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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. New York: The Penguin Press, 2006. 368 pp. Hardbound, $24.95; Softbound, $15.00. The Girls Who Went Away is an important book on a number of levels. It recounts an almost lost and certainly forgotten time in American history. While the popular press remembers deathly abortions and twisted coat hangers from that period, it rarely recalls the pain, shame, and horror of the girls who were forced to relinquish their children after birth. This book tells their story. The women speak their histories in their own words and in their own time. Fessler deftly handles their stories with both sensitivity and accuracy. Being born into that era, I have many memories of friends who lived through the very situations she describes. I was lucky; many of my friends were not. Fessler’s work rings with accuracy. She clearly writes about the variety of responses that the girls (young women) describe to her. Fessler brilliantly handles the responses in clear, compelling oral history form. It was a dark time for women. The period roughly between the 1940s and the 1970s was especially difficult. Birth control in the form of male-oriented condoms was available but often unreliable or unused. Female birth control was available, but diaphragms were often denied to the very girls who needed them the most. Young women, younger than eighteen, needed parental consent to obtain a diaphragm, which was not often given. But beyond the contraceptive difficulties (the pill, the sponge, and the cervical cap were yet to be invented), the moral climate in America was at its most confusing and most contradictory.

Downloaded from http://ohr. or just expected to give their children up. And then we see the mothers. Some were sent to live with relatives in other towns. I’m supposed to be silent. these young women were very rarely ever given a choice. she was breaking moral. and I was not allowed to keep the baby. Some of the women had their babies at home. I was going to have the baby. they were going to take it. While most of the book deals with the mothers’ reactions to the loss of the child. In that era. It’s so powerful and pervasive and the longer you keep a secret. Her work starts with the overall theme of “Breaking the Silence. sex for men was a good thing. the more power it takes on” (9). An even more telling personal commentary: “I’ve never really felt like I could talk to anybody about it. at birth. religious. vary from extreme sadness to final catharsis. You know. The whole terminology is just so misleading. the latter part investigates the contemporary life of these mothers and children. Reading the memories of forced separation is chilling. and family taboos. The best statement on this situation comes from one of the mothers: “Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to keep the baby. ‘I wonder why I can’t open my mouth. 2013 .’ Then I realized. when they birthed. The constant acknowledgment that they are now talking about a previously taboo subject remains dominant in almost all the stories. Well into adulthood now. within most groups in society. was seen as very bad. It was just assumed that their babies would be put up for adoption. But wherever they were.” (9). My jaw doesn’t want to open and my lungs are tight. For most families. . being pregnant was the visible proof that she was having sex. cultural. I went to the maternity home. or explained the options.oxfordjournals. for many of the at Aegean University on March 21. most of the stories are happy. for adoption. . Second.286 | ORAL HISTORY REVIEW For young girls to become pregnant was. We learn about the young women who were forced. those girls younger than eighteen years.” She takes it first from the view of the children who had been adopted. all those physical things started happening. With all the myths surrounding “born out of wedlock” babies. it is no wonder that the girls were silent. As the laws regarding secrecy surrounding adoptive children keep changing. Sex for “good” girls was a bad thing. legal. As expected. Some were placed in “homes” for unwed mothers. Sex for young girls. coerced. Fessler covers the multiple stories and is especially sensitive to the fact that each story is unique in its own right. She was “in trouble.” First. This telling is best said in the words of the mothers: “As soon as the time was near and we were going to do this interview. society has this picture—you hear about people giving their babies away. The secrecy has dominated everything. The emotions. I didn’t give him away . The girls had no say in the matter. but a few are less so. each of the adoptees lets us know how growing up within a created family has made them feel. I would have been disowned” (11). I’m not supposed to tell this story. the very worst thing that could happen. she became the object of deep shame.

Anyone wishing to do research in this area or era can use this work as a fundamental and foundational source. It is about time that someone told the stories about the women. at this point. many of the mothers are searching for their children. the very young women. Barbara Joans Merritt Museum of Anthropology. The era before Roe v.1093/ohr/ohp061 Advance Access publication 7 August 2009 Downloaded from http://ohr. for women. Family situations are complex and when mother and child at Aegean University on March 21. Wade was a tough one. it was disastrous. Large issues are at stake here. Her bibliography and endnotes are impressive. once again. There is often the child who longs to be reunited but sometimes there is the child who remains endlessly upset. Oakland. who were forced to surrender their children for adoption. unique.BOOK REVIEWS | 287 more and more adoptees are searching for their birth mothers. It is within this extremely complex framework that Fessler writes her book. things may change forever. in general. At the same time. 2013 . Each interview is well researched and well documented. there is always an unknown quality to the reunions.oxfordjournals. Since there are usually several families involved. She has done her work. For young women. CA doi: 10. Each case is.

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