“A Girl Like Her,” Ann Fessler’s quietly devastating documentary addresses mothers of a certain generation who gave up babies for adoption….chances are you know someone who did this too, screens Sunday at the 35th Mill Valley Film Festival
Can you ever really recover from the loss of a child, one that you were coerced into giving up? After watching Ann Fessler’s documentary A Girl Like Her (2011), which reveals the hidden history of over a million young women who became pregnant in the 1950s and 60s and were banished to maternity homes to give birth, surrender their children, and then return home alone, your answer will be no. Yet, these young women were told to keep their secret, move on and forget. But, really, how can a woman EVER forget that and what are the consequences?
Producer, director, editor, archival film researcher, Ann Fessler tackles rich territory in her expertly-rendered 48 minute documentary which is the result of extensive groundbreaking interviews she conducted between 2002-5 with over 100 women who surrendered children to adoption during the 28 years that followed WWII, the years before Row v. Wade. Fessler, a professor of photography at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), is the well-known author of The Girls Who Went Away (Penguin Press, 2006), chosen as one of the top 5 non-fiction books of 2006 by the National Book Critics Circle and by readers of Ms. magazine in 2011 as one of the top 100 feminist books of all time. She is also adopted and her award-winning autobiographical films on adoption, Cliff & Hazel (1999) and Along the Pale Blue River (2001) have been influential in the adoption community.
Clip from Ann Fessler’s A Girl Like Her
A Girl Like Her remains true to the spirit of Fessler’s book. Protecting the privacy of her interview subjects, she has mixed audio clips of at least a dozen women telling select fragments of their stories in gripping detail against a backdrop of fascinating period footage from home movies, educational films and newsreels about dating, sex, “illegitimate” pregnancy, and adoption. The restrained titles of some of these films alone—such as “How Much Affection, from 1957, produced by the McGraw Hill Book Company as part of its Marriage and Family Series—are enlightening indications of where sex education stood.
Fessler offers a sociologically rich and important deconstruction of a devastating double social standard that was in effect in those days. As the sexual revolution amped up in the postwar years, and more and more young people were having sex, birth control was restricted and abortion was either prohibitively expensive or life threatening. At the same time, the post WWII economic boom ushered millions of American families into the middle class, exerting its own pressures to rigidly conform to a model of family perfection and decency. The message enforced by the interviews is clear: it was the girl who set the level of conduct of a date and her fault if she let things get out of control.
Most single young women who became pregnant (and 1.3 million did), came from upwardly mobile white middle class families. They were not only labeled “sluts” but they were trapped with no attractive options. One birthmother points out, “We weren’t even allowed to say “pregnant,” we had to say “expecting.” They were shunned by their family and friends, expelled immediately from their high schools, sent away to maternity homes to give birth, and were often treated with contempt by those doctors, nurses, and clergy who were supposed to be of comfort and assistance. After giving birth, they were not informed of their rights and were hounded by social workers to sign their babies over. The legal papers they signed frequently stated or implied that they had abandoned their babies.
One interviewee explained the awful conundrum that single black women were in. In the heyday of Martin Luther King, when education was hailed as the great leveler, if a young black woman became pregnant, she was expelled from school and not welcome to return after giving birth. She was therefore effectively trapped permanently in a low wage, unable to escape poverty.
It’s impossible not to be moved by the voices of these women as they speak about the devastating long-term impact of surrender on their lives. Many of the women Fessler interviewed had never spoken of their experiences before but candidly share that they have been plagued by grief and shame and regret and anger since relinquishing.
If the film suffers from anything, it is length…the film begs for even more rich stories. And today, when the future of the Roe decision and women’s reproductive rights stand are again jeopardized, Fessler brings the important and long-overlooked history of single women in the 1950’s through early 1970’s into the arena. In the adoption community, a commonly used but unverified statistic is that 1 in 7 people are directly touched by adoption. Chances are you know a birthmother who relinquished a baby or an adopted person from this era. In revealing the painful legacy that permanently impacted so many birthmothers, Fessler has finally and respectfully given them a voice and created a powerful collective portrait that will benefit everyone touched by adoption. The film is a primer in empathy for adoptees from this generation struggling to understand why their birthmothers gave them up. Understanding the social circumstances which surrounded relinquishment and that what is written on adoption papers may not reflect the truth, rather what a young mother was forced to sign off on, is critical. The film may also serve as a healing bridge for birthfathers, who many assume escaped scott free, but who also have also reported feeling guilt.
(Screens: Sunday, October 7, 2012 at 1:30 PM at 142 Throckmorton Theatre and Wednesday, October 10, at 7 PM at Rafael 3)
The festival’s homepage is here and there are three ways to purchase tickets:
Online: To purchase tickets for MVFF screenings, browse the film listings—the full schedule is online here. When you find a film you would like to see, click “buy tickets” to put the tickets in your cart. You can continue browsing, or click “check out” to complete your order. Tickets purchased online incur a $1.50 processing fee per order.
Tickets you have purchased online are available for pick-up at the Mill Valley Film Festival Box Office(s). Seating is guaranteed until 15 minutes prior to screening. No late seating.
In-Person at pre-festival Box Offices:
SAN RAFAEL TICKET OUTLET
1104 Fourth Street, San Rafael 94901
Sept. 11– 15, 4:00pm–8:00pm (CFI Members)
Sept. 16: 10am – 7pm
Sept. 17 – Oct. 3: Weekdays 4:00pm – 8:00pm, Weekends 2pm – 8:00pm
Opening Night, Oct. 4: 2:00pm – 11:00pm
Festival Hours, Oct. 5 – 14: Weekdays 3:00 – 10:00pm, Weekends 10:30am – 10:00pm
Note: Monday (10/8) & Friday (10/12) are weekend hours
MILL VALLEY TICKET OUTLET
ROOM Art Gallery
86 Throckmorton Avenue, Mill Valley 94941
Sept. 16: 10am – 2pm
Sept. 17 – Oct. 2: 11:00am – 4:00pm
MILL VALLEY CHAMBER OF COMMERCE
85 Throckmorton, Mill Valley 94941
Oct. 3: 11:00am – 4:00pm
Oct.4: 2:00pm – 11:00pm
Oct. 5 – 14: Weekdays 3:00pm – 10:00pm, Weekends 10:30am – 10:00pm
Note: Monday (10/8) & Friday (10/12) are weekend hours
BY PHONE: toll free at 877.874.6833
NOTE: If you have trouble purchasing online and cannot purchase tickets in person, leave a message on box office voicemail: 877.874.6833.
All orders placed over the phone are subject to a charge of $10.00 per transaction. Tickets delivered via mail (USPS) incur a $3.50 convenience fee.
RUSH Tickets: If seats are available, tickets will be sold at the door beginning at 15 minutes prior to screening. Those tickets are cash only. No discounts.
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