author – activist – faculty – mom
People who have known me for any period of time know that I’ve been working on one novel or another for my entire adult life. Always. Since the late 1980s. And they might wonder why a motivated, get-it-done kind of woman like me would be pushing three decades without having closed the deal. There are many reasons, but in light of this week’s Supreme Court decision, I would like to focus on one in particular: the fear of reprisals for depicting a story of abortion.
On Thursday, a unanimous Supreme Court struck down the law in Massachusetts, which forced anti-abortion protesters to stand a significant distance away from clinics. These sorts of laws were developed after the 80s and 90s saw many incidents of murder and other violence toward doctors, health workers, and patients. The new anti-abortion tactic is “street counseling.” The legal issue is framed as one of free speech, and the right of the protesters to access their target audience: women going in to have abortions. The face of the case was a gentle elderly woman, Eleanor McCullen. “You’ve got to hand it to the anti-choice movement,” Jessica Mason Pieklo wrote on the blog RH Reality Check. “When they picked Eleanor McCullen to be the face of their First Amendment attack on abortion clinic access, they knew exactly what they were doing. The trope of anti-choice protesters as ‘plump grandmas’ helped the media and the U.S. Supreme Court not just gloss over the very real threats of violence that abortion providers and patients face, but also erase providers and patients from the Supreme Court’s analysis almost entirely.”
I had gone with friends to an abortion clinic–in Massachusetts in the early 90s–and been screamed at by Operation Rescue protesters. I had read about the murders of doctors and other health workers. I had seen firsthand some of the damage to clinics. And that level of violent threat has has censored me as a writer for over a decade.
Starting in 1991, I began working on a story of a group of women in college who create a spiritual/emotional healing circle. At the time, I was only a few years out of college, and I had discovered some incredible healing spaces. I began to imagine the circle of women I had desperately needed in college. It began as a short short story. Then was a long short story. Then a short novella. Then a long novella. I didn’t actually want to write it as a novel. I knew I didn’t have the attention span, at the time. But every writing group/buddy/workshop/circle kept telling me to say more. Show more. Unpack this or that abstract idea. The story had a main character and six secondary characters who all experienced a level of emotional growth. It took a lot of unpacking to do justice to everyone’s emotional arc. But I worked hard on it for years.
By 2005 I had a great novel…except it was 900 pages long. For anyone unclear on the industry, there is no way a first time novelist (who is not a celebrity pop star) can sell such a thing. Especially not a feminist novel about black women fighting racism and healing from trauma. Of course, there was a simple solution—cut the book in half and make it two novels. There was only one problem: a main character has an abortion in the middle of the novel. So if I cut it into two, the first novel becomes a story about a woman who—unapologetically—gets an abortion. That’s not really the character arc of the whole story. And I didn’t want to write the abortion book. I wasn’t prepared to put my life on the line for an artistic statement that was dictated by page length, and wasn’t even the statement I was actually trying to make. My statement was about young black women and trauma, and how—as teens and young adults—they face a number of challenges that include domestic violence, unplanned pregnancy, racism, classism, sexism, sexual harassment, and more. I posted the abortion clinic scene from the novel last year for 1 in 3 day, acknowledging the reality that 1 in 3 women in the US has an abortion in her lifetime.
Back when I was still working on the novel, I performed excerpts publicly, I even made a CD of several scenes, but I didn’t pursue publishing. Instead, I put it away and decided to develop a more commercial piece for my debut novel, hoping that I would be able to publish the previous one later on in my career. I have recently gotten an agent for my sex worker heist novel, and she hopes to shop it to editors next month. Isn’t it interesting that I am much less afraid to publish a book about sex workers who go around robbing rich corrupt corporate CEOs than a woman having a perfectly legal abortion.
And now that I know a bit more about the publishing industry, I know that no one (other than a pop celebrity) can publish a 900 page novel, even a novelist with a successful debut book. Fortunately, however, there have been other changes in the publishing industry. One is the development of the category of “new adult” novels. These focus on late teen early 20s age protagonists. If I split the book into three books, the word count works and doesn’t leave me with a first book about a girl who has an abortion. So I am hopeful that the book will one day see the light of publication.
I am, however, chilled by the Supreme Court’s decision about McCullen. I am known as a bold and fearless writer/performer. With regard to freedom of speech, this is the one issue where I don’t feel free and am afraid to speak.