I’m pretty sure I first heard about this book in a CBR review, but it must have been before we had this domain, because the only other review on the site as of now is expandingbookshelf’s, which is actually the reason I finally picked it up. Anyway, this is one of those times I’m so glad I’m a part of the online book community, because I never would have heard of this book otherwise, and it was a very worthwhile reading experience. I wouldn’t have known what I was missing, of course, but I’m glad I know now.
This book completely changed the way I look at adoption. Completely. Like, that’s not even hyperbole.
The Girls Who Went Away is not a book about adoption, per se. It’s a book about a specific period of time in American history when unprotected sexual activity was increasing, sexual education was non-existent, and cultural attitudes about sex, and specifically sex and young girls, were just about as regressive as you can get. It was unthinkable for an unmarried young woman to have a baby, so girls were sent away to homes for unwed mothers, gave birth, and were oftentimes forcibly separated from their children. Most of them were given absolutely no choice about any of it, and even those who supposedly chose for themselves to surrender their babies, if you can even call a choice between living a potentially “normal,” non-shamed life as a single mother with no support systems versus giving that baby away and getting the chance to have a baby and start over and have more babies “the right way,” a “choice.” There were no choices to be had, there was doing what you were supposed to do, and there was the unthinkable.
The author, Ann Fessler, is herself an adoptee whose mother surrendered her during this period of time, and it was this ultimately that spurred her to launch a decades long project of chronicling the experiences of birth mothers from this time period. The results are somewhat staggering.
I think people who have not surrendered children or been adopted themselves are conditioned to think very, very differently about it than the experience itself sometimes warrants. We have this romantic notion that the birth mother is doing this noble thing for her baby, giving them up so they can live their best lives in homes that can more readily care for them, and that baby will go to a family who maybe can’t have a baby of their own, and will be raised in a loving, supportive environment. That’s best case scenario, and it’s not always reality, but what made me think differently is that even in the best case scenario, that birth mother is most likely going to be feeling the effects of surrendering her child for the rest of her life, and it will affect her in ways too numerous to count.
And this is not a book about the best case scenario.
In fact, the rhetoric surrounding adoption is in full play here, as the homes for unwed mothers made it common practice to beat it into the mothers’ heads that they were doing what was best for their child, that the babies were going to better homes. What they didn’t say, but which was also meant (and very much felt), is that the birth mothers did not deserve to raise their own children. And don’t even tell me that kind of nonsense force fed into your head at one of the most vulnerable times of your life isn’t going to have lasting consequences.
Over and over again, Fessler interviews these women, whose stories are told in first person, and over and over again the same things happen. It gets a bit repetitive after a while, but I firmly believe that’s the point. What Fessler has done in her book is document the very real harm that societal beliefs surrounding sex, marriage and adoption did to the millions of women and children from the 1950s through the late 1970s (yes, millions, at least three million if the statistics are accurate). Each of those womens’ stories, so eerily similar to one another, really just hammer home the points even before Fessler works through her research and analysis.
Of course, all of this pain and consequence is for the women to feel, not the men.
What really surprised me, though, is how these women still felt the affects forty, fifty years later, how giving up that child shaped the rest of their lives into something it never would have been otherwise. Their senses of shame, secrecy, PTSD, their self-worth. I was reminded of a book I read last year, Kate Mulgrew’s memoir Born With Teeth. She gave up a child in the 1970s, and she was the best case scenario, believing her child would have a better life without her, and that her life would be ruined if she kept her baby. She regretted it, and yearned after her daughter for years. It was clear to me while reading that she, like the women in these books, gave up her baby not because she truly thought it the best thing, but because the social pressure and repercussions she would have felt otherwise would have been too much to bear.
This book is a good reminder that things are often much, much more complicated than they seem, and we should be seriously skeptical of all those romantically tinged notions we might have about things that aren’t as black and white as we would like them to be. Certainly we should also realize that sex education is so, so, so important. LIKE SO IMPORTANT. I’m very thankful women aren’t forced to give up their children anymore, but in many ways these issues are still around today. Abstinence only education is still a thing. Women’s reproductive health is still somehow a public issue. We are still so, so messed up about how we talk about sex.
So read this, and pass it on.
(I apologize for the title of this review.)