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The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe V. Wade [Hardcover]

Ann Fessler

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MY MOTHER TOLD ME that on my first three birthdays she lit a special candle on my cake for the young woman who had given birth to me. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.7 out of 5 stars  201 reviews
58 of 59 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars History of Adoption Issues 2 Oct 2007
By Ingraham Thompson - Published on
This book was recommended to me by one of the subjects within. As I am an adoptee who was surrendered in the mid 1960's I found the books revelations both informative and unsettling. I had never put the picture in my head of how socially motivated and financially interested some of the adoption agencies of the time were nor the gamut of emotions felt by these birthmothers. This is well researched from a historical standpoint as well as a facinating read delving into the very human feelings shared by those in the triad of adoption. Feelings, I might add, that are not well understood by those outside of this subculture. I have recommended this book to several counselor friends of mine and would do the same for anyone who may find themselves across the couch from persons involved in the adoption process. Mrs. Fessler's book flows very smoothly and is quite an easy read. The books stories are filled with the heart wrenching fear, dissapointment, guilt, anguish and uncertainty felt by many birthmothers but the ultimate message is one of underlying love, resolution and final completion. My final thoughts were of hope. Hope for governmental reform in its policies, hope for institutional reform in their practices and proceedures and hope for adoptee and birth parent alike in the illimination of uncertainties and for final completeness.
63 of 67 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An unforgettable and important account of social and political history 9 Sep 2006
By Jessica Lux - Published on
The subtitle says it all: this is the hidden history of women who surrendered children for adoption in the decades before Roe vs. Wade. Author Ann Fessler balances her chapters with first-person narratives from both the women who gave up children and from adopted children. Fessler's book explores the shame of getting pregnant in the post-WW II era, the lack of birth control education, the lack of medical birth control for unmarried women, and the hurry of "good" families to bury the mortifying secret product of premarital sex. At its core, the book is about psychological pain, for both mother and child. This pain and confusion lasts for a lifetime.

I grew up with sex education, had access to reproductive planning clinics, and went to a high school that had a day care center on site. Modern women take our choices for granted--the choice to use birth control, the choice to keep a child as an unmarried mother, the choice to have an open, structured adoption, the choice to have a closed adoption, and the choice for safe, legal abortion. This was an eye-opening examination of choices (or lack thereof) over the last fifty years.

Fessler has no agenda other than educating the reader about the hidden histories of these shamed, embarrassed unwed mothers. Chapters focus on specific issues such as birth control education, the social stigma of unmarried pregnancy, double standards for men and women, houses that women were shipped off to, the adoption agencies and processes, and the aftermath of adoption. She uses personal narratives to flesh out her history book, but Fessler does not edit the histories to make any specific political point. Her subjects had widely varying experiences and reactions, all of which are captured herein.
61 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Moving, Stunning, Must Read 22 Jun 2006
By Linda - Published on
In Lois Lowry's young adult science fiction book The Giver, a young girl hopes to receive a birthmother assignment. Her mother's sharp response was, "Lily!...Don't say that. There's very little honor in that Assignment. The birthmothers never even get to see the new children."

Very little honor indeed. I've been a member of the birthmother sisterhood for 30 years. I relinquished my daughter to adoption in 1976, three years after Roe v. Wade. Thankfully I wasn't forced to go away, had a strong say in my decision, and was spared much of the guilt and shame expressed by the courageous, selfless women featured in The Girls Who Went Away. In fact, I received a lot of negative criticism for choosing to have my child. I heard "why didn't you just get rid of it" from "friends" and acquaintances and even the nurse who was in the room when I awoke from the anesthesia. Just try to imagine delivering a baby with no one holding your hand or soothing your brow. There are simply no words for what has to be one of the loneliest, most tragic human experiences. Regardless of the paths traveled by young women faced with a crisis pregnancy, the results are all the same: their lives are dramatically, permanently altered and they all share the same harsh reality--they're childless mothers.

Why revisit such a painful, tragic part of my history? Why let myself get a lump in my throat after reading a few pages? Because I owe it to these women who, some for the very first time, had the courage to speak out and reveal the inhumane treatment they experienced during what should have been the most wonderful moment in their lives. Their stories deserve to be heard, need to be heard. Those unfamiliar with this embarrassing moment of our country's history will be stunned by the punishments that hardly fit the "crimes" of these incredible, tenacious women. In one of my favorite passages,

Yvonne discusses how her whole life has been based on shame: "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." I have used the phrase "touched by adoption" regularly over the years, but Yvonne's description is far more accurate. Everyone facing a crisis pregnancy--the ill-prepared mother and father, their parents, siblings, and beyond--are smashed to pieces from the fallout of adoption.

Read it slowly, carefully. The Girls Who Went Away should be required reading for every high school and college student; I'm certain it would help young adults be more thoughtful and mindful about sex. More importantly, The Girls Who Went Away should be read by every single person who is considering creating a family by adoption. While adoption has mercifully become kinder and gentler over the past 25 years or so, it's still not an ideal institution, there's still a great deal of work to be done. It's time of all of us to get our heads out of the sand and work together. Whatever side of the right to life/pro choice fence you sit on, I'm sure you'll rethink your position after meeting the wonderful women of The Girls Who Went Away.

Ann Fessler deserves all the great reviews and high praise she's received for raising awareness and shedding light on this controversial subject; indeed, I hope she's recognized with several awards. Should the reader be interested in futher enlightenment, the movie The Magdalene Sisters is highly recommended.
41 of 43 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Heartbreaking and fascinating 1 July 2007
By LifeboatB - Published on
If you're interested in social history, "The Girls Who Went Away" makes for a fascinating read. Ann Fessler interviewed dozens of women who were sent to homes for "unwed mothers" between the 1945 and 1973. The tales the women tale are harrowing and extremely human. Interspersed with the interviews are Fessler's essays about society at the time, and how the post-war situation affected the average family. The book overturned several assumptions I had always made about life in that time period, e.g., that not many teens were sexually active. The shame of sexuality at the time, and the ridiculous lack of information teenagers were given about their own bodies, created a climate in which thousands of girls became pregnant and were forced to hide out from the world, until they could give birth, relinquish the baby, and return to "normal" teen life. Unfortunately, the reality wasn't so simple. The devastating emotional impact of bringing a pregnancy to term, and then having to give up the child, often without so much as seeing it, haunted these women for the rest of their days. The intense secrecy that surrounded the issue only made things worse. It's impossible to read the book without feeling sympathy for these young women, who were given so little control over their own lives. Although the book doesn't answer every question about adoption, or about how to deal with the problem of teen pregnancy, it's a valuable work that makes a big contribution to our understanding of motherhood. Hopefully psychologists, educators and legislators will learn some lessons from it.
109 of 126 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 10 star MUST read... for women and men 9 Jun 2006
By Beth DeRoos - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Every now and then a book comes along that gripes your heart and makes you believe that men and women need to read it. This is that kind of a book. Contray to what one reviewer says, abortion is not encouraged in this book, much less mentioned at all, since this is about the years before Roe v Wade.

Simple, elegant and painfully honest. A glimpse into the last fifty years and what millions, literally, of women endured often in a quest to protect a families image. An era when people didn't even say someone was 'pregnant' but were 'expecting.' When television shows even with married people, didn't allow a double bed, but single beds.

Never mind the horrendous mental pain that was done to the women, often lasting their entire life times. Never mind the fact that the lies and shame foisted on these women was inhumane and as un-christian as one could be.

The stories of all the women and where they grew up, how they broke the news to their parents and what happened next is nothing short of spell binding. How young women gathered together in unwed mother homes went by first name only, didn't know what to expect when pregnant, how inhumane and yes, mean medical personnel treated them, and the unspoken harm mentally these women endured.

Their honesty in talking about the hypocrisy of society and how you could be a good girl who had sex once and ended up pregnant or a nice girl who had sex often but were simply lucky and didn't get pregnant, and how cruel females could/can be when one of their own is hurting. Or how one girl laid down on the back seat whenever her family left the house, because they had told friends etc that their daughter was away helping an ill aunt. Or the young girl who wasn't allowed to answer the door for the same reason, and then late one evening they sneak her and her Mom to the train station where they travel to another state to an unwed mothers home.

And the easy out the boys had. With them often forcing sex on a girl with the tried and true come on lines, only to dump her once she ended up pregnant. One guys even had the nerve to have his fraternity buddies say they had slept with his girl friend so he wouldn't be stuck having to marry her.

Its so easy these days to forget or not even know that thirty short years ago young women were being forced, to give up babies with the snow job that it wouldn't be that hard and that they could then 'get on with their lives'. Like on page 89 where the author writes; 'The nun came over to the hospital and I spent a whole lot of time just sobbing my heart out to her, just crying and crying, and she finally said, 'You know what? You're gonna forget all about this, and you're gonna go home and you're gonna meet a nice young man, and you're gonna get married, and you're gonna have other babies, and you're never even gonna remember you had this one'. Like knowing you carried a baby within you, felt it move, gave birth to it, and felt your breasts fill with milk, heard your baby cry, would all simple vanish as if it never happened once the baby was adopted? Talk about the dark ages!

Reading of how this wasn't the case at all pained me because I know that having a child myself there is NO way a woman can birth a child and then pretend it never happened. Or the women who were told to never tell their husbands they had had a child out of wedlock because he would divorce her and seek custody of their children, siting her as an unfit mother. One woman who had been married and in such deep pain, found herself separated from her husband and one evening she breaks down and tells him and as she notes, he became the gentle, kind man she always wanted, but by then it was to late.

Its astonishing that in a country that speaks so fondly of the good old days, and how pro family we were as a nation, that such un pro family lies were encouraged or demanded. How we as a country encouraged people to pretend, as well as hurt millions of women. And all those millions of babies who grew up thinking they were not wanted, when just the opposite was true. These were years when most young women wanted so badly to marry and be mothers, yet were cut down, and made to feel shame when in fact had their parents, schools actually educated them on the dangers of unprotected sex, perhaps the young women would have been better informed and able to demand the guys get their sexual relief somewhere else or contain it.

And so many if not most of the women talk of how hard it was to ever trust or get close to people. Even the men they were married. Because society had told them to forget and move on. Pretend that all was ok. When in fact the same society stressed being honest. Like Jennette on page 120 who was living in a small town in Washington State, who became pregnant and pretended to be in San Francisco where her sister lived, looking for work. She had one maternity dress and stayed hidden at her sisters, had the baby, done everything she was told about pretending it never happened.

Moved back to Washington State where she then got a job at the Hanford Project in eastern Washington State, where she 'was putting the badges in the machine to see if they had any radiation'. She then finds herself at age eighteen in the supervisors office being chewed out for not being 'honest' about having a baby out of wedlock months earlier and that the communists could use it to blackmail her into giving them top secret information about the work at Hanford. Again the whole rock and a hard place double standard, of being told to never talk or tell about an unwed pregnancy and then if found out being ridiculed for not being honest. Is it any wonder so many of these young women ended up turning to alcohol or anything else that would kill the pain and confusion?

And the lies the adoption agencies concocted about the birth parents being athletic, educated, from well to do families is mind boggling. It was if the baby was a product they wanted to sell to the best bidder. If these young women were being called 'whores' to their face by these 'professionals' lord knows what these 'professionals' were saying to these innocent newborns as they held them in their arms. Like Lydia on page 310 says 'I came to really resent the language that was used to describe me and my experience.' Using words she calls 'loaded language' that is emotionally charged. It's very judgmental and biased to one side. So many women echo her sentiments that they were educable, trainable, looking for guidance but were shut out and simply told what to do. No questions asked. She continues 'If I'd had support and mentoring, I would have made a wonderful mother for my son.'

The sad thing is, young women are still being coerced into giving up their babies, with lies and hype. Young women are still being given mixed messages, that will hurt them. Sad thing is few people outside of these women who have lost their children to adoption and a small group of open adoption advocates even give care about the LONG term mental health of the woman. Thus the more things change the more things stay the same.
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