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
The Penguin Press, 2006

Reviewed by Barbara Free

     This book is based on the author’s interviews with many birth mothers who relinquished children between 1945 (the end of World War II) and 1973 (the year the of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade). It especially focuses on those women who “went away” to so-called “homes” for unwed mothers or to relatives. Although the “cover” story often was that the girl had “gone to an aunt’s,” in some cases that part was actually true.
     Prior to doing the research for this book, the author, who is an adoptee, had not seriously attempted to find her own birth mother, although she had found an uncle some years previously. She is, in fact, a second-generation adoptee—her adoptive mother was also adopted. At the time she found the uncle, she had her birth mother’s name, birth place, and address at the time the author was born, and had found a yearbook picture. That was in 1989.
     She began the interviews in 2002, after being drawn to some art exhibits dealing with adoption. The book has many extensive excerpts from the interviews. Readers, particularly birth mothers who relinquished during those years, will find that the women’s stories may echo their own memories. This may be painful for some, but certainly will be affirming in many ways, as they reflect how different society was at that time, compared to current options for young women who get pregnant.
     Quoting the book, “The girls who went away were told by family members, social-service agencies, and clergy that relinquishing their child for adoption was the only acceptable option. It would preserve their reputation and save both mother and child from a lifetime of shame. Often it was clear to everyone, except the expectant mother, that adoption was the answer. Many of these girls, even those in their twenties, had no other option than to go along with their families or risk being permanently ostracized. For them there was generally little or no discussion before their parents sent them away. Those who went to maternity homes to wait out their pregnancies often received little counseling and were totally unprepared for either childbirth or relinquishment. They were simply told they must surrender their child, keep their secret, move on, and forget. Though moving on and forgetting proved impossible, many women were shamed into keeping their secret.”
     The author states, “If you are a woman over fifty who had sex before marriage, you are one of the so-called bad girls. I would put myself squarely in that category. The only difference between me and the women whose stories appear here is that I didn’t get caught. These women and I were certainly not alone in our badness.”
     She also discusses, although briefly, the consequences for birth fathers. There is still very little written about, or by, birth fathers.
     One of the women interviewed stated, “You asked about the pain of the reunion. My son didn’t cause the pain when he came back. He has never been the cause of any of my pain. The pain was always there—it just came out in the reunion. I was still burying that. If it hadn’t been the reunion, there could have been something else in my life that would have broken it loose. I’ve always thought f ran /the instant I knew I was pregnant that he was innocent in all of this.” Many of the other women expressed similar feelings.
     This book is recommended reading for all parts of the adoption triad. It is very important information for adult adoptees born during those years, or even before or after, to learn not only what birth mothers went through, but how families and society looked at pregnancy and relinquishment in those times.
     For adoptive parents, it is necessary information, even today, that will help them see the birth mothers’ perspectives. For birth mothers, and also for birth fathers, reading this book may bring back painful memories, but even those can be affirming—sometimes a birth parent questions their own memories, especially when people now say “Why couldn’t you have found a way to keep your child?”
     Interestingly, the author did finally contact her birth mother and they have contact through e-mail, but still had not met in person at the time of the book’s publication. One wonders why, but that is not the focus of the book. Although it may be tempting to skip around in the book to read the various stories, it is more helpful to just sit down and read it, front to back, and let the women tell their stories. The reader needs to just listen and learn.

About the Author

     Ann Fessler, a visual artist and professor at Rhode Island School of Design, has worked over the past 20 years in interactive video-and-sound installations, photography, and artists’ books, using storytelling to explore issues of family, identity, and gender inequities. Since 1990, Fessler has created four installations on adoption: “Genetics Lesson” (1990), “Ex/Changing Families” (1996; in collaboration with Carol Flax) and “Cliff and Hazel” (1999), a humorous film portrait of adoptive parents.
     Her latest project, “Everlasting,” is based on oral-history interviews that she conducted with women who surrendered children for adoption between World War II and the passage of Roe v. Wade.

Excerpted from the July 2007 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2007 Operation Identity