Just finished…

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

This book is excellent. The author is an artist who interviewed a lot of women in the course of making a series of video installation pieces about adoption. I, the qualitative sociologist, am much impressed with the style of the book. Each chapter covers the relevant historical, sociological and related literature in a way that does not overwhelm the interview material but sets it in a wider context. In these chapters there are a lot of longish quotations from the interviews which are always relevant to the overall argument. And then following each chapter there are two long (often 6 pages long) extracts from interviews that are related to that point but really bring it alive through a real, messy, complex story of a real woman. This is the kind of writing more sociologists should be doing. And it is very compelling for those who don’t read a lot of sociology because the focus is on the women’s stories.

The subject is fascinating, the more so for being relatively neglected. These are the stories of birth mothers told 30 or more years after the event of giving birth and surrendering a child. They are not just about that event but also about the life lived afterwards. The author makes no explicit attempt to use this material to comment on current debates about unwed mothers, abortion, adoption or related issues. Her only argument about the meaning of this material in the current era is that we must recognize how emotionally difficult the process of surrendering a child for adoption is and how unwelcoming our society and culture is to telling about this process. The impact of this silencing is profound for the birth mothers but also for others involved in the process. Whatever your views of unwed motherhood, unexpected or unplanned pregnancy, abortion, adoption, etc., after reading this book you would never again be able to say that it would be ‘easy’ for women to just have the baby and give it up for adoption.

For me, with my ongoing interest in the impact of narrow definitions of family on the ability of people to be family for one another, the evidence that a narrow definition of family is actively harmful and produces behavoir which is against everything that ‘family’ is supposed to stand for (like love, care, and particularly unconditional love) is overwhelming. The way that these girls were treated by their parents is particularly troubling. And it is this focus on the one and only one right way to be a family that creates the devastating silence about these women’s experiences and the lack of opportunity for them to talk through their emotions and grieve the loss of their babies.

I highly recommend this book. It is a fascinating read.


3 thoughts on “Just finished…

  1. I think I would love this book, and will search it out. One of the saddest facts is how society in general wishes to not discuss anything “unpleasant” ,and so easily brushes issues like this under the carpet. It is so difficult to heal if everyone around you wants to pretend your ordeal didn’t happen.


  2. I would find this one really difficult. I was adopted at birth in 1951 and met my mother when she was nearly 80 and had dementia, so we weren’t able to talk about how it was for her. She couldn’t understand who I was. SInce her death I am left with only my imaginings about how it must have been for her – she was in her 40s when she got pregnant and went to a home for unmarried mothers, where she would have been surrounded by teenagers. After my birth she had to return almost immediately to a high-powered govt job. I’m sure her story would have been heart-rending if it had ever been told.


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