Earlier this summer, I mentioned my weakness for book sales held at churches and synagogues, and how over the years it’s helped me acquire a number of excellent books. Last year, at one of these book sales I purchased a nice handful of books with one of them being 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. Published in 2006, I’d seen on the library shelf from time to time but never grabbed, even though I figured I’d someday read it, since I’d read so many good things about it on Amazon and Goodreads. But even with the book in my possession, it still sat ignored on my shelf for probably over a year. Then one day, I don’t what inspired me, but I picked up my copy of The Girls Who Went Away and started reading it. After only 20 or 30 pages into it and much to my relief, I quickly realized I’d found another one of those books like Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University and Kyria Abrahams’s I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing that I enjoyed so much I kicked myself for not reading sooner. The Girls Who Went Away is an excellent book.
Fessler begins her book by letting us know she was adopted. According to the story she heard from her adoptive mother, on her first few birthdays her adopted mother would light an extra candle on her birthday cake in honor of the birth mother who gave Fessler up for adoption. Later, as an adult Fessler would embark on a successful art career, and her experiences as an adoptee would help inspire her as an artist. At one of her art installation, Fessler invited other adoptees as well as birth mothers to share their stories with her. Later, Fessler met with many of these women and even a few men, heard their stories and collected their oral histories. The Girls Who Went Away is the result of that project.
According to Fessler, from the 50s to the early 70s approximately 1.5 million children were put up for adoption. Almost always, these children were born to women who were young, single, white and middle class. Theirs was a world that provided independence, means and the early stirrings of a sexual revolution, but at the same time lacked school-based sex education and easy access to reliable contraception. Thanks to the societal double standards of the era, boys could be boys but ‘good girls didn’t fool around.” As a result, many young women found themselves pregnant. If they didn’t get married right away, their only acceptable option was to put their children up for adoption. Frequently, this involved secretly slipping out-of-town and taking up residence in a home for unwed mothers. If the family lacked the finances to pay for her stay or if the homes were full, many pregnant women had to spend time in temporary homes where they women had to work to off-set the costs of room and board.
There’s some serious tear-jerker material in this book. We’re talking stuff that makes truck drivers and construction workers cry. Fessler’s book is chock full of accounts of women who were treated like 3rd class citizens during their pregnancies, from the moment they walked through door at the unwed mothers homes to the time they gave birth in the hospital. But it’s the stories of women looking for they long-lost children that are as moving as they are amazing.
The Girls Who Went Away is a superb book and worthy of all the praise it received. I’m still kicking myself for letting it sit ignored on my bookshelf for over a year. This is an excellent book and I have no problem whatsoever recommending it.