On Choice, Children, and Womanhood: A Conversation with Christa Parravani




CHRISTA PARRAVANIS SEMINAL Guernica essay published last year, Life and Death in West Virginia,was my introduction to this author and inspired me to seek out more of her work. I was thrilled when she agreed to an interview.

The personal is political, and in Loved and Wanted: A Memoir of Choice, Children, and Womanhood the political is explored through Parravanis immediate and visceral experience. What we get is a living, breathing feminism, not from an ivory tower, not theoretical, but from the guts.

Parravani takes her life in hand and confronts the institutions and attitudes that oppress her and countless women just like her caught in the maze of not just dangerously inadequate reproductive care but ever-increasing barriers to quality of life, agency, and choice. With the steady erosion of womens rights in the past few decades, Parravanis narrative is an American story. It doesnt just hit close to the bone; it reveals the skeleton.

Parravanis narrative is driven by a deep commitment to her children, an unwanted pregnancy, and the labyrinth of oppression in which she is bound. This is the authors unapologetic journey of seeking an abortion she couldnt obtain, as much as it is a fierce call for justice for her beloved son who is born in a broken health-care system and, as a result, suffers injury. Marriage, sexuality, motherhood, spirituality, toxic environmental hazards, womens friendships, and work nothing is taboo. There are no simplistic answers offered. Loved and Wanted is an exploration of the complexities of class and the forces of oppression as experienced in the personal life and body of one woman. This is a guided tour, if you will, upfront and intimate. Parravani takes you through the political landscape that is womens reality. There is no looking away.

In addition to her best-selling debut, Her, a memoir about the loss of her identical twin sister to sexual violence and a heroin overdose, Parravanis writing has appeared in Guernica, Catapult, Hobart, Marie Claire, The Millions, Glamour, The Washington Post, Salon, The Rumpus, The Daily Beast, The London Times, The Guardian, and DAME, among other places. She has taught at Dartmouth College, UMass Amherst, SUNY Purchase, and West Virginia University, where she served as an assistant professor of Creative Nonfiction. Parravani has also received fellowships from MacDowell and Yaddo.

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KELLY THOMPSON: Loved and Wanted: A Memoir of Choice, Children, and Womanhood, about “an accidentally pregnant progressive in the reddest state in America,is such an important and timely story. Its a challenging time to be releasing a book.

CHRISTA PARRAVANI: It’s hard. Everyone’s just shouting into the void at this moment. But I’m at peace with releasing it because I did my job. It was essential to inform people. I didn’t have that feeling with my first publication, Her, which was also a memoir. With this book, the story felt more public, like it didn’t belong to me. I had to write it and write it quickly.

In addition to the urgency of the story and the need to inform, what was your intention in writing this book?

I felt I had to live up to the duty that I have to my children, which is protecting them. I learned a hard lesson about our broken medical care system when I gave birth to my third child: the poor medical care he received came out of a limited access to funding for women’s health care. When you defund women’s health care, you harm children.

The health care you and your infant son received was dangerously inadequate.

Yes. My gut feeling about what we experienced in the hospital in West Virginia turned out to be right. I became obsessed and started researching, trying to understand what happened to us. I felt obligated to say something about it because I am a woman of privilege, relatively speaking, and I witnessed a horrifying reality in our country.

You wrote, “I was naïve. I still believed what I wanted mattered.” As a progressive, educated woman, you had a lens you could turn on your experience. What about all the other women who have no idea?

Right. Women don’t get the opportunity to confirm their fears, or the hidden truth. When you’re told you’re crazy and accept the lies, it takes everything to go up against that. I was raised by a single mother in an abusive home with no money. We lived in a trailer park for years of my life. I struggled to pay to go to college. I lost my sister to a heroin overdose after she was sexually assaulted. I have been sexually assaulted. I have experienced poverty and hardship and pain, and I don’t know why the fuck at the beginning of this pregnancy, I still believed what I wanted mattered. I think about that a lot. I also wonder if, maybe I still think what I want matters.

I think you do because you wrote this book. And it matters for all of us.

Yes, I do think it matters. Even with looking at the facts and the pain, I refuse to give up hope because I don’t have anything left without it.

You have two daughters. How do you raise girls, given the reality of what you expose in this book? That might be another book.

It might be. I mean, Josephine asks me questions all the time. She’s like, “Did we leave West Virginia because it’s not a good place for girls?” My daughter is already probing the hard questions I’m not prepared to answer. I worry about my daughters more than I worry about my son.

The story that you told about when Trump was elected, and your daughter Jos reaction, broke my heart.

The lie we told our daughters is about that moment. I think we need to go back to it and try to figure out how to make meaning of that lie instead of just saying, “Yeah, and then the girl lost and it was devastating to our daughters,” but what does it mean to be here now, four years later? We need to give them a story about what happened.

Loved and Wanted breaks the taboo against telling our children, and ourselves, the truth, that the majority of women in this country receive inadequate reproductive health care, not just women in one red state or a few; it crosses class lines and privilege.

The thing that was surprising to me about that, because it is taboo; is that we don’t talk a lot about it, the psychological reality is of a woman being denied her right to choose. I was a strong-willed woman who felt destabilized by the fact that it was made very logistically hard for me to terminate a pregnancy. People ask me all the time, they’re like, “Well you could’ve just gone to Pittsburgh,” “Why didn’t you just get in the car and drive to New York.” I try to explain it, “Okay. I guess if I got through all the childcare hurdles and barriers, I could have done that. On the other hand, I was so … humiliated by the laws that told me that I was not allowed to decide for myself and that they were going to make it really hard for me, that I believed in my heart that I was bad for wanting it to begin with; that was a barrier as well.”

There are many women who are anti-abortion. Do you ever wonder what it is like to be them?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think they have a moral imperative where they feel abortion is murder and that’s that. It’s hard to argue that point because when you tell somebody what they’re doing is murderous, most good people think twice about that, ask themselves, “Is what I’m doing murderous?” On the other hand, science is on the side of choice, and I talk about the science around fetal pain and laws that have to do with when life begins in the book. For example, they use the term “heartbeat” for what is an electrical pulse early in the pregnancy. It’s the potential for a heartbeat that has to do with body electricity. It’s not yet a heart or a heartbeat. But, as I experienced, the word that is used is “heartbeat.” That’s misleading.

I was not aware of that until I read the book.

I wasn’t aware of any of it either until I started researching and I was like, “I want science to either prove me right or wrong.” Writing this book was also about educating myself about something I felt foolish for not knowing enough about when I was going through it, even though I thought I knew everything there was to know about it. I already had an abortion. I thought I understood what choice was, and I didn’t.

I think we can all agree laws that make it impossible for children to receive adequate medical care and quality of life are wrong, and also murderous. It’s morally egregious. Both points are equally valid. You cannot have a society that positions itself against abortion that does not also support its children and its women, and we don’t. It raises the question, “Then what is the lack of choice for but to keep women at home and children not well?” It hurts people. It keeps them down, and it’s wrong.

If you truly value life, then you value the lives of women and children. Your book highlights how much rights for women have been eroded in recent decades.

I wanted to write about what it means for women’s rights to be eroded and women to be hurt by bad laws, but it’s also a book about what happens to a boy. It’s not just about gender. It’s my son, Keats, who’s endured the most. This is his story as much, or more, than anyone’s.

Isnt that to say when life is truly valued and considered sacred, then it benefits all genders?

Yes. And this also happens to be a book about a boy whose arm was yanked out of its socket at birth and left undiagnosed and untreated, not about a girl. This book was born out of my need to help my son most. If he had not suffered what he suffered, this book would probably not have been written, but what happened to him happened because of the laws we have. I blamed myself, of course, but I had to take another look at it.

You write that you thought the story about your sister, Cara, was done with the writing of Her; but with Loved and Wanted, you learned that, although the story changes, it’s never done. How did you and Caras story influence the book?

I wanted to write a book about choice. I knew abortion and choice were issues that needed to be tackled. But the thing that got me thinking about the book to begin with was the fact Keats was born on the anniversary of my sister’s death in a state I wound up in by chance that I also happened to be from, in some way, which I only discovered later.

I had spent years of my adult life after I published my first book, Her, about my sister Cara dying of a heroin overdose, feeling I was done. I didn’t want to talk about it anymore, denying the story was still active in my life. But I wanted to know, “What does it mean? What does it mean for my sister to appear to me on the day of my son’s birth?” I don’t know. I didn’t have the answer to it, and I struggled with it a lot, but it was at the heart of this book.

You wrote, “It took me 12 years to learn I punish myself by going too easy on people and places.” This speaks to stigma and internalizing shame and blame. We buy into the myth women are responsible for the ways they are victimized, so this gets at the heart of agency and choice and Caras story as well, right?

Yeah. It’s never done!

The way your sister Caras presence makes itself known in this book, her voice on the page I want to hear about the writing of this book.

I sold the book and was given four months to write it. Everyone who was interested in buying it saw this was a political book. They wanted it for the election. I was lucky to get time off from teaching to write. Logistically, it was made possible because I was given generous support by organizations like MacDowell’s that support writers. They gave me emergency fellowships. I cannot believe I met the deadline. I have three small children, and I’m not a fast writer. I’m a slow sentence writer.

I had to buy time, of course. I paid a childcare provider for any hour I wasn’t there. It cost me $21 an hour to write the book. I think the fear of not being able to fulfill that goal just motored me through. I was like, “I better not mess this up.” 

I mean, this question I want to ask you is probably ridiculous, but where did you learn to write like this?

I started off as a photographer and surrounded myself with writers. I thought I just liked writers, but then it turns out I wanted to be one.

My sister was a writer. Every man I’ve ever had a long-term relationship with was a writer. I begin to wonder, “Why am I putting myself in a room with writers? Why?”

I loved language and I started off as a creative writing major in college, and I’ve always loved reading. I wasn’t sure if I could write and I gave up my career as a photographer to write my first book. I quit my tenure-track job. I stopped taking pictures to dedicate myself to learning what it means to craft a book, and it turns out I can write. I didn’t know that until I wrote this second book though.

Now I see there’s more in front of me if I get the time. The fear of no time to write right now is real. I’m up in the morning with kids and I don’t have any time to do any writing. That’s also part of the thing I talk about in the book, the transactional nature of marriage in terms of resources, who gets the time and who doesn’t, whose work is worthwhile and whose work isn’t. I think the book is also about that —

It is. You write, “I didn’t want to take a moment in my life when I was handed shame and doubt solely because I was a pregnant woman and make it about my husband.”

Exactly. It was a hard call, but I thought, “At the end of the day, I have to answer to this. I’m not putting him a position of power by having his story the more important story here.”

How did you decide on the structure? The book is divided into five sections. How did that evolve?

It was a collaborative experience with my editor. I mean I went away and wrote it and gave it to her. We started the conversation off in terms of structure. There is a prologue with a pivotal moment from my early childhood with my twin sister, when I am locked in an oven. Then the story begins with the narrator in the bathroom discovering she’s pregnant.

When you’re writing a book like this, you want to be able to say, “How do I draw a reader into a story about reproductive health care?” I thought, “Well the way to do that is to start at the moment of crisis and get them interested.”

With the prologue, we have a foreshadowing of choice. Your first “body choice,” you call it.

I wrote that for my first book, Her, and cut it. It stayed with me. It really is my first memory. I do remember knowing it was my left hand that was going to have to stay on the rack for the burn. The body choice is the moment you decide you’re going to endure the pain because there is nothing else you can do. It was obvious to me one of those hands was going to go.

Which hand to sacrifice?

Yeah, so I chose the left hand. It was never about Cara putting me in there (we were toddlers) or that my mom was a bad mom for falling asleep because she wasn’t. It was about endurance and my body.

Thats quite a formative moment. Loved and Wanted is a powerful example of weaving the personal and the political. Many are unaware of their lives as connected to the larger socioeconomic and political fabric. Its full of vivid prose and detail, which reminds me you are also a photographer. Did that have any bearing on your choice of scenes?

The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson talks about “the decisive moment.” I recommend reading him because I will do it no justice, but I can tell you it has to do with intuitive art-making and trusting your head and your heart are in line and not overthinking things, and then of course editing comes into play after that. I don’t understand why I do everything I do. I just trust it will be okay, and then I give it a real laser read and do it again and again.

The prologue and the last scene both feature my sister. In the last section, I write about a dream about her coming back. These thieves break into my house and she has Keats with her. Do you remember this part of the book?

Reading that hit me between the eyes. No spoilers, but wow.

Yeah, that dream stayed with me and I think we don’t pay enough attention to the reason things stay with us.

That’s a good point.

Yeah, and it’s not like you wanted to write a book and you’re like, “I’m going to write a book about how my sister died as a heroin addict,” because that’s a traumatic experience I have to write about. That experience is probably the least important experience. Does that make sense? You carry those stories with you, and it’s your job as a writer to make sense of why you carry them and use them.

As a photographer, I wanted to know how to nurture a viewer through the world I showed them, and within writing, if you don’t give somebody enough of a visual, then they don’t know where they are. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment is important to me for that reason. I’m wrong all the time, but yeah. After a certain point, you just have to trust those moments.

Theres a decisive moment we read about with Keats that knocked me off the couch onto the floor when I read it. You wrote, “It would come like a bolt, my son realizing he’s more important than me.”

Like discovering there’s no God or something. Yes.

Yeah. That is the difference between raising sons and daughters. How do you navigate that? I’ve experienced that with grandsons.

Have you?

Yes. There’s a shift that happens where they begin to see women through different eyes, through the eyes of toxic masculinity. Through the eyes of the patriarchy. Through the eyes of the way they’re conditioned in society.

Yeah, yeah. Exactly, and I often wonder, “What is that like for a mother, a grandmother, in your case, what does that feel like? Does it feel shameful? Does it feel terrifying? What does it feel like?” I don’t know. I’m not on that side.

It’s horrifying. So, me being me and you being you, you stand in the light. You stand in the light, and that grandson will eventually come to the other side, and to that awareness. Even if the world we live in doesnt reflect it. Why? Because you are his mother and because you are his grandmother.

Yeah, yeah. I mean, so many myths are founded on the idea male anger stems from the realization they cannot protect their mothers.

Interesting. Or is it that their mothers cannot protect them?

You know, I don’t think that myth is untrue necessarily. I can imagine that realization comes with a certain amount of rage, to know you’re not the great warrior you thought, that if you can’t protect your mother, who can you protect? No one. People ask me and have asked me for months now: “Well, what are you going to tell your son about having written this book about not wanting to have been pregnant at that moment?” That’s the main taboo that comes up against writing a story like this that people need to hear. It’s hard to shake because I worry for him too. When he figures out I wrote this book, I’m going to tell my son he’s Loved and Wanted.

Exactly. When a warrior comes to the end of his false omnipotence, then that’s the beginning of the authentic human being, of becoming human instead of a gender, a role, a caricature, all of those. You become aware, and then maybe the archetypes don’t just seize you and —

Well that would be the hope, right?

[Laughs.] Yeah, yeah. Another decisive moment is the scene where you are on the couch together and you tell your husband Tony, you’re pregnant again, it’s so poignant. Then you say, and this just went straight to my heart and my gut, you said, “I thought I might like to slap him.and I’m like, Yes.” Because it’s not happening to him. He’s not pregnant. As a reader, I immediately grasped why the narrator would want to slap him.

No, he’s not pregnant, and that’s part of the unspeakable nature of the book to admit to wanting to slap my spouse — and that’s such a natural human instinct in some ways.

So many questions came up for me about agency and choice as a woman, as well as the rage that would make me want to slap someone, especially the other half of the reproductive equation.

There are writers, like Katha Pollitt and Rebecca Traister, who’ve written about what it means politically to make these laws that make it hard for women to leave the house, about keeping women inside and out of power, how these laws perpetuate themselves. It’s hard, as it turns out, when you have a role to fulfill all the duties at home and/or you can’t afford childcare. It’s just not possible.

The story mostly takes place in a red state, West Virginia. Place is just so skillfully used. I felt like West Virginia was not just a place on the map, but a place so many women and children live, no matter where they are geographically. We learn about Cheat Lake, near Morgantown, one of the most endangered and polluted waterways in the nation. You talk about the long history of reviving and restoring it to be swimmable, and how the people of this place, “didn’t turn a blind eye; they revised funds, they fought bad laws. They didn’t give up.”

They didn’t, and you know, I’ve always loved West Virginia in a way, and it’s hard. It says in the book, to roughly paraphrase, when something awful happens to you in a place, you’re bound to it. It’s true for me with this place, and I’ve wanted very much to be able to let a reader see how complex the idea of love is. I can love and want to be in West Virginia and feel like it did me wrong, or I can love and want to be married to my husband and feel like he did me wrong. All these things are possible.

And you could not want to be pregnant and want your son. You weren’t an outsider. You got inside of the place through both being a child of a single mother raised in poverty, and, we learn toward the end of the book, your original ancestors came over from Sicily and ended up settling in West Virginia —

They did.

Which you didn’t even know.

I didn’t know that until I got there, which is what made it feel like, “Whoa, this is a haunted story.” I was raked over the coals for having written about West Virginia as an outsider in my essay from Guernica. That was a thing I got attacked for. I did not get attacked for writing about abortion.

Wow.

I got attacked for writing about Appalachia when I wasn’t from Appalachia. That was one of the things I was trying to work out for myself as I was writing this book, which is who has the right to tell me where I’m from, in this case? If you have a baby someplace and your son is from that place, and you live and teach in that place, and you’re underpaid in that place and you serve that place, can you not be from that place? I chose that place.

At the end of the book, you say you are writing the unspeakable, the taboo. And part of that includes class. Were not allowed to acknowledge class issues.

No, we’re not. Like so many other places, West Virginia has disadvantages, profound disadvantages. But I also write about the limitations of other parts of the country.

Your family was on your way to West Virginia, and your daughter Jo asks, “Where does the road end?” And Tony says, “Well it ends in New York City and that’s where it begins too.That seems meaningful. It’s so not just about West Virginia, which is like a microcosm of the larger landscape.

So much that is interesting is happening there if you think about the landscape of America. It could be any place. It just happens to be that place. There are all these things that are politically relevant about West Virginia for this entire country.

It all works together. Its an American story more than anything.

Yeah, it all works together. I handed this book in the day before the lockdown started. So, it really exists outside of the pandemic. It was never touched by the pandemic. Ever. In that way, it feels weird, especially because it’s about health care. As it turns out, it’s even more relevant because the questions I was asking myself in the book like, “Well what happens if you can’t afford daycare? What happens if there is no daycare?” things I hadn’t heard my friends talking about, are immediately relevant to everyone right now. We see how a society breaks down without childcare.

The smashing of delusions about privilege and class is happening on so many levels, which may speak to why we have such pushback and this insane divide of people who want to just believe there is no pandemic.

I know. To admit there is a pandemic would be to admit you are vulnerable and out of control, and that’s the hardest thing for people to admit.

Whats your greatest fear?

I don’t know. At this point, I’m like, “Whatever happens, happens.” I can keep it all together for as long as I can, but if I admitted right now after having written this book that I, in fact, can’t do everything, cannot hold several jobs and raise three children in a pandemic, I’m all right with that. I don’t know what happens to me in my life logistically, but I’m okay to admit it now in a way I was not okay before. I’m ready to let go.

The uncertainty has so much to teach us, doesn’t it?

It really does. I thought about all the ways in which I could earn a living outside of teaching right now. I’m like, “Maybe in two years, I could be that person who just works in tech writing.” I’m fine with that.

There’s a good feeling in this letting go and this unraveling, too. There’s some good in that.

There is because our ideas of what is possible can change.

Yeah, because we’re being forced to be creative. We’re being forced to come up with new ideas, different ways of living, and how beautiful is that?

You can embrace it, or you can just be terrified, and I’m both of those things. I’m afraid for Josephine in school, for example. I see this online learning and I think, “Oh my God. What is she not going to be able to learn?” I’m afraid. I don’t know what to expect. You have to cling to something, and I guess, back to where we started the conversation, I hope for better and I hope what I want matters.

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Kelly Thompson has been published in Guernica, The Rumpus, Brevity, VIDA Review, Yoga Journal, Fatal Flaw, Proximity, Manifest Station, and other literary journals. She is also curator and editor for the Voices on Addiction column at The Rumpus.

 

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