The Girls Who Went Away, by Ann Fessler

June 7, 2007 at 5:37 pm (Book review)

girls-who-went-away.jpg I have been pushing myself to finish this book so that I could write about it. Naturally, now that the time has come to do so, I’m feeling slightly tongue-tied (digit-tied?). There is so much to say about this subject – so much that astonished and enraged me – that it’s hard to know where to begin. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here is the book’s full title: The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe V. Wade (Penguin Press, 2006).

I always find it interesting when a cause or a passion unexpectedly takes over a person’s life and becomes that person’s raison d’etre. My favorite recent example is David Brown’s work on the life of Tchaikovsky. (Bear with me; this is relevant, in its way.) When asked to write a biography of this composer, Brown had initially declined. But when he was subsequently asked to pen the entry on Tchaikovsky for the latest edition of the prestigious New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, he acceded to the request. He subsequently agreed to produce a single volume study on this subject in the space of four years. But then, says, Brown, “Tchaikovsky himself took over.” One volume became four, four years became sixteen; ultimately, this work became the most extensive and thorough study of the life and works of a Russian composer ever written. (The official Russian reviewer said, “Frankly, we have nothing like it.”) Here are Brown’s own words:

“Never had I realized how fascinating, how complex a man Tchaikovsky was – even more, how great and varied a composer, and just how much of his vast output I simply had not known.”

With Tchaikovsky: the Man and his Music (Pegasus Books, 2007), the single volume version of his magnum opus, David Brown concludes his career as a scholar of music on the most edifying note possible. He has placed this composer in the proper context as one of the true giants of nineteenth century music.


ann-fessler.jpg Anyway – back to Ann Fessler and the writing of The Girls Who Went Away. Fessler teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design and specializes in installation art. For fifteen years, the subject of her work was adoption. (She herself is an adoptee.) Gradually, as an accompaniment to the visual component of her work, she began collecting the stories of those with first hand experience of adoption. Fessler writes: “Although the stories written by adoptive parents and adoptees were very moving, those contributed by the mothers who had surrendered children were so powerful that they transformed my understanding of adoption.”

As she began focusing on women who had given up babies in postwar America, she began to realize that here were stories that had been hidden away for decades. That act of concealment was part of a huge undisclosed, unacknowledged reservoir of anguish. Almost inadvertently, Fessler had discovered a world of pain. She knew immediately that this was a story that needed to be told. That story took over her creative life, just as the story of Tchaikovsky had done with David Brown.

The Girls Who Went Away is actually comprised of not one but many stories; Fessler has wisely chosen to allow the women whose stories they are to speak for themselves. I have to admit – I came of age in the 50’s and ’60’s, and I had no firsthand experience of what these young women went through. In story after story, we see naive, unworldly girls – who had always thought of themselves as “good”girls – vilified, shamed, and abandoned, even – no, especially – by their own parents. Time after time, they are hustled into cars, driven away from their homes and familiar surroundings to be hidden away somewhere out of view until they give birth. Many of these girls had never before been away from home. And as for the experience of pregnancy and birth, many of them were astoundingly ignorant. No one took the trouble to enlighten them. While experiencing labor, some were left completely alone. (They were equally ignorant about sex, conception, and contraception; this willful ignorance, scrupulously maintained by strangely Puritanical families, was one of the prime contributors to this tragedy.)

It was not only the parents who engaged in this shameful abandonment. The boys and young men most directly responsible took virtually no responsibility. Some of them, of course, were the same boys who had recently declared undying love for their girlfriends. Occasionally, there was a boyfriend who stood by the girl he had impregnated, but clearly this was neither expected nor insisted upon. One woman bitterly remembered that while she was waiting out her time in a home for unwed mothers, her boyfriend was facing tough decisions like which record album to buy next!

Perhaps worst of all, though, was the unrelenting pressure on the girls to give up their babies. They were told that the infants would be adopted immediately (often not the case) and that the girls themselves would forget about this regrettable transgression (not to mention the pain and mortification they had brought upon those dearest to them) and go on to marry and have children in the proper setting. There were scenes in this book of young women being presented with papers to sign while they were actually in the throes of labor. Many of them did not know what they were signing. They were never informed of their rights with regard to keeping the child or changing their minds after surrender. Forget how incredibly cruel all of this was; some of it doesn’t even sound legal.

The social workers involved in these scenarios do not come off well. Much of the pressure, misinformation, and disinformation came through them. Apparently, much the same sort of business was going on in Australia at the same time it was going on in this country, and in 1997, the professional organization representing Australian social workers issued a statement that reads in part as follows:

“The Australian Association of Social Workers Ltd (AASW) expresses its extreme regret at the lifelong pain experienced by many women who have relinquished their children for adoption.” The document goes on to acknowledge that “… decisions taken in the past, although based on the best knowledge of the time, and made with the best of intentions, may nevertheless have been fundamentally flawed.” Judging by the sad litany of shattered lives recounted again and again in Ann Fessler’s book, the foregoing is, if anything, a vast understatement.

I had two problems while reading this book. The first is that, as compelling as these stories are, there is a certain sameness to them; by the time I had reached the half way point – the book is some 330 pages long – I found that a certain tedium had set in. (It is, however, definitely worth persevering; the pace does pick up again.) The other problem was that at various intervals, I would feel rage start to boil within me, and the feeling made it virtually impossible to read with the barest pretense of objectivity. These were, after all, women who came of age at the same time I did. They were my friends and classmates. Fessler states that probably everyone from that era knew, or at least knew of, a “girl who went away.” While I can’t summon up a particular name or face from my own youth, I am sure that those girls dwelled among us, my friends and myself. At the time, there was such a thick veil of secrecy drawn over this whole phenomenon, it makes it difficult to summon up specific names or faces from decades past. Finally, I have admit that along with the intense anger, there came a shudder of recognition and fear: I can’t help thinking, that there, but for the Grace of God…

A big part of Fessler’s purpose in writing this book was to shine the light of day on these women and their past lives, to bring them out of that realm of shadows and give them a chance to be heard and known by the rest of us. Was any kind of redemption ever experienced by these bereft mothers? Yes – when they were re-united with the (adult) children they had given up at birth. Yet even these stories were often fraught with anxiety. These tentative new relationships could take a while to reach a level of relative comfort for all those involved; some never did. And yet these stories are for the most part happy ones, and the reunion of mother and child after so long an absence was often a joyous event. And finally, this is where the basic goodness of the people touched by these events had a chance to emerge. In particular, many adoptive parents were generous and supportive of this most urgent and fundamental quest for the truth about their children’s lives.

I admit that I’m a bit surprised that this book did not generate more attention when it was published last year. Why was it not more widely reviewed? I read book reviews all the time, yet I had not heard of The Girls Who Went Away until a friend recommended it to me. Okay, this is a pain-filled book and people naturally desire to avoid pain. Possibly potential readers also felt that these stories had nothing to do with them. Ah, but they do. I think of Linda Loman toward the end of Death of a Saleman crying out, “Attention must be paid!” Indeed.

1 Comment

  1. An occasion for celebrating books, with a poignant aftermath « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Nonfiction in a class by itself: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler […]

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