The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler

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Personal Note: When I started to read The Girls Who Went Way, my thoughts flew back 53 years ago to my high school graduation in 1955. A classmate with the highest standing in the commercial track (I will call her Rita) walked down the auditorium aisle in her graduation robe, its fullness unable to hide her advanced pregnancy. How she managed to remain in school boggles my mind, since girls of my generation who became pregnant “out-of-wedlock” were not allowed to continue their education in the classroom. No one said a word, and to this day, I wonder how Rita was able to hold up her head and walk down the aisle amidst the hush as she passed each row.

Author Ann Fessler, whose adoptive mother was also adopted, explains the strict mores surrounding unwed mothers in the years after World War II (1945) and before Roe v. Wade in 1973, which legalized abortion. Interspersed between Ann Fessler’s excellent descriptions of the cultural concepts concerning this issue of non-marital pregnancies, are heartbreaking stories of the more than 100 interviews conducted by the author. (The lack of access to birth control on the one hand, and the absence of sex education in schools or at home are like bookends on this subject.)

Below are just a few of the quotes from the interviews. Their stories (many of which brought tears to my eyes) show that the women Ann interviewed (as older women) were not only unprepared for childbirth and relinquishment of their babies; they were also given little or no counseling to deal with the emotional backlash of surrendering their own child, the experience of the birth itself, and what to expect from the maternity home where they were “confined” (read: hidden away) until they gave birth. As the author notes, “They were simply told they must surrender their child, keep their secret, move on, and forget.” Many kept their secret for decades, some moved on successfully, but not one mother forgot. Many went through life feeling not good enough or not deserving of happiness.

I never felt I gave my baby away. I always felt that my daughter was taken from me. Pollie (p. 12)
When I saw her for the first time, I knew what real love really was. And I’ve never been the same from that moment. Dorothy II (p. 20)
I mean it’s borderline abuse not to share this kind of information. I mean, as amazing as it sounds, I was sixteen and did not know how babies were born. Nancy I (p. 49)
It was like being sent to a war zone. (referring to the maternity home. ES) Claudia (p. 57)
But deep down I was feeling all this shame and all this pain and loss and sadness.I lived with the pain and it was never really expressed. Marge (p. 83)
It’s as if part of you went away when that happened. Ann (p. 207)

Note: I chose this last quote because it has the same two words from the title: “went away.” I feel that these girls not only went away physically to give birth and then surrender their babies; they also went away emotionally, keeping their feelings of shame and sadness inside most of their adult lives.

Fortunately, many of these women were found by their adult children or the mother herself searched for her child. While not all reunions were perfect, most did bring relief/closure to both parties, the birth mother and her child adopted by someone else.

The Girls Who Went Away is compelling reading. It belongs in every women’s studies curriculum and in every library, and hopefully on your own bookshelf. Thank you, Ann Fessler, for your courage in sharing your own adoption story, in providing the well-researched information, and publishing the stories of all the women during this 28-year disturbing period in our history. Hopefully, they can truly celebrate Mother’s Day without guilt or unresolved sadness.

The book is published by Penguin Books and is readily available in book stores and online. The paperback version costs $15.00 and is worth every dollar!

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