It all started when Ann Fessler began asking the questions that "no one had ever asked."

Fessler, in the process of writing "The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade," traveled the country and spoke with some of the estimated 1.5 million unwed young women who surrendered their babies for adoption between 1945 and 1970 — before Roe v. Wade, the popularization of the pill and the growth of the women’s movement.

As Gail Rosenblum of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reveals, their stories would break anyone’s heart:

In a unified voice, their parents, clergy and a new breed of professional social workers told them that this was for their own good. The girls were encouraged to get on with their lives, to forget.

If only they could.

The aftermath of these decisions is only now being fully comprehended. Many women who gave up babies fought depression, developed traumatic stress disorders or turned to alcohol and drugs to numb their chronic grief.
Others became super-achievers to prove to their parents that they could have been a fine mother. Some spoke regretfully of how they remained emotionally distant from the children they later had. Others never had another child because they felt it betrayed the baby they surrendered.

Rosenblum interviewed a number of women for this story. You can listen to audio of one of these women, Mary L. Johnson, as she reflects on both her loss and the eventual reunion with her daughter.

Fessler’s book has become one of the most critically-acclaimed books in recent years. It was announced as National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist this past January.

Possibly Fessler’s greatest achievement is her resurrection of these women’s humanity — allowing us to see through the stereotypes that had trapped them when they were young. Rosenblum writes,

No matter where they grew up, or how old they were when they got
pregnant, their stories are stunningly similar. They were mostly "good" girls who got into what was considered bad trouble.

Far from being the "sluts" they were labeled, some got pregnant the first time they had sex or were admittedly clueless about birth control, reproduction or how a baby is born. "I had no idea about protected sex," said Mary L. Johnson, 62, of Maple Plain, who is featured in Fessler’s book.

Many were in long-term relationships with the baby’s father. About half married him; others were abandoned by the father, or never told him about the pregnancy. A few risked their lives to get illegal abortions; others bravely raised their child alone, although most families would not consider bringing such shame upon themselves. For them, adoption was the only option.

Nothing beats history to remind us of the value of the choices we now have.

For upcoming readings and events with author Ann Fessler, visit the website, TheGirlsWhoWentAway.com.

Christine

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