Denise Morency Gannon’s compelling commentary of Ann Fessler’s film, “A Girl Like Her” (available for purchase at http://agirllikeher.com )
I first learned of Ann Fessler’s work through my friend Susan Mello Souza, author of The Same Smile. http://www.thesamesmile.com
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. http://agirllikeher.com/
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.