Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade (reviewed December 2007)

The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade, Ann Fessler (2006) [*****]. A wise friend and mentor recently noted that we read books with other people even when they don't know we're doing it. This is a book I was very much reading with my son Micah's mother Crystal, even though I have never met her (she and Micah's father have chosen to keep our adoption closed). This book does not tell Crystal's story, that of a young Black woman in a large northeastern city who is working hard to overcome a childhood of poverty and neglect, who finds herself pregnant with her third child, and who decides to place him for adoption. Instead, this book tells the story of mostly middle class or solidly working class white girls, from "good," all-American families, who found themselves pregnant in the decades after WWII, and who, in pretty dramatic numbers, were forced to surrender their babies for adoption. I was initially disturbed that this book seemed only to tell the story of white, middle class women, but as Fessler points out, poor women and women of color in the same decades had a very different story. Their rates of out-of-wedlock pregnancy were not so different, but their rates of placement were dramatically lower. Fessler argues that the social pressure to conform and to hold on to the class gains so many white families made during the decades just after WWII led to their high rates of placement, whereas the families of poor women had much less to lose, socially speaking, and African American communities had (and continue to have) an informal and much more open system of intra-family adoption. Even so, while reading this book, I couldn't help wondering even more intensely than I normally do how Crystal is doing, and whether she shares some part of the anguish at having placed a child for adoption told so consistently by the mothers interviewed by Fessler. The stories told in this book are heart-wrenching. Fessler is an adoptee herself, and the book is framed by her own search for and reunion with her mother. In the years between her initial search and their ultimate meeting, Fessler interviewed hundreds of mothers for this project, and the book is largely told in their voices. Fessler fills in with well-researched and documented analysis of the historical, social and psychological context. Fessler acknowledges that the women who chose to be interviewed were a self-selecting group who were willing to tell their stories, but it was nonetheless remarkable how similar they are. I cried through the first part of the book, and just felt numb by the end. Typically the girls were woefully undereducated about sex and the risks of pregnancy, and they had no access to birth control. When they found themselves pregnant, they were overcome with shame, as were their families, who often treated them harshly. Without the option of abortion (which many rich families had access to, so this book doesn't tell their story either), the next best option in the eyes of the families was to hide the pregnancy, place the baby for adoption, and pretend the whole thing had never happened. Most of the girls were sent to homes for unwed mothers, where the girls were counseled that they were neither able, nor did they deserve, to keep their babies. Most of the girls had no idea what to expect when they went into labor, and often were dropped off by themselves at the front doors of the hospital. They were, to their horror and with no explanation, often given an enema and shaved, and then left alone to labor. Sometimes they were allowed to hold their babies, but often not. A few days later, their parents would take them home, and literally not a word was ever spoken about their experiences or their babies ever again. The only counseling they received was the advice to "forget, put this behind you, get on with your life." But of course, most of them were irrevocably changed, and the shame, loss, grief and secrecy followed them throughout their lives, only mitigated by reunion with their adult children. This book is an important part of giving these women a voice and of exposing the lie that they were unfit mothers who didn't love their babies enough to keep them, or that they considered them a burden and willingly "gave them up." In a time when women's choices regarding their reproductive lives are still tenuous at best (including the choices of mothers who place their babies for adoption today, as coercion and ugly stereotypes of birth mothers still run rampant in the adoption industry), it is important to understand that these women really had no choices at all. For telling those stories and telling them well, I give this book five stars. I do wonder how the stories were edited, because not only the details but also the voice of most of the stories were remarkably similar; I would have liked to hear them in a more raw, less edited version. I also wondered at times if the book couldn't have been a bit tighter (recalling Gordon and Mary-Anne's critique in a recent review that an author oughtn't keep telling a story over and over just because she has the data). But I would far rather have these stories over-told than not told at all, so I highly recommend the book to anyone touched

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