Emotions ran high as Ann Fessler’s work brought many back to the realities of their own lives.
Birth parents, adopted adults and others involved in the adoption process listened as Fessler described her experience in writing “The Girls Who Went Away” in an appearance at Elmer L. Anderson Library. The book features birth mothers’ reflections on giving up their children for adoption in the United States in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.
Kim Park Nelson, an adoptee from Korea and an American studies graduate student at the University, participated in a question-and-answer forum with Fessler.
“The response of the birth moms is extraordinary,” Nelson said. “What happened 40 years ago (in the United Sates) is happening in other places today.”
After World War II, attitudes toward having a child out of wedlock changed. Many social workers in pre-war years tried to keep mother and child together. But afterward, ideals of an unflawed, nuclear family structure prompted social workers to encourage women to give up their babies.
Also, sexual education, accessibility to birth control and abortion were unheard of or illegal in most places at the time, Fessler said. She described a similar conservative push she feels today toward abstinence-only education.
Nelson said she’d consider finding her birth parents but only after finishing her dissertation on adoption.
Fessler, an adoptee herself, said her interest in pursuing the topic sparked when she met a woman at an exhibit. She said she’d seen the woman in a dream the night before.
The two approached one another, Fessler said, recalling the woman’s words: “You could be my long-lost daughter.”
They realized after talking that Fessler’s birth date didn’t match up with the woman’s daughter’s birth date, despite commonalities the two shared.
The woman’s story of grief over the loss of her daughter matched the detailed accounts of many other birth mothers, Fessler said.
“I had to find a way to collect these stories … and get them out there,” she said. Ultimately, Fessler, who is also a visual artist and professor at the Rhode Island Institute of Design, realized her goal through art exhibits and an oral history project.
After her work gained publicity, publishers approached her about writing a book, forcing her to put aside a documentary film she was working on, she said.
Fessler spent two days researching at the University’s social welfare archive, archivist David Klaassen said.
“What she found here was the other side of the desk … a perspective she went way beyond with her interviewing,” he said.
Fessler researched internal documents from a Florence Crittenton home, a place that housed unwed pregnant women during the era covered in her book.
Fessler said many adopted children and adults feel abandoned by mothers who they think didn’t want them when in fact many of these mothers would have chosen to parent.
The years discussed in Fessler’s book curtail at the ’70s, when social norms changed and women began choosing their own destinies, she said. Divorce rates went up, women’s earning potential increased, new laws made it illegal to force pregnant women to quit school and the Roe v. Wade precedent made abortions safe and legal.
Fessler said her book takes an objective stance on the issue of abortion.
“I interviewed a full range of women … both pro-life and pro-choice,” she said. Though they are related, Fessler pointed out that adoption and abortion are separate issues.
Fessler supports legislation that would open records for adopted adults. Policies on what adoptees are given access to vary based on agency, circumstance and state, she said.
“(Adoptees are) the only citizens who do not have access to their identifying information,” she said.
Adoptees should have access to records pertaining to medical history and nationality, she said.
Connie Roller, an adoption services counselor at Catholic Charities, attended Fessler’s talk. She said she supports Fessler’s work but not all her views.
“Adoption today is different … birth parents direct the process,” she said. Most adoptions today are open and have been so since the ’80s, Roller said.
Before that, particularly in the time period Fessler researched, a good amount of adoptions were done in confidentiality.
“I don’t have the right to go back and take (confidentiality) away (in past adoptions),” Roller said.
Parents in past decades gave up their children under the condition of anonymity, Roller said. She feels it would be unfair to change that now.
Fessler said even if documents were opened to adoptees, birth parents could be able to file a no-contact form with the state.
Although they disagree on some points, Fessler and Roller feel the discussion surrounding the issue is important.
“We have some disagreements … but we support people coming forward (to share their stories),” Roller said.