It’s taken me far too long to compose my thoughts about this book. Mayhem has been ever-so-patient and for this I thank her. I apologize, dear readers, I do.
The Girls Who Went Away
by Ann Fessler
This book has been on BTW’s potential-read list for quite some time (since November 23, 2008, in case you were wondering) but for some reason it kept getting passed over for something or other. This cycle we were having trouble deciding what to read so we finally thought “Why not?” And I am so glad we did.
As you know, reproductive freedom is extremely high on our inalienable human rights list and that sex education in this country needs to move from abstinence-only “education” to comprehensive education. With that mindset, The Girls Who Went Away provided a depth and nuance to my understanding of these issues, supporting and furthering their veracity and necessity in my mind. Jennifer Baumgardner, in reviewing this book for Bitch, explained: “I had always been so drawn to reproductive freedom and justice as a catalyzing issue—but had never understood or really thought about the adoption piece.” I, too, had always thought of adoption as this thrilling and positive experience for all parties involved– The Girls Who Went Away exposed me to multitudes of women for whom this was certainly not the case and forced me to confront this reality. Adoption isn’t such an open and shut case for me anymore. This book was illuminating, heartbreaking, inspiring, enraging, and brilliant in its simplicity and clarity of purpose. E v e r y o n e should read this book. Everyone.
Mayhem: speaking of heartbreaking, have you started “the girls who went away” yet? i’m halfway through and i LOVE It. each new chapter breaks my heart a bit more.
me: yes. and yes. now why couldn’t BOS have been written as well as this one?
Mayhem: MY THOUGHTS EXACTLY!!! BOS would’ve been so much better if it had been structured like the girls who went away. this book has everything i wish BOS would’ve had.
Which brings me to my first point: the structure of this book. I’ve spoken to some readers who found the structure to be somewhat monotonous (chapter, story, story, chapter, story, story, etc.); however, as you can see, Mayhem and I loved it. Fessler compellingly made her case in each chapter and then reinforced each point through personal stories that supported her claims without losing or obscuring the voices of the women. She let the women speak for themselves and it was so refreshing after the resounding disappointment that was Band of Sisters!
“’There’s a loving family out there,’ and I was thinking, ‘Well, how come I can’t be a loving mother?’” (Cathy II, 118)
“Why didn’t they help me keep him, rather than help me give him away?” (Jeanette, 125)
Mayhem: i’ve been reading “the girls who went away”
and holy crap that is the saddest mf-ing book i’ve ever read
me: great. i’m about to start it this week.
Mayhem: i want to hand it to ever man in america and say see? you still think women have been treated equally? do you even know that these experiences existed?
That was a common emotion for me while I read this book: righteous indignation. And anger. At myself for being so completely ignorant of these women’s stories and struggles, and at our society at large for completely brushing them under the rug. I found myself realizing that I’d been naive and ignorant about this: I did think that women who surrendered children didn’t want their kids and that adoption was the best option for everyone, but over and over the women trumpeted the opposite: “It was a baby unwanted by society, not by mom.” (Glory, 11)
On top of that, it was even more frustrating to read about the lack of consequences for the fathers: “Meanwhile, the young men who had fathered these children largely escaped social condemnation. They were not expelled from school, and they were generally not treated with scorn, not stigmatized, and not considered a disgrace to their families… Their role in the pregnancy wasn’t publicly visible, thus they were not publicly condemned.” (74)
“I remember thinking I wished it was a boy, because boys can’t have children. I thought, ‘I gave birth to a little girl who’s going to have to go through this, that poor little thing.’ I had always thought boys had it better than women. All my life, you know? And that whole experience made me feel even more so–that it’s the girls who get punished, the girls who suffer through all of this stuff, and the girls who can’t talk about it.” (Dorothy II, 19)
A few of the stories were particularly heart-wrenching when you realized that their situations could have easily been avoided if only they’d had the appropriate education and tools to make informed decisions:
“I felt safe enough, as we do when we’re feeling close, to ask her [my mom] this question: ‘How do they get rid of the mark when they take the baby out?’ I’d seen people in bathing suits and I could never tell if they’d had children. She stood there, three feet from me, with a look of horror on her face and said, ‘My God, Nancy, that baby comes out the same way it went in.’ I said, ‘You have got to be kidding me.’ She said, ‘No.’ I mean, it’s borderline child abuse not to share this kind of information… I had no idea. I mean, we never had pets. I didn’t live on a farm. We had a very puritanical, Beaver Cleaver lifestyle and it just wasn’t anything that was ever discussed. I mean, as amazing as it sounds, I was 16 and pregnant and I did not know how babies were born. It’s pathetic, but it’s true.” (Nancy, 49)
“My mother became pregnant when I was 9 or 10 years old. No one told me until she brought the baby home. The first time I heard the word pregnant was when I was in nursing school.” (Jeanette, 121)
On the Reproductive Rights Timeline, 1972 is a banner year. It was the year that birth control became legally accessible to all women in the United States. (43) And it was also the year that, with Title IX, it became illegal for schools who received federal funding to expel a pregnant girl or teenage mother. (72) Before 1972 it was common for schools to immediately require pregnant girls to “withdraw immediately”– you know, that old ‘one bad apple’ line of thinking:
“The faculty decided that I was becoming disruptive to the schooling process and a bad example. It was determined that I would leave school. ‘I was not welcome there’ was what I was told.” (Pam, 167)
Many women described the power of the language that was used by the people around them (social workers, hospital employees, family members) who were all trying to convince them that surrendering was the only option, the lack of understanding, and the power of just a few words of support:
“It wasn’t my baby, it was always the baby.” (Nancy I, 48)
“They were always real to us. This baby was going to them and they deserved it… You should be happy… You should be grateful.” (Karen I, 162)
“Not one single person said, ‘I know how you feel. If I were in your spot I would have had a hard time too.’ Every single person judged me.” (Dorothy II, 23)
“’She can see him whenever she wants. She’s that baby’s mother.’ That nurse didn’t give me enough self-confidence to keep my child, but with those two sentences she gave me the foundation on which to rebuild my sense of self. She probably didn’t remember me after that shift, but she became one of the most important women in my life. Just by her compassion and two sentences, you know?” (Margaret, 192)
Many women, after surrendering, were forced to suffer in silence– unable to discuss their experiences or publicly mourn their loss. Breaking that silence was oftentimes difficult, but most found peace when they finally confronted and admitted their secret to their loved ones:
“’What are my boys going to think about me? They’re going to think I’m a slut and a whore and everything.’ I’d been called that. I was just weeping openly; it was all I could do to tell them. After I told them, my oldest grabbed the youngest and he was just jumping up and down and he said, ‘We’ve got a sister! We’ve got a sister!’ And the youngest said, ‘What’s a sister?’ And the middle one said, ‘It’s like a brother, only it’s a girl!’” (Pollie, 255)
Mayhem: i’m returning “the girls who went away” to the library today and i really don’t want to. i’m going to have to buy myself a copy, it was such a great book.
me: i loved it.
i think i may turn into that guy who emailed her in the end describing how many copies he purchased for himself, his sisters, his nephews, etc.
Mayhem: i TOTALLY contemplated emailing her and singing my praises. i discussed it during training and told everyone to read it.
You should buy this book, read it, and then pass it on to everyone you know.
I didn’t do it justice, but believe me, it is that good.