"You'll never find anyone who says their life didn't change after giving birth," says Ann Fessler, author of The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades before Roe v. Wade.
Fessler should know. She interviewed more than 100 women who gave birth and gave their babies up for adoption. The women were told they'd forget, they'd move on, they'd go back to being happy-go-lucky teens or young women, knowing that a worthy and longing husband and wife had freed them from their "problem" of an "unwanted" child.
Not one of them did, of course.
"Every woman described it as the most traumatic and life-changing event they ever experienced," Fessler says, by phone from her home in Rhode Island.
The women in the book, mostly young and unwed, gave birth and surrendered their children between 1945 and 1973 -- the post-war, pre-legal-abortion adoption-boom years commonly known as the "baby scoop." At that time, the only safe, legal and socially acceptable options were quickie weddings or disappearing for a while and giving up the baby for adoption.
On Sept. 22, Fessler brings a film-in-progress to screen at Pitt. The as-yet-untitled documentary lays voiceovers from the interviews over found "educational" newsreels and footage from the '50s and '60s, informing young women of ways they "ought" to behave -- propaganda masquerading as education.
"It's important to me that I transport people back to that era," Fessler says. "It's a film about film, it has relevance in issues of visual literacy. Hopefully the clash of the women and the 'authoritative' voices in the film -- in many ways, [the women] speak from a more authoritative perspective. The voices in the film 'have the answers.'"
Fessler herself was adopted during the era she researched. She'd mined the experience for creative fodder for years, and met many surrendering mothers who felt their stories -- of coercion, shame and outright trickery -- hadn't been told.
"Nobody had ever wanted to hear it," she says. "The record had to be set straight."
The women shared harrowing tales of ostracism from their families, and of time spent in unfeeling "maternity homes" where they were warehoused until giving birth, when they signed away rights to their children to adopting families. All the women described pining for their lost children for the rest of their days. Often, they reunited years later with children who thought they'd been unwanted.
"It's hardly ever a question of want, it's a question of circumstance," Fessler says. The women could either marry the men who got them pregnant or hide their pregnancies and surrender their babies, being told it was what was best for everyone.
Now that safe, legal abortion is the law, what about unwed teens getting pregnant today -- teens, for instance, in the very public eye of the vice-presidential race?
"I doubt [Bristol Palin] felt like she had any choice," says Fessler. "Her father said, 'We're pleased with Bristol's choice,' which implies she had an array of choices -- I'm not sure she did. There's so much hypocrisy around it. The movement toward abstinence-only education, 'Don't do it before you're married' -- it didn't work then, and it doesn't work now."
Fessler says that while adoption has in many ways become much more humane, with open adoptions the norm in many states, there are still problems. Most states give a surrendering birth mother less than two weeks to change her mind after the baby is born. Some give as little as 24 hours.
When adoption is right for the mother, Fessler says, it can be done with decency. Open adoption means the child has access to his health profile, and that the mother can be spared the experiences of so many women in her book -- spending their lives wondering whether their child is alive and well.
Ann Fessler screens her film 8 p.m. Mon., Sept. 22. Frick Fine Arts Building, Pitt campus, Oakland. Free. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
- "The record had to be set straight": Ann Fessler.