were the result of rape. Most of all, I was amazed at how much I sympathized with these women when I heard their stories. Yes, you could have called a lot of them stupid or ignorant, but if you have any heart when reading their stories, you have to at least understand how they feel and feel for them.
I don’t know what it is about adoption triad (birth parents, adoptee, adoptive parents) stories, but I get all choked up inside about them. I had the same reaction to the Bonnie Hunt movie Loggerheads.