Rave On: Jennifer Baumgardner on The Girls Who Went Away
Welcome to "Rave On," a new Page Turner series that asks feminist writers, artists, musicians, activists, leaders, and scholars to talk about a book that completely rocked their world. The series highlights books that led people to first identify as feminist, shaped their feminist ideology, radically transformed their view of feminism and our world, or just moved them so deeply that they read the book a bunch of times and then made all their friends read it, too.
Our series kicks off with writer Jennifer Baumgardner, who raves about 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.
Around Christmastime 2006, I attended a book party hosted by Karenna Gore for Ann Fessler. I had already read the New York Times Book Review review of The Girls Who Went Away—and it was a rave—but I think my main motivation to go to the party was to hang out with my friend Amy. Fessler, the author, is an adoptee and also an artist (she teaches photography at Rhode Island School of Design). She interviewed women who had surrendered their babies pre-Roe (i.e. before there was any semblance of reproductive options for women) and played an audio-pastiche at the party of the women's stories, in their own voices.
I had recently had a child out of wedlock, and it was wrenching to hear from women for whom that was not an option. So many of them were coerced into giving up their children, told that there was no way they could possibly be a good mother, that the most maternal thing they could do was to allow another "proper" family to have their baby. They lived in maternity homes, gave birth without any emotional support, and then were told to just go back to their lives (finishing high school, often) as if "nothing had ever happened." I was sobbing as I listened.
So, I bought the book. But each time I began reading it, the tears came and I had to stop reading. Finally, on a flight from New York to San Francisco to begin my 2007 book tour for Look Both Ways, I read the book cover to cover, not worrying about what a scene I was creating with my sniffles. Each story was more heartbreaking than I thought imaginable. The level of societal denial (my own ignorance!) around birth mothers, particularly back then when it took unbelievable fortitude to be an unmarried mother (and you were destined to be a pariah), was a revelation for me. I had always been so drawn to reproductive freedom and justice as a catalyzing issue—but had never understood or really thought about the adoption piece.
I don't feel like having a child is in any way hardwired for women or the most meaningful thing we can do. I think you can have a great life without children, as Ann Fessler's own life proves. But I do think it is an unbelievably profound experience to become pregnant, to feel another human being growing inside you for the better part of a year, to undergo the dramatic hormonal and physical transformation required to make a baby, to labor for 24 or so hours and experience some of the most intense pain and unfamiliar sensations possible, and to squeeze out a wriggling, autonomous human being. It's hardly something you can treat—want to treat—as if it never happened. The women in this book were told that they were lucky someone else was there to pick up the pieces of their "mistake." They were never acknowledged as mothers.
Later that year, I contacted Ann Fessler, the author, to interview her for a book I was writing called Abortion & Life. I said I had seen her once in person at the aforementioned book party. "I was the woman sobbing on the couch," I said. "Ah, yes," said Ann. "I remember you."
Jennifer Baumgardner is a New York-city based writer working on a film project about rape, called "I Was Raped," and new book with Amy Richards, called The Family Bed. She teaches writing at The New School.
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