Bookshelf: The Girls Who Went Away


Sadly, Memorial Day Weekend is shaping up to be a bust here in New England in terms of the weather.  The good news?  You can curl up with a good book and catch up on your reading!

Looking for something to read that will undoubtedly ignite a chord within you?  I am almost finished with Ann Fessler’s non-fiction book entitled The Girls Who Went Away and I am completely astounded by the subject matter.  Fessler conducted in-depth interviews with women who surrendered their babies for adoption between 1945-1973.  Over 1.5 million women gave their babies up for adoption, most of whom were sent away in shame to homes for unwed mothers.  There, they waited out the pregnancies, delivered their babies, signed them away, and returned home.

Hands-down, the most shocking part of the stories were repeatedly hearing how poorly these young women were treated by society, and worse, by their own families.  One woman recalls having to ride around town lying down in the back of the car so nobody would see her baby bump.  Another retold how she was only allowed upstairs in her house, god forbid the neighbors find out what she had done to herself.  A third talks about a neighbor stopping by unannounced.  In a tizzy, her mother locked her in the downstairs bathroom and told her not to make a peep.  One woman talked about being egged and pelted with rotten vegetable by neighbors whenever the girls ventured out of the home for unwed mothers.  They were made to wear fake wedding rings in public to mask the fact that they were not married.

Pregnant mothers were viewed as a societal travesty.  It is shocking to think that this was only a generation ago.  In most cases, parents were far more concerned with protecting the family reputation than their daughter’s emotional well-being.  The young women were given little to no option except to surrender their babies.  Equally worse was that they were expected to return home after giving birth and integrate smoothly back into everyday life.  One woman remembers begging for therapy.  When her parents finally consented, they drove her to a psychiatrist two towns away so that nobody would see their car there.  Thankfully, she was prescribed antidepressants.  After a couple of weeks, her mother flushed them all down the toilet.  She simply was not comfortable with admitting that her daughter needed help and chose denial instead.

When I think back on giving birth, I can’t imagine going through it alone.  Yet most of these young women did.  Story upon story describes nuns or house mothers dropping girls off curbside at the hospital, or worse, sending them via taxi.  Upon arrival, they were given an enema and were shaved.  Every woman in the book recalls being shocked and humiliated by this process, followed by a sense of terror as they labored alone for hours on end.  Many said it was if they were being taught a lesson: don’t let this happen again.

After the babies were born, some were allowed to bond with their babies and others weren’t.  In all cases, stories of saying goodbye were heart-wrenching.  Many look back and describe the details as blurry, likely the result of being so emotionally traumatized that they’ve blocked them out.

Perhaps one downside to the book is that it covers over one hundred women’s stories, so does feel a bit repetitive at times.  A friend of mine who is also reading the book told me she couldn’t take reading another story.  Conversely, I felt like I couldn’t pass by anyone’s story.  I read each story, craving to share a cup of tea with each woman, to know them all on a personal level.

If this is a topic that you find intriguing, I encourage you to read the book.   It has had a profound impact on me, and will certainly ignite a thought-provoking discussion for any book group.

Happy Reading!



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