It’s Oscars time in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp—and fittingly, many of the Best Picture nominees are films whose plot lines expose secrets. Sometimes it’s political and social. (Think The Post and Get Out.) Sometimes it’s nuanced and personal. (Think Lady Bird and Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri.)
Regardless, someone’s hiding something—and oftentimes, it’s about women’s pain and shame.
I’ve spent the last six years teaching a Women in Literature class focused on secrets, sex and silence in women’s memoir. We start with Maxine Hong-Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: A Girlhood Among Ghosts, where, in the opening chapter, Kingston learns of an aunt who, having had a child out of wedlock, is ostracized by her village and drowns herself and her baby in a well. The book opens with: “You must not tell anyone… what I am about to tell you.” The young Kingston is told this family secret only when she’s reached puberty and might also shame the family with sexual misdeeds.
At this time four years ago, the narrative of women shamed for sex outside of marriage, women forced to carry the evidence in their swollen bellies, expected to give up their children for adoption and, most importantly, remain silent, was the focus of Philomena, a film that garnered significant Oscar buzz. Judi Dench, nominated for the title role, played an unwed woman in 1950’s Ireland who became pregnant and was sent to a Magdalene laundry—where “fallen women” were held captive to work off their so-called sins. Philomena gave birth, was forced to surrender her son for adoption and never saw him again. She was never supposed to speak of him again. The film, based on her true story, tells her secret and speaks her truth.
In a way, Philomena’s story is also my story; it’s my small #MeToo, the one I share with my students every semester. I tell them about being adopted because it relates to our course—but more than that, I tell them to share my birthmother’s story of being single and pregnant when society deemed this unacceptable.
Adoption isn’t shocking per se. The transfer of a baby from the arms of one woman to those of another has been happening since Moses floated down the Nile in his little reed basket. Each year, about 135,000 children are adopted. Approximately five million people living in the U.S. today are adopted. It’s nothing new. But what’s new to my students is the context of my adoption and the imposed secrecy surrounding it.
When we read Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade., I tell the students I’m one of these children. I tell them I’m an identical twin. That I was born to a young woman in 1969 who got pregnant in college and went to an unwed mother’s home to protect herself and her family from shame. Run by nuns, the home was filled with other girls and women between the ages of 13 and 30 in the same predicament; hidden away, the women and girls there completed schoolwork via correspondence, were assigned daily chores and did arts and crafts and calisthenics.
My birthmother tells me they took fake names because the nuns didn’t want them to become friends, or to know each other outside of this moment. They were expected to have their babies anonymously, sign the legal documents and go back to their lives as if nothing had happened. But the social workers were wrong. The women may have followed rules with the keeping quiet, but they didn’t do so well with the forgetting. How could they?
Less than 50 years ago, single women who got pregnant would never have shared their story. If they did, it was in a barely audible whisper—lest they be exposed, called “loose women,” sent away to cover-up their wanton transgression. Between the end of WWII in 1945 and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade in January of 1973—a time known as the Baby Scoop Era—over one million women in the U.S. were secretly sequestered at maternity homes. Their families, clergy and social workers told them they had nothing to give their children, so they should give them respectable families with both a mother and a father. They told them they would someday get married and have other children. But remember: Tell no one, especially their future husbands. Who would want them if they knew they were “damaged” women?
When I tell my students this narrative, they are horrified. Incredulous, they ask: “How did we not know about this?!” “How could they treat women like that?” “Did the women have a say in the matter?” “Did you find your sister?” “Do you know your ‘real’ mom?”
I always answer the questions. You don’t know because it was supposed to be a secret, and the shame and guilt heaped upon the women made sure of it. They treated them like that because they could, and society sanctioned it. The women had a say, had legal rights, but many weren’t informed of them. I was adopted with my sister. (For this, the students are relieved.) Admittedly, that “real” mom question trips me up; I struggle with the labels the non-adopted demand. My mom is the woman who raised me. My birth mom is the woman who gave me life, went through labor and made the heart-rending decision to leave the hospital without her firstborns. I wouldn’t be who I am without either of these women.
On the last day of class, I ask the students what their takeaways are. Geneva, a young woman who rarely speaks in class, raises her hand. “I’m adopted too,” she says, “and I never thought about, or had the courage to search for my birth mom, but because of this class, I’m going to start.” I struggle to stem my tears and act normal in front of the 29 other students. Three seconds pass in the silence, and then the class breaks out in applause. Nine months later, I get an email from Geneva; she located her biological mother and they are getting to know one another. I don’t know how it will turn out for them, but it’s a small step in stripping the shame and secrecy from adoption.
At a time when our public discourse about women’s agency over their bodies is exposing cruel practices of the past, I have a responsibility—as a woman from one generation talking to those in the next—to emphasize how secrets and silence serve no one well. When I share my story with my students, I am refusing to participate in my birth mother’s silencing and punishment. I am refusing to silence myself.
My story is one of millions. I tell it to my students with the hope that whatever theirs is, they are invited to tell it as well. Secrets be damned.