Sunday, November 19, 2006

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

The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler is an important book. Every public, college, and high school library should have a copy (or two) and consider it for book discussions. It should be added to core lists for collection development. It should be reviewed and displayed. It's that important.

Between the end of World War II and the Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade, there were approximately one and a half million adoptions in the United States, according to the author. Young unwed mothers supplied most of the babies. The often-repeated story is that they "gave them up." Fessler disagrees. She has interviewed many "birth mothers" who say they were forced by their parents, the adoption agencies, and the courts to release their babies. No one ever informed them of their rights, which they did have if they had known, and no one ever offered to help them keep and raise their children. Instead, they were told that they were unworthy of their children and that if they gave up their children, they would soon forget them.

The unwed mothers have not forgotten their children. It is not normal for mothers to forget their children.

There is more to the story. Many of the young women had no sexual instruction and birth control advice before their pregnancies. Once they were hidden in maternity homes, they were given no birthing instruction. When labor began, some were sent in cabs to hospitals, where they admitted themselves and went through childbirth alone. Often they were sedated and woke to find their babies gone. Some never saw their children and were threatened with large medical bills if they did not sign the legal documents.

The women are not all in high school or college. The story of Linda I is particularly sad. She was a military nurse during the Vietnam war, who had many soldiers die in her arms. One of the survivors proposed marriage to her and she accepted. When she discovered she was pregnant, he confessed that he was already married. She was treated very badly, discharged, and gets no pension today.

The Girls Who Went Away is not just a book about a period of our history. Much of the book is about the present, as the mothers and children try to find each other. Fessler includes many reunion stories. In most of these families are reunited and extended joyfully, but in some misunderstanding and resentment remain. Fessler also tells about the large number of women who still have not found their children. Many suffer low self-esteem, alcoholism, drug abuse, and the inability to maintain relationships. Others have lived model lives trying to make up for their past failures. Many have still not come out of the "closet of shame."

The Girls Who Went Away is not a quick read. It includes the stories of eighteen birth mothers, each story being between five and fifteen pages. In nine chapters there are portions of interviews from forty-eight other women. Fessler also includes the story of her adoption and search for her mother. The book requires commitment to read, but it is hard to put down once you start.

Fessler, Ann. The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade. New York: Penguin Press, 2006. ISBN 1594200947


Library Lady said...

Ew, I'll order it today! Maggie :-)

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for reading and reviewing this book! After I heard an interview with the author and a few of the "girls" on NPR (Fresh Air, I think), I had the director of the small public library where I work purchase it. I hope to put aside the time to read it after this semester ends.

Thanks again!

Chris LaPlume said...

I am one of the mothers who were sent away, but I am not in the book. it is a very true and sad decription of us ladies. I hope everyone who reads the book becomes aware of how things were back then. I am very happily reunited with my daughter after 30 years of saddness.

Anonymous said...

i also am a birth mother, was sent away in 65. the book tells it like it was. i know several of the women in the book.
i live in downers grove.
thanks for the review.

Anonymous said...

I am the grandaughter of an unwed mother that gave her son up for adoption in 1956 in temple, texas where there was a home for unwed mothers. My grandmother passed away in 1986 but my mother and her brothers would like to find their brother. Can anyone give me advise on how to locate him. I live in Wisconsin and I have two children of my own so traveling to texas is almost impossible. But I would love to find him and that would be one of the best mother's day gift my mom could get.

Anonymous said...

to pepsifreeze try or that is run by joe soll who is well known in adoption circles and i bet he can find you a search angel to help. he has written several books to that are about adoption.
good luck! abby

Vee said...

This is a question for Rick. I have no idea how to get in touch with you other than making a comment. I think The Girls Who Went Away should be read by everyone. I'm the editor of a newsletter for a group called Adoption Forum, and we put out a newsletter quarterly. I was wondering if I could use your review in our next newsletter. Please let me know. Thanks. My email address is

Anonymous said...

I am Linda1 in the book and I am a Texas Search Angel. For anonymous, whose grandmother was at Temple, Texas, if you email me, I will try to help your family reunite.

Anonymous said...

I am an adopted female looking for my Birth Mother and family. I was born on Christmas Day 1952, in Mexia, Texas. I was a blue baby. I love you Mother. Deborah .