Thursday, October 15, 2009

Impossible Motherhood

A couple days ago I read an article in the LA Times about a book called Impossible Motherhood by Irene Vilar. The title of the article was: Memoir of a former abortion addict. The by-line: In 'Impossible Motherhood,' Irene Vilar, now a mother of two, writes of what led her to have 15 pregnancies ended.

Vilar writes of her fifteen abortions.

I was sort of stunned when I read the title because as an adamant pro-choicer and a feminist (are we comfortable with this word yet? I am) I still felt squeamish and light-headed by this notion.

Before reading the article, I tried to imagine what would lead Vilar to this level of self-abuse. Standard and societal judgments leapt to mind. It's easy to dismiss someone as careless, ignorant, which I could not keep myself from initially feeling. When I stopped myself from this sort of judgment, I considered that we fight for rights period, right? We don't fight for rights to then judge the extent by which they are exercised.

Then I read the article. The complexities of Vilar are so entangled that simple judgments of her are trite, insignificant. I have not stopped thinking about her. One publisher -- one of the 51 who had first rejected the book -- said that the memoir was too painful to publish. The reason the book finally did get published was because it is intelligently written even if her story hangs in the balance of an undeniably complicated issue.

Vilar's abortions were a protest of sort; self-abuse as revolt. That is my interpretation, and this thought hurts me. Much of Vilar's revolt seems subconscious, a sickness that she was unable to stop for a long time. She explains it like another other addiction. When I learned more of the complexity of her rebelliousness against her ex-husband (she was 16 and he 50 when they met; he insisted they have no children) and even more compelling, her familial and cultural history, Vilar's story became a multi-generational, gender-encompassing tragic flood.

Vilar grandmother was Lolita Lebron, the Puerto Rican nationalist who moved to NY in the 1950's - leaving behind her family -- and then shot up the U.S. House of Representatives, wounding five congressmen. She was convicted of trying to overthrow the US government and served 25 years in prison. Lebron left behind Vilar's mother in PR, an infant at the time of the shooting. Vilar's mother eventually killed herself by jumping from a moving car while 8 year old Vilar tried to hold her back. Several factors contributed to Vilar's mother's severe depression: Being abandoned by Lebron, her cheating husband, and a coerced, unneeded hysterectomy at age 33.

Here's a passage from the article:

"Puerto Rico, at the time, was a living laboratory for American-sponsored birth control research. In 1956, the first birth control pills -- 20 times stronger than they are today -- were tested on mostly poor Puerto Rican women, who suffered dramatic side effects. Starting in the 1930s, the American government's fear of overpopulation and poverty on the island led to a program of coerced sterilization. After Vilar's mother gave birth to one of her brothers, she writes, doctors threatened to withhold care unless she consented to a tubal ligation.

These feelings of powerlessness -- born of a colonial past, acted out on a grand scale or an intimate one -- are the ties that bind the women of Vilar's family.

'If there is something that is intersecting across generations -- my grandmother, my mother and me -- it's the issue of control," said Vilar. "I chose a very private drama to show my problem of control, my mother chose a personal one, not as intimate as mine, and with my grandmother, it was the ultimate political control.'"

I'm so heavy-hearted about the depth of this story especially as the book starts to kick up a duststorm for the Pro-Life movement. They use Vilar's story as an argument for them, an example of how we women cannot control ourselves. Women must need governmental parenting. The push for their own agenda demeans any significance in relation to our historical damage. This is not to say Vilar has nonchalantly experienced her abortions. Many were followed by suicide attempts. If she is brutally honest about her experiences, she is also very humbled by the feminist movement which kept abortions safe and legal in the US. She is alive because of the movement, she says, because she would have aborted anyway, by any means. Her addiction and struggle with self-determination and control may have been a painful revolt, but they were still exclusive from the positive gains that the feminist movement championed. Vilar's revolt was strictly personal, yet it still makes me think of our long history of oppression. I feel it so deeply with her story.

Anyway, I wanted to tell you about the book because I think it will be kept pretty low key, except by Pro Life advocates, which is unfortunate. Pro Choicers seem to be fairly mute on Vilar's story, but I could imagine that the basic battle to keep abortion laws in place is difficult enough without having to debate Vilar's situation.

Here's the LA Times article here if you want to read a bit more.


Maven said...

Okay, since we emailed about this I've done a little research.

I asked for some coverage at

Neither of the posts I'm linking are by people who actually *read the book.* I'm still waiting for that.

jagosaurus said...

This is astounding to me for a lot of the same reasons it is astounding to you but I am so not in the mood to read too much coverage on it.

Still, here I go.

madness rivera said...

Careful Jag! It's dicey out there . . .

nola said...

Wow - thanks for sharing. I'll have to read the book!

I'm definitely a pro-choice feminist, but when it comes to actual abortions I tend to want to avert my eyes. I feel very fortunate I've never been in the situation to make that choice - but I realize there is a smugness and almost superiority to that attitude. It makes me almost an anti-abortionist who doesn't trust the government - and that's not who I want to be.

I think my feelings are tainted by time living in the USSR - women in the Eastern Bloc were pretty much forced into abortions, and I resent that as well - because I'm really pro-choice, not pro-abortion - and DEFINITELY not pro-forced sterilization like in PR and other places!!

Anonymous said...

I am amazed at how many versions of misery have been invented on this planet. Pro choice or pro life is moot in my heart, it is really a story of extraordinary suffering.

Melinda said...

Just read part of the article, but can't bring myself to root around into any of the other coverage. Like you said -- I fear it's dicey out there.

Just the thought, that were it not for our [tenuous] grasp on safe and legal abortion, this woman would be dead, period... i mean, my god.

This one is going to stick with me.

3pieceonline said...

I am also a pro-choice feminist and I thank you for the post but will wait until my resolve is such that I can bear to absorb this into my consciousness.


nec said...

The history of this country continues to shock me... I never knew that about PR being used as a test ground... How awful.

Most people who say they are Pro-life aren't - they are just anti-abortion.

My heart is saddened by this poor woman's suffering... I just don't have the courage to dwell too far into her story right now.

Madame One Tree said...

I am still trying to wrap my mind around that number and all that goes with it. I would not have an abortion as a personal choice but I believe strongly in and support a womans' right to choose. I can not bring myself to comment in depth not fully understanding everything about this woman.
I just wanted to comment on the testing grounds of PR. I was astounded/horrified when I found out about this through Rosie Perez's docu-movie. Yo Soy Boricua, Pa' Que Tu Lo Sepas. Women having to hide their children to avoid "counts", having government workers showing up at their doors to take them to sterilization clinics against their wills, the methodical poisoning of the earth and water by "experiments". The birth defects... Just so much that I was unaware of, even up to the abject mistreatment of the people who left their land in search of promise in the concrete trails of NY and other larger cities. I am amazed at the survival stories that I have heard. Thank you for sharing this and i will do more reasearch.

madness rivera said...

This is still difficult to wrap my mind around too, but I think of all the men who have impregnated women and who can slip under a radar. Like Vilar's exhusband. You can't tell me he isn't almost as entangled in the sickness as she was. He contributed to this and then gets to slip away as she is examined and threatened; she's now the source of limbo hate - contempt from the pro lifers, being ignored by the pro choicers, and then the rest of us who are too stunned to know what to do or say.

Yes Madame - all of that is so jaw dropping and hurtful. It's astounding to me that the bombing experiments of Vieques (the lil island off the eastside of the island) were only banned in 2003 leaving behind high rates of cancer and high levels of toxins in the fish and soil, though the US Navy denies all of this.

Maven said...

PS: I got a message back from RH Reality Check and they say a review is coming soon.

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