NOVEMBER 7, 2019
ALMOST NO CONTEMPORARY literary fiction recounts the experience of getting an abortion. Perhaps this is because it can seem politically suspect to write in a nuanced way about its difficulties; opponents of legal abortion are all too eager to turn any mention of these difficulties into evidence of “post-abortion trauma.” In anti-abortion narratives ranging from Christian films to women’s testimonies at rallies, the complicated feelings women may have after abortion inevitably turn into regret, suggesting that abortion should be made illegal in order to protect women from their own bad choices.
When abortion does occur in fiction these days, it often seeks to counter this paternalistic narrative so central to the “pro-life” movement. Women die, or almost die, in historical fiction such as Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life (2013) and Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests (2014), both of which stress the dangers of criminal abortion in order to argue that the procedure should be both legal and accessible. Novels such as Jodi Picoult’s A Spark of Light (2018), Joyce Carol Oates’s A Book of American Martyrs (2017), and Elisabeth Hyde’s The Abortionist’s Daughter (2006) shift the focus to the violence perpetrated against abortion providers to highlight the twisted morality of abortion opponents.
Other writers deflate the melodrama of anti-abortion arguments by treating them with deliberate casualness, showing that women are not always consumed with eternal hand-wringing regret afterward. Instead, they often feel free. In NW, Zadie Smith’s 2012 novel, a character who doesn’t want children briefly mentions how, during a long-ago abortion, she felt loved and protected. Sheila Heti’s protagonist in Motherhood (who also, eventually, decides against becoming a parent) remembers, without guilt, an abortion she had and how the male doctor tried to talk her out of it, because “there is something threatening about a woman who is not occupied with children.” The narrator of Sarah Moss’s 2011 Night Waking (who already has two small children she adores even though they make her academic career almost impossible) knows she wants an abortion when she gets pregnant again and has one without telling her husband — the entire episode is described in two paragraphs. Obvious Child (2014) and Grandma (2015), recent movies that have changed the way that abortion is portrayed on screen, also show abortion as a largely uncomplicated and liberating experience.
These groundbreaking fictional depictions of abortion not only have laudable aims, but may also do some good in the real world. One much-cited study has shown that films sympathetic to characters who get abortions can actually increase viewers’ support of legal abortion. But as these pro-choice tales strain to counter anti-abortion arguments, they give off a whiff of didacticism, and didacticism is a harsh brake on the freedom of fiction. Complicated stories — stories in which abortion is a challenging and conflicted decision, is still the right decision, is a decision made with some qualms and accompanied by some loss — are the stories fiction is best suited to tell. Yet, when it comes to abortion, nuance is so politically dangerous that these complications are often pushed out of view. If authors don’t tell these stories, alongside the more liberating, triumphant ones, if we don’t grapple with the difficulties some people may have with abortion, we leave many stories untold. We fail to reach out to those who have had their own difficulties with abortion, and who imagine that the experience might be difficult, ambivalent.
In telling these usually untold stories, Brit Bennett’s 2016 novel The Mothers is a rare example of an abortion story in contemporary fiction that does what fiction does best — capture a wide range of thinking, living, and believing without forcing an argument down readers’ throats. It isn’t a new release: the book was published three years ago, meaning before Trump was elected, before Kennedy retired, before Kavanaugh took his place, before people started donning red robes and dressing up as handmaids to protest the erosion of reproductive rights in this country. But The Mothers is worth returning to because it tells us so much about the abortion stories that America has been telling for the last hundred years, and the stories it might tell now. I’m going back to The Mothers because this story shows us that abortion can be a beginning.
Initially, The Mothers focuses on a central character. Raised in a close-knit African-American church-going community in Oceanside, California, talented high school senior Nadia, devastated by the recent suicide of her mother, falls into a relationship with Luke, the pastor’s son, gets pregnant, and has a secret abortion.
This all occurs in the first 20 pages. After Nadia becomes one of the few people in her community to leave for college, however, The Mothers takes an unexpected turn. We get only snippets of Nadia’s life away from home. Instead, the novel largely stays in California, tracing the lives of those left behind: Luke, who mourns his lost chance to be with Nadia and to father their child; a deeply religious friend Nadia measures herself against; and Nadia’s father, burying himself in grief. Nadia’s story flows back into her community’s story when she returns after law school to take care of her ailing father and becomes entwined in the lives of Luke and his new wife, an old friend of hers now struggling to get pregnant. When the secret of Nadia’s abortion gets out — and the fact that the pastor helped pay for it — members start deserting the church in protest, and the community falls apart. Nadia moves away. Her community has the final word; at the end of the novel, they see her back in the neighborhood one last time (possibly to collect her elderly father). To them, Nadia, now in her 30s, seems “peaceful.”
The Mothers is not simply the story of a woman whose privacy was compromised because she had to borrow money from her boyfriend’s parents for an abortion, a story that could have easily become a didactic warning of the need for better abortion access. Nor is it simply the story of a woman escaping a repressive upbringing: Nadia’s community both constrains and comforts. The church was dear to Nadia’s mother who also, unexpectedly, got pregnant at 17; she married and had Nadia, who blames herself for stymieing her mother’s hopes in life: “Nadia had invented versions of her mother’s life that did not end with a bullet shattering her brain.” She imagines her mother having an abortion, going to college, traveling the world — exactly what Nadia goes on to do.
Yet Nadia does not know how her mother would feel about her abortion. She is almost disappointed to hear from her father that her mother never considered it: “She hated the thought of her mother not wanting her but it would’ve been better to look at her mother’s face in the mirror and know that they were alike.” Nadia’s mother chose their church — it was the last place she went before she killed herself — and even though its members would condemn Nadia’s abortion, the church community links Nadia to her mother’s lost life. Nadia begins to volunteer there after her abortion, and when she returns, following law school, she helps take care of the “mothers” of the title: the elderly matriarchs of the church. Their voices, in the third-person plural, are threaded through the narrative, gossiping about Nadia and confiding their own sexual escapades and their struggles in a racist world.
This ability to balance individual and community stories makes The Mothers strikingly different from other fictional depictions of abortion in both the past and the present. Nadia’s story challenges both narratives that depict people racked with guilt about the experience as well as those that cast the experience in mainly positive terms. Her abortion is right for her, yet it tears her community apart.
Bennett manages to portray abortion as both liberating and difficult because she uses it to tell a social mobility story. The Mothers is the story of a woman’s rise, but it is also unusually attentive to both the costs she pays to move up in the world and to the community that gets left behind. The story of Nadia’s success becomes possible because, while many abortion narratives — including Obvious Child and Grandma — end with an abortion, as if there were nothing else to be said, The Mothers starts with one. But if abortion is always the end of a story, never the beginning, we are unable to see what abortion makes possible. Indeed, we usually only glimpse possibility in retrospect, when, years or even decades later, women like Gloria Steinem and Ursula K. Le Guin write about the abortions they had in their 20s. We can only imagine, then, how many other people have been able to live the lives they dreamed because of the abortions they had — legally or illegally, openly or secretly. Nadia realizes she “couldn’t let this baby nail her life in place when she’d just been given a chance to escape.” If she stayed, “she could do what every girl in Oceanside did: marry a Marine and dream of nowhere else.”
Alongside this success story, however, Bennett acknowledges what most contemporary abortion narratives are afraid to do: abortion can be a certain kind of loss. Nadia often imagines the child she and Luke might have had, and how he would have bound her into a community: “Baby growing into a child […] writing his name in green crayon in the front of all his picture books. […] Baby flying planes in the backyard with Grandpa.” Yet her curiosity about what might have been is allowed to exist without being flattened into regret. She never doubts that she has made the right decision. Toward the end of the novel, Nadia sees a happily pregnant friend and thinks, “she wanted this baby and that was the difference: magic you wanted was a miracle, magic you didn’t want was a haunting.”
Bennett’s commitment to telling a story that is both singular and social also allows her to explore how complicated the aftermath of abortion can be in a community whose anti-abortion attitudes have been shaped by a particular history of racist reproductive injustice. Obvious Child and Grandma take place in circles where abortion is acceptable: among white, middle-class women in New York City and Los Angeles. In these films, women seeking abortion learn that their mothers or grandmothers had them too. In NW, Night Waking, and Motherhood, the women who have abortions — again, all white — don’t lose friends or partners as a result. But Nadia feels as though she has betrayed her community — and possibly her mother — by having the abortion that enabled her to leave. The Mothers echoes a long-standing sense in American literature that abortion is the province of white women. The matriarchs of the title insist that “[t]he white girls ended up in trouble as often as us colored girls. But at least we had the decency to keep our troubles.”
This association of abortion and whiteness has been reflected in American literature since abortion first became a subject of literary narratives in the 1920s and 1930s. At that time, objections to legal abortion were not primarily about individualistic ideas of fetal personhood, but rather about abortion’s perceived effects on the community. Opponents of abortion claimed that it would lead to the decline of the “white race.” Some writers countered this white supremacist narrative by critiquing the practice of abortion as a way of safeguarding white privilege. In Langston Hughes’s 1936 short story “Cora Unashamed,” the title character, a black maid for a white family, refuses to feel ashamed of being an unmarried mother. Her daughter dies as a child, and Cora raises her employers’ daughter, Jessie — who is the same age — as if she were her own. When Jessie becomes pregnant out of wedlock by her Greek boyfriend, Cora reassures her, “there ain’t no reason why you can’t marry, neither — you both white. Even if he is a foreigner, he’s a right nice boy.” Yet Jessie’s mother doesn’t agree: deeming the Greek boyfriend insufficiently white, she forces Jessie to have an abortion. When Jessie dies from the abortion, her mother runs the boyfriend’s family out of town, accusing them of selling tainted ice cream, a thinly veiled reference to their supposed racial contamination.
If in pre–World War II American literature abortion was often treated as a community issue, particularly as an issue of race and class, 1960s and 1970s fiction reflected a postwar shift: sexuality was increasingly seen as an individual matter. At a time when a woman’s right to end a pregnancy was being newly articulated, novels such as Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road (1961) and John Updike’s Couples (1968) were propelled by questions about whether a woman should have an abortion and where she could find one. Both novels end with an abortion, Yates’s tragically and Updike’s happily. In Couples, an unhappily married woman gets pregnant by her lover, and her abortion ultimately allows the adulterous pair to end up together: afterward, “they were quite safe, and would always exist for each other.”
In both pre- and postwar African-American literature, however, questions of reproduction have seemed difficult to cast as purely individual. Black female characters struggle with often-contradictory responsibilities to their community, expected to advance the race both by achieving professional success and nurturing their men and children. There are a few literary examples of black women whose ambitions are hampered by motherhood, such as the main character of Nella Larsen’s 1928 novella, Quicksand, an unhappy mother of five forced to abandon her teaching career. Yet calls for black women to have fewer children so that the community can rise are complicated by the low value placed on black lives in a racist society. In Angelina Weld Grimké’s 1919 story “The Closing Door,” a young mother of color living in Harlem kills her beloved baby boy after hearing that her brother was lynched in Mississippi by “an orderly mob.” She laments that she is: “An instrument of reproduction! — another of the many! — a colored woman — doomed! — cursed! — put here! — willing or unwilling! For what? — to bring children here — men children — for the sport — the lust — of possible orderly mobs.” Women’s reluctance to mother is depicted as a tragic response to racism.
Mothering, on the other hand, is portrayed as a community value. The matriarch in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) is horrified to hear that her daughter-in-law is considering abortion, telling her, “we a people who give children life, not who destroys them.” In Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place (1982), a novel in which African-American female characters form their own community to shield each other from the ravages of bigotry, sexism, and poverty, abortion is a betrayal of this nurturing black femininity and a sign of racism’s toll on the community. After a character named Ciel reluctantly terminates her pregnancy in the hopes of saving her relationship, Ciel’s beloved baby daughter dies in an accident. In a surrealistic sequence, the novel bears witness to the “murdered dreams” of the past, taking in even the “spilled brains of Senegalese infants whose mothers had dashed them on the wooden sides of slave ships.” This equates the abortion of a black child with a black child’s accidental death, with the deaths of black children under slavery, adding two more black bodies to a vast tally.
This tendency in African-American literature to depict abortion as a cost of racism, and the use of abortion to protect white respectability in American literature more generally, makes it all the more striking that The Mothers casts abortion as crucial to a black woman’s success. Yet because of its commitment to telling a community as well as an individual story, the novel can make room for this charged history of race and reproduction without letting it determine Nadia’s own story. One minor character says he’d be too afraid to have a son: “Black boys are target practice. At least black girls got a chance.” Earlier, Luke remembers when, as a child, he went with his father’s congregation to protest the new abortion clinic. “An old black man held a sign that said ABORTION IS BLACK GENOCIDE.” The novel allows for these politics to form part of the context of Nadia’s experience without having her confront them directly, showing how subtly individual and community stories can be intertwined.
Like the female characters in The Women of Brewster Place who take care of each other, The Mothers shows us that there are many ways of mothering. The title characters became mothers “some by heart and some by womb.” A nurse mothers Nadia after her abortion; Nadia’s friend, recovering from abuse, is mothered by her sister and her sister’s girlfriend. Yet while Naylor’s character Ciel is unmothered by her abortion — she loses her living child as well as her unborn baby — The Mothers is more generous, allowing Nadia to have the life her abortion gives her without losing her capacity to mother; during her stay at home after law school, she is described as having “mothered” the mothers of her church. Research has shown that readers of literary fiction become more empathetic; The Mothers has empathy to spare.