Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Book Review: The Girls Who Went Away

Fessler A. The girls who went away: the hidden history of women who surrendered children for adoption in the decades before Roe v. Wade. New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2006.

I picked up this book at my local library, intending to review it for this blog, and have thus far read it twice. It is truly one of the most moving texts I've ever read. The author, Ann Fessler, has collected oral histories from numerous American women who were coerced into surrendering their babies for adoption in a pre-Roe era. Their tales are chilling and emotional, providing a clear depiction of the shame they endured and the aftermath of being forced to give up their babies.

In the chapter, Breaking the Silence, Fessler provides the background material to the women's stories. Between 1945 and 1973 (the passage of Roe), sexual activity was fairly common among young men and women, but useful education about sex and pregnancy was scarce, as was access to contraceptives. As a result of the social climate of the time, many young girls were coerced or forced by parents to enter maternity homes and eventually surrender their babies for adoption. It is estimated that between those years, 1.5 million babies were relinquished for nonfamily adoptions.

As the women's stories unfold throughout the text, it becomes clear that the events that took place resulted primarily from the attitudes of schools (most of which immediately expelled pregnant girls), parents (who wanted a way to hide the daughter's "shameful" condition from their own peer group), and social workers (who used coercive methods to secure babies for adoption), rather than choices about the pregnancy made by the girls themselves. The girls themselves interviewed by Fessler often had no voice in their own futures, and no social or familiar support for their impending motherhood. Even when the girls had supportive partners and plans for success, the parents sometimes intervened to sequester the girls at homes against their will. In many cases, the girls were given no information about their rights, and were essentially financially blackmailed into giving away their children. What was done to them was seen as proper punishment for their shameful act of getting caught having sex. The stories directly contradict the myth of the selfish pregnant teenager who surrenders a baby for convenience in order to provide her baby with a better life and a more deserving family. The girls (now women) frequently experienced the relinquishment as a traumatic experience that profoundly shaped the next decades of their lives, explaining that they were never just a "birth mother" or baby incubator, but real mothers whose children were ripped away against their will.

The stories of coercion, shame, lack of education, lack of choice, isolation, loneliness, fear, and long-term effects are truly astounding. Each chapter and woman in Girls deserves its own consideration and review, and the heartbreaking stories cannot be properly encapsulated by this post. I encourage you to read it, and to consider how present-day policies and practices are not simply hypothetical greater good creators, but have real-life effects on real women.

  • The Girls Who Went Away website
  • Amazon
  • Review from blogger Pseudo-Adrienne
  • Discussion of the book on NPR's Fresh Air
  • NYTimes review
  • Commentary from Planned Parenthood
  • Find it in a library near you - enter your location for a list of libraries nearby with this item (it may automatically open with Nashville as the location, just reset to your location)

    Blogger momseekingpeace said...

    Thank you for reviewing this book.
    If there were only one thing I would like to add is that these practises are still going only with a different spin, now a days its called open adoption. Coersion, pressure and all the other issues did not go away with the era.

    You can read about it on my blog, http://peacefullyseeking.blogspot.com/2007/04/another-mother.html

    especially the post titled, Another Mother. There are many links to natural mothers and many adopted people as well as surrogate children.

    Origins USA also has plenty of information on the subject, I always say, if people really knew what was going on in adoption they would be outraged.

    7:29 PM  

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