In the winter of 2001, Sheila O’Connor accompanied her mother, June to the Gale Family Library at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul in search of information on her mother’s birth and adoption, armed with a letter from the court granting her mother’s access to her own history. O’Connor’s mother was born in 1935 at the Minnesota Home School for Girls in Sauk Centre, MN. She was the daughter of a fifteen-year-old inmate, referred to as V, who was serving a six-year sentence for incorrigibility.
For the next decade, O’Connor studied texts and academic articles on the history of female incarceration and the criminalization of female sexuality. What she discovered was the systemic institutionalization of girls who had been deemed immoral or in danger of becoming immoral – some of them as young as six years old. In actuality, many of these girls were victims of physical or sexual abuse prior to their commitments — victims blamed for the actions of their perpetrators.
At the center of the novel is the question: who was V and what happened to her? V had a gift for dancing and singing and aspirations for Hollywood, leaving her vulnerable, a target for unscrupulous men who wished to take advantage of her youth and naivety. Her father was dead and her mother remarried and was often working and inattentive. When V became pregnant by the much older manager of the club where she performed, she was incarcerated at the Home School, an institution whose motive was to socially readjust girls and make them decent wives, mothers, and home-makers. The girls worked in the fields and learned to cook, clean and sew; all emphasized as aspects necessary for keeping a proper home. After their babies were born, the young mothers were required to nurse their infants for the first three months before the child was put up for adoption as a “kind of reparation for having brought him into the world so handicapped.” V was not released immediately, in fact most of the young girls were put on probation for a period of several years after their children were born and sent to work for families as domestic servants.
Evidence of V, A Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions is a hybrid novel; without access to much of V’s story, O’Connor wrote a fictional one based upon the facts she was able to glean from documents, records, and observations of experts in the juvenile justice system. She filled in the gaps with poetry and fiction in an attempt to piece together the life of her grandmother, a life she hoped would explain the familial trauma that had been passed down through the generations. Evidence of V is a compelling read – the story of V and all that was stolen from her, the criminalization of female sexuality, the forced adoptions and servitude and morality. In an era of turning back a woman’s right to choose, Evidence of V is a manifesto for women; a poignant reminder of the importance of female autonomy during a time when the rights of women are becoming increasingly politicized.
Evidence of V will be published in October and is available for pre-order from your favorite bookstore.
Listen to my interview with Sheila O’Connor on Superior Reads September 26 at 7:00 pm. Sheila will be presenting at the North Shore Readers and Writers Festival November 7-10. Watch the Grand Marais Art Colony website for registration information.