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'The Girls Who Went Away': Birth Mothers' Stories

Ann Fessler talks about her new book, The Girls Who Went Away. Using her own story of adoption as a basis for her book, Fessler tells the story of over a million women who surrendered children for adoption prior to legalized abortion. Fessler is a photography professor at the Rhode Island School of Design.

18:24

Other segments from the episode on May 16, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 16, 2006: Interview with Rebecca Clarren; Interview with Ann Fessler.

Transcript

DATE May 16, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Rebecca Clarren and Katherine Spillar of Ms. Magazine
discuss sweatshops in the Mariana Islands

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Some of your clothing with labels that say "made in the USA" or "made in
Saipan USA" or "made in Northern Mariana Islands USA." they have been made in
sweatshops on islands thousands of miles away by garment workers who are
nearly indentured servants. Efforts to reform those conditions were
repeatedly stalled in Congress in efforts led by Congressman Tom DeLay and
lobbyist Jack Abramoff. How DeLay and Abramoff did it and what the
consequences have been is the subject of an article in the current edition of
Ms. Magazine, titled "Paradise Lost: Greed, Sex Slavery, Forced Abortions
and Right Wing Moralists." My guests are the reporter Rebecca Clarren and the

executive editor of Ms. Katherine Spillar.

The Northern Mariana Islands were one of Jack Abramoff's first big lobbying
accounts. Located in the Pacific, the islands have been a US territory since
1976 and are exempt from US labor and immigration laws. The Marianas are a
territory of the United States. What advantages did that give the Marianas
economically in terms of having clothing factories that then sold their
garments in the United States mainland?

Ms. KATHERINE SPILLAR: It meant that the clothing manufactured on the
Marianas could say "made in the USA." They could be then sold in the United
States without any quota restrictions on the amount of clothing that was being
sold. So it was estimated at one time roughly $2 billion a year of garments
were being sold in the US that had been manufactured in the Marianas. No
quotas and no tariffs because it was like bringing garments in from Texas or
California to New York. So no tariffs, no quotas, "Made in the USA" label,
sub-standard minimum wages, and no real control over working conditions.

GROSS: Rebecca, why are there so many clothing factories in the Marianas, and
maybe you could mention the names of some of the companies that have factories
there?

Ms. REBECCA CLARREN: They're sub-contractors. Companies like Ann Taylor,
J.Jill, the Gap, Ralph Lauren. They don't actually manufacture their own
clothing there. They sub-contract to different companies there. And they do
this because, for two reasons, because the Mariana Islands are part of the
United States, the labels on the clothing that's produced there can say "made
in the USA." And yet they can do this because it's this different situation
and different dynamic there. The islands have a different set of immigration
and labor laws than pertain to places in the states. So they have a
sub-standard minimum wage, and they have an expansive guest worker program
where they bring women from poor Southeast Asian countries to work there. So
that means that they can produce the clothes a lot more cheaply than they
could in like California, for example.

GROSS: The Marianas were a client of lobbyist Jack Abramoff's. In fact, the
Marianas were described as the client that really helped make his reputation,
that really helped establish him. What did they hire him to do?

Ms. SPILLAR: They hired Abramoff in 1995, the government of the Northern
Mariana Islands, because by then enough information had begun to come out and
some members of Congress began to push for reforms to increase the minimum
wage and to establish stricter enforcement of labor laws. And to close these
loopholes in the immigration controls that had led to the flooding in of
foreign guest workers who, at the whim of their employer, could be deported.
So they couldn't even complain if the work conditions were sweatshop type
conditions, which they were. So there had begun to be a real move for reform,
and Abramoff was brought in because of his relationship to the leadership,
especially in the House. And he delivered for them.

He and his team over several years brought in over $11 million in lobbying
fees. But he immediately set about to make sure that any of these reform
bills that would pass say the Senate--and frequently, by the way, they did
unanimously pass the Senate, bipartisan support for increasing the minimum
wage and correcting these abuses--that he would make sure they were killed in
the House. And he did that by developing a close relationship with Tom DeLay,
who would make sure that these bills died in the House Resources Committee and
never made it to the floor for a vote.

GROSS: Now one of the tactics that Jack Abramoff used was, you know, to help
postpone or kill reform legislation, was to fund trips by congressman to the
Mariana Islands, junkets basically. What did he try to accomplish with these
junkets and what were they like?

Ms. SPILLAR: Well, he even bragged in correspondence to the governor of the
Northern Mariana Islands that his most effective lobbying tool was arranging
these junkets, many of them all expense paid. Over a hundred members of
Congress or their staff and families ended up going on these trips in the mid
to late 90s to--it's a beautiful island, by all accounts resort atmosphere,
beautiful seas. And that's mostly, of course, where these trips ended up,
although they had to take the obligatory visit to one of the pre-arranged,
approved garment factories. So they only were allowed entry into model
factories. Tom DeLay was one of the recipients of one of these trips. He and
his daughter and his wife, and over time six different of his top aides back
and forth some of them to the islands. All so that he could speak firsthand,
I guess, about what he had seen there.

GROSS: So Tom DeLay ended up working against reform in the Mariana Islands.
What were his tactics to get congressmen to not vote for reform?

Ms. SPILLAR: Well Tom DeLay was in a leadership position for the Republicans
in the House and had tremendous influence over whether bills would be
scheduled for a vote so that if the, somehow, these reform measures made it
through the resources committee, although they didn't, Tom DeLay was always
there as the backup so that if something came out of committee he could simply
make sure that the vote in the House was never scheduled. And without the
vote in the House, the Senate's actions didn't make any difference because you
have to have both Houses to pass legislation. And in this case the
legislative efforts were focused on increasing the minimum wage and
establishing US government control over the immigration system in the
Marianas. So in all cases, 29 different bills were killed in the House
Resources Committee, some of which had been passed unanimously by the Senate.
So it was a very effective strategy that Abramoff employed, focusing on the
Resources Committee. Most of the Republican members of that committee by, the
way, made trips to the Marianas. So it was a very effective strategy, always
knowing that if it got through committee Tom DeLay was there to make sure
nothing would really pass.

Ms. CLARREN: I just wanted to add that not everyone who went to the Mariana
Islands walked away feeling good about the situation. Frank Murkowski, former
senator from Alaska, he went and was appalled by what he saw and came back to
DC and drafted reform legislation that then ended up passing unanimously in
the Senate.

Ms. SPILLAR: Rebecca makes a good point because in both cases, in not only
in the Senate, and Senator Murkowski was the leading proponent of reforms in
the Senate. But in the House, too, there was tremendous bipartisan support
for reforms. In fact, one of the bills had so many co-sponsors in the House
that it was such a clear majority that if they'd simply taken a vote on it, it
would have passed. And we would have had new minimum wage requirements for
the Marianas, and new immigration requirements. But that's how effective the
Abramoff-DeLay web of influence was, that they could, even when a bill had
majority support in the House, they could kill it in committee to make sure
these reforms never became law.

GROSS: Now, Tom DeLay told the Washington Post that the Marianas were a petri
dish for capitalism. And on one of DeLay's trips to the Marianas, he said,
`When one of my closest and dearest friends Jack Abramoff, the most able
representative in Washington, DC, invited me to the islands, I wanted to see
firsthand the free market success and the progress and reform you have made.'
And then DeLay went on to praise the governor and he said, `You are a shining
light for what is happening in the Republican Party and you represent
everything that is good about what we are trying to do in America in leading
the world in the free market system.' And Grover Norquist, founder of
Americans for Tax Reform, and one of the most powerful conservative leaders in
Washington, promoted the Marianas as models of free enterprise. Rebecca, you
went to the Marianas to see what the conditions were actually like at the
clothing factories there. Why don't you describe some of the things that you
saw?

Ms. CLARREN: Well, Martin von Krogh, the photographer, and I were able to
get into one of the factories. And you have to assume that because we were
granted a tour, it is one of the very best factories there. And, in deed, it
was well lit. There was room in the aisles. But the women there are working
really long hours, often 20 hours a day. They almost seem as if they are a
part of the machinery. They are so intent on the job at hand. The air is
thick. It's quite dusty. Under OSHA regulations they should all have masks,
but people told me they never have that unless there was a tour that day for
OSHA or visiting member of Congress. So they would make makeshift pieces of
cloth that they would put across their nose and mouth. Women told me that
with those long hours at times you become exhausted and the needle will just
go right through your finger. There's counters over the sewing machines that
tell how many pieces of garment they have completed in an hour, and if you
aren't meeting that quota, you may not be eligible for overtime. You may not
be eligible at the end of the year for your contract to be renewed. There's
constant pressure on these women to be working like machines.

GROSS: My guests are Rebecca Clarren, who wrote the article on the Marianas
in the current edition of Ms., and Katherine Spillar, the executive editor of
Ms. Magazine. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: We're talking about an article in Ms. Magazine investigating the
efforts of Congressman Tom DeLay and lobbyist Jack Abramoff to block efforts
to reform working conditions in the Northern Mariana Islands. My guests are
the reporter Rebecca Clarren and the executive editor of Ms. Katherine
Spillar.

The Marianas are a commonwealth. They are an American territory, so American
immigration laws do not apply in the Marianas. So a lot of the women who are
workers at these clothing factories come from other countries, China, the
Philippines, Thailand, I believe, as well. These women are poor and they come
to the Marianas thinking that they'll find better work there. But they come
as guest workers. Rebecca, what does that mean?

Ms. CLARREN: Well, what that means is that they are only there at the behest
of their employer. And if their employer doesn't want them there anymore,
they have to leave. And one thing that is critical to understand about this
dynamic, which sets up a situation which has been compared to something like
indentured servitude, is that for the privilege of getting a job in the United
States, these women pay recruitment fees which can be upwards of $7,000. They
come from poor villages. The garment workers mostly come from China. They
don't have that kind of money. If they work in a factory in China, they're
making about 60 cents an hour. So they borrow this money either from their
family, often from their entire village, often they borrow it from Chinese
mafia money lenders who can charge, I was told, up to 20 percent interest. So
these women come over with these huge, huge debts that they have to repay.
And they can't afford to lose their jobs. And that sets up the system of
incredible vulnerability. Before I went over there I thought, `Who wants to
work 20 hours a day? That's awful.' But no, no, these women want to work as
much as they possibly can to pay back those fees because until they pay back
those fees they can't start even saving any money.

And because they're there as guests, their contract is only for a year at a
time and then they may get the chance to get their contract renewed. Women
are usually told by their recruiters, `Oh, you'll be able to stay for several
years.' But if they do something wrong, if they say they don't want to work
that overtime, if they get pregnant and decide to keep their child they're
mostly asked to leave. In every case, actually, they were told, as I was
told, they were asked to leave.

GROSS: Is this only if they're single or if they're married too?

Ms. CLARREN: If they're married as well. As a guest worker, their employers
are responsible for all their medical care as well. And their employers don't
want to deal with anyone who is sick. And they don't want to deal with paying
for a pregnancy. And so women just have a general expectation that they're
going to have to get an abortion.

I was taken on a little abortion clinic tour. And I went and saw at least
four different places that outside are signs that say `massage oils, Chinese
medicine, acupuncture clinic.' Then you apparently can go, it's very easy, you
go into one of these clinics and you get a pill. It's what we would call in
this country a medical abortion. And you get some pills and then you will
have an abortion there. And, of course, these are people running these
clinics that have no oversight. They don't have any certification to be doing
these sorts of procedures.

GROSS: Rebecca, were there other themes that emerged from interviewing, and
you interviewed about 30 women who were guest workers in the Marianas?

Ms. CLARREN: I would say that the sense of desperation is palpable. The
fear of these women are palpable. They don't want their photo taken. They
are living in a lot of poverty because of this pressure to pay back this
money. I visited, one night Martin and I went, it was a rainy night. We went
down this dirt road to visit where some of these women are living, who have
chosen not to live in the factory owned barracks where they would have to pay
money that was taken out of their salary. They, instead, are choosing to live
in places where corrugated tin roofs, the concrete slabbed floor, the
quote-unquote kitchens are just a few hot plates on a slab of concrete and
some water in plastic buckets, nine people sharing one toilet. They can't
afford to really buy much food, and so they just are living on frozen
vegetables that they buy.

GROSS: So the kinds of problems you're talking about, bad working conditions,
guest workers who are virtually indentured servants, women who get pregnant
and feel they have to have an abortion or else they'll lose their job. With
the reforms that were proposed in Congress, the reforms that were blocked by
Tom DeLay with Jack Abramoff, would those reforms have addressed the kind of
problems you're talking about?

Ms. SPILLAR: Yes, significantly so. First, just increasing the minimum wage
would have made these women's lives so much easier. To pay them at least the
$5.15 that is the minimum wage standard here in the states.

GROSS: So these reforms would say that American labor laws would have to
apply to the territory of the Mariana Islands?

Ms. SPILLAR: Exactly. Exactly. And many more resources were needed to make
sure that these laws, not only minimum wage, but OSHA laws for safe working
conditions, and if a worker filed a complaint that they couldn't be fired and
summarily deported. All of those kinds of issues could be addressed through
these reform bills that dealt with both immigration as well as the minimum
wage. And so, by the way, these reforms are still languishing in Congress.
Congress could still act to correct these situations so that women there have
a more decent life and are not abused so by these employers.

GROSS: What about American immigration law? Would those laws apply to the
Mariana Islands if the reform bills were passed? And would that affect the
virtual indentured servitude that the guest workers face there?

Ms. SPILLAR: The immigration reforms would help enormously as well. It
would ensure that these kind of shadow contracts where the workers were having
to sign secret agreements to get abortions if they became pregnant and other,
you know, not to complain if they were not treated well. And then if they're
not treated well and they file a complaint, if US immigration law applied,
they couldn't be summarily deported and sent back to their homeland owing
these huge debts that Rebecca was talking about. So those kinds of reforms
are critically needed to correct these abuses.

The other immigration reforms would bring about less sex trafficking. Not
only are sex workers on the island, many of these garment workers are former
garment workers, but many of them are trafficked, under age girls as well,
trafficked to the Marianas, told they're going to be working in restaurants or
hotels and end up working in brothels. Those kinds of abuses, too, would then
come under our own immigration authorities and could be addressed.

GROSS: Although Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay were successful in blocking
legislation that would have reformed conditions in the clothing factories in
the Marianas, recently, though are some changes made. Anyway, the Marianas
were always exempt from certain tariffs because they're a territory of the
United States so they weren't subjected to those tariffs. How did the GATT
treaty last year level the playing field?

Ms. CLARREN: What that meant is that since those tariffs that had been
applicable to Chinese or Vietnamese companies, it had meant that it made a lot
of sense for them to set up shop in the Mariana Islands because they didn't
have to pay those fees anymore. But once those tariffs were lifted, why set
up shop in the Mariana Islands where, even though it's a sub-standard minimum
wage, you have to pay workers $3.05 an hour? You could set up that factory in
China and pay workers 60 cents an hour, and you aren't because the GATT treaty
has been lifted, they don't have to have a quota system, they don't have to
pay those additional fees. So it drove away the incentives that a lot of
businesses had for setting up garment factories in the Marianas.

GROSS: So are garment factories in the Marianas closing down now?

Ms. CLARREN: The factories are closing down by quite a bit, in fact. And
what that means is that you have this glut of workers. Even though factories
are closing down, there's still an incentive for the recruiters in China who
get a cut and it's money from all of those fees that the women are paying to
bring them over, so they're still continuing to bring people over to the
island. Even if there's not necessarily jobs. Even if those factories know
that they're going to close up shop in a month or two months after these women
arrive. And so you have all these people who are on the Mariana Island as
guest workers who are desperate to find jobs. Again, they have those big
fees. They have to pay them back.

This is basically a big coral reef, these islands. There's no natural
resource extraction to speak of, and the other real industry on the island is
tourism. There are big hotels that serve mainly Japanese and Korean tourists.
But there are not that many jobs, especially for Chinese workers who may not
have very good English. So what people end up doing is there's a thriving sex
industry on the island. There's a red light district called the Garapan, and
you walk around like 7:00 at night and there are former garment workers who
are now working as prostitutes.

GROSS: More on the Marianas in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross
and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Before legalized abortion, many single women who got pregnant were
encourage to hide their pregnancies by going away to a maternity home, then
giving up the child for adoption. Coming up Ann Fessler talks about her new
book "The Girls Who Went Away."

And we continue our interview about the Mariana sweatshops.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're talking about an article in the current edition of Ms. Magazine
investigating the role of Congressman Tom DeLay and lobbyist Jack Abramoff in
blocking reforms in the Northern Mariana Islands. The islands are a territory
of the US, which is exempt from American labor and immigration laws. The Ms.
article reports that these exemptions have made it possible to set up
sweatshops with employees who are nearly indentured servants. Rebecca Clarren
wrote the article. Katherine Spillar is the executive editor of Ms.
Magazine. She proposed the story.

Are there still bills before Congress now proposing reform in the Marianas?

Ms. SPILLAR: There's still interest in Congress to reform the situation in
the Marianas, and frankly to also address the fact that so many of these
workers are now stranded there as the garment industry is closing factories.
So there's tremendous interest, bills even that just continue to sit there.
But no real effort to move them still, even though Abramoff is now out of the
picture and Tom DeLay will soon resign. It's going to take a push. It's
going to take outrage by people in this country who believe what has happened
there is horrible and that the US could still act to correct the situation.
And we hope that this renewed attention is maybe going to spur interest in
correcting the situation there.

We also need, Terry, an investigation of what happened there. You know, most
of what's come out on these Abramoff scandals has to do with gambling
interests here in the United States. But real people were terribly hurt by
these scandals, thousands and thousands of women who toiled in these
factories, making clothing for the American market place.

GROSS: Now, the government of the Marianas apparently now wants Jack
Abramoff's lobbying firm to pay back millions that the government paid his
company. The government is now saying that Jack Abramoff's firm over billed
the government. What's that about?

Ms. SPILLAR: That's interesting because they certainly got what they paid
for, which is no reforms ever got through the United States Congress. Those
are some of the questions that should be looked at either in congressional
hearings or an independent counsel should be appointed to investigate what
happened to those fees. Were they used to pay for trips which is not
permitted? Who was paying for all those trips to the Marianas by these
members of Congress and their staffs and their families? And what other money
might have been paid? We know the garment industry paid at least $650,000
into the US Family Network, which is a non-profit that was set up by Tom DeLay
and some of his key people. Ed Buckham, former Chief of Staff, very involved
with Abramoff. So, you know, where was this money going? And where did it
end up? There doesn't seem to be much focus on that. We're looking instead
at the Indian gambling interests in the US, but what about the Marianas? And
what's going to happen to these women who are stranded there now? What can be
done to help them?

GROSS: The article in Ms. quotes a letter Jack Abramoff wrote to the
governor of the Marianas in which he said, "We've worked with the White House
Office of Presidential Personnel to insure that the Mariana relevant positions
at various agencies are not awarded to enemies of the Marianas." What do you
know about that note?

Ms. SPILLAR: Yes, Jack Abramoff was bragging about yet another success that
he pulled off for the Marianas. When Bush was elected president and decisions
were being made who to place into the appointed positions at the Department of
the Interior, which had oversight of the Marianas, and the Department of
Labor, which, of course, deals with minimum wage as well as violations of
labor laws, to be sure that some of Abramoff's former law partners or people
who were on his lobbying team at Greenberg Traurig and the Gates law firm in
fact got appointments. Assistant Secretary of Labor was a former Abramoff
associate. Appointments to the Department of the Interior former associates
of Abramoff's. So he was very quick to make sure that he was able to
influence some of these appointments in the new Bush Administration to make
sure that regulatory action wouldn't be taken, or investigations wouldn't be
launched into what was happening in the Marianas.

GROSS: After I read your article, I noticed that I have some T-shirts that
say "Made in the Marianas, (USA)." Why don't you explain the changes that
labeling has gone through from clothing that is made in factories in the
Marianas?

Ms. SPILLAR: Actually, I mean, they could still just say "made in the USA"
if they wanted to. But under tremendous pressure, frankly brought about by a
class action lawsuit on behalf of the workers in the Marianas, Global
Exchange, Sweatshop Watch, UNITE, the labor union that deals with garment
industry, brought lawsuits against the factory owners in the Marianas,
challenging their labor violations, some of the immigration violations as
well. But also challenging their right to claim that their garments were made
in the USA. And so under real pressure the garment industry began changing
all of that. And today most of the garments that are manufactured there do
say "made in Saipan (USA)" or "made in the Northern Marianas (USA)". So at
least you now know where those garments are coming from. But I think a lot of
consumers were fooled into thinking that they were buying clothing that was
made by USA workers in USA factories with decent standards. Never even
dreaming that they were supporting a sweatshop, virtually slave labor
situation on a territory of the United States.

GROSS: Well, thank you for talking with us about the story in Ms. Magazine.
Thank you both.

Ms. CLARREN: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Katherine Spillar is the executive editor of Ms. Magazine. Rebecca
Clarren wrote the article we've been discussing on the Mariana Islands.

Coming up, the maternity homes where many unwed pregnant woman use to go to
hide their pregnancies. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Author Ann Fessler discusses new book "The Girls Who
Went Away"

TERRY GROSS, host:

In the decades before abortion was legalized, many unwed pregnant women were
sent away to maternity homes where they could keep their pregnancies hidden
from their own communities. Typically, these women were urged to give up
their babies for adoption and were expected to then return home as if nothing
ever happened.

My guest Ann Fessler is the author of the new book "The Girls Who Went Away."
Fessler is an adoptee. Her birth mother was one of those women who was sent
away to a maternity home. Fessler's new book is based on conversations with
her birth mother and on interviews with over 100 other women who were between
the ages of 15 and 35 when they were pregnant.

Your book is about how a lot of unwed pregnant women were sent away from home
in the '40s, '50s and '60s to keep their pregnancies hidden. Remind us of
what the climate was like that made a lot of families feel like it was
necessary to send the women away.

Ms. ANN FESSLER: The climate at that time in post World War II America was
that many families were gaining ground economically. They were socially
mobile. They were moving up. And at that time to have an unmarried pregnant
daughter was associated with bad mothering and low social status. So despite
the fact that this was really a very frequent occurrence in middle class
families, they could afford to cover it up. They could afford to send their
daughter out of town, and essentially have her come back and say that she was,
you know, visiting a sick aunt or had an opportunity to go to Europe or
something to cover the story, and then sort of re-integrate into her middle
class life style.

GROSS: And, of course, if the girl was in high school and was pregnant, she
would be expelled after she started to show most likely.

Ms. FESSLER: Immediately.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. FESSLER: Yes. Until 1974, part of the Title IX amendment prevented
schools from expelling pregnant young women, both high schools and colleges.
And up until that time, many of the schools immediately upon learning that a
young woman was pregnant, they expelled her immediately. She had to leave the
school. Her education was interrupted. And the maternity homes did have some
educational--if they were large enough, they offered classes to the young
women who were in high school. And some of them finished out their education
at the maternity home.

GROSS: So what were the maternity homes like?

Ms. FESSLER: A lot of the young women say it was like going away to camp or
being in a large dorm in the sense that they might have, in some cases, they
shared a room. Most cases they shared a room, and some cases they had large
rooms that would have, you know, 12 beds in a room. And they, essentially,
they were confined to that maternity home. Occasionally they would go out in
groups, but they basically had activities to occupy the women's time. Younger
women very often could not leave the maternity home unless they were with
supervision of some kind. Sometimes older women could go out in small groups.
So during the day they usually had a list of chores, like scrubbing the
kitchen floors or helping in the kitchen or making beds. And then arts and
crafts classes, and sewing, and various domestic activities to occupy their
time.

One of the things that seemed somewhat remarkable to me is what was not really
done at the maternity homes, in most of them, was to give the women classes in
child birth and to give them some instruction and information about what was
to come.

GROSS: Well, most of the women you interviewed complained to you they were
completely unprepared for child birth.

Ms. FESSLER: Absolutely. First of all, at this time there was so little sex
education so there was no information about sex or pregnancy. And in the
maternity home you have a rather captive audience. They're all going to give
birth, yet, in most cases, they did not really tell the women anything about
what to expect. And they were terrified of giving birth. They had no idea
what was to come.

GROSS: And most of them in the maternity homes went through labor alone. I
guess they didn't have family with them?

Ms. FESSLER: No. Apparently, in most cases, it was the policy to not call
the family until after the birth. And so they were very often driven to the
hospital and dropped off at the front door by staff at the maternity home.
And they went in and admitted themselves, pregnant and in labor. And they
were instructed to tell people at the front desk that they were from "the
home."

And then they were sort of whisked into a room and prepped for delivery. And
they were put in a room, very often they were left by themselves. There was
no one there to be with them or hold their hand or give them any explanation
of what was happening to their bodies. And then at some point they were taken
into the labor room. And in some cases they were knocked out completely so
they would, theoretically, have no memory, or so they would have no memory of
the birth, and theoretically then not suffer the loss. And in other cases
they were awake during the birth of their child. But there was absolutely no
hand holding with this birth.

GROSS: Were the maternity homes linked up with adoption agencies so that
after the women staying at the maternity homes gave birth, the baby would go
to a specific adoption agency?

Ms. FESSLER: In some cases they were. So during the pregnancy certainly
there would be case workers assigned and the women would be talking to the
social worker. And it was clear, I mean, 80 percent of the women who went
into the maternity homes surrendered their children. So it was somewhat of a
foregone conclusion that this was going to be the case. That's how the social
workers and the adoption workers felt. And so, yes.

Now, when a woman actually tried to protest and said that, you know, to the
people at the maternity home that she did not want to surrender her child,
essentially she received a kind of barrage of sort of litany of these reasons
why if she loved her child she had to surrender. And that was that there were
better parents waiting, that she was unfit because she was unwed, that she
was, you know, a bad girl and her only option was to surrender.

GROSS: What kind of communities did the maternity homes tend to be located
in? Was there much interaction between the girls and young women who were
sent to the homes and the people who lived in that same neighborhood?

Ms. FESSLER: Some of the homes were located in, you know, very nice
neighborhoods. And some were located in very bad neighborhoods. And so one
woman I interviewed in California had gone to a home in Los Angeles. And she
had some very terrible incidences where whenever the young women would go out
of the home, neighbors would throw things at them and, you know, a lot of
women reported that people would drive by and yell names at the home. You
know, `You whores,' that sort of thing. But the woman in Los Angeles said
that she had gone to a home that was in a fairly bad neighborhood. And that,
you know, they were often pelted with, you know, eggs and tomatoes and things
like that when they left the home.

GROSS: Now this is a very personal story for you because you were adopted,
and you eventually tracked down the woman who gave birth to you and found out
her story.

Ms. FESSLER: Right.

GROSS: Her story is not unlike a lot of the stories that you tell in your
book. Now you were told by your mother, the woman who adopted you and brought
you up, you were told by her the story of your birth parents. But when you
met the mother who gave birth to you, the story turned out to be different
that what you were told.

Ms. FESSLER: Yeah.

GROSS: So tell us the story that you grew up with? And then tell us the
story as it was told to you by the woman who actually gave birth to you.

Ms. FESSLER: Right. OK. I should also say that that was quite common. The
agencies very often sort of trumped up the description of the adopting family
as part of the process of convincing a young woman that her child would be
better off with somebody else besides her. But in my case, my family was told
that my mother and my father had been dating for a long time, that he was a
football player and he was from a family of means, and that his family did not
want him to drop out of college and ruin his life. And therefore they were
prevented from getting married, which always sounded a little bit like a plot
from a movie to me. But, anyway, that's the story I was told.

And when I met my mother, I discovered that that was not the case and that she
actually had been dating this young man. He was not in college. He was not a
college football player. They had been dating and they broke up, and she met
someone else. And the someone else was the man that she was going to marry.
And she did not know that she was pregnant when she met the man that she
wanted to marry. And so the story that I was told was fictitious, that my
parents were told was fictitious.

GROSS: And did your mother want to give you up for adoption?

Ms. FESSLER: I believe, yes. She was in a situation where she felt that,
well, want? That's not quite as simple as that, but certainly...

GROSS: But she didn't feel coerced?

Ms. FESSLER: No. She was not one of the women who felt coerced. She was
one of the women that did have an option presented to her. And though it may
not have really been a viable option for her because her husband to be said
that he would be willing to allow her to essentially bring me home. But that
in small town America, that would not have been an easy thing to deal with
because certainly, as I grew up I, it would have been obvious that I was not
part of that couple, of that family should I say. So even though--and he
would have been actually blamed in the beginning for getting her pregnant, so
to speak, before marriage. So people would have assumed, at least
temporarily, that he was the father of her baby and that's why they got
married. As I aged I think I would have looked nothing like either of them,
and it would have been clear that I was someone else's child. And none of
those things would have been very easy in small town America. I was born in
1949. So it would have made their lives incredibly difficult.

GROSS: My guest is Ann Fessler. Her new book is called "The Girls Who Went
Away." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ann Fessler. And her new book
is called "The Girls Who Went Away."

Now you learned that your birth mother actually went to one of the maternity
homes, the kind of home you wrote about in your new book. What home did she
go to? And what was her experience like there?

Ms. FESSLER: She went to a Florence Crittenton home. And she went away when
she was about seven and a half months pregnant, I believe, almost eight months

pregnant. And she never told her--she never had a conversation with her
mother about this. She told her father that she was pregnant, and he actually
came to visit her while she was in the home, which could not have been easy
for him to do. He was a farmer and he, you know, he needed to be home taking
care of the animals and the farm. And he made a trip to visit her, but she
never told her mother. And she said she thought that probably her father told
her mother, but she didn't know. She never said anything to her.

GROSS: Now your adoptive mother was adopted herself. But her mother, your
grandmother, never told her that she was adopted. She found this out on her
own.

Ms. FESSLER: That's right. I think in my mother's era an adopted child was
a little bit more of a secret. And I think that was because, you know, she
grew up at a time when, you know, part of a woman's role was to produce
offspring for their husband. And there was some shame associated with not
being able to bare children. And so she tried to ask her mother at one point
about her adoption. And her mother essentially told her, `Don't ever bring
that subject up again.' And so that was the end of the discussion with her
mother, and it was hurtful to her that she could not talk to her mother about
it. But she did have confirmation that she was adopted. She found some
paperwork that was taped to the back of a painting in her aunt's house. And
it clarified that she was adopted. And on that adoption certificate she had
been named Baby Helene. And so when she brought me home from the hospital she
named me Ann Helene.

GROSS: The woman who adopted you was adopted herself. Do you think, I don't
know if she talked to you about this at all, but do you think the fact that
she was adopted effected at all about how she felt as an adoptive mother?

Ms. FESSLER: Because my mother was adopted, my adoptive mother was adopted
herself, and she was not told by her own mother, she felt it was very
important to talk about adoption and not to have adoption be a kind of
secretive thing in the family. So she would talk constantly about, you know,
waiting for the phone call and how she couldn't wait, you know, to bring my
brother and I home. And, you know, she always framed it in terms of, you
know, going to get us, and how, you know, that process for her.

And she acknowledged that I was of some other woman, it might be a way to put
it. As a matter of fact, she told me, I don't remember this because I was too
young, but she told me that on my first three birthdays she lit a special
candle on my birthday cake for my mother. And so she herself always sort of
acknowledged that here joy was built on somebody else's pain. And so she was
very empathetic to, you know, this unknown young woman who she said, you know,
was not able to take care of me. And so that was very openly acknowledged in
my family.

GROSS: Well, Ann Fessler, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. FESSLER: Thank you.

GROSS: Ann Fessler is the author of "The Girls Who Went Away."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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