I’ve been meaning to review Los Angeles movie publicist Patti Hawn’s book “Good Girls Don’t” since I attended a book signing in San Diego a couple of months ago. Listening to her talk and hearing the way many of the women at the signing spoke about how the book impacted on their lives and helped them out of shame, silence and emotional isolation was an experience that struck a little closer to home than I’d expected, and I didn’t want any review to be about me.
The book’s subject, in summary, is Patti’s unplanned teenage pregnancy during an era before the pill, Roe v Wade and the sexual revolution–Then having her baby in secret at a relative’s house, giving him up for adoption the day she gave birth to him— and then the reunion, 40 years later with the now grown son.
Many of the women who were at the signing had the experience of teenage pregnancy in their past and hearing their heartfelt thanks to Patti for shedding light on an experience that, for the most part, has been relegated to the shadows gave me ample food for thought. Their stories were all over the map in terms of the ways that they had found to cope. By and large, most of them had managed to do so, but you could still tell they’d paid for it in untold ways.
Patti has the rare ability to describe settings and people in ways that allowed me to create a mental image of 1950’s Maryland that made me feel as if I could walk into it. It seemed familiar, like I knew some of these people, or people quite like them.
Patti is a few years older than I am, but I grew up in a small town in Oregon, where values and mores followed a much slower timetable when it came to change: 1960 happened during the Carter administration. The idea that “Good Girls Don’t” still had traction and dating was much like Patti described in her book: the “double standard” was in force. There were still “homes for unwed mothers” around when I was a teenager. I used to visit a friend who lived in one for a few months during the early 70’s. I don’t think I ever asked her what it was like.
I started thinking of the young women I’d known who had become pregnant while teenagers. Friends and family members, they were more numerous than I would have thought. This was a bit of a shock to me. There were obviously more associations with whispers, hushed tones and taboos associated with this topic than I had been letting myself admit. This really isn’t a topic that’s received much attention. In addition to my friend who went into exile at the home for unmarried mothers: some girls just vanished, never to be seen again, others got married, and for some there were rumors that they’d had abortions. I’d expect that at least some of the latter were false. But the fact that starting such a rumor could critically damage someone’s reputation is telling.
I’d never really considered what these young women had to endure, simply for performing an act that most of the people I knew had managed to do by the time we had graduated from high school. On the male side of the ledger, I do know many of us went through the experience of “sweating it out”: (as it was popularly referred to) waiting for our girlfriend to have her period. The very concept of this seems amazingly self-centered. The theme here was mainly “don’t get caught”.
I’ve noticed that I’ve moved the focus to my own reactions to the book. I not only found myself looking at the world from Patti’s point of view but found myself wondering what the teenage iteration of myself would have done if I’d found myself in the position of the baby’s father. I’m not too sure what that actually would have been beyond panic. I expect any younger readers today would have much the same reaction.
The birth of her son is as much a starting point as it is an end in terms of the sorts of pressures that would be placed on a young woman who had just been through the experience of giving up her newborn child, with the idea that she would never see him again. I can’t imagine anything could prepare one for that sort of experience, let alone being expected to carry on as if the event had never happened. The basic impossibility of this approach becomes increasingly evident during the course of the story.
As the women attending Patti’s book signing would attest, doing just that comes with a cost, as most secrets do. And there were always the questions of their lost children: “Where are they? Who are they? What do they look like? What kind of lives did they have? Are they happy?”
Through the course of the book we discover a myriad of ways that are less than obvious, how the eight million women during this era who found themselves in this situation were affected by the fact they were expected to act like this was something that never happened, like the existence of a human life was something that could just be swept into some dark corner and forgotten without any consequences.
This book is also remarkably non-judgemental: there are any number of people who could have potentially been painted as scapegoats or tarred as villains of one sort or another. Patti doesn’t do this and it is to her credit, as it would serve little purpose. She wisely resists the urge to get up on a soapbox or play the victim and lets the reader come to their own conclusions.
The later chapters of the book concern Patti’s search for and reunion with, after 40 years, her son. Much as I enjoyed reading the first parts of the book, I found this to be the most moving part of the story, so I won’t spoil this for you by recounting the details. I will tell you it’s far more than the standard “feel good” story.
I should probably mention that Patti is the sister of actress Goldie Hawn. Patti brings this up only to the extent that it adds to the story and there are no gratuitous Goldie stories to be found. Since Patti does work in the movie industry, I can only hope that there is a movie in the works. Not only would it be the role of a lifetime for some talented actress, but it is a story that could use a larger audience.
While we no longer force young women to have their children in secret, most of the choices available to teenage mothers (and fathers) are still of the “lesser evil” variety. Our culture hasn’t really figured this sort of thing out very well. The story in this book, and the stories of countless other women like Patti, can only help us move in the right direction.