Where Are All the Memoirs About Abortion?
Hundreds of thousands of us have them every year, and more consider it—so why aren't we writing about them?
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I scoured the parenting and pregnancy sections in Barnes & Noble, but the only books I could find about pregnancy exclaimed about it happily. I moved on to memoir, fingers running over the bindings of book after book. Where are the ones for women like me? I wondered. Women who don’t know what to do?
It didn’t matter how many rows I wandered: there was nothing there. You are going through something shameful, a voice in my head said. You’re supposed to figure it out for yourself. I had hoped to find memoirs of women grappling with a choice and describing at length how they made up their mind. I wanted a step-by-step how-to. I wanted rich, fraught, real stories. It’s 2013—where are the books about people who hadn’t planned on being pregnant, or who hadn’t kept their pregnancies?
The bookstore failed me, so I tried the internet. I found one memoir about a woman who got pregnant unexpectedly—Rattled by Christine Coppa—but she kept her baby. I bought Coppa’s book and devoured it over the next few days alongside pints of strawberry fro-yo. I dissected her sentences, looking for clues. “Okay, here is the moment she realizes she’s pregnant. And here is the moment where she decides to keep it.” But there was no such road map—-her decision seemed immediate. I couldn’t find any memoirs by people who’d considered abortion, let alone a memoir by someone who’d actually had one. I hadn’t decided whether to keep or end my pregnancy, but abortion was on my mind, and I wanted to find books about other women thinking about it and going through with it. After reading Coppa’s memoir, however, I accepted that, in this case, there were no books that could help me know what to do.
This was six years ago, but, even now, when I go to Amazon and enter the search terms “memoir” and “abortion,” the results are not much better. The first six books that come up have been published by Christian presses and, based on their descriptions, are clearly anti-choice. They include titles like Memoirs of a Christian Who Chose Abortion; Just Another Girl’s Story: A Memoir on Finding Redemption; A Voice for Victoria: A Memoir of Healing from Post-Abortion Trauma. These stories imply that after ending a pregnancy, one will have trauma and will require redemption.
After combing Google, scouring bookstore sites, and asking groups of nonfiction writers online and in-person, I have found a total of four books in which a pro-choice author devotes the whole story to her pregnancy, abortion, and its aftermath. They are: May Cause Love: An Unexpected Journey of Enlightenment After Abortion by Kassi Underwood (2017; HarperOne), Poor Your Soul by Mira Ptacin (2016; Soho Press), Deep Salt Water by Marianne Apostolides (2017; BookThug), and Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict by Irene Vilar (2009; Other Press).
Let me repeat: after much searching, I found four, all published in the past decade. Why is this the case? Why are these stories still so untold in contemporary nonfiction?
When I first reached out to Mira Ptacin, she was surprised I’d even heard of her. Although her book did get reviewed when it came out, Ptacin began our phone call by asking, “How did you come across my memoir? No one has heard of it. How the hell did you find my book?” Poor Your Soul had been published with a smaller press after multiple big New York houses turned it down. They told her they weren’t sure how to market a book like that.
Ptacin sensed a cop-out. “They just really didn’t wanna go there,” she said. “Even the women. Women think they’re so progressive, and they say: ‘This book is so important.’ But when it’s time to make a bold move, they don’t do it. And we need these books. They provide empathy. It’s not an easy decision [to end a pregnancy]. It’s not simple. [People who make that choice] are not evil. And until all these stories come out and we have a variety of them, abortion is going to be stereotyped.”
Ptacin was told that her book needed to be about something more than “just her abortion,” as though abortion and grief could not possibly constitute sufficient material for a memoir. She was told to expand her manuscript: to bring in her family, to make the tale about her mother’s loss of a child in addition to her own story, and to braid the narratives. The back cover copy of her book states: “Far more than her personal story of abortion, Ptacin’s brutally honest account incorporates her own mother’s tragic loss of a child.” This blurb comes from Ms. Magazine, yet the phrasing here is problematic. Why does the book need to be “far more” than just her personal story of abortion? The phrasing of the rest of the sentence implies that the story really worth telling here is the mother’s loss of a child. Ptacin ended a wanted pregnancy because of severe fetal abnormalities in her second trimester. Did she not also lose a child?
Are authors who write about their history of substance abuse told their stories need to be about more? Are authors who write memoirs about a struggle with cancer told this? Or authors who write about the loss of a child who has been born? Why are publishers ready to publish true stories of alcoholism, sexual promiscuity, and illness, but not unplanned pregnancy and abortion?
Nearly half of all U.S. pregnancies are unplanned, making this one of the most common experiences a person can have. One in four women in America will terminate a pregnancy by age 45. Those women—women like me—often search for solace and guidance in the true stories of authors. But our searches often turn up empty and we are left feeling alone. If I’d had true stories from other writers to read, I might have judged myself less harshly when this happened to me; I might have felt less ashamed. I was enraged with myself for getting pregnant. I did not understand until much later, when I began to volunteer as an abortion doula, how incredibly common this was and that there was no need to feel shame. As a doula, I watched women walk into and out of procedure rooms for hours on end, day after day. College students chatting about classes. Moms with little kids at home. Teenagers and older people. Meeting and supporting them taught me firsthand how many people experience this. When they were on the surgical table, I held their hands, wiped tears from their eyes, and felt a level of compassion I hadn’t been able to grant myself.
Ptacin also couldn’t find any memoirs on the topic when she was grieving after her termination. Hers was a complicated and difficult situation. To have had access to others’ experiences would have been a balm. “There’re no books about abortion,” she says. Ptacin was given Elizabeth McCracken’s book An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, a novel about stillbirth, and said that was the closest thing she had to what she was going through.
Ptacin explained that she’d had a hard time relating to McCracken when she first read that book because “my rage about all of it—losing a baby, the accidental pregnancy, the broken healthcare system, how women’s bodies are controlled by white men in office, the lack of support for child loss/reproductive choices—hadn’t hit me yet.
“The ‘post’ part of PTSD hadn’t quite arrived, so I was watching McCracken’s experience when I read her, rather than relating to it. But now, I can relate and can feel what she felt; I can empathize and feel her as a companion. But it took some time for my raw pain to sink in.”
Poor Your Soul was named a Kirkus Best Book of 2016 and was reviewed by the Boston Globe, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, Ms. Magazine, Michigan Quarterly Review, the Harvard Review, and others—so I asked why she was surprised I’d found it. She mentioned that sales were low and that “few people had heard of it, hardly any so-called feminist magazines—like Marie Claire, Cosmo, Elle, etc., or feminist reproductive groups such as Lady Parts Justice League, or even just feminist influencers—had anything to do with the book.” These places hadn’t answered her or her publicist’s pitches about Poor Your Soul. “[It]…didn’t prompt the discussion I had hoped it would among people in general. Mostly, I heard back from literary groups in praise of my writing and from women who had lost babies. That was it.”
In the text, after the abortion, Ptacin is afraid to have sex again, and relays advice from her mother. Her mom states “Losing a baby is very traumatic, but you will sanctify your body again…will feel better about your body, connect body with soul.”
Even though I terminated my pregnancy at six weeks—nowhere near as far along as Ptacin’s pregnancy—it felt like Mira’s mom was giving me advice too. My own mother was wonderful when I told her I was pregnant, but the experience was the most earth-shaking of my life, so I sought out advice from anyone who’d experienced pregnancy, particularly mothers. Nothing in my life felt the same the moment that second line on the stick turned blue. That summer, I had the chance to be a mother and had not taken it. It felt like I had played God. I doubted my choice even as I felt assured in it. I felt like it was the only sensible thing to do at the time, and I was grateful to have had access to a safe and legal procedure, but I wondered constantly about what could have been. And I felt alienated from my body, which I felt had betrayed me by getting pregnant.
After my abortion, I bled for three months. I had to take antibiotics to prevent infection. I could not swim, and I couldn’t drink because of the medication. My favorite means of summertime relaxation had been robbed from me, along with an understanding of the kind of woman I was. I did not realize then that there is not a “kind of woman” that this happens to, partly because these experiences are so hushed up. And there was no guidance about the physical aftermath—no one to tell me if the prolonged bleeding was normal, so I scrounged for advice on Internet forums. During these months, I picked fights with the man who’d gotten me pregnant, often calling him in tears. I wanted him to mourn like I was. In Poor Your Soul, Ptacin tells her partner Andrew, “ ‘I need you to see it…try to see how I might feel.’” She realizes, though, that this is impossible: “But I knew he couldn’t, and he never would.” I knew my partner never would either. He couldn’t. The baby had been growing in my body, not his. I was haunted by the muscle memory of the experience, of what it had physically felt like to be pregnant. Reading the words of another woman talking frankly about emotions and fights that had echoed my own helped me to see I was not unreasonable for the reactions I had at the time. They were my body and brain’s means of processing grief. Reading the words of even one other author who shared these experiences showed me I was not alone.
Like Mira Ptacin and me, author Kassi Underwood also struggled to find books about this topic when she was navigating an unplanned pregnancy. Underwood’s memoir May Cause Love: An Unexpected Journey of Enlightenment After Abortion, therefore sprung, in part, from a need to fill a gap in literature: “Authoring the book I couldn’t find in the library was the first idea that had given me a sense of purpose in a long time,” she writes in her memoir. Underwood captured the whole story on the page, along with the complex range of emotions she felt. And she achieved her goal, writing the book she had needed to read. When author Melissa Febos later read the book, she commented, “While reading May Cause Love, I found myself continually shocked that such a book has not already been written, that this experience shared by so many women in this country is not already available in myriad variations in every bookstore in America.”
At least with the publication of Underwood’s book, we have one more true iteration of what it’s like. She was unmarried, broke, and drinking heavily when she discovered she was pregnant at nineteen. She does not feel her abortion was the wrong choice for her, yet she grieved after ending the pregnancy, and felt the need to go on a journey of spiritual healing, which she discusses at length.
After my abortion, I felt the need to go on a similar journey. Reading Underwood’s book five years after my pregnancy was emotional. Much of the narrative felt like it could have been taken directly from my mind. Lines like “part of me didn’t want to finish grieving” resonated deeply with me. For years guilt and sadness sang through me. I felt obligated to hold onto the grief. I held that obligation as though the only thing I could do was remember that my pregnancy had existed. In my imagination I pictured another life in vivid detail: their birth. Their toddlerhood. The person she or he or they would have been.
I did not realize that holding onto this grief was hurting me. In the end, it was other women who pulled me out of this, and Kassi Underwood was one of them. She had seen herself as “the bad girl” for getting pregnant. Reading how she had internalized such ideas, like I had, helped me so much. Underwood’s eventual realization that “if you want to live the life you chose, one day you will have to stand still and hold all of it—scorched heart and broken brain, bones and skeletons of the past, the black wave of grief and the lucid thoughts of forgiveness.” You would have to make peace with your story, I saw, five years after the fact. To acknowledge your lack of control, your humanity, your imperfection. You would have to let it wash over you and mix in with all the good things about you to see the picture as a whole.
Even though it had a big publisher—HarperOne—May Cause Love got about 10 trade reviews spanning a year. Underwood surmises that perhaps the degree of nuance in her tale, and her need for spiritual healing after the experience, turned the pro-choice camp away from her book, kept it from coming out in paperback, and prevented it from being reviewed more widely.
“What raised flags for me,” she said, “was in the months leading up to publication, multiple journalists were pitching major feminist women’s magazines that regularly cover books about abortion (as long as it’s the typical ‘I feel relief and gratitude and abortion should be accessible’ narrative) and getting turned down or ghosted by editors they otherwise had a good relationship with. May Cause Love did not get any reviews in women’s magazines, despite lots of journalists pitching them—though a friend of mine interviewed me for BUST.”
As helpful as it is that Underwood’s book has found its way onto library shelves at all, had it additionally come out in paperback, the number of women who would have had access to at least one real, complex story would have increased, particularly because paperbacks are more affordable than hardcover books. There was a paperback deal in the works—Underwood had written an afterword, and the cover design had been updated—but it was killed at the eleventh hour. She suspects the fact that she writes openly about the “messy middle,” or the gray area of gratitude for having had access to abortion, yet being conflicted about the choice, is the reason why. Underwood is pro-choice, but did not simply feel relief after her abortion, and some in the pro-choice camp don’t like to hear this. This is a real problem because that messy middle is where many may fall—myself included.
Some memoirs and essay collections do include true stories of the author’s termination, only you’d never know it from the book copy. Abortion also isn’t often discussed in a book’s synopsis. The “A” word is not popular in marketing.
For example, many people will tell you that Cheryl Strayed’s breakaway hit Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is about a woman who went on a life-changing hike in the wake of her mother’s death from cancer. While this is true, what they do not mention, and often don’t know, is that she also went on this hike after having an abortion. You’d have to read the memoir to know this: it’s not mentioned anywhere on the book jacket.
Anna Akana’s recent work of nonfiction So Much I Want to Tell You: Letters to My Little Sister (2017; Ballatine Books) likewise does not mention abortion on the back jacket. The reader must get to the chapter “Take Your Birth Control” to learn that Akana ended an unplanned pregnancy. This is the kind of information that should be mentioned in a synopsis, so that the people seeking such books can actually find them, but the word “abortion” itself is still heavily stigmatized. The Kirkus review of Ptacin’s book uses words like “teratology” —the birth of monsters—to describe the major focus of the book. This is ridiculous: no one knows what this word means. We need to just call the subject what it is.
It’s 2019, and we haven’t broken through all the stigmas, silences, and boundaries that keep people with a uterus siloed off by their bodies. If I had been pregnant in 2018 instead of 2013, I might have found the book I was looking for when I went to Barnes & Noble that hot July day. I might have gone home and devoured the tale, more secure in the knowledge that others go through this, and the reassurance that no matter what I chose to do, I could have—and still deserved—a good life.