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The Book a Week Project: “The Girls Who Went Away”

A vast majority of the books I choose to read are extremely lady-centric, which I sometimes fear might get annoying. Then I read them and I remember why they’re so important and interesting and that fear goes away. Sorry I’m not sorry. This week’s book, 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, is no exception to that trend.

I chose this book because it was in the recommended reading list of Lisa Bloom’s Think, and I liked the last book I read off of that list. I didn’t know what to expect from it. The wording of the title is pretty innocuous and I felt it could go the pro-life propaganda route or it could be a weird pro-choice manifesto. Either way, I was concerned that the subject matter might be too controversial for this project, and that I’d have to scramble to find another book to read and write about.

But here I am, writing about this book, because it was nothing that I could have expected. The book is very fact-based; every chapter begins with the social and cultural context of the era and is followed by two stories by the women themselves.

The social and cultural contexts range from the reason behind the conception of the baby (let’s just say Salt-n-Pepa’s classic, “Let’s Talk About Sex,” had not hit charts yet) to the rationale of giving the baby up for adoption (shame, pride, money, etc). A lot of the information seems outdated and passé, and some of it is. In the Discovery and Shame chapter, Fessler says, “It was not until Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 that federally funded high schools and colleges, by law, could not expel a pregnant girl or a teenage mother,” which is pretty annoying, since there was already a gender gap in education. Other bits are still very real today, what with the reproductive rights battle that’s happening up on Capitol Hill and lack of sex-ed. I mean, some of these women didn’t know where the babies were going to come out of when labor hit. One mother had to explain to her pregnant teenage daughter, “that baby comes out the same way it went in,” to the daughter’s horror and disbelief. I shouldn’t even have to explain why that scares me.

Those facts are gut-wrenching. They gave me headaches because I was trying to compare them to today and I started noticing trends that still exist today or have the potential of existing if we’re not careful. But those parts of the chapters have nothing on the personal stories by these women. They are painful to read because they are so emotionally charged and you can hear the hurt behind their words.

All of the stories have generally the same plot: a high school or college aged girl meets a boy, they have sex, she gets pregnant, he bails, she gets sent to a maternity home, has the baby and is then expected to return home as if nothing has happened. Some vary, with “meets a boy,” getting replaced with, “gets slipped a roofie at a party,” or “he bails” with “his family refuses to let him marry her.” The rest stays the same.

The women carry out their pregnancies at maternity homes, where they are sent by their families so no one in the neighborhood finds out about their delinquent daughters. Some are hundreds of miles from their homes, some just a town over. The Willows, a Kansas City maternity home which was located across from where the Federal Reserve is today, was popular back in the day because of its central location in the nation. The women delivered their babies, and homes like The Willows arranged for the babies to be adopted. The mothers were then sent on their merry way.

The mothers were far from merry, and although they were expected to forget, none of them could. One woman said, “People have asked me how I got through it, and I say, ‘I turned myself into a stone.’” They were never the same after that point. How could they be? The pain and regret expressed by these women is excruciating to read, and one can only imagine the toll it must have taken on them. They explain the consequences of surrendering their babies on the rest of their lives and it rarely has a positive outcome. The only time that these women get a break is if their children seek them out later in life, and that reunion is a beautiful and moving thing to read.

In the now cult classic movie “Juno,” Ellen Page’s character puts her baby up for adoption and emerges from the situation emotionally unscathed. For her, it was the best option available. But that doesn’t mean that every woman is Juno and will be emotionally fine if adoption is her only option, as proven by the stories in The Girls Who Went Away. This book shines a light on a side not often considered in a debate that is ever-present in our lives, and, if teen pregnancy trends continue, will be for quite some time.

Have a book suggestion for Helena? Post it in the comments or tweet @SME_Harbinger with the hashtag #bookaweekproject.

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