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Exiled Mothers

At MICA, an Artist Chronicles the Troubling Underside of Adoption

"People say, well, you had a choice. But we were coerced. We were brainwashed, badgered, just beaten down. My girl was taken from me."

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 1/29/2003


Ann Fessler

Opens Jan. 31 with a reception Feb. 6, from 6 to 8 p.m., MICA's Decker Gallery. The installation runs through March 16.

At a student art opening in 1989, Ann Fessler, a photography instructor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, noticed she was being observed by a familiar-looking person in the crowd, a woman in her 60s. Later that evening, the woman approached Fessler. "You could be my long-lost daughter," she said. "You look like the perfect combination of me and the father of my child."

Fessler was floored. "How did she even know I was adopted? I had an actual physical reaction," she remembers. "I thought she could be it: the biological mother I'd never looked for."

Their dates didn't match, it turns out, but the chance encounter nonetheless changed Fessler's life, and a startling revelation that came from that meeting has been fueling her art ever since: The woman said her baby had been taken from her. She described herself as the victim of a puritanical culture that methodically coerced unwed women to hide pregnancies and give up "illegitimate" babies in order to save their families from social ruin. It was quite possible, the woman said, that Fessler's mother had undergone a similar experience.

Ann Fessler had always believed that she had been an unwanted baby. The notion that her biological mother might have given her up under duress--that her mother might still be suffering from that loss--contrasted sharply with the conception of adoption that she had carried with her into adulthood, that adoption was the voluntary practice of women who willingly offered up their babies to better homes.

"It completely turned my head around," says Fessler, now on the faculty of the Rhode Island School of Design, of the '89 encounter. "I went home and immediately started writing down everything I could remember she'd said."

Soon afterward, Fessler began investigating the stories of women who put up babies for adoption between 1945 and 1973, from the post-war baby boom until Roe v. Wade. These were unwed women who became pregnant before oral contraception and abortion were available, and before the possibility of single motherhood was practical. Adoption was the only "moral" choice, Fessler says of the times, and it was often not a choice women were permitted to make for themselves. Many of these women describe their adoption experience as a compulsory "surrender." They consider themselves as having been forcibly "exiled" from a motherhood they desperately wanted. Their stories challenge the widely held archetypes--myths, perhaps--of the adoption experience.

In "Everlasting," Fessler's new sound and video installation, a circle of chairs sits in an empty room in MICA's Decker Gallery. Over the speakers play the voices of eight "exiled mothers" from the Baltimore-Washington region, women whose oral histories were captured by Fessler while she was a MICA artist-in-residence last year. Gallery visitors are invited to sit in the chairs--to sit in the place of the women, as it were--and bear witness to a side of the story that has rarely been told. The voices on the soundtrack are woven together, sometimes overlapping, sometimes alternating, as if in discussion. What you hear is a patchwork narrative that joins the lonely, fractured testimonials into one communal history. Each woman's journey is dotted with similar landmarks: the shock of pregnancy, confinement in a maternity home, the scorn of families and social workers, the trauma of childbirth, the unbearable pain of separation, and the lifetime spent contending with guilt, shame, sadness, and anger. What comes through loudest is a palpable sense of injustice.

In 1963, Pollie Wisham, one of the participants in the installation, was 16 years old and five months pregnant. When denial and disbelief gave way to an expanding belly, Pollie finally approached her parents for help.

"My mother pitched a fit and called me a slut and everything," Pollie recalls. Then she was made to douche with Lysol. Her father, a police officer in Spartanburg, S.C., threatened to arrest her 24-year-old boyfriend for statutory rape. The boyfriend fled town in the middle of the night, abruptly ending a two-year relationship. The Wishams were pillars of the Spartanburg community, active in the Methodist church, and their daughter's scandalous condition threatened to visit shame upon the family. "They couldn't get me out of there fast enough," Pollie says. "It was like I was gonna infect the town."

Pollie's older brother, Joe, was working in the Pentagon at the time. He told his parents about a maternity home in Washington, part of a national network of facilities for unwed mothers, where the girl could be sequestered for the term of her pregnancy, give birth, and come back home alone. Pollie's parents decided to send her there.

But Pollie wanted to keep her baby, and she believes the choice was denied her. "I said I couldn't go through with [the adoption], and my father was like, you won't keep this baby. I'll not have that damn bastard in my house."

Several weeks later, Pollie was dispatched up north to live with her brother Joe until a room opened up in a gothic mansion on the outskirts of Georgetown, the D.C. site of the Florence Crittenton Home for "lost and fallen" girls. At the time, it was only one of nearly 50 Crittenton homes, which together processed tens of thousands of baby-boomer girls of birthing age who found themselves accidentally pregnant. As former Crittenton workers have since recalled, more than 80 percent of the young women left the maternity homes without their children.

"It was a castle," Pollie remembers. "It had the bust of a baby's head over the doorway. It was like a factory."

Pollie lived at "Flossie," as the girls called the Washington facility, from June to September 1963. She remembers watching the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. lead the march on Washington on the lounge television. She describes an oppressive, penitential environment where residents were discouraged from sharing personal information. The social workers who shepherded the girls toward adoption could be cruel and judgmental. "They believed we were sexual deviants," says Pollie.

Though their families paid a $1,000 fee for room and board, the girls were also required to perform daily chores. Pollie's duties included washing dishes and polishing the silver pitchers that dispensed powdered milk to the women at communal meals.

If the women went out during the day--only permissible in groups of twos and threes--they were required to slip on imitation wedding bands stored in a basket by the front door. The most crucial outings were to the local drugstore, from where Pollie smuggled Oreo cookies and macadamia nuts back into the home. "We were allowed only fruit between meals," she explains.

On Aug. 25, 1963, Pollie went into labor. After giving birth at the George Washington University Hospital, she returned to Crittenton with her newborn daughter; the two were immediately separated. Though some of the women were allowed to administer feedings to their babies, Pollie was kept away from the postpartum section of the facility. Later, she learned that her parents had requested that she be prevented all access to her baby. The Wishams arrived 12 days later to take their daughter home. Two days after her departure, Pollie's baby was put in the care of an adoptive family. She never signed any relinquishment papers. All Pollie had of her daughter was a Polaroid taken at the christening, and a name: Jacqueline Hope. "I named her Jacqueline after the first lady, who had also recently lost her child," Pollie says. "And Hope, in the hopes that I'd see her again."

Pollie's Southern accent stands out on the soundtrack of the "Everlasting" installation, but her story blends in seamlessly with those of the other women. Ann Fessler hopes that this multiplicity of voices will imbue them with a historical resonance they may not have alone.

"I'm concerned that politically the tide could potentially turn back to those times," Fessler says, who believes art can function as a bulwark against the repetition of historical mistakes. "I'm concerned about people making decisions for other people."

Fessler intends to re-create "Everlasting" in galleries and museums across the country, each time finding and capturing the voices of local "exiled mothers" whose side of the adoption triad is often misunderstood or silenced.

Pollie is simply grateful that her story is finally being heard. "This really happened to us, you know?" she says, with a survivor's zeal. "People say, well, you had a choice. But we were coerced. We were brainwashed, badgered, just beaten down. My girl was taken from me."

Pollie Wisham is now Pollie W. Robinson. She is married with three sons, and has been reunited with the daughter she lost 39 years ago, though hers is not a fairy-tale ending. When she finally tracked down her daughter, 20 years after giving birth to her, she discovered that the girl, ostensibly taken from her to be put into a better home, was raised in an emotionally abusive household, which Pollie says has left permanent psychological scars on her daughter.

Ann Fessler eventually did find her own biological mother--a journey that is the subject of "Close to Home," a multimedia installation presented in conjunction with "Everlasting"--but she has not attempted a reunion, and is still undecided about whether she ever will. She says she harbors concerns about the hurtful possibility that her biological mother has not sought her out, and would prefer not to reunite.

And as for the woman who approached Fessler more than a dozen years ago, and who triggered the whole project, the last Fessler heard from her, she had not yet found the daughter she surrendered nearly half a century ago.

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