A Murderer, A Martyr, a Daughter, a Lover: Four Ways of Looking at Abortion

And in that is power. The importance of trauma awareness — our own, that of our families as pain can be passed down genetically, and the trauma of our nation — comes to mind. No matter your opinion on abortion, having to take on the other side will rock you. She develops an eating disorder and spends much of her young and adult life dealing with this origin story. Memoirist Melissa Ohden looks directly into that uncomfortable question when she realizes her birth mother didn’t want her. I was supposed to be married four years. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The   New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Poets and Writers,   and   Tin House. She uses protection. She explores practices from different cultures and traditions, including a Buddhist water baby rite to sitting with a “Midwife for the Soul” to attending a Roman Catholic retreat staffed with picketers, to a Jewish “wild woman” celebration hosted by a colorful rabbi. Abortion is primarily the story of women, and they are talking. Abortion is a persistent wedge issue that keeps winning elections for the GOP in the South and Midwest, even among those who might otherwise be primed to vote Democratic. “They are so wrong! But what if this isn’t the case? She owns her impulses, actions, and their effects. And its effects ripple through generations.”
Though Ohden’s writing isn’t as strong as the other books here, her story is. When she moves to boarding school as a teenager, she is on the pill but sometimes forgets to take it, or doubles up, in the blur of other pills she was consuming. It honors the fact that healing takes time, often years. “Oh, but your Mommy and Daddy want you. She goes on an epic journey of spiritual healing, a hunt for enlightenment, integration, and release. We read about her origins: the movie star lawn of her childhood home in “boring” Bethesda, Maryland, a place “so white that you could practically snort it like a line,” and her dysfunctional family with, of course, a psychiatrist father. It’s still horrific, but she knows more of what to expect. As Katha Pollitt has written, “Abortion […] needs to come out of the closet.”
Marnell writes in her afterword: “You can form your own opinions.” We can, but we need these conversations to get to them. Am I wrong? Ohden, like Underwood, turns her experience into outreach and service. A survey of these very personal and compelling books reminds us what storytelling is for. This is a journey of exorcism and mending, of growing up, out, and through. I’m not saying that in any kind of political way. In Joyce Carol Oates’s robust yet intimate new novel, A Book of American Martyrs, we enter this topic through fiction, and through the eyes of men. Cat Marnell’s dazzling debut memoir How to Murder Your Life is wildly entertaining. “My first pregnancy was supposed to be about joy. Still, she gets pregnant all while realizing she is still in love with “Will-B,” the boy she left, and confronting the fact that at such a young age she has barely begun her own independent living. But grief cuts many ways. Abortion can’t be compartmentalized and is never forgotten. ¤
Sarah Herrington is a Los Angeles–based writer. We need to find ways to acknowledge and release these imprints. “Many people think abortion is a discrete act that has no lasting effect,” she writes. In fact, Marnell writes, “The only thing worse than getting abortions is reading about abortions. Books are empathy-builders. The strongest element that binds these books together is the commitment to the power of voice. She teaches and works at Loyola Marymount University. After the details, she writes, “The procedure had been so awful. Not judged, but experienced. Just … messed up. She was 19. It is a temple of prayers built in the terrain of grief. ‘I’m blacking out,’ I shrieked” the bulk of Underwood’s book occurs in the after effect. With the possibility that the right to abortion would be repealed in certain states, the four-decade-old divisive conversation has heightened to a wail. It’s graphic. She addresses it matter-of-factly, but then again by this point she is addressing all kinds of carnage that way — the boyfriend who steals from her, a stint in a mental hospital. When she realizes she’s pregnant, she’s afraid to tell her parents but eventually does — they arrive in a rental car and in silence. When she later discovers this fact of her birth, her world crashes. The experience of reading the novel is destabilizing, thanks to Oates’s utter mastery of craft and her ability to plunge us wholly in the minds of her characters. We end this journey with her with this beautiful packet of pages — her voice, bound yet boundless, luminous and reaching out to others. And it is, in fact, a wonder she could complete a book with a coherent narrative structure while still careening within the chaos and repetitiveness of addiction. When she has another abortion at 27, she knows she wants to be knocked out this time. We hear about Adderall and alcohol, heroin and cocaine. All of you,” her mother assures her. I was supposed to be twenty-eight. This novel pivots on two angles: one of a character convinced he is moving as God’s hands, and the other of a man believing his doctor’s hands can heal. Marnell is an infamous cult figure to many who have tracked her ups and downs, wondering often if she would survive herself. It’s hard to tell, but then again, Marnell is remembering things through a haze of addiction — both then and now. She simply tells her story. How far along is she? Four women authors have released books from different angles of this question: pro-choice, pro-life, a narrative with no political leanings, a memoir. Ohden was delivered at less than three pounds and suffering from breathing distress. Through her, we experience what some other cultures do to address the loss of a child. Ohden, who grew up knowing she was adopted and feeling loved, discovers shockingly at 14 her birth mother had tried to abort her, a story told in You Carried Me: A Daughter’s Memoir. While her title is You Carried Me, you begin to understand what Ohden herself had to carry: shame, guilt, and confusion. While Underwood helps other young women facing or recovering from abortion, Ohden created the Abortion Survivors Network and becomes a social worker. You’re either pro or con, you picket or protest, each side not hearing the other. I was supposed to call my mother and make her guess what. While Marnell depicts herself as a party-girl blonde, Kassi Underwood is a self-proclaimed “spiritually blonde” Kentucky-born writer whose poignant debut memoir May Cause Love: An Unexpected Journey of Enlightenment After Abortion chronicles an inner journey set off by the moment of her abortion. It was so crazy. The pain explored in this book includes not only the physical, spiritual, and mental effects of abortion, but also that of warring belief systems. The staunch abortion opponent received a thank-you note for each donation. Moving from her native Bible Belt preppy upbringing to the rolling green of Vermont for college, she begins her first sexual relationship while trying to get over the young love she obsessed over and left behind. Later, the Abortionist’s Daughter is told of her own father, “You must be grateful, he didn’t kill you.” She is teased and taunted at school for her father’s work. She and her boyfriend are careful. The word “abortion” itself polarizes conversations and communities. The Soldier of God’s inner voice says, “Nobody’s baby chooses to die […] I had no difficulty seeing my target for my vision had strangely narrowed, it was wonderful how God had narrowed my vision like a tunnel, or a telescope, so that I saw only the target and no other distractions.” By the time he pulls the trigger, you’re pulling it too. We are with her when she is making zines, listening to riot grrrl, and looking on as her sister is put into a psych ward. Let’s say … eighteen weeks?” (She was in her second trimester, after all.)
It is with the same candid tone as the rest of the memoir that she describes this first abortion at 17, with her mom in the waiting room. Memories and pain map onto the cells of the body. Can we have empathy toward both sides? But the abortions aren’t the focus of the story. It felt like murder. It can make you think of the Muriel Rukeyser quote: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? It becomes our memory, too. MAY 15, 2017
WHEN PRESIDENT TRUMP’S ADMINISTRATION came to power, more than 80,000 people protested by donating money to Planned Parenthood under the name of Vice President Mike Pence. I was sick. It’s a unique chance to consider: What if your life had been purposely threatened before it even began? “If you’re confused about the timeline — how far along I was — well, that makes two of us. It wasn’t that long ago that just talking about abortion was taboo. Nor is she even by the addictions she chronicles. Is an abortionist a helper or a baby killer? Truly. That first positive pregnancy test was supposed to mark the beginning of my life.”
Yet still, in a way, it did. When we read, we have to step into the inner world of another; we have to practice listening and understanding. She isn’t defined by the event. The world would split open.” With these passionate books, the world splits in four different directions. Ohden, now a self-proclaimed “abortion survivor,” works to find and eventually forgive her birth mother, who never knew her daughter lived. It’s apparent that the two abortions were necessary for her, and that the trajectory of her life would have been vastly different, even more challenging, without the choice. It ends not just with thirtysomething Underwood married, in divinity school in Harvard, but with a book we sense is a different kind of offspring. “I would dream of babies for the next six years,” she writes. It’s also troubling and addictive: a book that rushes through you like the drugs the writer describes on her journey through (and through) addiction. Please skip ahead if you are squeamish.”
She doesn’t present “pro” or “con” anything. Underwood’s search is authentic, diverse, and multicultural. It looked like murder. “Please, Lord, I’d rather die than be pregnant,” she thought at the doctor’s appointment. Underwood’s story acts as a bridge to many women’s. It seems this current moment in American history asks the same. I don’t know, man. Is an assassin a murderer or savior? Oates narrates the complicated motivations of both sides so skillfully that she challenges us to feel both worldviews, thereby making us challenge our own. After she terminated her pregnancy, not described in the detail of Marnell’s but not glossed over either: “The suction machine droned like a hair dryer. This former beauty editor and columnist directs readers through her story like a tell-all. If anything, it is her own creative, and in itself addicting, voice that defines her over the course of 300 pages — even if she isn’t exactly the kind of service-receiver that makes ideal PR material for clinics. There are a million reasons why she may have turned to substances, but Marnell never passes the blame. She begins to do outreach work to other women who have had abortions. “Would Daddy hurt me?” she asks. In a book swimming in substances and parties this is a sober, clear-eyed moment. So violent. I’m just telling you how it felt.” She writes so vividly we feel it with her. We meet two linked American families, tied because of their patriarchs: that of Luther Dunphy, an evangelical “Soldier of God” who assassinates an abortion provider in his Ohio town, and that of Augustus Voorhees, the doctor who was killed, leaving behind a wife and children. How would you view the rest of it? The procedure failed, of course.