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Education & Outreach


A Conversation with Author & Birthmother Laura Engel

This week we had the opportunity to sit down with Laura Engel, the author of You’ll Forget This Ever Happened: Secrets, Shame, and Adoption in the 1960s, a memoir about birth, loss, and the enduring love she held in her heart for her firstborn son. As a pregnant teenager, she - like so many unmarried, pregnant women in the 60s - was shipped off to an Unwed Mothers Home, to keep her pregnancy a secret. In July of 1967 after giving birth, she was forced to relinquish him for adoption. She held this secret, and the shame that surrounded it, for nearly 50 years, until fate and luck reunited her with her son.  Part memoir, part a treatise on secrecy, shame, and the joy that comes from breaking those chains to live your truth with openness and authenticity, this book is a must-read. This was such a great interview we couldn't edit it down to just one post, so this week we are posting part I, and next week will post the conclusion.  

We are just going to dive right in. The title of your book - You'll Forget This Ever Happened: Secrets, Shame, and Adoption in the 1960s – it’s just so evocative of the entire ‘babyscoop’ era.

Thank you. That was such a different time. I look back at the 1960s and how I was coerced into leaving my child and you know; my parents, well I guess all of us, were a product of that era. After reading my book younger people have said I didn't realize your parents were so mean. My parents were not mean. Mama did have many issues, which I write about in the story but many of us grew up with parents that had emotional issues. We grew up and we went forward, but one thing I kept thinking while writing my book was How could they have ever told me I would forget it? How could they have told me I would forget something as monumental as giving birth and then giving that baby up for adoption?

I know they didn't forget it even though they refused to talk about it. My parents were from that silent generation. They had children and they loved us, and this was their first grandson. They had to have known I would never forget my child. The fact is that all the adults who were important to me in my life said that I would go on with my life and forget leaving my firstborn son.

Writing about this time in my life was one of the most cathartic, healing things I've ever done, because I faced my story head-on, and I allowed myself to completely remember the anguish after burying it for decades. This book opened a whole different world for me, because I always thought that adoptees would go on to have this great life, because we were told that's what would happen. In the last two years my mind has been blown, because of so many things - not only the fact that I was told to forget this experience, which I never forgot - but also the fact that so many adoptees are in enormous pain, suffering from that primal wound.  

Can you believe I had never read The Primal Wound or The Girls Who Went Away until I reunited with my son? I bought both books years ago and put them in a cabinet in my bedroom that has a closed door. I don't even know how to say this, it sounds so ridiculous, but I honestly thought, if someone saw these books about adoption and about birthmothers, what would they think? And honestly, now I realize that nobody would go into my bedroom and open that cabinet and look at my books? No one cares what I am reading. But I still hid them. That is how secretive and ashamed I was.

I was unable to even speak about that time out loud. And so, writing my story really helped me. I didn't want to sound like a victim, because when I was living that experience fifty-eight years ago I kept telling myself I had played the biggest part of this whole thing; that it was happening because of my actions. And when I wrote my book as a much, much older wiser woman, and had the first manuscript edited, my editor sat down with me and said, you know, reading this I feel like I'm there. And I said, I hope it doesn't sound whiny. Or like I'm a victim, and she said but you girls were victims. And I thought, oh my God - for 50 years I've been telling myself I was not a victim. I would always look at the other women that this happened to, and I would feel empathy for them. But I didn't feel any of that for myself until I wrote the book, which ended up being a 5-draft process.

Five drafts?

After my second draft my editor told me, I love all your stories. But you get completely off track as you go into your life during the 49 years between leaving your son, and then finding him again. This is a memoir – just a slice of your life. Tell your story, then skip ahead 49 years. And I said, I can’t just write that I left, and then restart my story in 2016.

My life had taken a totally different path after I left my son, and I built a good life regardless of my pain. I wanted to be able to say, look at the life I have now. Look at all the good things have to live for, and I refuse to let my private grief completely color my life. It was important to tell that part of my story too. The readers didn’t need to know every little detail of my life in the 49 years after I left the Home. They just needed a snapshot – so that’s why I wrote several drafts.

When my son saw the manuscript (and read many parts of it as I was writing), he said, I want you to publish it. This is great. This is great! He was very proud of me. My husband and all of my adult children were too. My book covered my life from the 1960s and ended in 2017. After the publisher accepted the manuscript, I sent her a scanned copy of Jamie’s birth card.  I had given my son that birth card in a memory box for our first Christmas together. I had asked him to scan it for me, because the publisher wanted it, and I didn’t know what she planned to do with it.

And then three weeks later, my son took his life. I thought, I can’t publish this now – this book that ended on such a happy fairy tale (because it had ended before he died) was not the full story. Even as I was writing it over the years I kept saying to a friend of mine, our reunion is almost too good to be true. She was very wise, and told me, even if it’s too good to be true, live in this moment. Enjoy what is going on now. Your son and you are connected now. Enjoy that miracle. And so, I did, and then four years later he died. The true story did not have that beautiful ending.

My publisher was very kind when I told her I didn’t think I could publish this book. She said, we can hold your book here. We aren’t going to tear up your contract. We will wait for you. Don’t make any decisions right now. I want you to wait until you feel like you know what is right for you to do. It took two years for me to be able to talk about any of this, but I'm stronger now. I've learned a lot, and I know it is part of the story. An important part. She had sent me an email with a few cover choices, and the first few looked like a modern story, and another with an oak tree, which is referenced in the book, but then I got to the last cover - there was the birth card. I knew immediately I wanted that cover because of the birth card. Many people don’t realize the birth card on the cover is his original birthday card. [ed. note: this is the card attached to the bassinets at the maternity home Laura gave birth in, which identifies the babies according to the name their birthmothers gave to them. Her son Jamie’s birth card is on the front cover of the book.]

My son called me when he was taking the card to have it scanned. He said mom I ripped the card when I pulled it out of the memory box and I'm so sorry. Do you still want me to scan it? I said yes, please, and it must be a high-definition scan because that's what the publisher requested. I don't know exactly what she wants it for but don't worry about a small tear.

I honestly think that little tear is what touched me most when I saw that cover design. That birth card had traveled with me across the country and during many moves. It was such a part of this story as it was the only proof I had of my son for fifty years. I cherished it. Since his death I do have it back - it's back in its little brown box in my desk drawer. It’s not hidden in my bedroom closet anymore like it was all those years ago when my son was my darkest secret.

I realized the book had to have an epilogue, and I knew it would not to be pleasant for readers. It is such a sad ending, and I knew it was going to be a shock to readers that didn’t know the story but at the same time, I had to add it. Now that three years have gone by, I realize that the epilogue is in a completely different voice. I was a different person after his death. I didn’t write a lot of details in that epilogue because I have his children to think about, but I did want to tie it up because it was the real story. I cried the entire time I wrote it. I had put five years of blood, sweat and tears into my book and I was determined now to publish it no matter what. It had to have a true ending. This story of all the other young birth mothers and of myself and the love I had for my son had to be told. Even if nobody ever read it.

It's a powerful book. Everybody should read it. As a reader, it’s fascinating to see how you write about love – how it’s different in Part I and Part II. In Part I, there is a real ‘Silent Generation’ take on love: that it isn't something that you get automatically by virtue of being a human being in a family, but instead, something you have to earn, and so when you do good, you get more love, and when you do something wrong, love has to be pulled away because you don’t deserve it anymore. And then in Part II, love is something freely and joyfully given and received. Love is at the heart of your story, but it shows up in really different ways in the beginning versus at the end. Was that a conscious choice? or did you feel that switch? When you were experiencing it or writing about it?

Thank you for your perspective as a reader. Originally, I was going to start the story with our reunion. That's how I began writing because there was such joy at that time. There was this insane happiness that came over me when I found my son because I had never known where he was. It was like having someone dead brought back to life, and I was undeniably thrilled and in-love. That love was reminiscent of when you give birth to your baby and first you hold them, and you are instantly mesmerized by that baby. That was the same feeling I had – for the 49-year-old man my son was. It was glorious! I think that motherlove is one of the most important and most glorious feelings a woman can ever experience.

I hadn’t planned on writing about the Home for unwed mothers but when I started telling my husband things about being sent to the Home and other things about that experience he said, Laura, this is your story. This part is your story, too. And I said no, no, no - that part's too painful to process or write.  Then he said, just write it for yourself. Write it in your journal. So, I started writing in my journal about the Home and the girls, and then of course months later I began transferring that into a manuscript. I soon realized that writing about the horrible pain and abandonment I had felt, actually began to feel as if I was living in the 1960s again. It was surreal. Once more I was that seventeen-year-old girl, after all she had always been inside of me.

At the time I was writing the book I had granddaughters who were the age I had been, and I would look at those sweet girls and watch them giggling and putting on make-up, talking about boys and bands and I would think all those years ago we young girls were just like my granddaughters are now. We were simply teenagers. We were just your typical silly, naive, and full-of-life girls, not criminals, although we were made to feel like maybe we were criminals.

  In the writing process, I became that girl again and now I was giving that girl a voice. I gave her permission to tell her story. It wasn’t always easy. I'd write for a couple of hours, and then go outside, and stand on my patio deck and look up at the sky, tears streaming down my face. I cried so much while revisiting that time and writing my truth because the pain was deep inside of me, and now it was bubbling up. A red rash broke out around my mouth, and I had a series of abdominal cramps similar to labor pains for months after I started telling the truth of that time. It was as if my whole body was remembering, like that book, The Body Keeps The Score.

I felt unloved when I was writing part I. I recollected that awful loneliness and pain. I felt the shame of what I had done, because in my mind, even as a woman almost seventy years old, I still felt like I brought this on myself.  I had little love or compassion for the girl who had done this – left her baby. Why had I not been stronger? Why didn't I fight to keep my son? Why did I put everyone through this? It took decades for my parents and me to heal from that experience. Only my husband knew the story. My children did not know neither did my closest friends out here in California. I couldn’t tell the people who thought they knew everything about me, who loved me best.

And then in part II, I felt free and so enjoyed writing about the extraordinary love that I have for my other sons, the ones I had raised. Even though my first marriage was unhappy, I could look back and see all the good that came from it; my boys. And then of course I also wrote about meeting my second husband in part II.  I’m almost seventy-five, and when I wrote about that time, I realized we had such a love story. When you're living it, you know you're happy together, but you don't realize how special it is. Looking back and rewriting that part, I kept saying to him I love this part. I would write and pure joy would come over me.

Part III was the same way; just full of happiness and love because it was the reunion. Meeting my first-born son and his wife and their families was magical and oh, more new grandchildren! I was finally able to say I knew where all my sons were when I fell asleep every night. That love was overwhelming.

So yes, I think you are correct, and I thank you for that. There truly were different types of love in each part of my book.

Watch for the second half of this interview, which will be posted next week, where we talk about emotional labor, women's lack of agency in the 1960s, and what it was like to stop holding this secret in, and start telling the world about her experience as a pregnant teenager, and about her first-born son and their reunion after nearly 50 years apart. To learn more about Laura, visit her website and buy her book. To read more of her writing, you can find her essays at Severance Magazine, Journal of Expressive Writing, Writer's Digest, and Birthparent Support Alliance Member Adoption & Beyond's blog

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