Monica, Allison and I will be interviewing the author of Impossible Motherhood, Irene Vilar, as part of our Womanist Musings BlogTalk Radio Podcast on Sunday, November 29th at 8 pm EST.
Impossible Motherhood is a new memoir by Irene Vilar, editor of The Americas series at Texas Tech University Press and a writer who uses the history of her life and the lives of her mother and maternal grandmother to highlight critical relationships between colonialism, sexism, reproductive rights, and motherhood. But this will not be the headline that captures the interest of the public. Vilar’s fifteen abortions in fifteen years, on the other hand, seems to be causing quite a stir of attention.
In many ways, this is a memoir about misery. Throughout the book, Vilar critiques the idea that her success on paper — early graduation from high school and a move from Puerto Rico to the U.S. at the age of fifteen, marriage to a Syracuse University professor, book publishing – has not kept her from suffering with severe issues of depression, abuse, self-mutilation, and addiction. Her marriage to a highly regarded, intellectual writer several decades her senior, who defines “independence” by keeping her forever at an emotional distance from him and insisting that the couple cannot have children together, triggers a downward spiral which culminated in twelve abortions in an eleven year relationship, followed by three others with another partner after the dissolution of her marriage. However, with intense therapy and a happy second marriage, Vilar overcomes her painful ambivalence toward biological motherhood and gives birth to two daughters.
The seemingly happy ending of Vilar’s tale of thwarted motherhood will still raise ethical and moral red flags in readers, causing us to squirm uncomfortably as we embark on the author’s lifelong journey of recovery. Vilar does not go for pat answers or self-satisfied conclusions about her decision to repeatedly abort unwanted pregnancies rather than utilize birth control (which was available during her time in the U.S.). Instead, this a complex, emotional account of one woman’s emergence from cycles of oppression into an acceptance of her unique identity and experiences.
Vilar’s unhappy childhood – a distant philandering father and a mother who committed suicide when Vilar was only eight years old – contributes to her feelings of abandonment and a need to please authority figures, if only to ensure her survival. Vilar is not claiming to be a representative for pro-choice or pro-life arguments, though she does offer this disclaimer in the prologue:
“This testimony… does not grapple with the political issues revolving around abortion, nor does it have anything to do with illegal, unsafe abortion, a historical and important concern for generations of women. Instead, my story is an exploration of family trauma, self-inflicted wounds, compulsive patterns, and the moral clarity and moral confusion guiding my choice. This story won’t fit neatly into the bumper sticker slogan ‘my body, my choice.’ In order to protect reproductive freedom, many of us pro-choice women usually choose to not talk publicly about experiences such as mine because we might compromise our right to choose. In opening up the conversation on abortion to the existential experience that it can represent to many, for the sake of greater honesty and a richer language of choice, we run risks.”
Reproductive justice movements, particularly in the U.S. and its territories, often have a tumultuous history with communities of color. But many readers will likely approach the book with little, if any, background knowledge of reproductive justice movements in Puerto Rico. So how did colonialist policies and a U.S.-driven abortion counselling, abortion services, and abortion outreach contribute to these decisions? In an interview with The L.A. Times, Robin Abcarian observes that:
“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.“
How did the pro-choice movement fail to help a survivor of abuse like Vilar? Is there a theoretical and activist disconnect between three major intersections — martial strife/violence, psychological trauma, and reproductive justice? Pro-choice communities would do well to examine books like these and form outreach for women who have experienced multiple abortions. Vilar understands the stigma which confronts women who have had multiple abortions and does not shame these women, but tries to provide a lens of her own experiences with repeat abortions as a way to personalize this sensitive issue. In a 2006 Salon.com Broadsheet post, Page Rockwell notes that:
Liberal message-makers would probably have an easier time if repeat abortions were rare, but the truth is, they’re not: According to a report (PDF) released last week by the Guttmacher Institute, which we found thanks to a flare from the Kaiser Foundation, about half of the women who terminated pregnancies in 2002 had previously had at least one abortion. (The report notes that because many women do not accurately report their abortion experiences, these findings are “exploratory.”) Rates of repeat abortion have been on the rise since Roe v. Wade, and ignoring that fact isn’t doing women who need multiple procedures any favors.
In the anthology Making Face, Making Soul, Gloria Anzaldúa wrote that, “[W]omen of color strip off the mascaras [masks] others have imposed on us, see through the disguises we hide behind and drop our personas so that we may become subjects in our own discourses. We rip out the stitches, expose the multi-layered ‘inner faces,’ attempting to confront and oust the internalized oppression embedded in them, and remake anew both inner and outer faces…. We begin to acquire the agency of making our own caras [faces].” This is one of those books that rips out the metaphoric stitches and exposes Vilar’s process of mutilation and healing, addiction and recovery, for readers to examine. This is not an easy or light book; it will trigger and it will probe and it will leave readers feeling as if they’ve been punched in the stomach, repeatedly. But it also has the power to transform and expose previously hidden oppressions.
The outer face of Vilar is a brave one and so is the inner face. Impossible Motherhood is a book for any pro-choice believer who wants a deeper understanding of the complex issues surrounding reproductive rights in the U.S. and its territories in the twentieth century. This is also a book for people who believe in the power of personal redemption. It will leave readers aching, hopeful, and perhaps a little more empathetic to Vilar’s life.