Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Decades of Silence: The Missing Voices of Adoption, An Interview with Ann Fessler


Ann Fessler is a professor of photography at Rhode Island School of Design. She is an adoptee, and has produced many artistic projects focused on adoption. Fessler’s film-in-progress, based on her book The Girls Who Went Away (2006), places the oral histories of women who surrendered babies for adoption between the end of WWII in 1945 and the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973 in the context of the social history of the time. The number of babies relinquished then is estimated to be near 1.5 million. Her material comes from interviews with more than 100 women throughout the U.S., conducted from 2002-2005. Fessler visited the University of Pittsburgh to show her film-in-progress September 22-23, 2008, when Hot Metal Bridge was lucky enough to sit down and talk with her about her current projects.

Hot Metal Bridge: You spoke about an incident in 1989 when a woman approached you at an art gallery and asked if you were her daughter. You were shocked by how it affected you, and you’d never considered that your birth mother could be out there wondering and worrying about you. Was that the point at which adoption began to influence your art?

Ann Fessler: Yes. Before that my work had focused on relationships, women’s issues and the representation of women in visual culture and I had used storytelling to address these issues but they were not autobiographical stories. I used the stories of other women’s lives to talk about issues that concerned me. I never thought my own story as an adoptee was worth telling because I didn’t see it as an issue that I had anything to say about. There was no secrecy in my family with regard to being adopted like there was in some families at that time. My adopted mother was adopted herself, so she felt it was important to be open.
But when the woman approached me in the gallery and I had my first conversation with a birthmother I realized that I did have a story to tell about adoption. I wanted to create some kind of piece about that meeting. The art installation “Genetics Lesson” was my first piece about adoption, a reflection on my life as an adoptee. Then I created places for others connected to adoption to participate in the exhibition by leaving their stories—many people who don’t normally go to art exhibitions took part and I learned a lot from the stories they left behind. That’s when I realized it was possible to reach another audience. Audience has always been an issue for me…in the arts the usual audience is other artists and people in the arts, and I’ve always been interested in speaking to people outside of that. I realized that it was, in fact, possible to reach a larger audience and engage people on another level if the subject was meaningful to them.

HMB: What prompted you to begin a book and then follow up with a film?

AF: I actually started the film before the book. In 2002 I began interviewing and creating audio exhibitions in New England and in the Mid-Atlantic region. At that time I had three intended uses for the oral history recordings. First, I wanted to record the oral histories to ensure that their stories would not be lost&mdashfrom the beginning I intended to donate the tapes to an oral history archive when I was done with them. My immediate use for them was two fold: I wanted to create site-specific surround sound audio installations from the material I collected, and I also wanted to use the voices from all regions in a film. The idea behind the audio installations being site specific is that I would go to a region, interview and then create an audio piece from the voices in that state or region. That way audiences would be hearing the voices of women from their own community—their teachers and aunts and mothers—and the stories could not be dismissed as something that happened somewhere else. But exhibitions have a very short life, and I didn’t want to create something that was only going to be seen by a few hundred people in one city. Also, I wanted to talk about different aspects of this social phenomenon and felt that was best done by using different mediums. In the film, for example, I can talk about the way film reinforced and perpetuated stereotypes of “unwed” mothers. A film takes years to complete, so the site-specific sound installations also allowed me to present the stories in a public arena in one region while I was interviewing in another. I received a Radcliffe Fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, and people there encouraged me to write a book. Then The Boston Globe covered what I was doing and suddenly it blew right open—I was getting calls from women from all over the country saying, “This happened to my aunt, this happened to my college roommate, this happened to my mother.” And I started to get calls from editors and publishers who wanted to discuss the possibility of a book. So I put the film on hold and between the release of the book in 2006, the follow up, and full-time teaching I was unable to get back to the film until this summer. As it turns out, taking more time to complete the film was a good thing—research and additional interviews I completed for the book will be utilized in the film and the book received some awards, which might help the film.

HMB: Your book details how these mothers lost their reputations, lost their jobs, were expelled from school, etc., if people found out they were pregnant. Many were sent away to maternity homes, where they often continued to face shame and maltreatment from staff and doctors who insisted they were promiscuous and dirty. But ironically, many of the women got pregnant from their first sexual encounter. I was struck by the sheer ignorance about sex and birth that these mothers had as teens, which comes through so powerfully in these personal narratives. One mother, “Nancy,” admits that even as she was coming to term she still didn’t know how the doctor might remove the baby—she didn’t know what a birth canal was! Was this something that surprised you as well?

AF: Not really, because I grew up during that time. My situation was a little different because I grew up in the country and I saw animals being born all the time, so the birth process wasn’t new to me. Certainly the women I interviewed knew that you could get pregnant from having sex but they just didn’t think they would get pregnant. There used to be this saying, if a married couple wasn’t pregnant within a year people would say, “They’re trying to get pregnant.”

HMB: So there was a perception that it took deliberate effort?

AF: Yes, we thought you had to work at it and that it took a while. Nobody talked about specifics—that you could get pregnant from having sex one time. Certainly you heard about people getting pregnant outside of marriage, so it didn’t really make sense, but I guess we thought they were having a lot of sex. Since we didn’t receive any real sex education, we learned from hearsay and from boyfriends—who thought they knew how to prevent pregnancy without protection. Or couples tried to practice the rhythm method without really knowing too much about it. If you were a teacher you had to stop teaching if you were “showing.” God forbid students would know their married teacher was having sex. On television, married couples slept in two beds. One of the women I interviewed said, “We weren’t even allowed to say the word pregnant, we had to say expecting.” That pretty much sums it up.

HMB: After giving birth, the mothers returned home, returned to high school or college, pretending that they’d been away “sick” or visiting an aunt who lived far away, often never speaking about it to anyone. Many held their secret inside for years, and the effects of all the shame, guilt, and secrecy were often pervasive in their relationships and lives as a whole. Did you meet with resistance on the part of the mothers you interviewed, due to uncovering this painful secret that had framed much of their lives?

AF: Some women decided not to participate. I told them that if they were worried about voice recognition, they should not participate because my purpose was to make the stories public. So the women I interviewed had resolved that question for themselves before I showed up on their doorstep. Of course there were women who had been “out” for a long time, some had told their husbands but not their children, and others had not talked about it with anyone since they surrendered their child.

HMB: Did you feel that these mothers trusted you more because you are an adoptee? Or because you are close to them in age?

AF: I’m sure some checked me out on the Web, looked into my earlier art installations on adoption to make sure I was representing myself truthfully. Most women said they were grateful that somebody actually wanted to know the truth of their experience and hear what they had to say rather than relying on what had been said about them. They had lived their lives being concerned that the public perception of adoption is that it is a “win, win, win” situation – that everyone is happy with the outcome. They had worried throughout their lives that their adult child might think that they had been “given away” because they were unloved and unwanted. They felt they were taking part in something that could potentially change people’s hearts and minds—that they might finally have a voice.

HMB: I suspect these women felt an enormous sense of relief for finally being able to tell someone their story. It’s like a “coming out” of sorts, which you have compared to the gay community.

AF: Yes. The situations are different, of course, but there are some parallels. The mothers themselves have called it “coming out of the birth mother closet” when they divulged their secret. One of the similarities is that both the moms and gays coming out of the closet, so to speak, often feel like they will lose the love and respect of the people they care about.

HMB: What do you hope to accomplish with the film?

AF: I want this to work as a work of art. It must have an interesting structure. That is why I didn’t want to do a typical headshot interview film, which transfers a lot of information but is often not very visual or filmic.
And with all of my work I’m interested in exploring the gap between “lived history” and “recorded history.” I want women’s voices to override/overwrite the authoritative voice-overs of the educational films and newsreels of the time that had an agenda other than to entertain. I hope to educate more people, reach a wider audience, and also implicate film in the dissemination of negative stereotypes of “unwed mothers” at that time. I want to transport audiences back to the 50s and 60s through the archival footage and make them aware of the attitudes and social climate that prevailed during what is now referred to as the “Baby Scoop Era,” when unprecedented numbers of women were asked to surrender their firstborn because it was socially unacceptable for a woman – especially a middle class woman – to be a single mother, even if she were, say, 24 and a nurse.
Another message widely received at the time was that a baby surrendered for adoption was unwanted by its mother—that’s why the baby was available. Without the voices of the mothers telling the story from their perspective, it’s the message many people (including adoptees) did and still do believe. In some ways, it was a message that the adoption industry needed to send because adoption was not that common until WWII and people needed to be convinced that the child would be a good way to build a family. The system kept mothers and adoptive families away from each other and the intermediary [social worker] could say one thing to the adoptive family and one thing to the mother. Now the two parties are meeting and when comparing stories they learn about the lies that were told and it enrages them. Apparently social workers made up information about the mother and passed it on to adoptive families, and then gave inaccurate information about the adoptive family to the mothers (no doubt to assure her or convince her the child would be better off.) [Social workers] were doing what they thought was right—getting the baby into a two-parent home—I don’t mean to imply I think it was malicious. They did what they could move the process along, but it was unethical.

HMB: You are clear that you don’t want to blame anyone.

AF: No, everybody thought they were doing the right thing. That’s often dangerous territory—what is it they say about the road to hell being paved with good intentions? The problem is in the process they trampled the rights of the mothers.

HMB: How did you decide which stories to highlight and include in the book and film?

AF: Leaving some of the women I interviewed out of the book was the most painful part of the process for me. My goal at the beginning was to be inclusive—to have at least one sentence from everyone I interviewed. But my rough draft was way over the page limit so I had to edit severely. I know some people [interviewees] were disappointed that they were not included or only represented by a few sentences. But back to your question, I chose stories that I felt best represented all of the stories, and women whose stories I felt others might be able to see a bit of themselves in.

HMB: Will some of the women whose voices are not represented in the book be in the film?

AF: Yes, possibly. In the film there are different editing concerns. It’s not only what the women say but also how they say it. So my editing decisions for the film are similar to the audio installations. I have to be sure the voices are clear and understandable. Often the women were emotional during the interviews and even though their words are very powerful, their voices will not work because they are either hard to understand or their emotion would come across as too manipulative on my part. I think material like this is better presented in a less emotional way—let the audience have the emotions. It’s something I wrestled with all through the book, too. I want to present the stories in a somewhat straightforward way…I want people to empathize, realize that what happened to the women could have happened to them or any woman who was having sex with her boyfriend. I wanted readers to feel compassion for the mothers, not feel sorry for them. Though I am not going to use voices where women are sniffling or crying, I have used a few passages where women get choked up as they are recalling the way they were treated. The fact that a woman chokes up 40 years after the fact shows how raw the emotions still are—to me that’s powerful.

HMB: I noticed that you use voices with several different accents in the film.

AF: Yes, that’s another thing that doesn’t come through in the book, though I do use town or state names to indicate geographical diversity. I think in the film it’s important for audiences to hear and recognize that these women are from all over the country—the South, Boston, Minnesota, you name it.

HMB: How did you decide the order of stories in the book and in the film?

AF: My strategy for the order of both the book and film was to reveal the history in a chronological order—similar to the way the women would have gone through the events. So I started with dating and the excitement and hopefulness that goes along with that, and then proceed to discovering pregnancy—telling parents, being shamed by family and society, being hidden or sent away, being told to never tell anyone about their experience, and how surrendering a child affected them afterward. I want to take audiences or readers through that process that the mothers went through, take them along, so to speak, as events unfold. I will probably end the film with stories about reunions, which is basically the path the book follows.
The story line is really driven by the voices of the women, but that narrative is disrupted by the introduction of little films within the film. The archival footage I’m using both illustrates the story and contradicts what the women are saying. At times you are watching part of a film that the women might have watched in school and at other times you are watching a film that purports to represent the sentiments of women who have babies outside of marriage—that they are unwanted and thus available for adoption.

HMB: In some places it has an almost campy feel, as you’ve said, because to our modern eyes these conservative depictions from the 50s/60s seem absurd. One viewer commented that we have no right to laugh at the seeming absurdity, however, because we have not progressed as much as we’d like to think, especially in light of the Bush administration’s recent proposal to allow health care providers to deny treatment based on personal moral views.1 Some fear this will directly affect women who want to obtain birth control, the morning-after pill, and abortions. What do you think about all this?

AF: Absolutely! That’s why I feel this film will be a great discussion starter. How far have we come? As you might guess, I’m not a supporter of Bush. I get a lot of questions about how I feel about Sarah Palin or her daughter’s situation. My standard answer is “Thanks but no thanks to Palin.” I have a really, really hard time understanding how half of this country could be ready to elect a person who has been very much a part of the administration for the last eight years, and who may appoint several Supreme Court justices. The implications for women in this election are enormous, yes.

HMB: You speak of parties being kept away from each other. How do you feel about current models of open adoption where the mothers and adoptive families are not kept from each other?

AF: I think open adoption is a very positive step forward, much healthier. The term open adoption, though, covers a lot of arrangements because there are different levels of openness. It’s very important for those who enter a contract to respect the arrangement made with the mother, but that does not always happen. One of the problems is that open adoption contracts aren’t legally binding in some states. My concern is there are plenty of people looking out for the adoptive parents’ interests, and lobbyists looking out for the interests of adoption agencies. [Families and agencies] are usually in the more powerful position with respect to legal representation and money. Whereas on the other side, you have mothers who are almost always younger, going through pregnancy for the first time and thus somewhat unprepared for the emotional experience after the baby is born. There is no requirement for her to have separate legal counsel and in some cases she is “represented” by the same lawyer that is representing the adoptive family—which I feel is a conflict of interest. It’s not that I’m not concerned about adoptees or the rights of adopting families, but my interest has primarily been the mothers because historically their rights have been violated. My concern is that these women are, in some cases even today, being pushed into something that it is not their decision. People have this idea that what the mother wants is always somehow at odds with what the child needs. That is an assumption. It’s no small thing to remove a child from its kin, culture, and family, and place them in a family where those ties are broken.

HMB: You include your own story as an adoptee in your art installations and also in the first and last chapters of the book. Will you incorporate your story in the film too?

AF: No. With the book I felt it was important to put the stories in context, “this is an adoptee on her own search,” to show how interviewing the women evolved from a personal connection, that the personal is political and vice-versa. I didn’t meet my mother until I’d written most of the book. The interviews and the writing was part of a process for me…as I’m listening to all these stories I’m going through my own decision-making process about whether to contact her…I guess in a way preparing myself for any possible story that my mother might tell. I felt that my story was part of the larger story of the moms. But now that it’s in print, I don’t need to repeat it.

HMB: When will your film be released, and where can we find it?

AF: I don’t know yet, but I’m hoping to finish by this spring. I’d like to start submitting it to festivals as soon as it is finished because that’s a good way to get a response from the film community and come into contact with those who may be interested in broadcasting it on public television. Once I start screening the film in festivals I will have a sense of how much interest there is in the film and get a sense of my options for distribution. At the very least I’ll make it available online because I want it to be accessible for the general public.

HMB: What are your future plans for artistic projects? Will you continue to explore adoption through your art?

AF: I am not even thinking about that right now! I won’t think about that until I get the film finished and out into the world. I’d like to work with others to develop study guides that can be used to generate discussions in sex-ed courses, women’s history courses, gender studies, family studies, and adoption studies. Then the next project? I don’t know if it will be another book or a film, but no doubt it will have to do with women’s lives, women’s stories and the intersection of the stories told about them and the stories they have to tell.

1 “Blocking Care for Women” by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Cecile Richards., 19 September 2008.