When I started writing this column more than four years ago, I didn’t have a real mission statement. I figured it would be a kind of experiment, a look at books that were concerned with gender, sexuality, and/or some version of feminism. Over time, that’s meant various anthologies, some fiction, some obvious Feminist Books, and a bunch of memoirs, along with some others that are harder to classify. I’ve always thought there should be a space where someone bothers to read the steady flow of material that consciously counts itself as feminist, without feeling the need to congratulate the authors for their good intentions, or take them at their word. But I’ve gotten a little weary of the same old manifestos and rehashings and accusations and queries (“What does feminism mean to young women today?”). The truth is that although I have an unshakeable interest in feminism (not to mention a stake in it), my ability to get inflamed about much of this stuff has mellowed a bit. It’s less fun than it used to be to get worked up over a crappy feminist book, less worth the effort to take a book's representation of feminism as much of a personal affront. Call it burnout: There are tons of books out there that embody feminism without tackling it directly, and those are the books -- and the style of feminism in general -- that speaks to me more at this point.
In this context, Irene Vilar’s memoir Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict was both immediately intriguing -- An abortion addict? What? -- and instantly suspect. A chronicle of the author’s fifteen (yes, fifteen) abortions, I figured it would at least have to be unique, which is no small thing. And why not be optimistic? Maybe it would even offer a fresh way to talk about a loaded, misunderstood issue.
Vilar describes the book as a sort of corrective to her earlier memoir, The Ladies’ Gallery, in which she wrote about how the circumstances and choices of her grandmother (a Puerto Rican nationalist who was jailed for attacking the U.S. Congress in 1954) and her suicidal mother (who leapt to her death from a moving car when Vilar was 8) came to bear on her own troubled life. There, she detailed her seven suicide attempts but didn’t even touch on all those abortions. In her new book she tries to account for this, explaining, “My misery at the center of the book is historically romanticized, and the personal, domestic truths of a self’s struggles are for the most part missing.” It’s an omission she’s come to find so grievous that it now needs a book of its own.
But even before we’re launched into Vilar’s grueling story, there’s a dutiful foreword from Robin Morgan, there to give the book (and Vilar herself) a stamp of feminist, pro-choice approval. Doing that job with practiced solemnity, Morgan tells us that the following pages will “expose intricate, intimate nuances of female suffering, survival, and self-reclamation in complex terms,” and explains that because “Vilar is a Latina, a Puerto Rican American,” hers is “a tale of colonialism compounding sexism.” But things get uncomfortable when Morgan strays from praising Vilar’s bravery. "While reading this book,” she writes, “I kept wondering where was the Women’s Movement as a support/sanity making/survival factor in Vilar’s life -- as if has been for the past 40 years in so many millions of women’s lives? How did we fail her?” Had Vilar only been in a consciousness-raising group or campus feminist organization, none of this would have happened! It’s a strange, sad, and perhaps unintentionally revealing glimpse into the mind of a second wave icon: Morgan is desperate for people to recognize the strides women have made since the early '70s, and distraught (on a deep, personal level) that not every woman has been liberated.
Although the abortions are the thread that runs through the book, this is not really a memoir about abortion. Mainly, it’s about a dysfunctional relationship that Vilar began with one of her professors at Syracuse University in the mid-'80s, when she was 16 and he was 50. She quickly fell under the spell of this unnamed “great man” (who she also refers to as her “master”). He made sure she knew why he wanted her (“Age for him was scar tissue, bitterness, inflexibility, an inability to go on the road. Women his age were riddled with worries and wounds”) and what the rules were: “If you are with me,” he told her, “you have to endure the burden of freedom, and that requires, in part, remaining childless.” They were together for eleven years, and married for several of them, during which time Vilar had one abortion on top of another after regularly “forgetting” to take her birth control pills. It’s a cycle familiar to anyone who has ever witnessed, experienced or even just read about abuse, depression, or self-injury. And so really, Vilar’s story would not be so different in the absence of all these abortions; the ending, when she ultimately meets a good man, marries him and embraces motherhood, would be redemptive even without the preceding “addiction.” Her abortions punctuate the story, but they don’t drive it.
Really, abortions are a symptom of her addiction, not the addiction itself. It’s a crucial difference, but one that would make for a less sexy subtitle. Vilar was seduced by the idea of pregnancy, by the way it changed her body and gave her a certain unstable kind of control. “I never craved that moment when I clenched my vibrating abdomen, feet high up on cold stirrups, and told myself never again,” she writes. Rather, “Each time I got my period, I was sad. Each time I discovered I was pregnant, I was aroused and afraid. Every pregnancy was a house of mirrors I entered and lost myself in, numb to the realities of a fetus, my partner’s wishes, and the impossible motherhood I was fashioning.” If she was addicted to anything, it was the pregnancies themselves, and the man who enabled them. Being pregnant put her in a “condition” that was easy to understand, and it confirmed that she was a grown woman, capable (at least physically) of the mothering she missed out on herself. In ending those pregnancies, the abortions just made it possible for her to repeat the cycle.
But what did that feel like? What enters your mind when you realize you’re pregnant for the 9th, 10th, 11th time, and that you can’t, or won’t, or aren’t allowed to proceed with it? Do you feel resigned? Panicked? Desperate? Calculating? Powerful? Sick? What does it do to your sense of your own body, to your conception of what it means to be a woman? And of course, how do you let it keep happening? Answers to these fairly basic questions are largely absent here. The closest Vilar comes to exploring the sensations and emotions in any detail is in a concluding section where she steps back to analyze, in near clinical terms, the relentless narrative of the preceding 200 pages. “Feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, and disorder faded in the face of the possibilities of my reproductive body,” she writes. “An excitement, hyperarousal, almost euphoria surrounded my maternal desire.” Her compulsive pregnancies were all about taking control, she tells us. They were also about the scars left by her mother’s death, as well as a subconscious response to the forced sterilization of women in her native Puerto Rico.
And with that, the self-scrutiny gets labored. Sure, it’s tempting to cope with a story this intense by making it into a metaphor, to see it as being emblematic of something larger than its pieces. But Vilar’s fifteen abortions are so tangled up in other experiences and complicated motivations that it’s hard to see her story as actually being about abortion. That’s part of the argument for abortion rights in the first place -- everyone’s situation is so different that it’s unrealistic, and even reckless, to subject everyone to the same policy -- as well what drives the idea that the personal is political. Vilar’s story is long and winding, and whether or not her abortions were irresponsible or exceptional is sort of beside the point. They were a part of everything that happened to her over those years, and to single them out as being more fraught than anything else is a little misleading.
“I know I’m destined to be misunderstood,” she writes, sure that people will see her story as blow to the cause of reproductive rights (one she supports) and chastise her for using abortion as birth control. She’s right, of course, in the sense that when people see the word “abortion,” they can rarely see past it. But that seems to have happened to Vilar in processing her own story, too. As she tells it, it’s about obsession, childhood trauma, and her struggle to find her voice. But when she looks back and probes at it, those years become driven by one recurring experience, and conveniently give her book a purpose: advocacy. On her web site, Vilar casts Impossible Motherhood as a familiar type of activist statement, writing, “I believe in the power of your voice and mine to make a difference. Women, informed, are catalysts for social change….[My] particular story acknowledges that women’s perspectives on their bodies differ significantly.” Her book, she continues, “is committed to eliminating the stigma of abortion by creating new ways to talk about abortion honestly and publicly.” I’m all for talking about abortion openly and explicitly, but I wonder if the cause is really helped by emphasizing abortions over the experiences that led to them. Vilar doesn’t do this in actually telling her story, just in contextualizing it -- and it makes the whole thing feel uneven.
Prompted by her “great man,” Vilar wrote in The Ladies Gallery that her mother’s death had been “not necessarily my doom but my redemption.” Here she looks back on that statement with shame and disgust, “struck by the ordinariness of my suicide attempts and the stupidity of orchestrating my emotions.” It’s a wonderfully honest moment, as she reckons with the way she looked at the world while under his spell. With this instinct towards neatly provocative rationalizations, Vilar also once thought to herself that the years when she averaged an abortion every eight months were the happiest of her life. It’s true that Vilar’s story can’t be reduced to a bumper sticker slogan, but it’s also doesn’t work as a rallying cry. Ultimately, that’s because it’s not about much more than herself. That should be enough -- and we really shouldn’t need Robin Morgan to substantiate it.