Lost and Found
01:00 AM EST on Sunday, March 4, 2007
By Bill Van SiclenJournal Arts Writer
RISD professor Ann Fessler, whose book, The Girls Who Went Away, is vying for a prize from the National Book Critics Circle, poses in her Foster home with some covered chairs that were part of an installation about adoption titled "Everlasting." In her book and art, Fessler, an adoptee herself, explores adoption in the context of pressures faced by women of her mother’s generation.
THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL / Sandor Bodo
Some people write books to get attention, make money or simply spin a good yarn. RISD professor Ann Fessler had another reason for writing The Girls Who Went Away, a book that explores the histories and experiences of women who gave up children for adoption in the 1950s and ’60s.
She wrote it because she had to.
“It really was kind of a compulsion,” Fessler explains during an interview at the cozy farmhouse she shares with her book-designer husband, Peter Andersen. “Like many adopted children, I’d always assumed that my mother had put me up for adoption because she didn’t want me. Yet the more I talked to women who’d actually been in mother’s position, the more complicated things got, and the more I wanted to know.”
Now, Fessler’s compulsion may earn her a major literary award. In January, The Girls Who Went Away was nominated for a nonfiction prize by the National Book Critics Circle, an organization representing professional book critics and reviewers. The winners will be announced on Thursday.
“Of course, I’m pleased, excited, flattered — all the usual things,” she laughs. “But I’m also amazed that a book about adoption would even be considered for something like this.”
In fact, when Fessler first heard the news, she thought it was a prank.
“When the nominations were announced, I was vacationing in northern Mexico,” she says. “So I didn’t hear about it until I got an e-mail from someone asking me for more information about this big award I’d just been nominated for. And I’m, like, ‘What award?’ It was totally out of the blue.”
Then again, maybe Fessler’s success isn’t so surprising.
Though The Girls Who Went Away focuses mainly on adoptions that happened before the sexual and feminist revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s, the book clearly resonates with contemporary readers. During a book tour last summer, Fessler was constantly peppered with questions about the women she’d interviewed for the book, as well as her own experiences as an adoptee. She also heard from dozens of women who had their own adoption or adoptee stories to tell.
“Wherever I went, it was the same thing,” says Fessler, 52. “People wanted to know more about the women in the book. They wanted to know more about me. They wanted to know more about the period I was writing about. And it wasn’t just women who’d lived through that era. For a lot of younger women, it was like rediscovering a lost world.”Feelings of abandonment
Writing the book was also a voyage of self-discovery for Fessler.
Though she grew up knowing she was adopted — “my adoptive parents were very up-front about it,” she says — Fessler knew almost nothing about her birth mother. Nor did she know why she’d been put up for adoption, or, in the Orwellian terminology of the period, “surrendered.”
Even after graduating from college and launching her career, Fessler resisted trying to find her birth mother.
“Basically, I assumed that my mother had abandoned me,” she says. “Later, of course, I’d learn that there were lots of reasons women of my mother’s generation chose adoption — pressure from parents, fear of abandonment, fear of being labeled as ‘damaged goods.’ But at the time, that’s how I felt.”
Then, a chance encounter changed Fessler’s mind.
While attending an art opening in 1989, she noticed an older woman staring at her from across the room. They exchanged glances, and something about the woman’s face seemed strangely familiar. Then the woman started walking toward her.
“It was really kind of a Twilight Zone moment,” Fessler says with a laugh. “There I was trying to remember how I knew this person, when she suddenly walks over and says, ‘You could be my long-lost daughter. You look like the perfect combination of myself and the father of my child.’ ”
As it turned out, the woman wasn’t Fessler’s mother. (“The dates just didn’t line up,” she says.) Still, she and the woman spent the rest of the evening sharing stories and experiences.
“Amazingly, it was the first time I’d ever heard the story — my story — from a birth mother’s perspective,” she says. “She told me that she’d been forced to give up the child, that she had always regretted doing it, and that she still had these intense feelings of loss and guilt. It was a revelation.”Art therapy
Fessler, who was then teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art, initially responded to the encounter through her art. Her first effort, a 1990 installation called Genetics Lesson, told the story through a combination of writing and photography.
After joining the photography department at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1993, Fessler continued to explore adoption-related themes through the lens of her life experience. One result was Cliff & Hazel, a 1999 film that painted an affectionate portrait of her adoptive parents. Another was Closer to Home, a 2001 installation that chronicled her attempt to find her birth mother —an attempt Fessler eventually called off.
“Actually, I wasn’t even trying to contact her,” she says. “I was looking for a yearbook picture, something to show me what she looked like. But when I happened to mention her name in the town where I knew I’d been born, people started telling me all about her. I even got her phone number.”
Still, Fessler wasn’t ready to make contact.
“What if she’d never told anyone — her husband, her kids, her friends — about having another child? What would happen if I just showed up one day and said, ‘Hi, Mom’?”Painful testimonials
Each time she exhibited her work, Fessler would hear from adoptees and birth mothers eager to share their own experiences. Sometimes they would approach her at a lecture or an art opening. But more often, they would record their stories in notebooks Fessler included alongside her installations.
By 2002, having amassed hundreds of these heart-wrenching testimonials, Fessler felt compelled to do something with them. But what? Initially, she thought of doing an oral history project. Then, perhaps, a film.
It wasn’t until 2004 that Fessler says she got the idea of writing a book.
“I’d always thought of myself as an artist, not a writer,” she says. “But when I started working on the oral history project, people would ask, ‘Why don’t you write a book?’ So I did.”
After finding a publisher (Penguin Press), Fessler spent six months poring over her archive of testimonials. She also re-interviewed women whose stories seemed especially emblematic of the prejudices and challenges facing what amounted to a forgotten generation of American women.
Finally, Fessler decided to finally make contact with her own birth mother. That story, which concludes with a halting face-to-face encounter in Fessler’s hotel room, is described in the book’s final chapter.
“Basically, we’re still in the early stages of getting to know each other,” Fessler says.
As for her chances on Thursday, Fessler isn’t exactly holding her breath. For one thing, she says, The Girls Who Went Away is her first book. She also notes that competition in the nonfiction category is stiff, with books by prominent writers such as Simon Schama (Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma: a Natural History of Four Meals). Other nominees include two books about the Middle East: Patrick Cockburn’s The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq and Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew and the Heart of the Middle East.
“Let’s put it this way,” she says. “there’s no champagne chilling in the fridge.”
In the meantime, Fessler has started work on a film about adoption. Fessler says the film, which will combine contemporary interviews with vintage footage from the 1940s and ’50s, should be completed in late 2008 or early 2009.