Oral history featuring the voices of women who gave up their babies for adoption from 1945 to 1973, put into context by the author’s exposition on the mood of the times.
Fessler (Photography/Rhode Island School of Design), a video-installation artist and adoptee who has created a number of autobiographical works on adoption, recorded some one hundred women. Narratives from 18 of them appear here, with shorter selections from many others. Drawing on government statistics, sociology, history, medical and legal texts, as well as personal journals and the popular press, she surrounds their stories with descriptions of social mores during the three postwar decades. In an era when sex education was meager and birth control difficult to obtain, more than 1.5 million babies were given up for adoption. The notion that these children were simply not wanted by their mothers is quickly dispelled by the stories told here, which make it immediately clear that the unwed women, many still teenagers, had little choice. Adoption was presented as the only route that would preserve a girl’s reputation. She was told to surrender the baby, forget what had happened and move on with her life. Fessler’s transcripts reveal that forgetting was impossible and moving on not easily done. Although the stories are at times repetitious, individual voices speak clearly of guilt, abandonment, loneliness, helplessness, fear and coercion. For many, shame and secrecy shaped their lives for years afterward, affecting their relationships with husbands and subsequent offspring, even the ability to form healthy marriages or bear children. The author brackets these oral histories with the story of her own long-delayed search for her birth mother and their eventual meeting. By giving voice to these women, Fessler has enabled adoptees to view the circumstances of their birth with greater understanding.
A valuable contribution to the literature on adoption.