BIG IDEAS
BOOKS
 
CIVIL PLEASURES
 
RESPECTABILITY
 
PARKS & RECREATION
 

Ann Fessler's Adoption Bombshell: The Girls Who Went Away

"Adoption" is now a subcategory of the Daily Blague's archives - you'll find it under "Yorkville High Street," which is where I shunt everything of a remotely personal nature. If this development had been foretold to me a year ago, in some miraculous vision, I'd have been bewildered. Searching into my origins was something that I'd long ago decided not to do. And nothing has happened to change the feelings on which that decision was based. I still have no real desire to know the people whose conjunction produced me.

But since Ann Fessler's The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v Wade (Penguin, 2006) came into my life, my desires have taken a distinct back seat to a mounting sense of obligation. Now I must do everything in my power to put an end to the anxieties of the woman who bore me and who was, almost certainly, not allowed to keep me. It is possible that she has put me out of her mind as an unhappy chapter. That's what the social workers in the adoption racket would like us all to believe. If she managed to do that, then I'm honestly happy for her - worrying about me has not been a part of her life for nearly sixty years. But if she's like any of the moms whom Ann Fessler interviewed for The Girls Who Went Away, she may have tried to put me out of her mind, but she has never been able to pull it off.

Three Daily Blague entries mention this remarkable book already. It first came up in June, in the course of business, when it was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, and I completely declined to assess Kathryn Harrison's review in favor of making my own remarks, rehashing my old, "not interested" position on adoption clear. And yet I began the paragraph by stating that I'd already ordered the book. On Independence Day, I wrote about the change that it had wrought in my thinking. And then, two days later, I mumbled an apology for not having started sooner, laying out the reasons why I'd thought it would be a bad idea to seek reunion. Then, nothing happened for over a month. It was a glitch involving the safe deposit box, where the papers that I'd been given after my father died were parked. The glitch was resolved  in the middle of August, and a week later I received a form to fill out. I fiddled with it last week, writing my answers in pencil on a copy so that Kathleen's kind secretary could type them onto the actual form. (I have an electric typewriter in a box somewhere, but I never use it, and the form was way too hot an item for me to type competently.) My first move was completed yesterday, with the mailing of the form and the attachments.

Well, you've heard much of this before. I rehearse it because, all that time, The Girls Who Went Away has sat on my desk, waiting to be written up. But I felt that I couldn't write about it until I'd taken some meaningful action. That inhibition has a lot to do with why I probably won't write about a very remarkable book at any great length. It deserves all the publicity it ought to have, but there remains a very serious question: who ought to be reading this book? Members of the general public? Perhaps someday. If many general readers read The Girls Who Went Away, then state statutes sealing birth records might be superseded by reunion-friendly legislation in a very short time. And perhaps that wouldn't be the best thing in the world. Giving either the birth parent or the adopted child the unilateral right to find things out would, once again, only be a good idea if everyone had this book under his or her belt. I certainly shouldn't have liked an unexpected telephone call from my birth mother if I hadn't known what Ann Fessler has told me; and now that she has told me, I hope that the call won't be unexpected.

So, again, who's supposed to read this book? Anybody connected with an adoption, certainly. That's really the "review" part of this page. If you were adopted, or if you found out that your mother gave up a child for adoption before you came along (the two most common children's scenario), then you must read this book. It will outline, by chapters that amount to Stations of the Cross, the steps of agony that a young woman without resources would have been forced to follow, between finding out that she was pregnant and signing the surrender papers. Each of these steps came to be polished with practice, so that women everywhere in the system had the same gruesome experience.

We'll run through the chapter headings:

"Breaking the Silence." This preliminary chapter is about what the book is doing, getting birth mothers to talk about what they were told never to discuss.

"Good Girls v Bad Girls." Bad girls got pregnant and got caught - it was that simple. They were not sluts by any means. They were unlucky.

"Discovery and Shame." Most unintentionally pregnant girls got married. For those who didn't, for those who had to tell their parents that they were going to be unwed mothers, the shame simply multiplied the "bad girl" effect.

"The Family's Fears." For affluent girls, unwanted pregnancy was not a problem. (Duh.) Families further down the socioeconomic ladder had a much more tenuous hold on respectability and reputation. It was far more important for them not to be "exposed" by their daughters' mistakes.

"Going Away." So they shipped their daughters away, to "show" somewhere else, somewhere institutional and hidden. (No wonder I liked Dracula movies when I was a kid. I gestated in one of them!) The trip was usually unexpectedly traumatic for the girls.

"Birth and Surrender." This is what I call the Sophie's Choice chapter. The most revolting detail: whenever a mother would try to change her decision and brave all the social opprobrium that she'd be up against at home, the maternity home officials would tell her - and this was baseless - that, if she did not surrender her infant, she'd be liable for room and board charges that she probably couldn't afford. All for the better good.

"The Aftermath." Anomie with a vengeance. "Women who said they never entertained the idea of parenting at the time of their surrender often described the same lifelong grief as those who fought to bring their baby home."

"Search and Reunion." I'll comment on this chapter when I can speak from experience.

"Talking and Listening." There is much to be learned still. This chapter contains a lot of mail that Ms Kessler received in response to the installations that preceded the book. (In a word: RISDE.) 

Every chapter consists of a dry analysis of researched facts, written by Ms Kessler, followed by several testimonies by surrendering mothers.

(Paragraph of silence.)

I can't truly object to adoption itself. The what-if questions are all foolish. It's true that more than a few birth mothers were appalled to find out that their babies had grown up in worse environments, notwithstanding rosy, boilderplate assertions that adoption was always best for the child. But it probably didn't hurt most kids materially. What hurt was the pretense, the "passing." My sister and I were sat down when I was seven and she was five - five years old! - and told that we were "adopted." (I think that it was on that night that I discovered the problematics, if not the actual mechanics, of sex, although of course sex was never mentioned.) The idea was to tell us before the neighbor's kids did, as if we lived in that kind of neighborhood. Our adoptive parents loved us! They had chosen us! It was 1955, and I swear to God I felt like something on sale at FAO Schwarz. I also felt that I'd better not break.

(Actually, they probably hadn't chosen us. They'd chosen to take what they were given. The New York Foundling Hospital had undoubtedly done its best to match us up, and in my case with great success. Yes! There are still friends who believe that I am my adoptive father's love child. But if there was one laugh to be gotten out of The Girls Who Went Away, it was the preposterousness of that rather pleasant notion. I would not mind being a real Keefe, and I'm sorry that I never got to share the idea with Dad, with whom, it's true, I came to feel a real kinship in his later years.

Ann Fessler's book is a corrective for anyone brought up on the Kool-Aid of "passing" adoptions. Because I needed that corrective (not that I didn't already know that "passing" was a mistake), I'm obviously not the right person to give it an objective review. I found The Girls Who Went Away to combine very high levels of both lucidity and passion, ordinarily uncongenial elements. Ms Fessler, whose crowning chapter retails the reunion that she had with her own birth mother, after all the interviewing that she'd done and because of what the other moms had told her, was literally born to write this book. My shame is: so was I. (September 2006)

Permalink | Portico

Copyright (c) 2006 Pourover Press

Write to me