I Need to Tell You

Cathryn Vogeley
WiDo Publishing ($17.95)

Cathryn Vogeley uses three hallmarks of effective storytelling in her memoir, I Need to Tell You: vulnerability, uncertainty, and vivid scenes. Consider the opening paragraphs:

My eyes squeezed shut while the ting of metal instruments broke the silence. As if my chest had lost its elastic, I breathed in short, tight spurts. The ceiling tiles with their tiny holes looked down on me as my chin tilted upward.
Exam gloves snapped; metal wheels moaned across the cold floor.
Dr. Franklin stood from behind the sheet.
“No doubt about it. You’re pregnant.”

Vogeley, unmarried in 1968, discovers she is pregnant after her first year of nursing school. Her boyfriend, Gavin, says he can’t get married—this pregnancy must be kept secret.  Vogeley’s Catholic mother arranges for her to see her priest cousin Edward, to talk about "the problem,” and the pair arrange for her to be admitted to Roselia, a home for unwed mothers.

When Vogeley goes two weeks past her due date, she suggests to another Roselia resident that they jog in the winter courtyard to induce labor. Her description of the gunmetal sky and the thin layer of snow on the ground pull the reader into the frigid scene. We can see her “gripping both edges of my navy wool coat . . . schlumping along the sidewalk, hands under my belly, a bushel basket with a floating watermelon.”

The girls of Roselia are warned not to look at or hold their infants for fear they will want to keep them. But when Vogeley is handed her baby in the taxi back to Roselia, she can’t help but look at her daughter. “Those moments in the cab, less than the time it takes to brew a pot of coffee, were our entire lifetime together.”

As time passes and Vogeley begins to tell her story, she discovers the people in her life are accepting. Her sister shows compassion and love, and her next boyfriend, Jimmy, doesn’t seem to care. The couple are mismatched, but Vogeley’s urge to be married overwhelms her doubts. “Just the designation of ‘Mrs.’ before my name would give me status, announce that someone wanted me, and allow me the right to have a legitimate child,” she states.

Vogeley has two more girls, and she throws herself into being a wife, mother, and homemaker while working as a nurse. But she knows there is something missing in her life. She tells herself she cannot think of her first baby ever again, but the haunting guilt remains. As her children get older and begin separating from her, she feels increasingly alienated from her life, and after hitting a low point, she starts college classes and convinces Jimmy to go to counseling with her. He doesn’t engage, and they divorce.

Vogeley begins to build a new life, first achieving certification as an ostomy nurse, then a master’s degree in nursing. She meets her future husband, Charlie, through a dating service. With him, she finds real love and acceptance of her past, and when she realizes she exhibits symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, she begins counseling anew. The therapist suggests she look for her baby, a search that proves long and frustrating. As she moves from the solitude of shame to the loving acceptance of family, Vogeley’s account of the process and her examination of the changing laws on secret adoptions are enlightening.

Throughout I Need to Tell You, questions build: Will she have the baby, will she keep her? Will she look for her daughter, and will she find her? How will she leave the past behind and finally accept herself? While a happy ending isn’t guaranteed, this moving memoir makes all these questions resonate.

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