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The Girls Who Went Away

by Ann Fessler Penguin; $15



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Ann Fessler creates a compelling narrative by giving voice to women who were silenced by their families, friends, clergy, and society when they were faced with crisis pregnancies five decades ago. There is 16-year-old Annie, whose mother says, “Someday you’ll thank me,” as she takes away her baby. And there is Nancy, who knows so little about reproduction that, at four months pregnant, she asks her mother where the baby comes out.

More than a collection of personal stories, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade is an indictment of the conventions that kept women powerless, socially and economically, to make decisions about their lives. Fessler portrays a middle-class society in which sexual norms were changing, access to birth control and reproduction information was severely restricted, and young women were held to vastly different standards than young men.

This book illustrates how far adoption has come. Today, adoption is openly acknowledged and celebrated. Newspaper features on families formed through adoption are commonplace, and industries have sprung up to support and treat, and market products to, birthmothers and adoptive families. And far from being hidden, their pregnancies denied, single women who become pregnant and decide on adoption now select, and usually meet, their child’s adoptive parents.

Although the intimate stories these women told to Fessler vary, they share one strong element. All these women who were forced into adoption plans struggled with the loss of their children for the rest of their lives. In exposing a dark past, The Girls Who Went Away reveals the extent to which adoption has evolved.

Reviewed by Sue Gainor, who serves on the national board of Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption (FRUA). She lives in the Washington, D.C., area with her husband and two sons.

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