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Authors: Ann Fessler

Tags: #Social Science, #Women's Studies, #Family & Relationships, #Adoption & Fostering

The Girls Who Went Away

BOOK: The Girls Who Went Away
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Ann Fessler began interviewing women who surrendered children for adoption for an audio and video installation project, out of which this book has grown. She is a professor of photography at Rhode Island School of Design and a specialist in installation art. She was awarded a prestigious Radcliffe Fellowship for 2003–2004 at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, where she conducted extensive research for this book. She is also the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts; the LEF Foundation; the Rhode Island Foundation; the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities; and Art Matters, NY. An adoptee herself, she begins and ends the book with the story of her own successful quest to find her mother.

Praise for
The Girls Who Went Away

“A wrenching, riveting book…powerful.”

Chicago Tribune


Boston Herald

“Amazing…Thanks to Fessler’s book, the girls who went away finally have a voice and, hopefully, a path to healing.”

—The Detroit News Online


“A stunning work of art.”

The Providence Journal

“Fascinating…compelling…an eye-opening book. Fessler does a brilliant job.”

Portland Tribune

“Fessler’s heartbreaking
The Girls Who Went Away
crackles with chilling details.”

More Magazine

“This is a story that needs to be told—and Ann Fessler has done an excellent job.”

Book Sense

“A valuable contribution to the literature on adoption.”

Kirkus Reviews

“Thought-provoking and thoroughly researched.”

Library Journal

“In the glow of modern progress, the stories I tell my children about my girlhood sound as ancient as the Parthenon.…The classified ads divided by sex, the working women forced out of their jobs by pregnancy, the family businesses passed unthinkingly to sons-in-law while the daughters stood by: the witnesses to those artifacts are going gray and growing old. One of the most haunting reminders of those bad old days is on my desk, in a book…titled
The Girls Who Went Away
. I knew instantly who they were: the girls who disappeared, allegedly to visit distant relatives or take summer jobs in faraway beach towns, when they were actually in homes for unwed mothers giving birth and then giving up their children.”

—Anna Quindlen,

The Girls Who Went Away
is an emotionally gripping and politically important book…Fessler weaves rich historical context with visceral firsthand accounts, leaving me amazed that I had not realized this phenomenon before. That she achieves this while also delving into her own personal story as an adoptee makes the book impossible to put down.”

—Karenna Gore Schiff

“This is a must-read book for all those who feel they have the right to engage in any part of the debate on sex education, a woman’s right to choose, or the impact of adoption.”

—Christine Todd Whitman

The Girls Who
Went Away
The Hidden History of
Women Who Surrendered Children
for Adoption in the Decades
Roe v. Wade



For my two mothers,

Hazel and Eleanor


Published by the Penguin Group

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First published in the United States of America by The Penguin Press,
a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2006
Published in Penguin Books 2007

1   3   5   7   9   10   8   6   4   2

Copyright © Ann H. Fessler, 2006

All rights reserved

Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint selections from the archives of
the Florence Crittenton Collection, Social Welfare History Archives, University of
Minnesota. By permission of the National Florence Crittenton Mission.


Fessler, Ann.

The girls who went away : the hidden history of women who surrendered children for
adoption in the decades before Roe v. Wade / Ann Fessler.

p.   cm.

ISBN: 978-1-101-64429-4

1. Birthmothers—United States.  2. Adoption—United States—Psychological aspects.

I. Title.

HV875.55.F465 2006

362.82’98—dc22      2005058179

Printed in the United States of America

    Set in Garamond BE

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.


1. My Own Story as an Adoptee

2. Breaking the Silence

Dorothy II


3. Good Girls v. Bad Girls

Nancy I


4. Discovery and Shame



5. The Family’s Fears



6. Going Away

Karen I


7. Birth and Surrender



8. The Aftermath

Susan III


9. Search and Reunion

Susan II


10. Talking and Listening


Linda I

11. Every Mother but My Own


A Note on the Interviews





My Own Story as an Adoptee

that on my first three birthdays she lit a special candle on my cake for the young woman who had given birth to me. She never explained why she did this for three years—no more, no less. I don’t remember this private ceremony, but I do remember that there were times in my childhood when she looked at me in a particular way and I knew she was thinking about this young woman, my mother.

Three generations of women from my family have been brought together by adoption. Neither my maternal grandmother nor my mother nor I have given birth to a child. I am the first for whom this was a conscious choice.

My mother was never told that she was adopted. For my grandmother to admit this would have been a public declaration of her own inadequacy, her inability to bear children for her husband. But my mother knew. She had found her birth certificate taped to the back of a painting at her aunt’s house. Her name had been Baby Helene before it was Hazel, and when she brought me home she named me Ann Helene.

My mother suffered her own private insecurity at not being able to bring
a child to full term. But by the time she and my father turned to adoption there was no public stigma attaching to those who chose to adopt. In post–World War II America, families that wanted to adopt were carefully screened and represented a kind of model family—one with a mother and a father who really
to raise a child.

Although it is doubtful that families vetted through this process were actually any better or worse than other families, I was lucky enough to have parents who were loving and supportive and mindful of my development as an individual. They knew that they could guide me, but they also understood that I was not the sum of their parts. I was the product of two young people who had themselves, perhaps, been too young to fully understand the characteristics they had inherited from their own parents and passed on to me.

My adoptive mother and father were offered very little information about my biological parents. She was nineteen and from a big farm family of English and German descent. He was athletic, a college football player from a family of means. Their parents felt that this was no way to start a family.

My mother cried whenever she told me this story. She knew it could not be so simple. I did not. The story of that young couple sounded like the plot of a movie to me. I liked being part of this soulful story of ill-fated love, of having a mysterious past, of not being related to my family, of being my own person.

When I became sexually active, I imagined that if the worst happened I would do as my mother had done: go off to another town to a home for unwed mothers and return with a story about a kidney infection, or about an Aunt Betty in Sandusky who needed my care. This is what young women who got caught in this unfortunate situation did. Almost every graduating class had a girl who disappeared. Everyone knew where she had gone, and that she had most likely been told, “If you love your child you must give it up, move on with your life, and forget.”

BOOK: The Girls Who Went Away
13.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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