Thursday, December 3, 2009

Birth Stories, Social Histories, and Master Narratives

Today's recommendation is 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.

I read this book for the first time a few years ago. I picked it up on impulse in the bookstore and sat and read half of it. I was never particularly interested in adoption but the arrangement of personal narratives and preservation of voice within the book is so compelling that I couldn't resist. Originally based on a video installation piece, Fessler's work weaves together individual narratives to paint something akin to a cultural study. Rather than providing dry historical or social explanations for the vast difference readers will feel while reading her work, Fessler lets the multiplicity of the individuals paint the historic and social picture with very little framing - a masterful feat.

The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade is structured like a collection of birth stories. Everyone likes birth stories (Right? Maybe?) or at least understands them because they follow a roughly familiar plot that often ends happily ever after. But the stories in The Girls Who Went Away turn this "master narrative" on its head with wrenching and small differences. You could watch approximately the same story on TLC (dumbed significantly down, of course), but in this book the trajectories are different. I'm no expert - I don't have children and probably never will - but the compelling feature of birth stories, for me, is the inherently forward-looking impulse they have. Biologically, there are few features. The stories end joyfully in the same place. But the "birth stories" in this book begin from different places - disappointed or repressive parents, abusive high school boyfriends - a power differential. By and large, they continue in seclusion and end in grief and tragedy and longing. They are not forward looking; their narrative thrust ends in a vast unknown quantity of near infinitude. The only known quotient is the past. I guess it's this subversion of predicted narratives that interests me.

Even if it doesn't, The Girls Who Went Away is a sensitively and beautifully felt portrayal of a society that essentially no longer exists: A society in which it was acceptable and even preferred to send young girls away to give birth in seclusion rather than face single motherhood or let others know they were pregnant. We can't ignore that this society existed. Therefore, The Girls Who Went Away is an important book. And that is why it is today's recommendation.


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