Canadian Council of Natural Mothers' Library

Children lost and found

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

Penguin Press, 354 pages, $32.50

The Girls Who Went Away could have been called The Babies Who Were Taken Away. An astounding one and a half million newborn babies were given up for adoption in the United States between the end of the Second World War, in 1945, and 1973, when abortion was legalized. It happened in Canada, too, and it is estimated the number is more than 100,000.

Behind those infants are flesh-and-blood natural mothers who suffered their loss and grief in silence. Every woman who has ever given birth or raised and nurtured a child will understand the lifelong torment suffered by these women. And for adoptees who believe their mothers gave them away because they didn't want them, this book will leave no doubt about just how very much they were loved and wanted.

Ann Fessler is a U.S. video-installation artist who is also an adoptee. She had not sought out her birth mother because she didn't want to invade her privacy. That is, until one day she met a woman by chance in an art gallery, and they briefly thought they might be mother and daughter. When they discovered they weren't a match, the woman said, "You should find her. She probably worries every day about what happened to you."

Fessler had never thought about adoption from the birth mother's point of view. This conversation motivated her to seek out her own mother and to find out what it was like for young unmarried women to surrender their babies. She recorded the oral histories of more than 100 women, across the United States, who relinquished their babies in their youth.

This is a well-researched and mesmerizing book which provides great insight into the mixed messages of that era and gives voice to women who have quietly suffered lifetimes of grief and shame. These are the stories of white, middle-class, "good" girls, caught in a web of hypocrisy and rendered powerless and invisible. They ceased to be beloved daughters and instead became objects of shame. Compassion went out the window at a time when upward mobility meant everything. Families believed they could be ruined by "what the neighbours thought."

Common themes running through each story are denial, shock, shame, fear and a lifetime of rage and guilt. Attitudes about premarital sex were changing, but unwed motherhood was still considered scandalous -- something that only happened to "bad" and "low-class" girls. Birth control and abortion were illegal, and sex education was unheard of. The young men in question were let off the hook and went on with their lives. Some boys did try to stick by the girls, but more often they just dumped them. One had several of his friends say they, too, had sex with his girlfriend so he wouldn't have to marry her.

In the meantime, the girls were kicked out of school and shunted off to religion-based "homes," where they were hidden away until they gave birth and then coerced or even forced into giving up their babies. They received no counselling except a promise that they could return to a normal life at home and school, and to forget they ever had a baby.

But of course, they didn't forget. One of Fessler's interviewees, Diane, goes to the heart of it: "People talk about the worst thing that could happen to you is to lose a child. And no one talks about that in terms of a birth mother. . . . Why should it be any different? It's in your cells, and in your guts, and in your consciousness, and in your heart." Another, Karen, says, "It's as if I was the unwilling accomplice to the kidnapping of my own child."

In the second part of the book, Fessler outlines U.S. adoption-disclosure laws, which vary from state to state. As in Canada, the laws are uneven. "Coming out of the closet" and finding their children mercifully helped these women to deal with their unresolved regret and sadness. However, it is clear that no amount of letting go of shame and coming clean to families can ever set them completely free.

Here is Christine, who received a picture in the mail of her adult daughter as a three-month-old baby. "I can't describe the sound that came out of me. . . . It was not crying. . . . It was like a wounded animal. It scared me. I hadn't cried all these years, but looking at the pictures burst the dam. . . . The reunion unlocked it, but the pictures really burst it wide open. . . . One day when we were together I said, 'I wish I could put you back in here and start all over again. . .' And that's the loss. You can't get it back."

I am one of those girls who went away. (I hid out in an apartment in a little town where nobody knew me.) Until I found my son, when he was 28, I looked for him on every street corner and lit candles on his birthdays. So it is not surprising that I was riveted by each story. We birth mothers are always looking for links to our own experiences, and that's why we breathe every word into our pores and weep as we read. But readers who are not part of the adoption constellation will weep along with us, for the raw, wounded voices of these women makes the book compelling.

This wonderful book is jam-packed with honesty, passion and occasional flashes of humour. I have only one complaint. The stigmatization of female sexuality runs through it because all of the girls interviewed were innocents who were having sex for the first time. I doubt if it was Fessler's intention, but it does seem to give us permission to sympathize with them and forgive them because they really were "good" girls after all.

The backdrop to The Girls Who Went Away cannot be ignored. The current Bush administration is systematically taking away choice for women, making it harder for young people to get birth control and promoting "abstinence only" education, despite the fact that teens and unmarried students are more sexually active than ever. In Canada, Stephen Harper so far has taken a hands-off approach to a woman's right to choose and access to birth control, but there are both federal and provincial private members' bills that, if passed, would limit those rights.

So beware. We could still, tragically, return to the days when girls were sent away.

Marilyn Churley is a former Ontario Member of Parliament and a reunited birth mother. She is writing a book that tells her personal story and her successful attempts to change the adoption laws in Ontario.

Marilyn Churley's review was posted in the Globe and Mail, July 15, 2006.

© The Canadian Council of Natural Mothers