The Girls Who Went Away

By Steve Weinberg

“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 Penguin Press) is a finalist for the NBCC Award in Nonfiction.

A couple of years ago, they seemed nearly invisible, despite numbering perhaps 1.5 million. They are the women who became pregnant during the middle of the twentieth century, felt that illegal abortion served as an unattractive option, so gave birth away from the family home, often bathed in shame. Then gave up their babies for adoption.

Ann Fessler is one of those adopted babies. She decided to research the phenomenon of the birth mothers. She calls them “the girls who went away,” a poignant quadruple-entendre phrase that immediately made me want to read the book.

Something else made me want to read the book, too. I know some of those birth mothers. I know some of their daughters and sons. I am not one of the children, but at age 58 I am just the right (wrong?) age to be their acquaintance.

The backdrop of the saga is sexual liberation, which many believed a positive development as the “revolution” unfolded. Most revolutions, however, carry with them unintended consequences, as the girls who went away soon found out.

Fessler’s professional background did not suggest she would write this book. She is a photography professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. But she felt compelled to write it, so she did.

Like most serious books, this one came with perils. Fessler decided to find her birth mother without any guarantee that she would be alive or that she would want to see the daughter she had given away.Furthermore, as Fessler identified many other women like her mother, and their grown children, she heard story after story of heartbreak, and well as some of uplift and others of redemption. The emotional toll on Fessler grew and grew.

The oral history aspect of the book is masterful, and thus devastating.

How could it be otherwise. The birth mothers could not continue their schooling by decree of the community. They often could no longer live at home, being sent to residential maternity wards, separated from their parents and siblings and best friends just when they needed them most.Nurses, physicians and ministers frequently treated the pregnant women contemptuously. As for the birth fathers, they usually suffered no external consequences.

In the Cleveland Plain Dealer, reviewer Vikas Turakhia called the stories in the book “heartbreaking.” In the New York Times, reviewer Kathryn Harrison book “remarkably well-researched and accomplished.” I could describe the book in lots of praiseworthy ways. But the word I would use first, the word that suggests most accurately why I voted for “The Girls Who Went Away” as a finalist despite at least two dozen other books I wanted to include, is this word: Unforgettable.

Selected reviews: The New York Times Book ReviewMother Jones,NewsweekThe Detroit News.

An interview with Ann Fessler from NPR's “Fresh Air”; anotherinterview from Salon.

— Steve Weinberg, NBCC Board Member