Using her own experiences as an example, Marylee MacDonald uses adoption to explore intergenerational cyclical trauma, societal expectations of women, and nature vs nurture. She tells a story that is honest and from the heart, and which serves as an example of a bigger story, that of mid-century mores, expectations, and the infrastructure that helped create a façade of American family life and womanhood. More importantly, she explores an intergenerational cycle of teen pregnancy and its emotional repercussions.
Through Marylee’s telling, we feel what it was to be a teenage girl in 1962, to be adopted, to feel alienated from the adopting family, and to struggle to be worthy of being “chosen,” as she describes it. At the same time, she searches for her place in the world; she, like so many of us have done, vacillates between a desire to please, to be a good wife and mother, and a desire to participate in the world intellectually. We feel her pain.
Then we look at her research and know that she was not alone. The history of contraception, teen pregnancy, adoption, and female behavior is personal, but the fact that it is so common makes it part of our national psyche. Two million children were placed for adoption in the 1960s.
In 1962 a home for unwed mothers was intended to first hide away pregnant, unwed girls or women and then send them home good as new to start over, virgins once again. They were told to forget and to move on with their lives as if none of this ever happened: Erase a year of your life, finish school, get married and start a family of your own, all while pretending that you do not have a child out in the world somewhere. There was no therapy, no support, and very little empathy for the circumstances that may have brought her to this situation. These women suffered alienation and loneliness without the scaffolding to address these events.
Moreover, the adoption process of the times allowed for very little information to be communicated between the parties involved. Adopting families were entitled to little if any information regarding the child’s medical history and nothing about the birth parents’ talents, interests, or abilities, making it nearly impossible for an adoptee to understand herself as she matured and began exploring her place in the world.
MacDonald also reminds us, through her story, that the consequences of our actions can last for generations unless we have the courage to face them head on, talk openly, and change. She writes of a “deep scratch on the LP of the soul,” and “the sixteen-year-old girl stuck in the endless loop…” of untangling loss and identity.
Surrender is a fine memoir that speaks to the very essence of our evolution as women in modern America. MacDonald adds a puzzle piece that illustrates both how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.