author – activist – faculty – mom
October 22-29th is “1 in 3 Week,” a public campaign to acknowledge the fact that in the US, 1 in 3 women will have an abortion in her lifetime. The goal of the campaign is to end silence and stigma about abortion. I had an abortion 22 years ago. I wrote about that decision in Mutha Magazine, and what it was like to become a mom in 2009, so many years after making the choice to terminate a pregnancy. I have also written about the representations of unplanned pregnancies and abortion in the media in a previous entry on this blog.
In 2000, I wrote a slam poem about having had an abortion. I have read it in large public performances, and smaller classroom settings. Many women tell me it has moved them to tears. It is the only piece I have been unwilling to publish or have videotaped. It’s not stigma that I’m afraid of, rather political violence. I had my abortion in the heyday of Operation Rescue, the right wing movement that shot doctors and firebombed clinics. The poem is unflinching, and I was simply afraid someone claiming to be pro-life would come and kill me. Given the real violence of the miliant right-wing, I have never been able to get a reality check as to whether I’m paramoid or just taking precautions.
I also began writing a novel in 1991 about young women of African heritage in college. One of them has an abortion. I “finished” it in 2005. For many complex reasons, having to do with the economy of the literary industry, I have not been able to publish it…yet. But I will.
In honor of 1 in 3 week, I am publishing an excerpt here, the scene in which the protagonist goes to Planned Parenthood and has an abortion. I’ll include a synopsis of the novel and then the scene. The formatting of the fiction is a little odd because of the limitations of the blog. At a craft level, I felt a bit hesitant to post this piece, given that the quality of my writing has evolved since I last worked on it in 2005, but I wanted to share my story as part of the campaign week.
While many of the details of the scene are firmly grounded in the fictional world of the novel, the heart of the scene is based on my experience: I had an unplanned pregnancy. I went to Planned Parenthood Boston to terminate it. Operation Rescue was picketing. I had two friends who came with me, and I spoke up in the waiting room.
The following are purely fiction: while clinic defense took place in many parts of the country, there were no counter-protests the day I had an abortion. Also, the protagonist clings to her boyfriend through the experience. This is not at all part of my experience. My boyfriend wasn’t there, in part because he lived in another city, but I don’t know that I would have wanted him there. For me, the whole experience–the abortion, facing the protesters, standing in my choice not to become a mother–felt like women’s business. I wanted my sisters with me).
The Voodoo Sorority: a novel
Synopsis: It’s Autumn 1988, and a new school year for African-American college junior Dalila Thomas, an alienated English major/photography minor at the fictional co-ed Caridad College, a former Spanish convent school in Southern California. Dalila faces pressure from her mother to abandon her dream of being an artist, and Dalila’s black and white photos clearly reveal that she’s several shades lighter than her mom and “dad.” At the urging of her newly sober boyfriend, Kwesi, Dalila becomes one of four students who joins a spiritual healing and support group for Black women called “the Sisterhood,” started by Maria Williams, an African-American psychology professor. Although Williams was unexpectedly denied tenure the previous year, she encouraged her two graduate student protégés to move ahead and open the group to undergraduates. Throughout the course of the book, Williams is traveling in Cuba on a fellowship.
During one of the first meetings of the Sisterhood, the women perform a ritual, which includes honoring their ancestors. An article in the school newspaper distorts the ritual, and dubs the group “the voodoo sorority.” The Sisterhood then comes under fire from fundamentalist Christians on campus, and is the target of an invasive media campaign. In spite of their decision not to take a public stand, The Sisterhood becomes the center of a public dialogue about religious diversity on campus and the relationship between race and religion.
As the year unfolds, Dalila’s private life begins to unravel. Her recovering alcoholic boyfriend relapses into drinking and drug use, as he melts down under the stress of his senior thesis. Dalila meets a strong backlash from her family when she moves toward majoring in the arts, buoyed by several successes in photography. The Sisterhood offers consolation but also urges Dalila to stand up to her family and to demand some answers about her paternity from her mother. Dalila must also come to terms with the consequences of her own self-sacrificing choices in her relationship with her boyfriend.
Dalila’s comrades on the journey include Layla, the cynical around-the-way-girl who loves economics, good sex, and her freedom; Ella, the emotionally burnt-out Puerto Rican lesbian activist determined to give up smoking, victimhood, and political codependency; and Kim, the pre-med in a Mae West body who likes white boys, and is plagued by panic attacks. The group is facilitated by two grad students, ‘Nett, the southern-born progressive Christian psychologist with the body of the Willendorf Venus, and Monifa, a lanky, butch lesbian from the Bronx, who has found Buddhism as an answer to her history of alcoholism and violence.
End-of-year tensions, both academic and personal, increase for all group members. An abrupt departure of one of the participants, a sexual abuse flashback, an unplanned pregnancy, and an episode of domestic violence all press against the limits of the group’s capacity, already strained by a year of media attacks and public scrutiny. The group’s inexperienced leaders struggle to manage their own reactions to escalating personal crises and antagonism between group members. In the climate of hostility on campus, the graduate student leaders are unable to rely on any faculty members for support; nor do they have access to their trusted mentor, Maria Williams. Their only contact with Maria consists of letters they receive periodically from the other side of the US embargo against Cuba.
This novel is group therapy at its best: insightful, annoying, tearful, hilarious, and always headed for a breakthrough.
The ride to the clinic was even more packed with Monifa in the car, but after adjusting to be as comfortable as possible, they were all quiet. Dalila held Kwesi’s hand tightly and looked out the window at low-slung houses in need of paint jobs, and sleepy Black and Latino folks going to and coming from work.
“Oh Jesus,” ‘Nett said suddenly.
“What?” Monifa asked. They all turned to look in the direction ‘Nett was facing.
Picketers, about fifty of them, with signs and pictures, milling around in front of Planned Parenthood.
Dalila turned and buried her face in Kwesi’s sweatshirt.
“Oh hell, no–” Kwesi began. Dalila could feel his pectoral muscle tighten under his clothes.
“I thought Operation Rescue had given up the campaign here,” Monifa sounded pissed, too.
“Me, too,” Ella murmured. “We been outta the activist loop for a minute.”
“Wait,” Monifa pointed. “That’s Nyeka.”
“And Mei-Ling,” Ella added. “Half—more than half—of those folks are women protecting the clinic, and helping to get folks in safely.”
Dalila only felt a little relief; her body stayed tense as she watched.
“Yeah,” ‘Nett U-turned at the corner and drove past again in the other direction. “The same thing happened in Atlanta. “Looks like there are only five or ten protesters. They just each have signs, and are making a lot of noise.”
From the other end of the street, a young white couple approached. Meanwhile, an older white woman and a young woman who might have been her daughter were braving the line. The protesters turned to them, yelling. Dalila couldn’t make out the words, just angry noise, and harsh faces.
“Oh God,” Dalila said, and huddled into Kwesi’s lap. He held her tighter.
“Swing around and pull up right now,” Monifa commanded ‘Nett.
“Right here?” ‘Nett asked.
“Yes,” Monifa barked. “Dalila, get ready. Everybody jump out and run in while they’re distracted. ‘Nett, you go park the car, and I’ll meet you out front.”
‘Nett made an illegal U-turn right in the middle of the street, and pulled up in front suddenly.
“Get out and close in around Dalila,” Monifa ordered. “We’ll move in as a unit.”
Everyone but ‘Nett jumped out, and Monifa went first. Kwesi pressed in behind Dalila, and Kim and Ella flanked Dalila’s sides. Dalila felt well-armored, but still shook, in spite of Kwesi’s arms holding her shoulders.
“Abortion is murder!” one man yelled. Between Kwesi’s arm, and Kim’s back, Dalila could see a sign with a bloody fetus on it.
“Don’t look,” Kwesi whispered from behind her.
“God will never forgive you for killing your baby!” a young Latina woman screamed.
“Abomination!” another man yelled at the white couple walking in. The young man of the couple was a head taller than the woman, and had her in a bear hug protecting her.
‘Nett was right. There were only about seven protesters, walking briskly back and forth between the patients coming in and the clinic defenders. The protesters were mostly older, thirties to fifties, and the men seemed to be in charge. Technically, they weren’t blocking the entrance. Technically, they were just protesting. But the posters, the verbal assaults, the threats of God’s wrath created a palpable barrier. Plus, they walked so briskly back and forth that patients ran the risk of being bumped or run down by them.
Going into the clinic was like trying to jump in during a game of double dutch jump rope. Yes, it was possible, but there was only a tiny sliver of opportunity. Most of the time, you got your face slapped by the rope.
In contrast, the defenders were all women, various ages and races, mostly young, mostly in jeans and T-shirts. They had their arms linked, and stood, shoulder to shoulder.
The women had successfully gotten the mother and daughter past the protesters and beyond the line of defenders. Over Monifa’s shoulder, and above their heads, Dalila could see the top of the clinic door as it opened and closed, and the two pairs of feet disappeared up a flight of stairs.
Two women in the line parted to let the young white couple through, as one of the protesters came and loitered in front of Dalila’s crew. Dalila was startled at how normal she looked. Like a cashier in some supermarket, not a crazy protester.
“Abortion is murder,” she yelled at Monifa.
“Bitch,” Monifa yelled back. “If you don’t get out of my face right now, I swear—”
“Keep circulating, Mindy,” one of the male protesters instructed.
Mindy kept circulating, and the Sisterhood plus one stepped up to the row of clinic defenders. Dalila could see the top of the door open and close, as the young white couple walked in. Two sets of sneakers, one big, one small, ran up the steps.
“Be prepared to show your appointment slip,” a young white woman with a “PRO-CHOICE” T-shirt said to Monifa. An Asian woman with a buzz cut, and a white woman with a “Take Back the Night” T-shirt un-linked their arms right in front of Dalila’s crew, and the line of women swallowed them up past the protesters.
“I’m right here, baby,” Kwesi said gently into her ear.
“Your appointment slip, please?” Dalila fished it out of the pocket of her acid wash jeans and handed it to the middle-aged woman at the door. Two more women stood behind her. The pane of glass in the door had a hole in it and a web of cracks that had been taped up with duct tape.
The woman checked Dalila against a list on a clipboard. “All these people are with you?” she asked.
“Good to have a lot of support,” she smiled grimly. “Sorry these folks don’t respect your right to privacy.”
“There’s one more woman coming,” Monifa explained. “She’s parking the car. Can I wait out here for her?”
“I’ve done clinic defense before,” Monifa added. “Nyeka knows me.”
“Okay,” the woman conceded. “The rest of you go in.” The two women stepped aside and let Dalila’s crew pass.
Dalila moved through the the sliding glass door with Kwesi, Kim and Ella still close around Dalila.
As Dalila turned to go up the stairs, she could see over Ella’s head. Monifa had linked arms with the women in line. The door slid closed behind them.
Through the glass, they could hear the protesters start to sing: “Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world.”
Kwesi wrapped his arms around her. Dalila could feel his heart beating hard.
“I love you,” he whispered in her ear. She nodded, and the crew ascended the stairs and stopping at the top landing to watch for ‘Nett and Monifa.
“God will never forgive you for killing your baby!” Dalila heard a shrill voice say.
“Isn’t that our girl Mindy?” Kim asked.
“Doesn’t that woman get tired of screaming, hour after hour?” Ella asked.
“Well, my child,” Kim said to her, “The Lord has given us all different gifts. He blessed His daughter Mindy with a mouth like a police siren.”
“Abomination!” she shrieked at that very moment. And they all laughed, releasing some of the tension.
A moment later, Monifa came up to the top of the stairs with ‘Nett, who was slightly flushed and clearly pissed.
As they all walked into the waiting room together, Dalila wondered if this was really the same waiting room she had been to, less than two weeks before. It was still white walled, low ceilinged and carpeted in forest green. It still had the same cheery skylights and upbeat multicultural photos of women on the walls. But the screaming outside and the anxiety inside had transformed the room. What had been a benign medical building now had become a target, a citadel, a fortress.
A couple of the girls in the clinic looked young enough to be freshmen in high school. The blonde girl with her mom from outside, and a pair of young white women. The pair of girls had the same wide brown eyes and square build. Sisters? The older one looked maybe sixteen. Who was there to support who?
Dalila checked in at the window, while her crew found seats on a pair of green vinyl couches. Dalila came back and lay down with her head in Kwesi’s lap and Monifa and Ella pulled up a couple of chairs. Dalila wrapped her upper body in her Winnie the Pooh blanket, rubbing her cheek against the soft cotton.
So many steps. People to talk to; papers to sign; blood pressure, explanations, decisions, consent. No general anesthesia; first trimester; final decision; payment in cash.
Dalila unrolled the fifteen twenty-dollar bills Kwesi had given her. “If I can’t go through the pain for you,” he had said, “at least I can handle it financially.”
The woman working at the desk on the other side of the sliding window was twenty-something and Latina. Dalila wondered if the glass was bullet-proof. The woman counted out her money and gave Dalila a receipt.
“They’ll call you shortly.”
Dalila turned from the window and then turned back. “Can my boyfriend come with me?” she asked suddenly.
“Sorry,” she apologized, “we don’t allow men back there. It’s a very small space and all the ladies are in hospital gowns. Most ladies want a little more privacy.”
Dalila nodded: “Fair enough.”
She went back and sat on the bench.
“They said no,” she told Kwesi, wrapping her torso back up in the blanket.
He just nodded and kept stroking her face gently.
“Mara Collins,” the nurse called.
Dalila almost didn’t recognize her alias. She scrambled up and said “here.”
Kwesi jumped up and kissed her on the forehead. She felt her heart pound. All the sisters hugged her and told her it was gonna be okay. Dalila nodded shakily, and grabbed her blanket.
The nurse who called her in was a thick-bodied young Asian woman. “Good to have friends, huh?” she smiled.
“A life saver,” Dalila agreed.
They went back through the locked door and she showed Dalila to a dressing room with a gown, a mesh bag, and some socks. The gown and sock were to put on, and the bag was for all her stuff. She told Dalila to take everything off.
“Can I take my blanket in?” she asked.
The woman shrugged: “I don’t see why not. If the nurse inside has no objections.”
When she left, Dalila changed and stepped out of the dressing room. The socks had rubber treads on the bottom that created unexpected traction on the linoleum floor. She came out and the nurse showed Dalila to the inner waiting room.
“Have a seat. We’ll call you.”
The inner waiting room was like some kind of bizarre mall beauty shop. All of the women in these pastel print gowns with their butts barely tied in, and rubber bottomed socks, reading all these fluff women’s magazines.
What are these women looking at? Cosmo, Vogue, Seventeen. Fifteen minute makeovers and new summer styles? We’re having abortions here, for God’s sake, not sitting under the hair dryer.
Dalila looked for a magazine she could relate to. Halfway down a large pile, was an old copy of Essence. She flipped through, but she couldn’t concentrate, looking up every couple of minutes to see if the nurse was there to call her.
Suddenly, Dalila just dropped the magazine into her lap and said out loud, “God, I’ll be glad when this is over. I’ve been so sick.”
Snap. Snap. Snap. Magazines closed and dropped all over the room.
“I haven’t been sick,” a chunky Latina girl in her late teens said. “I’ve been eating everything.”
“Not me,” groaned a mid-twenties, petite white woman. “I’ve been throwing up so much I’ve been losing weight.”
“I got two kids,” another woman said. “I wasn’t sick with either of them, but boy am I sick now.”
“I gained fifteen pounds,” the Latina teen said.
The door opened and they all froze.
“Holly Townsend,” the nurse called.
The petite white woman who’d been losing weight stood up. Dalila wondered if that was her real name.
“Good luck,” called the woman with kids.
Everyone wished her well, and she disappeared behind the door.
They all kept talking. Foods they craved, foods they craved then didn’t want. Smells. How they could make them ravenous or sick. They wished each other good luck as they were called.
The magazines had all retreated to the pile in the middle of the table as the women faced each other. This condition, that they all had been going through. Friends could sympathize, could even disclose that they had been there, in the past. But these women were there now. Were all there together. Some part of Dalila really relaxed for the first time since she had started throwing up. You didn’t have to explain anything. You weren’t alone.
“Mara Collins,” the nurse called.
Dalila picked up her mesh bag and her blanket, accepted the well-wishes, and stepped into yet another corridor. This nurse was older than the women in front, and had a RN nametag on her nurse’s uniform. Her curly brown hair was peppered with gray and pulled back into a ponytail. Dalila watched it bounce as she followed the woman down the hall.
“Can I take my blanket in with me?” Dalila asked anxiously.
“That should be fine,” she said as Dalila followed her into the room. A balding, man stood with his back to her. Nervousness made Dalila’s mind record everything in fragments.
Have a seat on the—
This is Doctor—
place your feet in the stirrups and—
the machine right here will—
numbing your cervix so that—
need to be dilated in order to—
Sights separate from sounds. The middle-aged white doctor with his clinical look of concentration, gray eyes, and long blonde eyebrows. The nurse, her face kind. Both of them white, but she was tan where he was pale, her eyes hazel, slight smile, brows knit a little in concern. Dalila kept her eyes locked on the nurse.
Cool table under her butt, the crinkle of paper on the table, pinch of the needle in her cervix.
The machine hums louder. It is a tiny vacuum to pull the life out of her uterus.
Inhale. It all comes together. Sight, sound, feeling, sensation.
Exhale. Dalila sees the nurse’s concerned face, feels the soft cotton of her baby blanket against her neck and cheek
Inhale. “All right,” the doctor reaches for something on the small, steel instrument table. “I’m beginning the procedure now.”
Exhale. Dalila closes her eyes.
God, please protect me. Please protect us both.
Dalila reaches for the nurse’s hand and squeezes.
Inhale. Dalila doesn’t feel pain, just a tug, a pull, a connection broken.
Exhale. The machine hums. Her eyes are still closed.
Inhale. “You did great,” the nurse congratulates her.
Dalila opens her eyes and the nurse’s face is still compassion.
It’s over? Dalila can’t speak, only nod slightly to acknowledge her.
“Maybe everyone should bring a blanket,” the nurse smiles.
The doctor is busy doing something and doesn’t speak.
And then the nurse sends her off to the recovery room.
The room was white. White walls, white floor. white acoustic tile ceiling with dim lights. Nurses in white uniforms wheeled women in and out. The patients wore white gowns with pale prints and trim, faded from so many washings. The patients sat in reclining chairs on white paper.
Some women were asleep. Dalila didn’t envy them. She’d hate to have to wake up to this. Dalila couldn’t quite take in the enormity of what had just happened, even having been awake.
They gave her something to drink; she drank it. They gave her antibiotics to take; she took one. They told her, this is a precaution while your cervix was still dilated. You don’t want to get an infection in your uterus. She agreed; she didn’t want an infection. They took her blood, monitored her. She seemed to be okay.
Her mind was still a little fuzzy, disoriented.. She forgot to pray. She even forgot to breathe, but her body remembered for her.
Dalila was released, antibiotics and instructions in hand. Dalila dressed in a fog and stepped out into the waiting room.
She saw Kim, ‘Nett and Ella on the far side of the waiting room, reading and doing homework on the two couches. A little to the side, she saw Kwesi and Monifa huddled up. His face tight, drawn. Monifa’s had an arm around him and was talking softly.
Ella looked up and saw Dalila, although they were still out of earshot. Dalila saw them all sit up, put books aside. They approached her as a group; she felt a little overwhelmed.
“I’m okay,” Dalila responded to Kwesi’s anxious face. He seemed relieved.
“I’ll go with Kim to get the car,” ‘Nett picks up her keys.
“What about the protesters?” Dalila asked.
“They wound down about an hour ago,” Kim sucked her teeth.
“I started a support group in there,” Dalila blurted. Monifa smiled at her, and Dalila told them the story of the waiting room.
“Those women were lucky to have you in there,” Ella rubs Dalila’s back.
“I’m lucky to have you all,” Dalila says.
And then Kim came up to say ‘Nett was out front. They all piled into the car and offered Dalila the front seat. But she sat in back, holding Kwesi’s hand, all the way home.
copyright 2005 by Aya de Leon