Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Ann Fessler - The Girls Who Went Away

This book changed my opinion on adoption forever.

I grew up thinking that adoption was the ultimate altruistic gesture, and could never make sense of people who spend absurd amounts of money trying to get pregnant (or get someone else to be pregnant for them), when there are so many children needing homes. However, I have to say I never (knowingly) met anyone who was adopted.

Then, in the last couple of years I started reading more on international adoption. First off, I was absolutely chocked at how expensive it was – but it seemed like a wonderful idea to rescue children of poorer nations.

But a couple of thoughts started creeping in – like, if the birth mothers had even half of the money prospective parents pay for these adoptions wouldn’t they choose to keep their babies; is it ethical to pay pregnant teenagers in developing countries (an amount irrelevant to the adoptive parents, but very significant to the girls and women) – I mean, isn’t that the same as basically encouraging them to serve as incubators?

And what of the ethnicity of the child – at what cost do they grow up estranged from their culture, surrounded by different values and obviously to all not the biological children of the couple parenting them?

Harsh as it may sound I believe there is a component of vanity in international adoption – because if a baby is obviously not related to you, then everyone down the street can come to the conclusion that you adopted. In some ways, it seems like it puts parents on a pedestal.

Even with these questions floating around in my mind, I must admit, I never gave much thought to birth mothers. For some reason (because that’s the image society has enforced over the decades in order to maintain the unassailable social acceptance of adoption) I believed that the majority of girls and women who surrendered these children, went on with their lives, except maybe for some melancholy on the baby’s birthday.

“The Girls Who Went Away – the hidden history of women who surrendered children for adoption in the decades before Roe v. Wade” changed that perception completely – Ann Fessler (an adoptee herself) provides tens of first person testimonials of American girls between 14 and 22 years old who gave up their babies for adoption in the fifties and sixties – their lives were absolutely thrown off track by this traumatic event.

Their stories are eerily similar – most wanted to keep the baby, some, more mature, were quick to understand that, since absolutely no-one was willing to give a helping hand this was the best option – they convinced themselves they were making a choice where society made sure there was none.

These girls were pushed towards giving up their babies, by parents, boyfriends, priests and social workers who made them feel as if the only right thing to do in order to save their families social standing, good name, their own future etc was give up the baby. They were made to feel as if they alone (boyfriends were never held accountable) were to blame and as if the only thing to do was to yield power to someone else. They were, gently in some cases and violently in others, led to the only socially acceptable path – pretend it never happened: go away on vacation or to visit relatives (in reality to horrible institutions for “unwed mothers”, were they were routinely abused and brainwashed by seemingly inhuman nuns and social workers) when the pregnancy started to show, give birth, sign the papers surrendering the baby, loose the weight, go back to school or work and never speak of it again.

One reoccurring testimonial tells how social workers made the girls write on a piece of paper what they could offer the baby and on the back what the adoptive parents could provide. The social workers always spoke of prospective adoptive parents who were college educated, frequently a doctor and a housewife with lots of disposable income who were desperate for a child. When some of the women came to meet their surrendered children decades later, it was not always what they found. Mostly, they seem to have found normal, loving families, but there are more than a few sad stories were the adoptive parents did not properly care for the children.
I was very interested to learn that the very rich and very poor seldom had their teenage girls put the babies up for adoption: in the first case they arranged for abortions and in the second they helped the girls raise their babies or they were adopted by close family members.

I already knew that African societies, for the most part, do not approve of adoption and Fessler states that for African-Americans the adoption rate was consistently very low in the fifties and sixties. I think the only testimonial of a black girl in the book is one were the father was white, so I guess for the most part black teenagers were helped and protected by their families in these cases.

For the girls and women who surrendered their babies it was the first step in a life of psychological anguish, psychosomatic illness, low self-esteem, many bad relationships. Most speak of incapacity to connect - even when they were married or had other children or attained high-profile careers – they seem to live in a sort of suspended animation. The trauma is so deep that often, reunion with the surrendered child is not enough to make these women forgive themselves.

That is the bottom line – no matter how privileged a life their child has led – these mothers never let go of the fact that they didn’t keep their child. Forget the fact that there was no way for them to do it – still, in their minds they are mothers who abandoned their babies.

This a very moving book, that I honestly recommend to everyone - we all have mothers and can all empathize with the sad and brave stories of these women.

One good way to honor their suffering would be to take a good, hard look at adoption. Everything comes at a price and we have to start figuring out how much we are, collectively, willing to pay.


_lethe_ said...

Great review!

Anonymous said...

I too, learned so much from this book, and have recommended it to many people. Yours is the best review I've ever read on it, and I've read many.


bookworm said...

Thank You!