Book Review: “The Girls Who Went Away”

I thought it might be kind of fun to review some of the books I’m reading courtesy of our public library, and, even though I have four children, I also have too much time on my hands, so I came up with a cute little rating system. Five stars–excellent book, probably going to buy it at some point; Four stars–good book, I’ll be requesting it from the library again in the future; Three stars–OK book, I finished it, but have no desire to read it again; Two stars–not so hot, I started to skip sections because I was bored; One star–So bad, I couldn’t even finish it!

Alright, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, the first book I’m going to review is “The Girls Who Went Away” by Ann Fessler. I’ve been meaning to read this book since I heard about it last summer, but I have to admit, I was a little leery of it because of the sub-title: “The Hidden History of Women who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades before Roe v. Wade.” I was afraid that because the author was so bent on mentioning Roe v. Wade on the cover of her book, that the tone of the book would be about the poor women who were forced to give up their babies for adoption because they didn’t have the option of abortion. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find that is not what this book is about, and abortion is actually rarely mentioned on the pages at all.

What this book is about, is the heart-wrenching tales of young woman (and even some who were not as young, but were unmarried) who were forced by their families and “social agencies” to give their children away. They were not given any choices or support to keep their babies and raise them, but were told every step of the way what they were going to do, in order to help their families save face, and to provide couples who couldn’t conceive babies of their own in the post-war baby boom the children that everyone expected them to have.

I was not surprised (although I was saddened) by the treatment of these girls by their families; I was shocked, however, at the tactics used by social workers to ensure that the girls did not change their minds about adopting out their children. They used scare tactics on these young women by telling them about the horrible lives their children would have–they would never be able to provide enough material things, their children would be mocked on the playground and friendless, just because they were raised in a single parent home. They were threatened that they would have to pay back the cost of their stay at the unwed mothers’ home, and how could they possibly do that with little education, no job, and a baby to support (never mind no family support on top of all that!) Even though some of these women may technically have been offered the choice to keep their children, it was made clear to them that the only real choice they had was adoption.

Each chapter of the book had a theme, such as “The Family’s Fears,” which contained a lot of statistical information, as well as snippets of women’s stories as they remembered surrendering their children. Following the main body of the chapter were two longer essays, each focusing on a different woman’s story of pregnancy and the adoption of her child. I found myself crying many times in reading these stories, as even after several decades since their loss, these women’s heartache was palpable.

Something that I found very interesting about these women’s stories is the similarities of their labor and delivery experiences. Despite the fact that they lived all over the country, the same fears and indignation kept coming up. Almost all of the women remembered humiliation at having to be shaved prior to delivery. They also tended to recount not being prepared for what would happen in the child birth process, being left alone to labor, and having cruel nurses tell them that they deserved to suffer alone, without any medical intervention or support, throughout the labor process, because of their unwed status.

There were mixed reports on whether or not the women chose to see and spend time with their babies. Some refused to see them at all, realizing they could never give them up once they laid eyes on them. Others set their minds to make the most of every moment, realizing that was all they would ever have. Still others tried to find a way to keep their baby once they bonded with him or her, but were always dissuaded from doing so, either by family, social workers or clergy. Most of them remembered the things every mother relishes about a child–the baby smell, the softness of skin and hair, the number of fingers and toes, the smallness of limbs and of clothing.

This book gave me a completely different view of adoption. I had always assumed that for the most part, unwed mothers would happy to be “relieved” of the burden of having a child at a young age, without a husband, without an education or a job. This is obviously not true. Every one of the women in this book struggled with what she was required to do, and most of them never got over the loss. The maternal instinct is clearly stronger than even I had realized, seeing how badly these teenagers wanted their babies.

The (somewhat) happy ending is that many of the women were reunited with their biological children later in life. I say somewhat, because even a reunion does not make up for the 20+ years of life together that both mother and child missed. It was also sad to see that for the most part, these women had to suffer in silence for such a long time, because there did not used to be resources to help birth parents find the children they had lost, and vice versa. While I still sympathize with the conflicting feelings adoptive parents must have when their children go off in search of their biological families, I also have a greater sympathy for those people connected by DNA, if nothing else, especially realizing that many mothers did not, and still may not, want to give their children up. When you add that to a person’s natural curiosity regarding his or history, medical and otherwise, and from whence he or she came, I understand why both parties would be searching for each other.

I give this book four and a half stars. It really deserves five stars, because it was such a good, emotionally engaging book, but I’m not sure of it’s re-read value, which is why I’m not currently planning on purchasing it. Who knows, though, I may change my mind. I’m sure I would pick up even more on the emotion of those decisions a second (and even third) time through!

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