2015 Workshop Report


  • Description and Summary
  • Bringing Out Memories
  • Workshop Evaluations
  • About Ann Fessler


FMNFS Annual Workshop October 24 – 25, 2015

Presenter:  Ann Fessler, Author, Filmmaker, Artist and Professor

Topics: Documentary Film: “A Girl Like Her”; Workshops:  Memory Writing; Collecting Oral Stories: What Can Be Learned From Asking and From Listening

Location:  Executive Airport Plaza Hotel and Conference Centre, Richmond, BCIMG_1505 cropped

Description and Summary

By Marnie Tetz

The morning started with the viewing of Ann’s film, “A Girl Like Her”. I am quite sure there wasn’t a dry eye by the end of the film.  Following this, Ann responded to questions about her film and what she had learned in making it. Lunch and the group picture followed.

We had an amazing group this year, which were more than willing to roll up their sleeves and dig into their memory banks. Ann started by having everyone write about their very first remembered memory and then to add texture to it by going back and adding what else came to them, was it warm or cold, was there a scent in the air?  Perhaps a recent rain shower or a campfire?  This first memory led to others and the group listened intently in awe of the bravery of those that wished to share.

Ann shared that we don’t have to have vast memories all at once. We should start with ‘snippets’ to make the process more manageable. And being the teacher that she is, we were assigned a homework project. Like most students many of us waited until the following morning to complete them!

Sunday was spent learning ways to gather oral histories.  Whether they are for ourselves, for family and friends or if we wish to publish – how do we go about doing so?  How can we make those we talk to comfortable and feel like they aren’t being judged, that there is no ‘right’ answer?  Ann gave us many tools to do this, which can be used in day-to-day conversation as well.  Ask open-ended questions, for example: ‘take me back to’ ‘help me to understand’. Be authentically curious and don’t interrupt. What awesome tools to use to just converse day to day to learn more about friends, family and new acquaintances!

Ann Fessler’s New Website

In addition to A Girl Like Her, Ann’s new web address has trailers for her other two films (which are not in distribution) and other installation projects:  www.annfessler.com

Bringing Out Memories

By Amy Newman

As a genealogist, I was very interested in Ann Fessler’s workshop on writing and interviewing. Her tips can be used to mine your family history from elderly family members; to get to know your ‘partner in reunion’ you were separated from; or just to get to know your friends better. What was their life like? What experiences shaped them? Here are some of my notes:

Memory Writing:

  • Whether writing your memoirs or a piece you plan on publishing, don’t expect to write from beginning to end.
  • Start with snippets.
  • Write about something insignificant. It doesn’t matter what you write, just practise writing. Generate raw material.


Mind Mapping as a source for writing

  • Make lists, map, chart / time-line of people who are pivotal – How intersecting with them made a change in your life. Teacher, boyfriend, aunt, grandma, etc.
  • Chart pivotal moments/events/things. The intersection, what you saw/witnessed, an experience that affected you differently. Light bulbs and AHA moments, small or large.
  • e. Ann recalls walking down the dorm hallway and saw 5-6 black women sobbing in front of the TV – Martin Luther King Jr. had just been shot.
  • Make of list of significant people and what they gave you.


Exercise: Visual memory

  • Part one: Describe your first visual memory
  • Part two: Rewrite it by adding descriptions of the sensory experience –sounds, smells, etc. to make it more visceral.
  • Make notes of other memories that pop up.


Exercise: Observational writing. It could be something happening in the street, a café, your home, where other people are. Write what is going on. The space they are in, any action. Non-judgmental, just description. (A man with long grey hair wearing ragged jeans pushes a shopping cart loaded with black garbage bags.) This gives you the tactile sense of being there. It provides the reader with the social circumstances and connotations (without you telling them “he’s homeless”).

Exercise: Shift to third person / narrator voice – the wide angle view. i.e. a story about the hotel desk clerk – make up something about their home life.

Collecting Oral Stories:
Tips on how to bring up genuine memories, rather than the “story” they have told over and over. To bring out things that no one has ever asked them before.


  • Begin with authentic curiosity. Make it clear you want to hear from them.
  • Don’t have them tell you anything in advance. If they think you already know part of the story, they will self-censor because they will assume you already know the story. For Ann’s “A Girl Like Her” project the point was to get the most breadth and variety without pre-screening.
  • Ask about anything, i.e. gardening.
  • Shut up and listen.
  • Don’t interrupt or cut off.
  • Don’t make judgemental comments (even positive ones). You are there to learn from them that which would otherwise be lost.


Asking open-ended questions:

  • Don’t use questions that will give a Yes/No answer or imply a right/wrong answer.
  • “Take me back to at least a year before the event in your life. Who you were then.” This brings the person into their actual memory, instead of the automatic “story” they have formed with repeated telling over the years. It brings the story into context.
  • “Tell me about visuals, smells, etc., feel free to go on tangents, don’t worry about order.”
  • “What was important to you then?”
  • “What happened next?”
  • “Tell me more about that.”
  • “Help me understand.”
  • When they stop talking, don’t jump in and talk. WAIT. They might be thinking. They will want to fill in the blank space.
  • “You mentioned your brother, mother etc…”
  • If they get stuck, don’t give your examples.
  • Make eye contact (unless it is considered rude in their culture.)
  • Respect the person you are interviewing.


Talking with children: Instead of asking “How was school today?” (they’ll just say “Fine”), say “Tell me about the most interesting part of your day today.”… “And then what happened?”

Try it!



By Bernadette Rymer

Summary of Evaluation Comments

In keeping with the theme of the writing exercises, participants were strongly encouraged to evaluate various aspects of the workshop by writing comments. This resulted in so many deep reaching comments that my report to the Board was seven pages in length.  Due to limited space, similar comments have been combined and some that may identify the writer were not included. You will see why I have separated comments about the film from mothers and adoptees.

Film: “A Girl Like Her”:

Responses from Mothers who are “A Girl Like Her”

  • A phenomenal movie. I definitely learned a lot. It was also very emotional.
  • Awesome though difficult – it brought up so many repressed memories and emotions.
  • Excellent – it brought up a lot of emotion- anger being one of them; validating my feelings for sure.
  • Incredible –  being transported back in time
  • Powerful – memory evoking, vivid reliving of my time as a girl like her.
  • Very powerful and validating but also numbing because of the truth and impact. Made me realize truths about myself that needed affirmation.
  • Shattering – then numbing as once again I turned into a stone.
  • Very validating and well done. Ann nailed it!  “I matter” is what I felt, because it actually happened like that. I couldn’t talk about it because no one wanted to listen, therefore: “I didn’t matter”. Seeing the film so professionally done validated for me that all my memories could be accepted as memories.
  • So accurate and very well done – I could totally relate to it.
  • Impacting! I think a copy should be sent to every social worker, counselor and education center.


Response from an Adoptive Parent:

Although I am aware of the pain of ‘surrendering’ their children, to hear the voices and the grief of how they were treated – so tragic. I hope this movie will be put on TV. More should be aware of how first moms were treated. Apologies from parents and families would then come from this.

Responses from Adoptees who are “The Child of A Girl Like Her”

  • The movie was awesome. I understood what mothers went through and how tough society was on them. Thoroughly enjoyed it. I feel for the mothers – how to help them move on, though I know many of them never will.
  • Broke my heart to learn of the young women who suffered so much.
  • Loved it. As an adoptee it was so well done on behalf of all the moms that gave their babies up.
  • It was great – highlighting the homes and the feelings.
  • Fantastic recap of the book. Even more real to me now.
  • Never read her book but appreciated her film and the background information.
  • Excellent. Ann Fessler is one reason I decided to come. She was very inspiring, talented and open.


Memory Writing:

  • That all my memories could be accepted as memories and transformed from ‘a bad dream’ to ‘the truth,’ even though family, doctors, and therapists tried to talk me out of believing what happened.
  • Brilliant – breaking it down in such simple terms gives me understanding and language on how to write.
  • What a good way of getting into writing and bringing up memories and emotions. It helps with healing.
  • Excellent tips. I enjoyed working on my first memory, the emotion it brought up surprised me.
  • Fascinating and so well presented. Loved the snippet ideas of writing.
  • Very interesting – Exercises are excellent tools to use to continue my writing.
  • Learned to use visual memories – not cognitive memories.
  • Excellent – I should have been more prepared for the writing part.
  • Found it difficult to tap into memories. Although I found it hard to get started, writing from different viewpoints felt like I could get more out. Good for me to do these exercises, though difficult.
  • Would have liked more memory writing focused on adoption.
  • I am not a good writer- like everything I lose interest when it is not perfect. Get frustrated.


Collecting Oral Stories: What Can Be Learned From Asking and From Listening?

  • Very interesting and informative. I learned a whole lot about the technical process.
  • Yesterday was a struggle – this session brought it all together for me.
  • We all have our stories. So interesting to listen to others’ stories – it helps in our journey.
  • You learn unexpected things: how to trust by being open and vulnerable. Asking open ended questions gives permission to speak and help people find their voice. You get surprises.
  • I hope to learn things about my parents and grandparents from the perspective of my cousins, and hopefully use it to spur not only genealogy but also art.
  • Confidence, acceptance, affinity, companionship, assurance. I’m a survivor!
  • I like people saying things in their own words. I love oral histories on almost any subject. It’s the most real. LOVED all the laughing.
  • Important to do family histories before stories are lost.
  • Tried this with family- too many different viewpoints. Which is correct?
  • Leads to feelings: discovering the layers we all have. We all have a story.


Was the presenter well organized and informed, a good communicator, clear, interesting, engaging, encouraging group participation?

All responses indicated a resounding YES. Descriptors of Ann’s presentation style included:  absolutely, awesome, funny, excellent communicator, easy to listen to and understand, warm, open, relevant, engaging, fostering a sharing environment, eloquent and empathetic.

How well did it meet your needs and expectations? Comment on the usefulness/value. What did you learn?

  • It was my first workshop so I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was better than I imagined. I felt very welcomed by everyone and I felt a real sense of community – like I found my people. I learned so much.
  • Learned that my birth mother went through hell. Huge perspective from the birthmother side.
  • It met my needs and expectations. I learned that I still get triggered by visuals and comments during the support groups. It felt safe to share our feelings. Useful talking with other B-Moms and I learned more about adoptee experiences and reunions. Inspiration to do more research into Canadian maternity homes.
  • What did I learn? I am not alone. I was silent for 45 years thinking I was the only one who experienced such brutality.
  • I always learn a lot at these conferences. Being with others who understand without a long explanation is wonderful. Great to hear all the stories. Great to be in the company of adoptees and birthmothers.
  • Not what I was expecting or thought I wanted, but maybe I did not need another catharsis. The film was an explanation of my loss of voice and self-promotion all my life. Always trying to pray I was good enough, especially as a mother. I realized the impact on my entire life.
  • I came with no expectations. Hearing from my peers, their varied experiences and how they coped (and are coping) was mind blowing. Conclusion: it is not over for any of us!
  • As usual it surpassed my expectations. The variety of these workshops allows me to delve into many emotional layers that I’m uncovering.
  • Never want to miss any experience involving this group. Those I have known I have watched them go up and down emotionally over the years. Going forward and then going backwards. It is a long journey and we need to do it together.
  • More than exceeded my needs. Was not sure what to expect – it was all wonderful.


Organization: preparation, communication, welcoming, meeting concerns, etc.

All comments indicated that participants were either satisfied or extremely satisfied with the organizational aspects of our workshop. Participants used descriptors such as: excellent, great job, first class, welcoming, nurturing, open, and fantastic.


About Ann Fessler

Author and Artist Ann Fessler

Ann Fessler

Ann Fessler is an author, filmmaker, artist and professor who has spent the last twenty-five years focusing on the subject of adoption and revealing the hidden stories of mothers who lost children to adoption in the 1950s to early 1970s, when an unprecedented number of babies were surrendered due to the social pressures of the time. Her recent film, A GIRL LIKE HER uses passages from interviews she conducted with over 100 women in the US, with archival footage from the time period.
Her critically acclaimed book on the same subject, The Girls Who Went Away (Penguin Press) was chosen as one of the top 5 non-fiction books of 2006 by the National Book Critics Circle. It also won the Ballard Book Prize, given annually to a female author who advances the dialogue about women’s rights.
More information about Ann can be viewed on her website: agirllikeher.com and www.annfessler.com