Portions of Meredith Hall's wrenching memoir are so sad they would be unbearable to read were it not for the beauty of her prose and the maturity of her insights. In 1965, when she was 16, Hall got pregnant and was essentially abandoned by her parents and her community. In Hampton, New Hampshire, where "the 1950s still breathed its insistent, costly calm," an unmarried mother was beyond the pale: Hall was kicked out of high school and sent to live with her father and stepmother, who forbade her to leave the house or even come downstairs when they had company. She never saw her baby, who was immediately given up for adoption, and the sole boarding school that would accept her after the birth put her in a single room to "protect" the other girls.
The matter-of-fact cruelty with which she was treated is breathtaking. "Don't try to tell me who the father of this baby is," said her doctor. "I know you have no idea. Girls like you never do." In fact, the baby was the result of a one-night stand. Unmoored by her parents' divorce when she was 10, unnerved by her embittered mother's censorious attitude toward her developing body, Hall lost her virginity and the future mapped out for her on the same September night. From the moment her pregnancy was discovered, she was outcast and alone, "isolated…from any life, from any belief, from any sense that I belonged to anyone." She graduated from boarding school but was unable to follow her parents' game plan that she should simply go on to college and pretend the baby had never happened. Much of her memoir chronicles the rootless, restless years before she married and had two sons in the 1970s.
"The grief I carry every single day has burrowed deep by now," Hall writes of herself at 18, "and its residue is recklessness." She lived with a couple of boyfriends, held down various menial jobs, wandered through America, Europe, and the Middle East—the last a dangerous trip during which she frequently went hungry and was almost raped. Everywhere the absence of her baby remained an open wound, "the secret that seethes just under the surface of everything I say and think and do." It was a shameful secret to her parents, who continued to treat Hall with a coldness all the more horrifying because the author portrays their behavior unflinchingly yet compassionately. Acknowledging her (wholly justified) rage, she nonetheless manages to see her parents as human beings who loved her even though they failed her.
Perhaps she is able to do this because her lost baby found her in 1987 and proved to be a remarkable young man who had overcome his own history of abandonment and abuse. Hall's moving reunion with Paul and their subsequent forging of a relationship come late in the memoir and form its emotional climax. She tells us little about her two legitimate children and nothing about their father except that she is divorced from him. Large portions of her life are passed over without comment as she focuses on the central story of a teenager's mistake, turned by a punitive, judgmental society into a tragedy for two generations. Ann Fessler's recent book, The Girls Who Went Away (Penguin Press, May 2006), told dozens of similar stories to create a searing group portrait. Hall's sensitive, honest account of her personal odyssey shows one remarkable woman transcending this trauma to become a better, stronger person.