A couple days ago I read an article in the LA Times about a book called Impossible Motherhood by Irene Vilar. The title of the article was: Memoir of a former abortion addict. The by-line: In 'Impossible Motherhood,' Irene Vilar, now a mother of two, writes of what led her to have 15 pregnancies ended.
Vilar writes of her fifteen abortions.
I was sort of stunned when I read the title because as an adamant pro-choicer and a feminist (are we comfortable with this word yet? I am) I still felt squeamish and light-headed by this notion.
Before reading the article, I tried to imagine what would lead Vilar to this level of self-abuse. Standard and societal judgments leapt to mind. It's easy to dismiss someone as careless, ignorant, which I could not keep myself from initially feeling. When I stopped myself from this sort of judgment, I considered that we fight for rights period, right? We don't fight for rights to then judge the extent by which they are exercised.
Then I read the article. The complexities of Vilar are so entangled that simple judgments of her are trite, insignificant. I have not stopped thinking about her. One publisher -- one of the 51 who had first rejected the book -- said that the memoir was too painful to publish. The reason the book finally did get published was because it is intelligently written even if her story hangs in the balance of an undeniably complicated issue.
Vilar's abortions were a protest of sort; self-abuse as revolt. That is my interpretation, and this thought hurts me. Much of Vilar's revolt seems subconscious, a sickness that she was unable to stop for a long time. She explains it like another other addiction. When I learned more of the complexity of her rebelliousness against her ex-husband (she was 16 and he 50 when they met; he insisted they have no children) and even more compelling, her familial and cultural history, Vilar's story became a multi-generational, gender-encompassing tragic flood.
Vilar grandmother was Lolita Lebron, the Puerto Rican nationalist who moved to NY in the 1950's - leaving behind her family -- and then shot up the U.S. House of Representatives, wounding five congressmen. She was convicted of trying to overthrow the US government and served 25 years in prison. Lebron left behind Vilar's mother in PR, an infant at the time of the shooting. Vilar's mother eventually killed herself by jumping from a moving car while 8 year old Vilar tried to hold her back. Several factors contributed to Vilar's mother's severe depression: Being abandoned by Lebron, her cheating husband, and a coerced, unneeded hysterectomy at age 33.
Here's a passage from the article:
"Puerto Rico, at the time, was a living laboratory for American-sponsored birth control research. In 1956, the first birth control pills -- 20 times stronger than they are today -- were tested on mostly poor Puerto Rican women, who suffered dramatic side effects. Starting in the 1930s, the American government's fear of overpopulation and poverty on the island led to a program of coerced sterilization. After Vilar's mother gave birth to one of her brothers, she writes, doctors threatened to withhold care unless she consented to a tubal ligation.
These feelings of powerlessness -- born of a colonial past, acted out on a grand scale or an intimate one -- are the ties that bind the women of Vilar's family.
'If there is something that is intersecting across generations -- my grandmother, my mother and me -- it's the issue of control," said Vilar. "I chose a very private drama to show my problem of control, my mother chose a personal one, not as intimate as mine, and with my grandmother, it was the ultimate political control.'"
I'm so heavy-hearted about the depth of this story especially as the book starts to kick up a duststorm for the Pro-Life movement. They use Vilar's story as an argument for them, an example of how we women cannot control ourselves. Women must need governmental parenting. The push for their own agenda demeans any significance in relation to our historical damage. This is not to say Vilar has nonchalantly experienced her abortions. Many were followed by suicide attempts. If she is brutally honest about her experiences, she is also very humbled by the feminist movement which kept abortions safe and legal in the US. She is alive because of the movement, she says, because she would have aborted anyway, by any means. Her addiction and struggle with self-determination and control may have been a painful revolt, but they were still exclusive from the positive gains that the feminist movement championed. Vilar's revolt was strictly personal, yet it still makes me think of our long history of oppression. I feel it so deeply with her story.
Anyway, I wanted to tell you about the book because I think it will be kept pretty low key, except by Pro Life advocates, which is unfortunate. Pro Choicers seem to be fairly mute on Vilar's story, but I could imagine that the basic battle to keep abortion laws in place is difficult enough without having to debate Vilar's situation.
Here's the LA Times article here if you want to read a bit more.