It was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice. -Joseph Conrad, “Heart of Darkness”
December 15, 1963
Margaret ambled across the prison courtyard, acutely aware of the eyes focused on her swollen belly. She was not the type of person others might notice in any normal, everyday setting, say, just walking down the street. She was small in stature, plain but not unattractive, poised but unassuming in her habits and mannerisms. Here in this place, confined in more ways than one, she could not hide her distorted figure or the inconvenience it caused her. They watched. They whispered. She did her best to ignore them.
Unsteady, but with purpose, Margaret hastened her step. She focused her gaze on the open book in her hands, hoping the grimace on her face made her look like she was simply concentrating on a gripping story that might be unfolding on the pages in front of her. But, in reality, the book was just a prop. The heaviness and the pain in her abdomen were overwhelming, and she could no longer hide it.
It was still four weeks until her estimated due date, but her discomfort had become unbearable. The thing growing inside of her was pressing against her insides, jostling her bladder, stomach, and lungs for room to grow.
At eighteen, Margaret understood the physiology of her situation, but avoided, at all costs, the psychology of it. After all, the pregnancy was a temporary situation, just like the prison sentence.
No one in her family, not even her own mother, knew she was pregnant. In a strange twist of fortune, her conviction and incarceration allowed her to deal with the situation in the best way possible. She would handle it herself. No one who really mattered would need to know.
Margaret considered the pregnancy part of her punishment.
In 1963, the California Institute for Women was more like a structured commune than a prison. It was originally called “Frontera,” a feminine derivative of the word frontier – a new beginning. At the time, CIW was California’s only prison for female felons, including convicted murderers. The infamous Manson Girls were housed there on death row, although they would not arrive at the prison until shortly after Margaret’s departure.
The prison’s location in a rural, uninhabited area in southern California was expected to encourage the residents (the women were not referred to as inmates or prisoners) to view the institution as a self-contained community. The campus-like design of the prison grounds was in keeping with the progressive notion of rehabilitation at the time. There were no perimeter fences, no razor wire, no lookout towers, no visible armed guards roaming around. Residents were housed in single or double rooms in housing units or “cottages,” each with its own courtyard, situated around a central campus.
The design of the prison was meant to foster a “free-world” feel. Staff and prisoners wore clothing that resembled street clothes rather than uniforms. Correctional supervisors were called “matrons” and were encouraged to develop
“motherly” relationships with the residents in order to understand the individual needs of the women in their care. The goal was to establish individualized treatment programs for the women, depending on their rehabilitative needs.
Despite being subject to count three times a day, residents were allowed, for the most part, to move around the prison grounds with relative freedom. A typical schedule for a resident would include a minimum of four hours a day of work, at jobs necessary to maintain the prison, in the library, or at the on-site garment factory. Residents who were younger than fifty-five were also required to take homemaking classes. Training in cosmetology, laundry, sewing, and cooking was also available. High school courses were required for those who had not graduated from high school. The women were also required to participate in twice-weekly problem-solving sessions with their living groups in the cottages. Group and individual counseling were also available on a voluntary basis. Most of the matrons were trained in social work and deemed qualified to counsel the women.
Margaret was different than most of the younger girls. She had already received her high school diploma – graduated early, in fact – and was even attending the local community college to advance her knowledge and interest in politics and the law. She dreamed about going to law school. But now, stuck at Frontera and pregnant at eighteen, she endured the mindless work with which she was charged, as well as the homemaking classes, knowing it would only be a matter of time before she would be able to get her real life back again. Although she was sentenced to a ten-year prison term, she was counting on serving a much shorter sentence, as was the case with “well-behaved” residents.
Margaret was a good girl in prison. She kept to herself most of the time and read books from the library to keep herself connected with the outside world. Margaret tolerated the group problem-solving sessions, but insisted she didn’t need any individual counseling, despite her situation. She was, however, required to meet with a real social worker on
occasion. Someone from the outside. Someone whose primary concern was the baby, not Margaret. During these meetings, Margaret was forced to face reality. Forced to deal with the thing she was avoiding. The pregnancy. When speaking with the social worker, she told stories – even made stuff up – and talked about her feelings. It needed to make sense to the social worker, so Margaret played along.
The social worker did her job. From the file:
CASE SUMMARY: Birth mother was seen by the intake worker on November 1, 1963, at Frontera, where she was incarcerated for narcotics. She is an 18-year old high school graduate, pregnant and unmarried and not desiring marriage to the father of the baby. The birth mother requests adoption because she feels this would be the only plan for her to make for herself and for her child. She had plans of continuing with college. She is quite an intelligent girl, and the social worker feels that she has an excellent outlook.
Birth mother realizes the extent of her decision and does not feel that it was made without a great deal of thought. She seems to get along quite well at Frontera and has a very charming personality. She and the birth father have an intellectual relationship. She does not feel that she was truly in love with him and for this reason did not want to marry him. He did not know that she was pregnant for sure.
Margaret finally reached the cottage and pushed open the door. The book fell to the floor as she doubled over in pain. Two residents who were standing nearby rushed to her aid and helped her to her room, where she lay down on her bed. The pain and pressure subsided momentarily. Her eyes darted nervously around the room. She felt a warm gush between her legs. It was happening.
The matron arrived and hustled the other women out of the room. She pulled a chair from the corner of the room and positioned it close to the bed, facing Margaret as she lay on her side. The matron fixed her gaze on Margaret, but glanced at
her watch each time Margaret flinched. Margaret turned away from the stout and stern authority figure and faced the wall. That’s when the tears began.
“You don’t need to look at me for me to tell whether you’re having a contraction. I can tell. I gotta time ‘em, so I’m just gonna sit here with you. No need to call the hospital just yet.” The matron was unemotional. “Your baby’s not supposed to come for three or four more weeks, but your water broke, so it’s coming for sure.”
Margaret continued to labor in her wet clothing, lying on the fluid-soaked cot for nearly two hours. The contractions were strong but far apart, and the matron, who consulted with the powers-that-be in the main building via walkie-talkie, didn’t feel the need to rush Margaret to the hospital. Margaret moved as little as possible, facing the wall, determined not to give the matron the satisfaction of seeing the fear and pain in her eyes or the tears melting into her pillow.
By the time the medical transport team arrived at the cottage to take Margaret to the hospital for the delivery, she was crying out in pain. Some of the cottage residents had gathered at the door, hoping to get a glimpse of what was going on. Maybe she’d have the baby right there in the prison cottage.
The contractions were strong once Margaret arrived at the hospital. Inside, she was escorted, though made to walk on her own, to a stark, sterile room with one bed and given a gown to change into. Relieved to finally peel away her still-damp clothing, she climbed onto the bed and waited. It was cold. There was no blanket; only a sheet. She noticed the restraints hanging from the bed rails. Those must be for crazy women, not for me, Margaret thought. Where in the hell would I go, anyway? Let’s just get this over with.
Margaret lost track of time. She labored alone on the bed for some time. She had no knowledge of breathing techniques. No one to hold her hand or soothe her nerves. Nothing to eat or drink. No nurse checking in on her. A single window on one wall faced an inside hallway, but Margaret could not see out of it. She was sure they were watching.
Margaret began feeling nauseous in between contractions. Finally, a nurse entered the room. The woman, looking all business in perfect white from head-to-toe, didn’t even glance at Margaret as she crossed the room. With her back toward Margaret, she busied herself at a small table on the other side of the room. When the nurse finally turned to speak and started walking toward her, Margaret’s eyes focused on the white origami crown atop her perfectly coiffed head.
There was no conversation, just curt instruction. Margaret was shaved and given an enema. She tried her best to mentally float away from the humiliating scene, but the pain from the contractions, now closer together, kept bringing her back to reality.
Then, came the needle. Margaret didn’t protest. She was still awake when another nurse entered the room, lifted the rails on the bed, and attached the restraints to her wrists and ankles. By the time the nurses were wrapping her head in the gauze-like turban, she was unaware of her surroundings, blindly floating away in a drug-induced twilight dream.
Out of nowhere came a small, high-pitched, furious wail. Margaret was in a blurred but conscious state. Through the drug haze, she felt something soft, wet, and wriggling on her thighs. She had no idea how much time had passed. She tried to wipe the sweat from her brow with her hand, but the restraints attached to her wrists wouldn’t allow it. She tried to close her legs. The restraints restricted her ankles.
There was a man in the room now – the doctor, Margaret presumed. He was holding a small bloody bundle. He glanced at Margaret for just a moment, but didn’t say a word. He turned his attention back to the matter at hand. He studied the tiny wriggling mass of flesh, seemed satisfied with its frail, angry cries, and handed it to one of the nurses.
Margaret looked away. She closed her eyes and willed herself to be taken away from reality once again. She heard one
of the nurses murmur, “It’s a girl.”
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Laureen Pittman lives in Southern California with her husband, two sons, and three cats. When she’s not writing or cat-herding, she’s usually barefoot and in the kitchen (because she hates wearing shoes and she loves cooking). Laureen started blogging about her journey to discover her identity in 2013. As her own story began to evolve, she realized that there was a much larger truth that needed to be explored and shared. She wanted to bring her story to life—not just for herself and her family, but for other adoptees who yearn to learn their own truths and for families touched by adoption who want to understand and value the heart and soul of an adoptee. You can find her on-line at www.adoptionmytruth.com.