An exhibition has just opened in London, spread over The Photographers’ Gallery and The Foundling Museum, on the subject of Photography and Motherhood. Curated by the ever-incisive Susan Bright, it’s causing quite a storm.
I interviewed Bright and a number of the photographers for print edition of this month’s British Journal of Photography. There’s no online version to link to unfortunately, but I’d like to share the conversation I had with artist Ann Fessler who was over in London from the US last week for a special screening of her video piece, A Girl Like Her.
Fessler, now 62, is represented in the show by another video piece called Along the Pale Blue River, but both works cover common ground and so it’s useful to consider them together. Adopted as a baby by a woman who was herself an adoptee, Fessler only came to seek out her natural mother aged 40. What happens next unfolds in Along the Pale Blue River – she goes in search of a yearbook photo of her mother, discovers she is still alive, meets her uncle, who has no idea who she is or that she had even happened, but who tells her the story of her mother’s life.
Fessler narrates the film herself, telling how a young woman discovers she is pregnant, flees her rural home for the anonymity of a city, where she gives birth in a maternity home, surrendering her baby for adoption. The sequence is stitched together from educational films from the 1950s and footage Fessler shot herself when she travelled to the rural Midwest in search of her mother.
It’s dreamy and memory-like. A lone car crosses a thin spar of land, light shafts across a linoleum corridor and a girl with her back to us slowly adds smudge-shaped windows to her painting of skyscrapers. When the daughter returns to seek her mother out, she realises that the river which flowed by her childhood home, and which she would peer into ‘often, because it was always moving towards something bigger and I watched the way it moved’, had its source in the farmland in which her mother grew up.
Fessler has produced three films, audio and video installations, and a non-fiction book on adoption. The 2006 book, titled The Girls who went away, charted the tragedy of the million and a half women who surrendered children for adoption in secret due to intense social pressures in the decades before Roe v. Wade.
My interview with Fessler was almost two hours long, and so much of what she talked about interested me that I wanted to publish a little of the conversation here. See for yourself.
Where did your interest in the myths and stereotypes that surround images come from?
My interest in the impact of media images on culture has been a long-standing one – I did an MA in media studies before I did an MFA in photography. I’ve always been fascinated by the impact that images have on women’s idea of themselves; what they’re supposed to live up to. It was partly because I grew up in a household where my mother looked like the perfect image of the fifties housewife, with her dresses and aprons, happily ironing away, cleaning the house as if it was the most wonderful job in the world. I would see the same images coming at me from television, and the LIFE magazines that would come to the house. During those formative years, there wasn’t really an alternative view of what a woman was going to grow up to be. She was going to get married, and if she married the right man, stay home and have children.
And you rebelled against that?
From a very early age that was not what I imagined myself wanting to do. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I hated it when I had to help with the dishes. I wanted to be outside and I wanted to be exploring. I was very conscious that all the images I saw of adult women were these kinds of images, and those are the kinds of images I use in my film A Girl Like Her. I grew up at the same time as the women I interviewed in the film.
Would you say your work is a sort of counter to the types of images you were surrounded by when you were growing up?
Yes, but I think more than that, I was always interested in telling stories and always in telling true stories. I consider myself a non-fiction artist – I don’t like to use the word ‘documentary’. In my undergraduate years [Fessler was at Ohio State from 1967-71], in painting classes content was discouraged. Keep in mind this was at a time when the civil rights demonstrations were going on, when a lot was going on all over the world. My campus was shut down because of riots one semester, after the Kent state shootings…All this breaking loose and I would be out on the green listening to protests; really a part of all this stuff going on and then walk into my art classes and they wanted us to paint something from our imagination. It just seemed ludicrous to me: I wanted to be talking about things that were going on in the world, so I gravitated towards the mediums that allowed me to do that – film, video, photography.
Your time at university, and when you were beginning your career as an artist really coincided with second-wave feminism, didn’t it?
Yes, around the early-mid 70s those interests, which mirrored those that I’d always had, really started percolating up in my work. I started addressing images about family, and various injustices that had to do with women. The women’s movement, like the civil rights movement, were really important to me. They turned me from a shy girl who grew up in the country to an outraged activist.
I would say that whenever I’m working, it’s in response to things that are very close to me in terms of what’s going on in my life, what’s affecting other people that I care about. I don’t pull things out of a hat, or think of something that might make a good project. I try to use stories as a microcosm for things that are going on in the world. I tell that story through one individual; use one person’s story to represent a lot of people’s stories, and write it in such a way that people could see themselves in that story, empathise with the character. Of course that kind of turned on its head when I started talking to and interviewing the women who had surrendered children for adoption. Then I started using many, many stories at the same time and weaving them together.
You were adopted yourself; you’ve always been very open about that – can you remember when you first found out?
I always knew I was adopted, so whenever that idea starts making sense to a child. My adoptive mother was also adopted, but her mother would never admit it to her – it was very hurtful. She knew she was; she’d found some documentation at an aunt’s house and the aunt confirmed it but her mother never would. It caused her a lot of pain.
From the time they brought me home, as an infant, my mother told me this same story over and over again, about them waiting for the phone call that would tell them they could come and get me. Of course it takes some years before you understand that not everybody arrives with a phone call, they go to a hospital! I think one of my earliest memories is going to collect my brother – he was adopted too. I was about three and a half then.
Having a brother who was adopted, did that help? In terms of not feeling like an outsider, or not ‘normal’?
As a child I didn’t really see it, whatever you experience seems normal to you. I took it at face value that they were very excited to bring home their baby and yes I saw that process happen with my brother… The way my mother told the story, it sounded like something from a movie to me. I had this kind of mysterious past. I thought it was kind of interesting. Of course as I became a teenager, I kind of liked the idea that if I wanted to I could distance myself from my family, you know how you’re always embarrassed by them.
Was searching out your natural mother a hard decision?
I was 40 years old before I considered looking into my history, and that was as a result of meeting a woman at a gallery opening who approached me thinking I was the daughter she had surrendered for adoption years before. By meeting her and hearing her story – she was still traumatised by it – I became really interested in whether her story was typical of other women… I felt like I was getting a really strong message from somewhere that this was something I needed to deal with. Otherwise to be honest, I probably would never have sought out my mother.
Did you find our what had happened to her?
Yes, she was 19 when she fell pregnant, by a boyfriend that she’d been with for a while, but she had broken up with him before she knew was pregnant. She met this other guy, they started going out, and pretty soon, he says he wants to marry her. She says no rush, but then finds out she’s pregnant. She tells him, and he’s actually willing to raise me as their child, but she said that she really felt that he would have resented me or her later. So she went off to a maternity home and surrendered me and he came to visit her and right after she got out he married her. She got pregnant pretty quickly afterwards and so I have brother that is probably a year and a half younger than I am.
Did her family know?
She kept it secret from her entire family, except her father. He was one who drove her to the maternity home. She never even told her mother. Her brothers and sisters still don’t know this happened to her.
When I did finally contact her it was completely out of the blue, she had no idea that I would be able to find her, because the only two people who knew, her husband and her father, had long died. She was pretty surprised to say the least.
I think it’s unusual that your work focuses on the mother – usually people focus on the child when they talk about adoption.
I think it was meeting that woman at the gallery. I remember she said to me, ‘your mother probably worries about you every single day: what’s happened to you and whether you’ve had a good life, did you end up in a good family,’ and I was shocked. I grew up at a time when it was really shameful to get pregnant in high school, it would have been the ruin of the rest of your life. I totally understood why my mother would not have been able to raise me.
So the families of these young women, how involved were they?
Families didn’t want to help raise the child and they didn’t want their own child back in the family because people would call their daughter slut, whore, all the things they called women then who got pregnant. So the families wanted the secret buried but the women themselves lost a child. And these women really made it clear to me that it’s no different to losing a child in any other way, that’s your child, you give birth to it. Somebody takes it away and says you’re unmarried so you’re unfit to be a mother. The women who went through this they couldn’t talk about it and so they couldn’t grieve.
How did this fit in to your artistic practice at the time?
When I was talking to them, all of a sudden everything I knew about women’s history, about the disempowerment of women at that time, it all clicked and I realised how this was something I wanted to look into. I started collecting stories initially, at exhibitions. I would do an autobiographical piece about adoption and I would leave room in the exhibition space for people to contribute their stories. I wasn’t intending to use them; I was trying to give other people a voice for their story.
But when I read them, these women, they were just broken over this experience that happened to them years and years before…I knew I had to find a way to preserve and disseminate these stories. Really, it’s an enormous gap in women’s history. In many ways, these women were on the front lines of the feminist movement even though they wouldn’t ever have considered themselves feminists. They were the foot soldiers, who fell as everyone else moved forward – the teens, saying, ‘we don’t have to live by parents’ rules, we can engage in sexual activity’. The problem was there wasn’t any sex education, or contraception – those things didn’t happen in the US in a meaningful way until the late 60s and early 70s, so there were a couple of generations of women who were doing what every other teenager was doing at that time, but they got caught, and they paid a very, very heavy price for it.
As an artist, I felt like I had the wherewithal to get these stories out and that led to the book. And that really escalated into something large: I travelled all over country and collected stories, and many of the women I talked to had never talked about it with anyone. I would be at end of interviews and they would ask me, ‘have you ever known anyone else that feels the way I do?’, and I just wanted to crawl in a ball on the floor and weep. This happened to over a million and a half women in the 28 year period I was looking at between the end of the second world war and Roe vs Wade.
It seems to me that they blamed themselves rather than others, is that right? I mean, they didn’t blame the men, or their lack of knowledge, society.
Every authority figure in their life was pointing the finger at them: they were a failure, they were irresponsible, they were sexually promiscuous, when in fact almost all of these women got pregnant with their first sexual partner and most of them within 3 or 4 times of having sex.
In the late 60s in the US, more than 60% of people were having sex for the first time before they were out of their teens, yet these women were made to feel like pariahs. If the pregnancy was detected they were immediately expelled from school, expelled from college, and if they kept the child they were not allowed to return, so that meant their education was gone. They were social outcasts.
What kind of response have you had, as people have read the book or seen your work?
My book was published in 2006, and I still get emails every week from women who’ve just discovered it. People send me pictures and every week they make me cry. There’s a lot of responsibility with this, but I mean really people who’ve been in hiding their entire lives, finally they feel they can come out and be who they are. Many of these women have gone back to college, started a new life.
Did many of these women who’d been forced to surrender babies for adoption go on to have other children?
A disproportionate number of women who surrendered children did find it too difficult to be mothers afterwards. Of the 100 women that I interviewed, 30 of them never had another child, and that tallies with a couple of other small studies, it’s about the same percentage. It’s a very high percentage. Some felt, well, the way one woman described it, she said ‘I had my chance, and I failed and how would I ever explain to my child if they found me that I was able to raise other children but not them.’
Some women couldn’t stand to hear a baby cry, they couldn’t stand to be around children, it was too painful a reminder. A number of women, 5 or 6, had themselves sterilised because they could not get birth control and they were so afraid of this happening again that they actually convinced the doctor to sterilise them.
A small contingent of women tried to get pregnant again and couldn’t. There’s a term for it, secondary infertility, where it might be due to some kind of internalisation of the trauma associated with giving birth. Two of them ended up taking in foster children and adopting them.
Were any of these women resentful towards today’s women, who are surrounded by such a sympathetic or as they might see it ‘lax’ view of unmarried mothers?
The only women that talked about it specifically were really expressing it in terms of how lucky the women were that they didn’t have to go through what they went through.
Did you ever talk to any of the staff at these maternity homes, doctors and nurses who’d enforced the separations?
They’re all quite old now, but yes I talked to a couple of elderly women at a conference I spoke at. One had been working for an adoption agency back in the day, but now she was helping people search for their real mothers, helping people connect. She said over the years she worked for the agency she saw so many adoptees coming in for information, that she had to make amends. There were cases, she told me, where women left letters in files every year for their child, they were told that if child came looking once they were 18, they would be able to receive the letters, but then when the children finally came, the letters had been thrown out by an agency worker who thought it was it bad idea. The woman had seen such pain in both mothers and children, she couldn’t not do something about it.
Was there a particular reason you chose the period 1945-73 – I know Roe vs Wade was 73, but I wondered why 1945.
In the post-WWII period in the US the number of adoptions skyrocketed. They peaked in 1970 and then turned downward. The rise was due to a kind of perfect storm of circumstances that had to do with the economic situation after the war, (tremendous rise in middle-class, pressures to conform, or be banished from one’s newly found social status), changes in what the younger generation that was appropriate sexual behavior, combined with a lack of access to birth control and sex education, laws that discriminated against women (jobs, housing, ability to get credit, etc.) that didn’t change until the late 60s with Civil Rights legislation.
I don’t use Roe as the end to suggest that all of these women would have had abortions, but as the end of an era — when decisions about motherhood could be made by the woman–options and choices increasingly included being able to keep your child. It wasn’t until 1972 that single people in every state in the US could have access to birth control and never married women with children (in every state) could return to school. So the time period represents the beginning and end of the adoption bubble, which some now call the “baby scoop era”.
You can see more of Ann Fessler’s work on her page at RISD, the college where she teaches.