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. The word “abortion” itself polarizes conversations and communities. You’re either pro or con, you picket or protest, each side not hearing the other. With the possibility that the right to abortion would be repealed in certain states, the four-decade-old divisive conversation has heightened to a wail.
Four women authors have released books from different angles of this question: pro-choice, pro-life, a narrative with no political leanings, a memoir. Abortion is primarily the story of women, and they are talking.
Cat Marnell’s dazzling debut memoir How to Murder Your Life is wildly entertaining. 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. Marnell is an infamous cult figure to many who have tracked her ups and downs, wondering often if she would survive herself. 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.
This former beauty editor and columnist directs readers through her story like a tell-all. We hear about Adderall and alcohol, heroin and cocaine. 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.
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. There are a million reasons why she may have turned to substances, but Marnell never passes the blame. She owns her impulses, actions, and their effects. 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. 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.
How far along is she? It’s hard to tell, but then again, Marnell is remembering things through a haze of addiction — both then and now. “If you’re confused about the timeline — how far along I was — well, that makes two of us. I don’t know, man. It was so crazy. I was sick. Truly. Just … messed up. 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. It’s graphic. In fact, Marnell writes, “The only thing worse than getting abortions is reading about abortions. Am I wrong? Please skip ahead if you are squeamish.”
She doesn’t present “pro” or “con” anything. She simply tells her story. And in that is power. After the details, she writes, “The procedure had been so awful. So violent. It looked like murder. It felt like murder. I’m not saying that in any kind of political way. I’m just telling you how it felt.” She writes so vividly we feel it with her. It becomes our memory, too. Not judged, but experienced. In a book swimming in substances and parties this is a sober, clear-eyed moment.
When she has another abortion at 27, she knows she wants to be knocked out this time. It’s still horrific, but she knows more of what to expect. 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. 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. But the abortions aren’t the focus of the story. She isn’t defined by the event. Nor is she even by the addictions she chronicles. 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.
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. 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. She uses protection. She and her boyfriend are careful. 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.
“Please, Lord, I’d rather die than be pregnant,” she thought at the doctor’s appointment. She was 19.
“My first pregnancy was supposed to be about joy. I was supposed to call my mother and make her guess what. I was supposed to be married four years. I was supposed to be twenty-eight. That first positive pregnancy test was supposed to mark the beginning of my life.”
Yet still, in a way, it did. 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. ‘I’m blacking out,’ I shrieked” the bulk of Underwood’s book occurs in the after effect. “I would dream of babies for the next six years,” she writes. She goes on an epic journey of spiritual healing, a hunt for enlightenment, integration, and release. 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.
Underwood’s search is authentic, diverse, and multicultural. It honors the fact that healing takes time, often years. Through her, we experience what some other cultures do to address the loss of a child. This is a journey of exorcism and mending, of growing up, out, and through. 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. She begins to do outreach work to other women who have had abortions. We end this journey with her with this beautiful packet of pages — her voice, bound yet boundless, luminous and reaching out to others. Underwood’s story acts as a bridge to many women’s. It is a temple of prayers built in the terrain of grief.
But grief cuts many ways. 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. 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.
The pain explored in this book includes not only the physical, spiritual, and mental effects of abortion, but also that of warring belief systems. Can we have empathy toward both sides? It seems this current moment in American history asks the same.
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. Oates narrates the complicated motivations of both sides so skillfully that she challenges us to feel both worldviews, thereby making us challenge our own. Is an abortionist a helper or a baby killer? Is an assassin a murderer or savior?
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. No matter your opinion on abortion, having to take on the other side will rock you. 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.
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.
“Would Daddy hurt me?” she asks.
“Oh, but your Mommy and Daddy want you. All of you,” her mother assures her. But what if this isn’t the case?
Memoirist Melissa Ohden looks directly into that uncomfortable question when she realizes her birth mother didn’t want her. 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.
The procedure failed, of course. Ohden was delivered at less than three pounds and suffering from breathing distress. When she later discovers this fact of her birth, her world crashes. She develops an eating disorder and spends much of her young and adult life dealing with this origin story. Ohden, now a self-proclaimed “abortion survivor,” works to find and eventually forgive her birth mother, who never knew her daughter lived.
Ohden, like Underwood, turns her experience into outreach and service. While Underwood helps other young women facing or recovering from abortion, Ohden created the Abortion Survivors Network and becomes a social worker. “Many people think abortion is a discrete act that has no lasting effect,” she writes. “They are so wrong! Abortion can’t be compartmentalized and is never forgotten. And its effects ripple through generations.”
Though Ohden’s writing isn’t as strong as the other books here, her story is. It’s a unique chance to consider: What if your life had been purposely threatened before it even began? How would you view the rest of it? While her title is You Carried Me, you begin to understand what Ohden herself had to carry: shame, guilt, and confusion.
The strongest element that binds these books together is the commitment to the power of voice. It wasn’t that long ago that just talking about abortion was taboo. A survey of these very personal and compelling books reminds us what storytelling is for. When we read, we have to step into the inner world of another; we have to practice listening and understanding. Books are empathy-builders.
Memories and pain map onto the cells of the body. 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. We need to find ways to acknowledge and release these imprints. 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. It can make you think of the Muriel Rukeyser quote: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” With these passionate books, the world splits in four different directions.
Sarah Herrington is a Los Angeles–based writer. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Poets and Writers, and Tin House. She teaches and works at Loyola Marymount University.