No matter what I say about this book, it won’t be enough. It would be a lot quicker for me to just tell you to read it for yourself, but in this review I will try my best to explain why.
Adoption and abortion
I sought out 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 in an attempt to gather a pro-choice reading list. But despite having the words “Roe v. Wade” in the title, The Girls Who Went Away doesn’t really talk about abortion at all, and it doesn’t have any pro-choice arguments in it. Interestingly, I didn’t come away feeling like abortion legislation is necessarily the solution to these women’s specific problems. This is nevertheless one of the most powerful books you could read on reproductive justice and a woman’s right to choose what becomes of her body and her babies.
If you think about adoption, what comes to mind? Maybe you think of an adopted person, an adoptive parent, or how adoption is the perfect solution for people with unwanted pregnancies. Even recently, until reading The Girls Who Went Away, I could still sometimes see the appeal of someone saying, “I know pregnancy is hard, but just carry your child to term and give it up for adoption. You’re saving a life and after it’s gone you can go on with life as if it never happened.”
This book shatters that argument. It shows that it is an unequivocal lie. The only way someone could think of adoption as a “solution” for a pregnant person is to have never heard the stories of any of the million-and-a-half-women who did the only thing they were allowed to do in the years between World War II and Roe v. Wade.
The girls who went away
The book contains nine chapters examining the social context surrounding sex, family status, maternity homes, and more in the fifties and sixties. Following each chapter is the written-out version of the adoption story of a birth mother that Fessler interviewed. Those stories will wreck you.
There are 18 stories in full as well as excerpts included within the chapters themselves. The stories are only repetitive in that almost every single woman’s problem stems from the same unfair societal issues, but each one is heart-wrenching and unique.
The girls were almost all teenagers. I think the youngest in the book was 14 and the oldest was around 22. Largely due to the culture in high schools at the time, unprotected sex was rampant and often happened in the backseats of their cool boyfriends’ cool cars. When they realized that they had missed periods, the girls tried to deny their pregnancies for as long as they could since it would essentially end their lives—socially, romantically, at school, and at home.
As soon as they began showing, their parents usually shipped them off to a maternity home so no prying neighbors would find out that their daughter was a “slut” or a “whore” carrying a “bastard child.” This would ruin the family’s reputation, and I can’t stress enough how paramount your family’s reputation around town was in those days. It was everything.
Most of the girls hated the maternity homes, which were filled with heartless social workers and nuns who constantly told them, “You’re not good enough to keep this baby. It would be so selfish of you to keep it. The right thing to do is to give this baby a chance with good married parents with a house and an income.” They were often not told their legal rights and were coerced into signing things they didn’t understand.
Throughout their time at the homes, the girls were given no preparation for labor. When the time came, they had no idea what it would entail. The girls were often humiliated; they were shaved and given enemas with no warning. They labored alone, usually unmedicated, and when the time came to push many of them were knocked out so that they would have no memory of the birth at all. When some of them awoke the baby was already gone.
I’ve never been pregnant or given birth, but I know that it gives the birth parent the most indescribable rush of love and the need to touch and hold their baby. Teen moms are absolutely no exception to this rule. In the very first story of the book, the narrator, Dorothy, recalls what happened when she first saw the baby that she never intended to have:
[My friend] said to me, “Dottie, I have one bit of advice for you before they bring her: don’t get attached.” I said, “Oh, I won’t. I just wanna see her and count her toes and make sure she’s okay.” I was always a kind of brave kid, and thought, “I can do this.”
Well, when they brought her I wasn’t prepared. All that pain and all those months of waiting were nothing compared to what I felt when they put her in my arms. When I saw her for the first time, I knew what real love really was. And I’ve never been the same since that moment. I remember her cuddling up against my neck, and I held her as close as I could, and the feeling of her little face just nuzzling my neck, and I thought, “Oh my God, it’s a real, live person.” And I loved her so much. I thought I loved my mother, I thought I loved my friends, I thought I loved Mick Jagger, but this was something else. This was like looking at another version of myself. I never thought you could feel like that in the whole world. And then I wondered, “What am I supposed to do now?”Dorothy
The reader starts to realize that it’s ridiculous and cruel for anyone to ever expect a mother to just forget about her baby and move on. Some of the girls were literally told they wouldn’t worry about it once they had more children later on. Well, not one of them did and it ruined their lives. A day never went by for a single one of them that wasn’t filled with yearning for their children. Most of them suffered from PTSD, feelings of worthlessness and loneliness, or they found themselves in abusive relationships, overworked themselves or were overly protective of subsequent children. Some never had more children at all because it felt like they would be betraying their first.
Here is what some of the the women said regarding the lifelong pain that comes with surrendering a child. Keep in mind that the interviews happened up to fifty years after the adoptions.
I was defective and I was substandard and I have spent thirty-six years of my life trying to be the perfect mother, the perfect person, the perfect woman, the perfect employee, and the perfect wife.
. . . Instead of always pushing adoption as this loving, wonderful, rescuing thing. Yes, that may be the case for people who adopt. It is not the case for us. You never are whole. Never. It’s a hugely damaging thing. It’s an enormously injuring, painful, fracturing amputation of families.
. . . We were not criminals. We’re mothers. The difference was I was not an authenticated mother. I was an illegal mother. I was a denied mother. And I had to come home and live my life after being robbed of my child. It’s as if I was an unwilling accomplice to the kidnapping of my own child. So you have to live with the trauma of losing your child and then you have to live with the trauma of knowing you didn’t stop it. How do you do that?Karen
I thought, “I’m going to put it behind me, like it didn’t happen.” Like I had a lobotomy and I could cut off the memory. That didn’t happen.
I had moments when I wanted to cancel this interview because I’m reliving this. Why do I want to bring this up fresh in my mind? I thought, “Okay, I’m going to do my two, three house and then I’m going to push it back again and go ahead.” But I’m lying to myself now, just like I lied to myself then. I didn’t deal with my pregnancy. I never dealt with the fact that I was growing a baby I would have to relinquish.Sheryl
I’m sure there are women who suppress the experience, but I don’t think it ever goes away. There is not a day since I was fifteen years old that I haven’t thought about him. I will live with this for the rest of my life. Criminals sometimes get a life sentence and that’s what I feel like I got. I think that’s what people don’t understand. The expectation is that you will get over it. I will never have peace. I will never have peace.Pam
You hear about people’s lives being touched by adoption. It’s no damn touch. I mean, that just drives me nuts. You’re smashed by adoption. I mean, it alters the mothers’ lives forever.Yvonne
Is it her fault?
There are two rebuttals I can hear regarding these women’s stories. The first is, in the words of one woman’s doctor, “Listen, you got yourself into this. If you would have kept your legs together, we wouldn’t be doing this now.” Some may argue that while it’s harsh, pregnancy is the consequence of sex. And more specifically, relinquishment is the punishment for teen sex. Yes, sex can lead to pregnancy and I can see why someone might think it’s logical, if uncompassionate, to simply blame the women for her own suffering.
The thing is, pregnancy does not have to be the consequence of sex in a world where contraception exists. It just doesn’t. Even when these women were getting pregnant in the fifties and sixties, there was birth control and there were condoms. There was just such a stigma around teen sex that it was unheard of for anyone to have them. So many teens were sexually active in private but it was still taboo to talk about it with friends, and you would never, ever tell your parents. Not to mention that many women didn’t understand that sex actually, really could lead to pregnancy—even on your first time, which it was for several of them—and many trusted their boyfriends who promised to just pull out or “be careful.”
In this sense, pregnancy wasn’t the consequence of sex due to nature but a punishment for sex due to a society that wouldn’t allow it. Reputation, social status, and “not being a slut”—or not having a daughter who’s a slut—mattered more than reproductive health, safety, consent, or really anything else pertaining to the health or well-being of young women.
I was lucky enough to begin my sexual life in a time when contraception was available and with a man that knew it was a necessary part of being sexually active. Because of this lucky timing, I have literally never had unprotected sex and have never had to worry about being pregnant. Unwanted pregnancies simply are not the necessary natural result of sex. Knowledge of contraception and familiarity with their own bodies, and what their bodies were capable of, were deliberately withheld from these women and their boyfriends. If society had cared about them, all of that pain could have been avoided.
Is abortion the only solution?
The second rebuttal is that obviously, abortion would not have fixed these women’s pain. Not one of them wished they had never had their babies. They only regretted giving their babies up. (In retrospect, they felt that they should have fought harder to keep their children, forgetting that at the time they had literally no voice, no choice, and no power over the adults forcing them to relinquish their children.) Then again, abortion is likely much less painful than a lifetime of heartbreak knowing that someone else has your baby.
It’s hard to convince others about the depth of it. You know, a few years ago after I was married I became pregnant and had an abortion. It was not a wonderful experience, but every time I hear stories or articles or essays about the recurring trauma of abortion, I want to say, “You don’t have a clue.” I’ve experienced both and I’d have an abortion any day of the week before I would ever have another adoption—or lose a kid in the woods, which is basically what it is. You know your child is out there somewhere, you just don’t know where. It’s bad enough as a mother to know he might need you, but to complicate that they make a law that says even if he does need you we’re not going to tell him where you are.Nancy
Obviously in that time abortion was illegal and dangerous. In the few times it was mentioned in the book, the women simply said, “It’s just not something you do.” The fact that they were to carry to term only to give their children up was assumed from the start. Some were even independent and had plans in place to keep their children only to be told they shouldn’t, or they were financially manipulated into giving it up.
What does pro-choice mean?
Even if these women wouldn’t have opted for abortions, there is something they have in common with those of us in the pro-choice movement: they know that women need choices. Terms like “pro-choice,” “women’s autonomy,” and “reproductive rights” shouldn’t just refer to a woman’s right to choose to end her pregnancy. It should mean her choice to get pregnant in the first place and every step of the way after. Several of the women in the book were coerced into having sex, and some were even date-raped. Certainly none of them had any idea what consent was. Sex was just something women give to men, or that you have if you want to be cool, or that you owe to the popular football player with his sleek car.
When someone does get pregnant, there should be as many options available to them as possible. The more options mean the more likely it is that they can choose the best course of action for their family. That choice could be abortion, adoption, stay-at-home parenting, single parenting, co-parenting, outside childcare, multigenerational parenting, a nanny, or any number of other routes. When people do not have autonomy over their wombs and families, it does not just hurt them irrevocably. It harms us all.