by Jessica Bennett
In the past year, three popular films dealt with stories of unplanned pregnancies. In Waitress, the woman is secretly planning to escape an unhealthy marriage; her pregnancy is an unpleasant surprise resulting from one night of acquiescing to her repugnant husband’s advances. In Knocked Up, the pregnancy comes of a drunken one-night stand between a successful, beautiful young woman and a slacker slob. And in the critical and box-office darling, Juno, the eponymous protagonist is a sassy high-schooler who finds herself pregnant after hooking up with a sweet, shy boy.
In each of these films, the women decide to carry their pregnancies to term. In none is the option of aborting the fetus given serious consideration. In the last of these, the abortion clinic is even treated as a sight gag, and Juno decides to carry the pregnancy to term, seemingly on a whim, upon hearing that her fetus has fingernails. Her emotional connection to the baby she carries to term is barely explored; when she meets with the baby’s potential adoptive parents, she blows off any rights she might have to be involved in the child’s life, saying that she wants to do it “old school” and simply hand the baby over and be done with it.
In reality, of course, pregnancy, abortion, childbirth, and motherhood are far more complex than even the most sensitive film can portray. This volume of twenty-four personal essays ambitiously tackles these subjects from a variety of perspectives, exploring as many different life choices and the consequences thereof as there are voices in the collection. In the introduction, the editors—both fiction writers—explain that they originally intended to collect stories exclusively about abortion. Upon sharing their own stories and the stories of people they knew, however, it became clear that a more comprehensive collection, one that addressed the myriad choices in women’s reproductive lives, could rise above the bumper-sticker polemics of the abortion debate.
The women here speak of the pains and joys of choosing motherhood or opting out; in becoming mothers naturally or through adoption; about pregnancies ending by difficult choice and by ruthless chance; of healthy babies, children with health challenges, and children tragically lost. It is not an easy grouping of stories to read. Even an emotionally distant reader would be hard pressed to tackle them all in one sitting. For the easily touched among us, whose own life experiences may resonate with some of those shared here, this collection is best consumed a story or two at a time, in sessions fortified by Kleenex and whiskey.
In such a wide-ranging anthology, both stylistically and subject-wise, something will connect with just about everyone; this means that you can pretty much count on a handful of the stories not being quite for you. Of course, it’s hard to fault the writing—even when it sounds tinny, forced, or artless—when the stories being conveyed are so deeply honest and painful. However, the quality of the writing is undeniably variable. When the prose is skillful, the combination of grief conveyed with deft craft is powerful. Consider co-editor Nina de Gramont, in “Water Children,” on the lasting pain of miscarriage, even once one has other children:
If by some macabre stroke of magic, I found out that my original child had not died. If through some inexplicable twist—the stuff of soap opera, science fiction, and daydreams—I discovered she had not died but lived, and now existed: somewhere out there, away from me.
I would go anywhere, I would do anything. To find her.
The handful of abortion stories here are sometimes harrowing and the choices described are never easy, but the book’s original intent—of exploring a woman’s primacy in making decisions regarding her own body—comes through, especially in the essays whose experiences occurred in the days before Roe v. Wade. These women who were denied safe choices, or any choices at all, convey chilling, almost Orwellian tales of covert journeys to unsanitary abortion providers and secret residencies in homes for unwed mothers. Even the more contemporary narratives reflect the shortcomings of our current system. Kimi Faxon Hemingway tells a horrifying story of her experience with RU-486, a drug that in France is administered in hospitals. In America, for a variety of reasons more political than medical, it is dispensed to women in a more do-it-yourself way, to sometimes disastrous, and even life-threatening, effect.
Thankfully, there are happy moments here—funny ones, too. And the collection ends with an unabashedly political essay by Francine Prose titled “The Raw Edges of Human Existence: The Language of Roe v. Wade.” The imagery of the story’s title is borrowed from Justice Blackmun’s own words in the majority opinion:
We forthwith acknowledge our awareness of the sensitive and emotional nature of the abortion controversy, of the vigorous opposing views, even among physicians, and of the deep and seemingly absolute convictions that the subject inspires. One's philosophy, one's experiences, one's exposure to the raw edges of human existence, one's religious training, one's attitudes toward life and family and their values, and the moral standards one establishes and seeks to observe, are all likely to influence and to color one's thinking and conclusions about abortion.
The phrase “raw edges of human existence” is almost poetic. As Prose puts it, “we immediately intuit the depth and sympathy with which it embraces the range of circumstances that might cause a woman on those raw edges to admit that she is unable to raise a child, as well as the pain and grief and regret that any of these situations and decisions might occasion.” This collection allows us a glance at some of these circumstances. The choice that these writers have made to share such personal stories reminds us of how essential it is to maintain a woman’s right to privacy, particularly over matters of such profound emotional gravity.
To return once more to Juno, her closest counterpart in Choice is Stephanie Andersen. As a junior in high school in 1997, Stephanie became pregnant. Unlike Juno, Stephanie initially wanted to keep her child. Late in her pregnancy, she decided to give the baby up for adoption, a decision she still regrets in spite of the college degrees that freedom from young motherhood allowed her to earn. The adoptive parents maintained contact over the years, and Stephanie now exchanges phone calls, emails, and gifts with her daughter, who is also someone else’s daughter. This situation is sad and beautiful and awkward, and doesn’t lend itself to a neat, happy ending. Don’t expect Hollywood to turn it into a movie any time soon.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008