Commentary on Ann Fessler’s film, “A Girl Like Her”

Denise Morency Gannon’s compelling commentary of Ann Fessler’s film, “A Girl Like Her” (available for purchase at )

I first learned of Ann Fessler’s work through my friend Susan Mello Souza, author of The Same Smile.

Soon after the publication of her own book, Susan invited me to accompany her to see Radcliffe College fellow and artist Ann Fessler’s piece Everlasting, an artistic project funded and displayed at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, MA. The Same Smile engaged me in ways that I never anticipated and revealed strength and courage in my friend that I never knew existed until she told me her story and I read her book. However, I was in no way prepared for the impact of Fessler’s project Everlasting. I walked through the exhibit four or five times, encountering birth mothers who sat weeping in four arm chairs that created part of the exhibit and finding myself holding my hands over my own broken heart while I imagined the unimaginable: giving up your baby and missing that child for the rest of your life. A hole in your heart, I thought. This must feel like a permanent hole in your heart.

In Everlasting’s powerful visual and audio exhibition, Fessler employs the oral interviews of birth mothers, my friend Susan among them, who surrendered their new born children to adoption between World War II and the passage of Roe v. Wade. Superimposing the voices of the interviews over archival footage from the 1940s to 1960s, Fessler’s Everlasting integrates the heart wrenching personal history of these birth mothers who survived the derision of a rigid middle class society, withstood the imposed shame of parents who placed their daughters in homes for single mothers for the duration of their pregnancies and the ultimate devastation of the birth mothers’ parting with their new born sons and daughters, more than not without any say in the matter. The haunting and even inhuman treatment of birth mothers who withstood not only the imposed coercion of their families, who were themselves willing victims of an unbending Puritanical culture but buried a part of themselves that died when their children were taken from them and returned home and made to pretend that nothing ,nothing, nothing had ever happened is unimaginable.

More often than I care to say, the memory of that afternoon spent with Fessler’s project Everlasting compels me to return to Susan’s book The Same Smile and re-read chapters. Great art reveals to us what our hearts may never disclose unless cracked open by imaginative, creative endeavors that withhold nothing and boldly tell the honest truth. Ann Fessler gives us another opportunity to face the beast of the social ignorance, silence and repressive malaise of the 1950’s and 1960’s in her documentary film A Girl Like Her.

Like Everlasting, A Girl Like Her integrates the stories of birth mothers who became pregnant in an era when public image and ‘what the neighbors would think’ served as the undergird for post-war all-Americans. Social pressure ruled the roost in the land of the white picket fence. Pregnant single women found themselves squeezed in the center of the vice of parental disgrace, religious scruples and dating peer pressure. Unprepared for the consequences of a rapidly growing culture of sexual promiscuity, over a million young women became pregnant in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. A Girl Like Her unveils the rigid social structures that forced hundreds of thousands of young women to surrender their babies to adoption agencies. They were told that by placing their ‘unwanted’ babies into foundling homes, they were doing the best thing for their child. Signing paperwork that read ‘Abandoned’ and ‘Father unknown’ added to the post traumatic stress aftermath of giving one’s child away. Trust and intimacy issues, depression, anxiety, re-occurring physical illnesses – all of these and more were rooted in the “secret” imposed on single birth mothers who were encouraged to lose their memories, bury their histories, hide their authenticity and wear the disguise of an ongoing lie.

A Girl Like Her compels the viewer to consider ultimate loss within a society’s value system that trumped facade over human dignity. Gripping, candid and heartbreaking, Ann Fessler’s A Girl Like Her at long last gives birth mothers a voice to tell their painful and lifelong sojourn that affects not only them but the children they birthed and the families who adopted them.

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Memories of a time gone by….

It was February 2003, and I would soon be celebrating the four-year anniversary of my reunion with my thirty-four-year-old daughter, Joanne. Much healing had taken place over the course of the past few years, thanks to the help of my therapist, Katie. In an effort to further my healing process, I recognized the need to return to St. Mary’s Home for Unwed Mother’s, and decided to just do it! Just get in the car and go. But something held me back. Something told me to first place a call. For what, I didn’t quite know. I just felt it was the right thing to do. When I finally dialed the number, of course no human was available to answer my call and I was offered a menu of choices. I randomly selected an extension. “Good afternoon, how may I help you?” said the voice at the other end of the phone.

Clearing my throat, I attempted to say something intelligible. “Could I please have directions from Rt.93N?” I barely croaked.

The friendly voice began to direct me but, for some reason, I wasn’t listening. After hearing a jumble of words, the words, “What is your interest in visiting St. Mary’s?” came through loud and clear.

Unnerved, I was leery to admit that I simply needed to see the old place, walk the corridors and into my old room. What if it wasn’t allowed and I’m barred from visiting went through my mind. Fortunately, my secret past of lies was over, and I told the truth. Surprisingly enough, she was thrilled to hear that I had once lived at St. Mary’s and invited me to visit when she could give me a guided tour. I couldn’t believe my luck. I then shared with her both my fear of telling her the truth, as well as how I had honestly thought that if I just showed up, looking pathetic and sad, they wouldn’t have the heart to throw me out. We shared a chuckle and set a date for the following Saturday for my long-needed visit to the place I called home during the last eleven weeks of my pregnancy.

Feeling it would have been far too intimidating to go alone, I was fortunate enough to be going with three other reunited birth moms, two of whom are also alumni of St. Mary’s. The fourth girl “served her time” at the Florence Crittenton Home, in Boston. We decided to go together to offer the support we were certain we would each need to pass through that phase of our healing journeys.

I didn’t sleep well the night before thinking about walking those halls again. As much as I had always wanted to return, I was scared. Of what exactly, I didn’t know. Can one ever really go back? I wondered. Was I afraid that all I remembered to be true wouldn’t be? That my memories were fantasy, not fact? Those thoughts unnerved me, as I had become comfortable with the things I remembered.

On the ride to meet Chris, who lived at St. Mary’s in 1969, my mind wandered back to 1968. Back to being pregnant and afraid. Back to being a new mother, holding my beautiful baby girl and wondering what was to become of us. Before long, the tears were streaming down my face. Not the sobbing, out-of-control kind of tears and crying, just the sad tears from an old wound. By the time I picked up Chris, my tears had stopped but my face was still all blotchy, so there was no choice but to share with her what I was feeling. She laughed and admitted that she, too, cried on her way to meet me. We talked a little about what we expected to experience at St. Mary’s and then went on to other things.

As promised, we were greeted upon arrival. The young woman was very obliging, and had already gathered some old photos of St. Mary’s being DEMOLISHED in 1994. I couldn’t believe my eyes. St. Mary’s was gone! The only home I had ever openly shared with Joanne. The only place I could ever admit I was her mother. In its place was a playground for the children who live in the new St. Mary’s “Shelter for Women & Children,” housed at the now closed St. Margaret’s hospital next door. I was sick, stunned, and disappointed. I so wanted so to walk the halls, see my room and face my fears of long ago, and couldn’t understand why she hadn’t told me this on the phone. Perhaps she didn’t realize we didn’t know it was gone. She quickly offered to take us up to the delivery rooms and maternity ward.

The room where I had stayed as an inpatient is now a private sitting room. Although the nursery windows remained the same, the nursery had been converted into office space. Standing at those windows, I closed my eyes and touched the glass with my fingertips. Memories flooded back. I felt weak in the knees as I envisioned my precious baby girl lying there, all bundled up, in her little basinet in the back row. Yes, the back row, where all the St. Mary’s babies were kept…kept like second-class citizens. I recalled so vividly seeing my appointed, fake name, “Stella,” printed on the birth information card at her head, in the crib, and how angry, hurt, and insignificant that had made me feel. To think, for nearly three months, I had tirelessly fought in vein to keep my name, because it was so important to have my real name, Susan, on that card. In essence, looking back now, I had already lost my daughter. I had spent most every minute she wasn’t with me in my room in front of those windows. The first couple of days, I had to tap on the window to have the nurse roll her crib to the front. After that, whenever she saw me, she gladly brought my little “Madlyn Jeanne” up to the front so I could watch her sleep. I spent so much time at these windows that, on more than one occasion, I accompanied the nurse as she rolled the bassinet back to my room, when it was time to feed her.

Going upstairs to the labor and delivery rooms, the knot in my stomach was getting tighter and tighter, I was so frightened of what feelings and unexplored memories might come next. But, once there, I couldn’t distinguish one room from the other, and quickly remembered how drugged I had been for most of my time spent in labor. Just one more fact that still bothers me today.

While riding down in the elevator at the end of our tour, one of the resident teenage mothers had her newborn son in a carry-all. We were introduced and she was told the reason for our visit. When she learned we had left our babies at St.Mary’s years ago, it’s was easy to see by the disgusted look on her face, that she was shocked. Her only reply was, “You’d have to kill me first before anyone took my baby away from me.”

I could feel her power, her strength, and the determination in her words and I thanked God that the narrow minded thinking of the 60’s, that nearly destroyed my life, was gone. All I could do was smile warmly and say, “Good for you!”

Upon leaving, I was grateful for having had the opportunity to visit, but felt unexpectedly empty. The peace I had hoped to gain wasn’t to be found. It had been torn down and trucked away, along with any and all validation of my memories of St. Mary’s. So, maybe it was a good thing I didn’t go back sooner. Good that I never knew it was to be demolished. An earlier visit might have changed my memories of St. Mary’s and influenced my writing in “The Same Smile.” As a result, my interpretation of my time spent there will forever remain a treasure, a cherished treasure in my mind.



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Here’s a recent picture of my girls that I wanted to share!

L – R: Kristine, Bethany, Joanne & Susan

Me and My Girls