The Girls Who Went Away
by Ann Fessler
Penguin Books, 2006, 362 pp.
Installations by Ann Fessler
Center for Documentary Studies
Through July 8
"I'm adopted." That's a sentence you've probably heard before. "I gave up a child for adoption." That isn't, probably.
When you read it, did you think—in that dark, uncorrected moment before your social courtesy took over—reckless, irresponsible? A reflexive flash of disapproval: She made a mistake and abandoned it. (Why did you think her mistake, not his?)
Middle-class America no longer habitually sends pregnant teenagers away to homes for unwed mothers, nor does it scorn bearing children out of wedlock—in some circles, it's even recommended. Since Roe v. Wade, we recognize adoption as one choice among others. We can appreciate that relinquishing a child "felt like an amputation," as one mother puts it. But why do those words—"I gave up a child for adoption" —fail to elicit the same sympathy, the same judgment of innocence, as "I'm adopted"? Doesn't a cloud of shame, weakness or error still hang over those women? And isn't that why they don't tell you, and why you'd rather not know?
Ann Fessler's book, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade, a potent blend of oral history and sociology just out in paperback, needs you to know. "It is a story," Fessler writes, "best told by the mothers themselves, and best understood within the context of the time period." Fessler interviewed American women who gave up children after World War II but before legal abortion—a conformist, suburban, sex-terrified time that birthed rigid expectations of middle-class decorum and domestic roles.
Fessler's subjects tell absorbing variations on this story: Sexual naïveté led to a teenage pregnancy (often from her first sexual intercourse) that she tried to hide or deny; coldly furious parents hushed the situation and disappeared her to a Florence Crittenton home or some other hideaway; after a lonely, drugged birth, she felt the soul-changing joy of holding her infant, then a social worker or Catholic functionary coerced her, along with her parents and often illegally, into signing the papers that disowned her baby. In fact, she never felt it was her decision—the baby was simply taken from her. She was "just this surrogate receptacle," as one irate mother says.
Then, years of grief. Drugs, promiscuity, willful uglifying obesity. Emotional frigidity, abusive or D.O.A. marriages, depression, inexplicable chronic ailments that flared up annually around her relinquished child's birthday. Too many kids too poorly parented in desperate compensation for her loss. A haunted, anguished, enraged woman—"I've lived most of my adult life... just numb, in order to exist"—living only for the hope of a reunion with her child.
With some editing, the stories gathered and published in The Girls Who Went Away would make a searing evening of theatrical monologues. But Fessler, who is a visual artist—and an adoptee—has translated them into a different setting: two multimedia installations currently at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies.
You might start with Cliff & Hazel. In a space that is part gallery, part simulated family room, the walls are hung with enlarged color snapshots of the Fesslers. One shows a young Ann and her (adopted) brother opening Christmas presents; on the floor is a box containing a kids' shooting game called, ironically (and heartbreakingly), "Mother Hen Target"—if you hit the target on the hen with suction arrows from a plastic gun, she laid an egg. In another photo, Ann's adoptive mother, Hazel, gleefully brandishes a fan of ten-dollar bills like a winning poker hand.
The center of the room is carpeted, with a comfortable sofa and a television (housed in a wooden cabinet to suggest age). A mobile of Fessler family photographs dangles over the TV, which plays a looping 23-minute video that Fessler made while visiting home for Hazel's 80th birthday. The POV is all Fessler's from behind the camera (and in a narrative voiceover) as she follows her mother around the house and town. Painful awkwardness ensues. Hazel calls the Lebanese restaurant they eat at "lesbian." Ann finds the meticulous, hand-recorded financial ledgers of Cliff Fessler, Ann's adoptive father. An archetypal Midwestern paterfamilias, he built a nest egg for a disaster that never came; Ann notes flatly, almost meanly, that her father spent his last few years in a nursing home, wearing diapers. Later, Hazel, who loves shopping, overdraws her checking account for the first time, and Fessler captures her mother's traumatized reaction on tape. (A great deal of the adoption story, in Fessler's book and out, seems driven by money and class. This is perhaps no surprise, given the time period in question, but it's troubling. One surrendering mother inveighs against the "industry" of American adoption, which was in turn a subsidiary business of the Eisenhower-era cultural manufactory.)
The room that holds the second installation, Everlasting, is eerier. It has only a carpet pad, no carpet; the upholstery on the sides of the five armchairs has been cut out: the comforts of the family room ripped away. Projected on a wall is a silent, black-and-white archival film loop of nurses wheeling babies, two-by-two, around the corner of an institutional hospital corridor. A 17-minute sound collage plays of some of Fessler's interviewees. The form is expressionistic—five discrete speakers pipe in overlapping voices—but the women collaborate on a linear narrative account, from pregnancy to sequestration to birth, then surrender and sorrow. It's oddly comforting, after reading the transcriptions in The Girls Who Went Away, to hear these harrowing stories told and warmed by the actual voices.
About 1.5 million young women gave up their children for adoption between 1945-73. For some, surrender may have been the best choice. (The Mistress's Daughter, a disquieting new memoir by the novelist A. M. Homes, an adoptee, presents such a case.) But Fessler's subjects remind you that the choice wasn't theirs—"I was an unwilling accomplice to the kidnapping of my own child," says one—and neither Fessler's book nor her installations support it. Her work is a call to bring together all the bereft mothers and children, strangers wandering the earth, and tell them: "Embrace!"
Ann Fessler's installations, Everlasting: The Girls Who Went Away and Cliff & Hazel, are at the Center for Documentary Studies, 1317 W. Pettigrew St., Durham, through July 8. Fessler will read from and sign The Girls Who Went Away at CDS Thursday, June 28, 7-9 p.m. For more information, visit cds.aas.duke.edu or call 660-3663.