The Village of Brockport, where I live, is just an hour away from the site of Father Baker’s Home for Unwed Mothers in Lackawanna, NY. For as close as I live to this building, I knew little about it when I began.
This became a topic of ongoing research for my newest story, a novella, which describes a 15-year-old’s experience in a home for unwed mothers during the late 1960s.
To say I’m not superstitious would be a lie, but I’m not superstitious when it comes to talking about a story while I’m writing it. In fact, I think it’s a necessity. It’s an important part of research–it’s part of the writer’s responsibility to gauge the many facets of the topic they write on. At AWP, Bret Anthony Johnston said something about it being “irresponsible” to require a student to write a story and not also require that student to conduct research while writing that story.
For research, I read The Girls Who Went Away, by Ann Fessler, conducted interviews of my own, and dug up some news articles to get public perception on this phenomenon. Young girls whisked away from their families during perhaps the most vulnerable time in their lives, only to have their own babies whisked away from them.
Part of this was the culture of the time. Parents sent their pregnant daughters away to protect them. Or to protect their families, which proved backwards and harrowing for the mothers. As treacherous as society can be for marginalized groups today, the same went for unwed mothers in the 50s-60s. I didn’t quite understand this on an emotional level, this sending away of daughters, but as a mother of two boys in 2013, I can only grasp it in a far-off, detached manner. But that type of grasp is not the type of grasp a writer has to have, and it only worked until I actually started writing the scenes.
The problem was, these girls only knew part of their stories. They knew what happened to them, but what happened that made this phenomenon possible? Questions like, What did these babies cost? Where did the money go? And what they have all been asking since it happened, Why? Why? Why?
There are many shadows surrounding these homes, and I crept around in them–well, in the texts of them–while I researched. There were articles by sources that felt not quite reputable, claiming the nuns “stole” the children. And while this language is inflammatory and inciting, could it be true? The level-headed part of me wants to know why this has not become a more investigated, legitimate issue, why I can’t find some source to give me information I can put stock in?
Anne Fessler’s oral history of this issue brought up many emotional questions on the part of the unwed mothers. That helped quite a bit, but still, what happened as I was reading was exactly what happened as the birth mothers told their stories–the gaps frustrated the information. Sure, what the mothers endured–the shame, the guilt, the work in the nurseries, the drugging so that they would sign their just-born for release–all presented fine, but both the mothers and the readers, on different levels, have gaps to fill. This is, perhaps, the most gut-wrenching part of the story. The unknowable.
Who were these nuns? Have any stepped forward to tell their stories? How were they instructed to coerce these women into adoption? I’ve read few comments from nuns themselves, in old newspapers, and the potential for that has dwindled with time. I’ve read vague articles commending the many existing institutions for their charity, but no oral history of the nuns who counseled these young women. Maybe few of them felt they were in the business of “stealing” babies? Or was it the culture that masked this?
That’s where writing comes in, in part. I imagine who my character, Sister Josephine, was. What if she wasn’t completely bound to the Catholic Charity’s mission? What if Sister Josephine had a secret of her own? Were there renegade sisters or nuns? Likely. Would they ever tell their stories? Not likely.
So, for me, in this story, there is the writing–there is the voice to give. What makes writing so hard–that these are potholes, the fallen bridges, the trap doors we fall into.