Emotional day yesterday. I traveled to Hartford for the screening of Ann Fessler‘s acclaimed documentary, A Girl Like Her, which chronicles the 1 million+ women who relinquished their babies for adoption in the 1950s and ’60s.
Access Connecticut, the grassroots group working to restore the right of adult adoptees born in the state to have access to their original birth certificates, sponsored the screening and an informative Q&A.
On hand were numerous birth mothers, adoptees, adoption rights advocates, and some adoptive parents.
The film is an eye-opener. Fessler shares the heartbreak of 100 young women who had become pregnant out of wedlock, were banished to maternity homes, pressured to relinquish their children and told to go on with their lives, forget it ever happened.
Watch the trailer here. (Seriously, watch it.)
I was eager to see the film both because I have been doing a bit of volunteering with Access Connecticut and because Fessler’s book, The Girls Who Went Away, helped cement my decision to search for my first mother some years ago.
You see, I am the daughter of A Girl Like Her.
I read The Girls Who Went Away in a single sitting one warm Sunday afternoon in 2009, sobbing with every turn of the page. Before that, I hadn’t given a whole lot of thought to what it must have been like for Pat, my first mother. I was, I suppose, engaged in too much navel-gazing at the time. But here on the pages were glimpses of the pain and sorrow she endured, hints that the decision she made had likely not been her decision at all — and the first I realized that she might want to know me, too.
Closing the back cover of that book, I allowed myself to let go of the mantle I’d adopted, the one that said, “It doesn’t matter. I don’t care. She didn’t want me. And besides, I have no right to intrude. I’m probably still a secret and it’s better if I stay that way.”
And I set out to find her.
In January, when I spoke to Pat for the first time, I learned that, 47 years later, I was still a secret. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be revealed. My two half-brothers and the rest of the family didn’t know about me.
What would they think?
Her shared shame permeated the screening yesterday. It is a hair shirt many birth mothers can never remove. And shame’s shadow dogs us adoptees, too, as do secrets and lies.
Late in the day, I met Gary, a man a little older than me who found his first mother a year ago. She is delighted to be connected again. And so, very clearly, is he. He proudly showed me her photo on his phone. His mother is a beauty with an engaging smile. They talk or text nearly every day, he said, and he’s been to visit her. But it’s all on the down low because she can’t bring herself to tell her other children or her husband. She fears her husband will divorce her. She has instead given him a letter to share with his brothers after she is gone.
As he tells me his story, Gary’s eyes brim with tears.
He wanted to know about my reunion, still in its early stages. I felt guilty telling him that the family has embraced me, that some cousins traveled distances to meet me in June, that we are connected on Facebook. But Gary said it was good to hear my story, to compare notes and gain understanding.
After all, we adoptees are an odd fraternity, little understood outside our circle.
Back at home, I called Pat, wanting to know how much the film’s anecdotes reflect her story. I asked questions I hadn’t ventured to ask before.
She spoke of being alone, isolated, of wishing she could have kept me, but being comforted knowing I would be with a couple who wanted me so desperately.
Unlike a lot of birth mothers of the time, who were not allowed to hold or see the children they delivered, Pat was able to return to St. Faith’s Home for Unwed Mothers with me in tow for a few days. She was glad to have the time with me, short as it was.
Her parents did not come to visit after my birth. They never saw me.
Ten days after I was born, Pat had me baptised, with a local pastor and one of the home’s baby nurses as witnesses, and turned me over to Westchester Family Services.
No one in her family ever discussed the matter again. Until I arrived on the scene early this year, that is.
She pushes regret away, she says, because she thinks that as she gets to know me now, maybe it was meant to be this way. For if it happened differently, I wouldn’t be the me I am today, there would be no Basil in my life, there would be no Catherine.
We marvel when we talk at how easy our conversation is, how alike some of our thinking is, and how she and I share a distinctive bond.
This, too, Pat takes philosophically: “It’s like you were there all the time.”