When I wrote my memoir, Without a Map, I understood that I was breaking unspoken but powerful rules of silence. Pregnant at sixteen in 1966, I was one of the thousands (or are there tens of thousands of us? Hundreds of thousands? I have heard millions. Even the number seems to be a secret) of girls who "surrendered" their babies into adoption in the 1950's, ‘60’s and ‘70's. I was sent away, and hidden away. After my baby disappeared, I was allowed to creep back into the world on very stiff terms: I was never to speak about this grievous loss. I followed those terms until I was fifty-five years old, when I made the decision to write a book. Had anyone asked me through the years to convey my experience, to tell my stories, I would have struggled to name the unique and unceasing kind of grief that comes when a baby dies to you but moves somewhere in the world, not yours but yours in every cell. The kind of grief that comes when you are outcast from your small and safe world, shamed and very alone. When you are, apparently, the only person who has ever lost a child in this way. I never heard anyone tell a story anything like mine.
I wrote Without a Map believing that a tiny handful of people would ever read it, and so I wrote a very intimate book. I found words that speak about a frightened girl, a mother's love, how love can fail in the face of shame. I wrote about profound sorrow, and perfect isolation. I wrote about the miracle of reunion with a lost child after twenty-one years. And I wrote about the ways in which the grief does not subside, the defining events carved into me forever. I felt as I wrote that I was whispering my secret stories finally, that a kindly old woman leaned in quietly and calmly and heard me, my first listener.
But instead of whispering to that compassionate crone in a quiet house, I find myself, several times a month, reading my stories through a microphone to a packed room. Each time, people cry. And each time, people lean in to my table as I sign books and—mother, given-away child—they whisper their own stories, the words coming in a great rush. "I have never told anyone about this," they say to me. "My mother…my baby…my father…my aunt…my son, my daughter, my baby…I was given away at two…I was thirty when I found…" Each day, I find stories waiting for me in my mailbox and my email box. "Once, when I was 16… I met my child when I was 84… The grief never… My parents sent me to… I just learned my aunt is my mother..." As if my own words have granted permission to break the silence, these stories pour into the world like water released from behind a dam. Love, aching longing between mother and child, guilt, unbridgeable loss. Listen:
"I am a 57 year old woman who just found my 40 year old daughter. My parents didn't know I was pregnant until I was in labor. My mother refused to talk about my daughter, [who] was taken from me at birth. My daughter’s father and I married a few years later and had a son in 1975. My daughter has a full fledged brother who is 32. We are all celebrating our new family. I feel so bad for her sometimes because I can't change it. It just is." Susan A. Scott
"I'm one of those legions of women; a child of the 60's (I was 17. The message of shame was loud and clear). The sad thing is the feeling of isolation that you write of. And the funny thing is--I always thought that when I was reunited with my son, the sadness would be gone. But that's just not so; the fact remains that, as mothers, we realize what we've missed in the years that have passed by, and that level of grief, mourning, is still there." Maria Matuson
"I am in contact with my daughter, now age 20, by email and phone. Though we are only four hours apart, we haven't seen each other in person yet as she fluctuates between being ready and not being ready. I am a pro at waiting, as I know you understand." Michelle Shaw
"You have illustrated and articulated the isolation, shame, anger and guilt that have broken and stalled so many of our lives. My daughter found me in 1995. Sadly, she had carried the same feelings of guilt, shame, and isolation throughout her life." Anonymous
"When society fails to tell your story, there is an unspoken message that it is not worth telling, or doesn't exist. Now I want to tell my story." Maria B., 20 year old adoptee.
"(Reading your story) was as though I'd had a muzzle on for all these years and someone came along and said, now I'm going to gently remove this thing," Maria Matuson wrote. We are storytellers. We need each others’ stories in order to understand how to live a life, what a life might look like. How to make our way in love and loss, grief and joy, compassion and shame, fear and courage. How to learn the larger love which is, I believe, our purpose. There are thousands, or tens or hundreds of thousands, of women who once, many years ago, gave our babies into lives we could not imagine. We have followed the rules and kept our silence.
Birth mother and lost child, we are pros at waiting, silently. But I wonder now, after all this time, who it is, exactly, who is demanding that silence? And why in the world, after all this time, we would comply?
Meredith Hall is the author of Without a Map: A Memoir. She is the recipient of the Gift of Freedom Award from A Room of Her Own Foundation, a Pushcart Prize and notable essay recognition in Best American Essays; she was also a finalist for the Rona Jaffe Award. Hall’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, The Southern Review, Five Points, Prairie Schooner, and several anthologies. She teaches writing at the University of New Hampshire and lives in Maine. You can listen to an interview with the author from NPR's Weekend Edition. Without a Map was the first book selected for the Writers Revealed Virual Book Club.