Abortion in popular literature: questions and reflections.
--Evelyn Cordon, The Park [in Telling (stories), Blackstaff, 2000]
SCANNING THE SHELVES OF favorite bookstores, the eye is inevitably drawn to the bestsellers, novelists such as Richard North Patterson, Stanley Pottinger, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Crichton and John Irving. Sure, they're all white males and this selection is limited and subjective, but these are popular writers with more than a passing interest in contemporary social issues, including the vexed question of abortion.
This opening from Pottinger's The Fourth Procedure (1995) can hardly leave us in any doubt where our author is taking us:
"Maizie wanted to cut a new deal with God, but so many things were happening between her legs she found it impossible to concentrate. She propped herself up on her elbows and looked down."
What follows is a seven-page description of a back-alley abortion. (Yes, Maizie dies.) Only the truly heart-hardened could make it through this prologue without compassion for women driven to such an end. Pottinger doesn't flinch. This is, after all, "a novel of medical procedure."
Also from the operating table--and admired by no less an authority than Stephen King--A Case of Need (1968) is Michael Crichton's Edgar Award-winning first novel. Originally published under a nom de plume shortly after Crichton completed his medical internship, this thriller follows questions raised when a woman bleeds to death following complications, and abortion is one of its themes.
"You have to really, really, really want to do it," says novelist Kate Kennedy, whose critically welcomed debut novel End Over End (2000) is described by her publishers as revealing "a world of teen pregnancies, drugs, shrugged-off rape, suicide attempts and careless violence." "For me, it's a yearning to be immersed inside a novel. It's a commitment," she says.
For other writers, the commitment may spring from ideology. Stanley Pottinger's involvement in civil rights, for example, has been a hallmark of his career (he has served as a director of the Education & Welfare Department's Office of Civil Rights and an assistant attorney general, Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department); Richard North Patterson is a reproductive rights activist.
"I'm trying to find subjects that haven't been trod a whole lot," says Pottinger. "When I wrote The Fourth Procedure, I hadn't seen a book where the conflict over abortion was the backdrop issue. The book isn't about abortion per se, but the pros and cons of the issue shape the characters' behavior."
No Safe Place (1998) finds the North Patterson hero, a presidential candidate, up to his teeth in abortion politics while being stalked by an antichoice fanatic. This novel has been favorably reviewed by luminaries from the worlds of both law (Alan Dershowitz) and politics (Senators Edward Kennedy and Barbara Boxer). In the follow-up Protect and Defend (2000), Kerry Kilcannon, now president of the United States, tangles again with abortion in a drama centered on a judicial appointment to the Supreme Court.
Jonathan Franzen, author of the catastrophe novel Strong Motion (1992), told Donald Antrim: "I continue to be interested in the dramatic intersection of personal, domestic stories with larger social stories." (Bomb magazine, Fall, 2000 Christian fundamentalists and militant antichoice activists haunt the mean streets of this ambitious thriller.
"Writers write about what worries them," claims Canadian author Margaret Atwood, who describes her dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale (1986), as "a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper." "It invents nothing we haven't already invented or started to invent," she explains. "it contains 110 intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians."
Set in the world of the "near future," where fertility has declined precipitately, The Handmaid's Tale posits a society in which women are rigidly segregated according to reproductive capability. The eponymous Handmaids, prized only for their "viable ovaries," serve as breeders to the elite, ritualistically impregnated by them. Childless (and sexless) Wives, surrogate mothers who adopt the resulting children, as well as housekeeping Marthas, share the Handmaids' lack of personal and social rights. The author's fierce indignation is a hallmark of this successful novel, filmed in 1990 with a stellar cast and a screenplay by British playwright Harold Pinter.
The central characters in John Irving's The Cider House Rules (1985) are doctors who perform abortions. Irving's intent, however, was not to write "an abortion novel." "I never was writing an abortion novel or an abortion screenplay in the context of the present day conflict or the present day hysteria," Irving has said in interview. "My reason for looking at this subject was to say 'Let's go back there before Roe v. Wade.' We go to a time where this procedure is largely unsafe and largely unavailable and then everything in the story happens because of that."
What is the value of these literary representations of the abortion issue? Do they deepen our understanding, provide a human dimension lacking in the polemical debate? Is the crowd-pleasing thriller, however well plotted and written, an appropriate agora for abortion? Are these questions for the critic or the politician?
Pottinger's prologue from The Fourth Procedure may be a more effective warning against the back alleys than conventional, overtly political, prose. Or, as John Irving says, "Instead of having the argument that exists today, let's have a different argument: 'Do you really want to go back there?'" Does North Patterson's picture of a self-styled "pro-life" assassin (in No Safe Place, 1998) deepen our understanding of the internal thinking and motivation of this contemporary menace:
"If Sean acted, he would have to leave all he knew behind: the comfort of the church where he served as caretaker; the room above the parish offices, his home for three years now; the compassion of Father Brian Shaw, who praised his work and worried, in his soft-voiced way, about Sean's 'intensity.' In the newspapers and on television, in the streets and the bars of Charlestown, they would call Sean murderer. Let God be his judge, then. God and the children."
Although she has yet to write about abortion, Kate Kennedy views the subject as "wonderful, rich material." Abortion is "wonderful ground for a writer because it's so private, personal, complicated with ramifications for the individual and society."
Novelist Evelyn Conlon speaks of her life as a writer as being "tied up with my life as a citizen." Widely known in her native Ireland as an outspoken feminist and reproductive rights activist, Conlon admits to some exasperation with colleagues who are non-political. (Conlon did participate in the incident she describes in The Park. "The statute of limitations is up on that one!" she hopes.)
Nonetheless, Conlon sees literature and politics as separate. "Writing is about internal truth," she believes. In her writing life, Conlon has made few references to abortion. "I do refer to women going on the journey to London in a short story called A Little Remote (1993). [Abortion is illegal in Ireland.] It's about a woman who's on the boat with all the silent women she presumes are going to have an abortion:
"Lucy bought a ticket for the Pullman lounge and sat with the people who bad big jobs and big cars, away from the emigrants and their conversations. She's had those on every other journey over. Emigrants always talked, blabbered in fact, terrified that they were making a mistake. Women who didn't talk and looked ahead of themselves were not emigrants. There were always a few of them on the boat, homing themselves together."
"In the 1980s, I used to go to London quite a bit," Conlon explains. "I was always very conscious of doing that journey; of the terribleness of being seen if you were going for an abortion, of needing to keep it secret. Of how women had to have an excuse ready." In part explaining the oblique nature of her writing, Conlon says: "We're so used in Ireland to keeping abortion secret."
That thrillers have always relied on a "ripped from the headlines" immediacy will ensure that abortion forms at least "a backdrop" (Pottinger) for many stories to come. For the moment, at least, novels appear to have more thematic latitude than, say, broadcast television.
Those of us who still voluntarily read books (in Gore Vidal's challenging phrase) might welcome a depiction of abortion beyond the simply elliptical (Conlon), or the timely "backdrop" (Porringer et al), or disturbing "speculative fiction" (Atwood). Where are the bestselling stories of women for whom abortion is a straightforward experience, where service providers are just compassionate professionals? Has the abortion issue been so successfully hijacked that even feminist writers back off?.
Of course, society's response to abortion, and much of the surrounding polemic, usually frames the private experience as (at best) problematic. In the absence of substantial first-person testimony to the contrary, why should we expect that our popular novelists--even those writers personally responsive to women's reproductive rights--might present abortion differently? And would the reading public any longer really believe in a character for whom abortion is a procedure not inevitably burdened by political trauma or personal regret?
To borrow from Evelyn Conlon, it's not just in Ireland that we're used to keeping abortion secret.
Irish reproductive rights activist RUTH RIDDICK is a writer and poet. Among other collections, her work appears in the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Vol. 5 (New York University, 2002).
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2003|
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