Wednesday, July 29, 2009

the girls who went away

this is the kind of book that gets me every time: devastatingly intense stories of suffering.

the book is the stories of women who gave up their babies for adoption in the 50s and 60s, before abortion was legal. 'gave up' is misleading -- they were almost never given a choice in the matter, forced by parents and the maternity home staff to give in to protect everyone's false, fragile sense of propriety. it is painful, brutal reading: how these traumas influenced these women all their lives.

one interesting historical tidbit: these maternity homes were originally religious institutions, devoted to "saving fallen women." they acted as refuges and supports, even if their philosophy and attitude was patronizing. they did not try to separate babies and mothers. they felt that women's fallen ways were related to their social background and environment.

ironically, the professional, social-science-oriented people who supplanted them in the 40s and 50s were absurdly off-base, scientifically and humanistically, as compared to these religious workers. the professional types saw out of wedlock births as a social disease to be treated. part of this treatment was to remove babies from the girls as a way to encourage them to wipe the slate clean and be proper members of society. as if such a thing were possible. as one such woman says in the book, adoption "amputates families."

the greatest numbers of shunned young women were from the striving middle classes, the Leave it to Beaver types obsessed with a proper performance. this cruel, inhuman, false suburban myth sacrificed these girls' interests. not one of them wanted to give their babies up; many fought; none were supported or even queried as to what they wanted. they were stigmatized and told they had shamed everyone.

from this perspective those good religious people of 90 or 100 years ago had it much more right than the social "scientists" of mid-century. these latter were no more than handmaidens to cruel, inhumane policies. they were handmaidens to power.

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