by Alice Stephens
In 1967, a teenager’s parents drop her off at a home for pregnant unwed women in New Orleans, heartbroken and ashamed at the scandal their daughter has brought upon them. In You’ll Forget This Ever Happened: Secrets, Shame, and Adoption in the 1960s, Laura L. Engel movingly recounts her unsuccessful struggle to keep her baby against the implacable social forces of the era.
During her pregnancy, Laura schemes to keep her child, but is told time and again that if she loved him, she would give him up to be raised in a proper family. With no support from her family or the father of her baby, she eventually relinquishes her newborn son, a decision that will haunt her for the rest of her life.
In this brave and poignant memoir, Laura L. Engel reveals the human toll of the Baby Scoop Era, when single mothers were separated from their babies by a cruel and disapproving Christian society that prized the lie of sexual “purity” over the genetic ties of family. At a time when women’s reproductive freedoms are under threat, You’ll Forget This Ever Happened is a timely tale of what is at stake when a woman’s right to decide is taken away from her.
Alice Stephens: You’ll Forget This Ever Happened explores a very painful, deeply personal time in your life. Why did you feel the need to share your story with the public?
Laura L. Engel: Originally, I was planning to write a family history, but after my secret son (a son I had surrendered to adoption as a teenage mother) reunited with me, I allowed myself to go back and reflect on the entire process of what had happened in 1967. This was very painful, but the more I wrote, the more cathartic it became. I soon realized my story was that of so many first mothers and adoptees. I felt compelled to start the conversation about what had happened, addressing the crippling legacy of shame and guilt from leaving our babies decades ago. Most of us had not been given a choice, our fates and those of our children decided by a judgmental society that left us feeling like criminals. The more I wrote, the more I shook my head in disbelief, and the angrier I became. I decided to share my story in the form of a memoir.
AS: Why now? Were you the right age; was it this moment in history?
LLE: Maybe both. I had recently retired in 2016 when my son found me through DNA. Fortunately, that left more time to devote to our reunion and more time to devote to writing my story. I was a grandmother in my seventies, stronger and wiser than I had ever been, able to express myself in ways I could not have when I was younger. Finally, I was able to write and say out loud my secret—that I had been an unwed teenage mother who had surrendered my first-born son.
While writing my memories, I realized all of us young women had been victims of a judgmental society dictated by archaic laws made by men. Now, with the possibility of women losing their rights to control their own bodies and make their own decisions, I am infuriated. I know my story matters even more. I never want my granddaughters’ or any woman’s right to choose to be taken away from them. I am appalled that our society is headed backwards.
AS: What brought you to writing? Please tell us about the process of writing You’ll Forget This Ever Happened, and its path to publication.
LLE: I have always loved reading and writing, and while in high school I enjoyed journalism so much I planned to become a writer. My life spiraled downward after the traumatic experience of leaving my newborn infant in an orphanage. I moved to California, never returning to the South to live. I married, had three more sons, divorced, was a single mom, and eventually remarried, acquiring two bonus stepchildren. All the while I worked full time at a challenging and competitive sales position for a large national title insurance company. Simply carving out time to write in my journal was difficult.
I was successful in business and fulfilled, but always wished I had time to write. Once retired, that time came, along with the reunion with my son.
On looking back, it seems synchronistic how everything played out.
About two months after my son found me, I was still walking on air and telling my story to friends. My husband said, “Laura, this is the story you should write.”
I had never written about my time in New Orleans or about my secret son. I thought it would be too difficult and painful to explore the secret I had held so close to my chest for 50 years, but I began writing my memories of that time in my journal. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write. The more I wrote, the more I remembered. Waking sometimes in the middle of the night thinking of the girls in the unwed mothers’ home, the staff, what had happened—I could see their faces plain as day and I recalled things I had pushed down for years. I would sit at my computer writing for hours in a trance. It was as if I were back in 1967 giving that sad, damaged teenage girl a voice.
I realized if I wanted my story to become a book, I needed to learn about writing. I attended workshops and read everything I could about the craft of writing memoir. I joined an excellent writers’ group, far too advanced for fledgling me, but I knew that working with great writers and listening to their critiques would strengthen my craft. This opened up an entirely different world for me. I was overwhelmed at the new learning curves I encountered, but at the same time I was thrilled because I felt I had met my tribe.
In four-and-a-half years, I wrote five drafts before I felt like my memoir was the best I could write. I paid for content editing twice and eventually for copy editing. I studied the different types of publishing available to writers today until my eyes crossed and my brain hurt (another learning curve). I did not want yet another learning curve of self-publishing or to go through possible years of query letters, finding an agent, and waiting to see if my book would be picked up by a traditional publisher, so I chose hybrid publishing and submitted my work to She Writes Press. They accepted my manuscript and have taught me so much as a newbie in the world of publishing.
AS: The memoir exposes not only your own personal shame and anguish, but the many ways that your parents failed you, including the painful relationship you had with your mother, who had her own mental health struggles. You also confront your abusive marriage to the father of your children. Was it difficult to expose those family secrets? Were there repercussions?
LLE: Writing about family is difficult; writing about family secrets is excruciating. I wanted to share my truth while acknowledging my love for my parents and grandmother, who were so instrumental in the pain I suffered for decades. I was cognizant of hurting feelings but determined to write as close to the truth as my memories allowed. As a mother and grandmother, I realize now that my parents suffered horribly with their decisions. This was something I could not comprehend as a teenager.
I want the reader to understand how never communicating to each other our individual traumas only made our lives harder. I did not understand that myself until I spoke to my father on his death bed. In order to keep the peace, not rock the boat, and not speak about the baby left in New Orleans, we had created an epic failure. We had miscommunicated by NOT communicating and that knowledge brought me to my knees.
I wanted my story to reflect that I, too, was responsible for the dysfunction that colored my family life and the problems in my first marriage. I was truly damaged and made many wrong turns because of that. It was very challenging to hit just the right tone in the description of the breakdowns in my relationships.
When I first began writing, I was consumed with worry and shame that I was writing about not only the secret of my son, but the secrets of my family and the difficulties in my first marriage. But as years went by, the worry and shame were replaced by a strength in myself and knowledge that my story needed to be told.
AS: How did you take care of yourself while you were writing about difficult subjects?
LLE: There were days, weeks, and months that I was so entrenched in sorrow and doubt while writing, I had to step away from my work. I practiced self-care during those times by travel or family/friend time. I wondered if I could ever finish this book, but when I sat myself back down at the computer, the words would flow, reassuring me that this is what I needed to do. It became my passion to complete my book and take it to the finish line, regardless of the consequences.
In writing my long-buried truth, I found a more compassionate, stronger, and braver woman inside of myself than I had ever imagined.
AS: What are your thoughts on the possibility that the Supreme Court may overturn Roe v. Wade, and Justice Alito’s concern that the “domestic supply of infants relinquished at birth or within the first month of life and available to be adopted has become virtually non-existent”? What do you wish people knew about adoption?
LLE: As I mentioned earlier, I think it is chilling that there is the possibility of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. It is doubly disturbing to hear and read the rumblings proclaiming that birth control bans are possible. To think that forced births would mean more babies for adoption breaks my heart and infuriates me as a birth mother. For decades, my life, as well as hundreds of thousands of birth mothers’ lives, were spent in shame and worry after forced and closed adoptions. We never knew where our children were or if they were healthy, happy, or loved. Who knows the emotional and physical toll this put on our lives?
And then there is the pain of the adoptee. As a teenager in 1967, I had no idea of the ramifications of the severing of the mother/child bond. I knew I was hurt beyond repair but did not realize the issues of abandonment that adoptees suffer. Now, after lengthy research and knowing my own son’s adoptee experience, I am devastated at the pain he suffered.
AS: What’s next for you?
LLE: I stay busy as President of the San Diego Memoir Writers Association and am taking a few excellent classes to stretch my writing. I enjoy writing monologues and I have toyed with the idea of taking the family stories I have written to create a sort of beads-on-a-string memoir.
Because of my memoir, I have come into contact with several adoption organizations and joined a few birth mother groups. The most fulfilling accomplishment I can imagine from telling my story is if I help another first mother or adoptee. For that I would be forever grateful and know my experience had value.
AS: Laura, your mission was accomplished, because yours is the first first-person birth mother memoir I’ve read, and it was extremely affecting and helpful to me as an adoptee. Thank you for having the courage to write it.
Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People, editor of Bloom, a book reviewer, co-founder of the Adoptee Literary Festival, and columnist for the Washington Independent Review of Books.
Author photo by Chad Thompson Photography.