In 1995, my mother had jet black hair that was usually tied up with a soft scrunchie. When she smiled, it looked like the scrunchie tugged at the corners of her mouth to reveal the happiness beaming inside of her. She was 17 years old, madly in love and pregnant. Her story began much like the ones in the book “The Girls Who Went Away” by Ann Fessler. The difference, however, was that she kept me.
I discovered “The Girls Who Went Away” last year while taking a class called Women in American Society. A few pages from the book were assigned reading, so I read them online in the Pollak Library, surrounded by people whose effervescent laughter rang in my ears.
The computer flickered as I read the words “Good Girls v. Bad Girls,” the title of the third chapter. I was intrigued by what could have been the author’s definition of a good girl and a bad girl, especially since I was viewing it through the lens of my own feminist perspective.
I leaned closer to the screen as my eyes swallowed each word whole. All of the laughter around me suddenly went mute. My heart staggered along with the writing on the pages in a rhythm. I was captivated.
The chapter detailed some statistics of the so-called “bad girls” in the decades before Roe v. Wade who had gotten pregnant out of wedlock and faced harsh social consequences because of it. More often than not, the women were sent to maternity homes where they went through their pregnancy in secret and were forced to give their child up for adoption.
Each page was layered with quotes from women who had the same experiences. As I read their narratives, I could hear their voices telling me about their trials and tribulations.
And I imagined women who were so much like my mother when she found out she was pregnant with me: nervous and happy. But they were more barred by social restrictions on contraception, sex and pregnancy, and while my mother faced these restrictions too, she did at a much less severe rate.
I itched to read the rest of the book, so I decided to buy it. Living on a student budget complicated this, but I managed to find a well-priced used version of the book on Amazon.
In the week that I had waited for my book to arrive, I did some research on the book itself. I learned that the author of the book was an adoptee herself, which drove her to research the girls who went away.
I came home from a long day at school to find that the book arrived earlier than I expected. It was wrapped in soft orange packaging and when I tore it open in excitement the book spilled out in nearly perfect condition.
I smoothed my hand over the hardcover, which pictured parts of two women’s faces. One had a dark-colored bob and the other had cornsilk hair that reached her shoulders. They smiled earnestly like my mother, only without the scrunchie.
I felt like I had the journals of the many women in the book.
I opened the book carefully, as if I was peering into the lives of women I could only get so close to.
It was then that I unearthed another story.
On the first blank page of the book was a handwritten note from a mother to her child. It was dated back to 2009. In it, the mother explained that she hoped the book would help her son understand the era she grew up in and why she had to give his brother up.
In her TED talk on storytelling, Sisonke Msimang, a feminist and social justice advocate, said, “Sometimes it’s the messages we don’t want to hear, the ones that make us want to crawl out of ourselves, that we need to hear the most.”
Reading that note made the history within the book reality to me. It was no longer just pages full of text, nor was it just an interesting assignment.
It was me, the author, the women in the book, my mother and the woman in the note all sitting together at a table drawing on the extraordinary circumstances that brought us together. I’ve come to believe it’s those very circumstances that have allowed me to embrace feminism to the fullest extent and be thankful that I was never separated from my mom because she was a young mother.
I often wonder how such a meaningful and personal book ended up in my hands, but there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t try to give meaning to it.