In her book “Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict,” editor and literary agent Irene Vilar shares her controversial story of having had 15 abortions in 15 years. In this excerpt, she writes about coming to terms with her addiction and shares what compelled her cycle of destructive behavior.
My mother was a Valium addict and my father was addicted to alcohol and gambling. Two of my brothers were heroin addicts. If my body was my perspective on the world, then it was a battleground of hopefulness and hopelessness, and fear, just like my brothers’.
As early as that summer of my twelfth birthday when my father remarried, I suffered from loss of sleep, headaches, stomach problems, lack of appetite, weight loss, inability to focus, isolation. I excelled in school and set out to skip another grade. I went to Haiti twice with my teacher nuns and became obsessed with their missionary work. I turned toward my grandmother Lolita and fantasized of becoming a diplomatic version of her. I took on my new little sisters Diana and Miri as my own children.
When I met the man who became my master, I had been an overachiever, having dealt with my terrors and low self-esteem through total immersion in the acts and aid of others. And I had fallen prey to their wishes. I lived up to expectations in order to not lose protection and love. I easily embedded myself in the powers of others. As for him, his powers were my weaknesses, his truths my lies, his courage to be free was my cowardice as a woman.
As a fifteen-year-old college freshman, seven years after my mother’s death, buying books on adoption in the Syracuse University bookstore, I was finding refuge in fantasies of mothering.
In the face of paralysis, my maternal desire surfaced to ward off any awareness of distress. Those first college months are the first recollection I have of actively avoiding the void before me with mothering, imparting my capacity to mother with power and agency. I was also fashioning that capacity as both avoidance and face-off, as flight and as return. I would only need to become sexually active and have an abortion within the year for my body to get a taste of the drama of life and death it would come to crave.
My story is a perversion of both maternal desire and abortion, framed by a lawful procedure that I abused. My first pregnancy was a result of lying about birth control. He was inside of me when he asked: You are protecting yourself, aren’t you? Later, I would take my pills and skip a day, a few, and often give up on the whole month, promising myself I would do better the next time. Not knowing how a pill or a handful of them would affect my fertility, my days took on a balancing act, and a high of sorts accompanied the days before my period was due. Half my pregnancies with him occurred during our first three years together. Each time I got my period, I was sad. Each time I discovered I was pregnant, I was aroused and afraid. Every pregnancy was a house of mirrors I entered and lost myself in, numb to the realities of a fetus, my partner’s wishes, and the impossible motherhood I was fashioning.
I never craved that moment when I clenched my vibrating abdomen, feet high up on cold stirrups, and told myself never again. There was no high that came with that. My mood-altering experience was a shape shifter. At times the high took place before pregnancy, waiting for a missed period, my body basking in the promise of being in control. At other times it was the pregnancy itself, the control I embodied if only for a couple of months, and still other times it was leaving the abortion clinic, feeling that once again I had succeeded in a narrow escape. The time of my drama was my time, no one could interrupt it, and what was more important, I could not interrupt it to meet others’ needs.
Feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, and disorder faded in the face of the possibilities of my reproductive body. An excitement, hyperarousal, almost euphoria surrounded my maternal desire. The craving gave structure to the confusing morass of events that made up my life. I would visit Marshall’s and put infant clothes on layaway. I would start a diary. I would daydream about holding a baby girl and teaching her the alphabet. I would lie in the bathtub with a smile on my face, knowing that only I knew.
Tension would gradually build as my pregnant body crowded out all other things and emotions. After a few weeks, stress would set in and grow more acute by the day and with the physical changes in me. I would go in and out of denial. At times I would forget I was pregnant. Other times I could think of nothing else. I would stop eating. By the time I lay in an abortion clinic waiting for the procedure to begin, I would feel nothing but disgust and shame. When I left the clinic, I felt a calm respite, surrender. I always said to myself then, “This has to end.”
It was a violent, intensely emotional drama that kept me from feeling alone. A moment came when not being pregnant was enough motivation for wanting to be pregnant. The fantasies subsided. Soon it was no longer about the control I had craved before. Getting pregnant began to be simply a habit. If I wasn’t pregnant, something was wrong, more wrong than what was already wrong. I believe this habit formed with abortion #9 and pregnancy #10, shortly after I returned from Miguel’s funeral. I didn’t want anything to do with my husband or the pregnancy or myself. I overdosed and woke up in a hospital. I needed another self-injury to get the high.
I can’t think about my mother and in general Puerto Rican women without thinking about “choice.” The language of choice invokes free will based on individual freedom, obscuring the dynamics between social constraints and human activity. Choices are framed by larger institutional structures and ideological messages. While population growth has been blamed for Puerto Rico’s widespread poverty, other causes, such as American exploitation, were ignored or covered up. The 1967 NBA winner for nonﬁction, La Vida by Oscar Lewis, reiterated the views of U.S. social scientists in turning fertility and reproduction into the source of the “Puerto Rican problem.” The Puerto Rican mother was either victimized by her macho husband and countless children, longing to be rescued from her own ignorance, or a relentless dangerous mating machine that needed to be stopped.
Throughout my mother’s childbearing years, from 1955 to 1969, Puerto Rico was a human laboratory for the development of birth control technology and population control policies. Pills twenty times stronger than those used today, with dangerous systemic side eﬀects, including sterility, were tested on women by the U.S. government, which was simultaneously studying the long-term eﬀects of secondary syphilis on a group of African-American men in Tuskegee without treating them for the disease. In 1968, women in Puerto Rico were more than ten times more likely to be sterilized than were women in the United States. By 1974, 37 percent of Puerto Rican women of childbearing age had been permanently sterilized. In my small town of Barceloneta, 25,000 women were sterilized between 1955 and 1975. By 1980, Puerto Rico had the highest per-capita rate of sterilization in the world.
My mother was sixteen when she gave birth to Fonso in January 1956. In April, she became pregnant with Cheo and gave birth in October to a six-month preemie. Shortly after that, she began using Enovid, the controversial 10-milligram birth control pill. In September 1961, after the birth of my brother Miguel, the public hospital staﬀ threatened not to provide care if she did not consent to a tubal ligation. Eight years later, my mother’s tied tubes became untied and I was conceived. In 1974, when a pap smear showed nonmalignant, abnormal cell growth, the doctor recommended a hysterectomy. My mother was sent home without a reproductive system and no hormonal treatment. She was thirty-three years old.
Most of the conscious memories I have of my mother belong to the time after her hysterectomy. Depression and mood swings fastening her to a chair or sending her away in the middle of the night. Migraines curled her blood-clotted body in bed. Irritability slapped a daughter for asking a question. Bloating and fat gain in the hips and thighs shamed her in the mirror.
What growing up poor and an orphan, the daughter of a woman imprisoned in the United States and being the wife for twenty-three years of a man unable to value her could not do, the U.S. mass-sterilization program and its racist population-control ideologies did. Self medicating with Valium and acting out a ransacked, frantic, if vacant, sexuality, my mother came undone while I watched.
Excerpted from "Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict" by Irene Vilar. Copyright (c) 2009, reprinted with permission from Other Press.