One of the web places which tracks my every move reminded me of this long two-part essay I wrote four years ago today. I wrote it after reading an article in The Atlantic entitled: "Consider the Coat Hanger." It's a 2000 word piece on the recent history of abortion, worthy of a few minutes' time and attention.
Some of my online friends read what I wrote four years ago, but I'm reproducing it here because I have a sincere desire to see people think outside their own framework, to look at each person they encounter as a fully autonomous individual, and to summon some outwardly focused understanding and compassion.
inside my head, outside of yours, part one
Friday, August 24, 2012
1657 words. If "mild" description of domestic violence is difficult for you, proceed with caution.
I conceived my first child on my 21st birthday. People thought, as people do, "oh, the poor idiot, she didn't know about birth control." Silly people. Of course I did. I spent the next 12 years watching my body work against a variety of contraceptives. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
I had a decent job and good health, people who loved me, and I am, let's not equivocate, a very intelligent person. I thought, "I can handle this. Let's do this." It never occurred to me not to, though. There I was, and so there it was.
All around me, my mom's Vineyard Church friends and even the doctor I went to, they whispered things about me, looked at me with shelves of assumptions built into their brains. I cared about that, but mostly I cared about doing it all right, so that's what I focused on. Some of them were angry I didn't automatically give up my child for adoption; what right did I have to this baby when others couldn't have one of their own? That seemed too rude and silly to argue about.
So I had her and the doctor was surprised at how big and healthy and good-looking she was; how she responded instantly to all the little tests, and how well she instantly adapted to life, to me, to her natural food supply.
He believed, make no mistake about it, that I would have ignored all his directives and came up with some scrawny sickly creature from my womb because she had been put there accidentally, and, let's be honest, by someone of a different ethnicity than me.
Young women who conceive a child by a man of a different ethnicity are sluts who live on donuts, cheeseburgers, and, I don't know, my imagination doesn't really work this way, Bartles & James wine coolers. They don't, as I did, eat small healthful meals throughout the day, exercise regularly, abstain from unhealthy habits, or take their vitamins.
And I breastfed her. Well, what was all the milk for, anyway? But wow, was that a decision for the ages back in 1987.
You can tell, can't you? I lived in a bubble even way back then, just living my natural life, unaware of how unnatural nature really is to most people.
Let's skip ahead. When my daughter was two and a half, my mother died. In some weird fit of distress, I married the father of my daughter, although we hadn't spent all that much time together over the past months.
Can you guess? I was immediately pregnant again. But this time, something was different. He moved into our apartment, we both had our jobs, and he bought a Sega game system. I won't blame the Sega for our problems. (That's foreshadowing.) I wouldn't know what to blame, to be honest, and don't really care. One day, something or other went wrong, and he knocked me down. I was afraid to get up, so he helped me up, and then because I cowered, he did it again. I went to sleep later that night curled into a ball, afraid of how it would appear at work the next day.
It should add irony and hilarity to the story to tell you that I worked for an evangelist. But it is the truth, and there I was, driving up the interstate with extra makeup on, worried about what I was going to say in the morning prayer circle, and whether I'd have to make up an excuse for looking unwell. I don't know now if anyone noticed.
The evangelist, should I tell you his name? He runs a big church in Johnson County, Kansas now. Of all people, you'd think he'd understand about the failings of humanity, having experienced quite a few of his own, but it was all separate for him by that point, "us who need to save them," and when I tell you he used to joke to the other senior staff that I looked like a witch or a Satanist, well, you can take his measure for yourself if you like.
Back home, as I grew larger and more excited about a little brother or sister for my daughter, the knocking-downs slowly increased. And each time, afterwards, can you guess this one? He'd apologize, swear he'd never do it again, buy me something, cook me a meal, anything for forgiveness. Well, my indiscriminate ability to forgive people is some kind of demented aspect of my character. I can't not forgive, once I've given love. It's easy to write people off who were never in my heart, but once I put them there, I keep them there.
However, I was making plans to leave by the following spring, figuring I just needed to wait until the baby was born and I could get started.
I had the baby in June, got a call from the secretary at the office I worked in, congratulating me and telling me the staff was being cut in half, so I wouldn't be needed anymore, and developed a post-partum infection. But the signs weren't there until we were driving home from the hospital. I felt suddenly unwell, and when we reached home realized I had a high fever. The hospital would only take me back without the baby, so I had to pump milk for her. The in-laws, well, that's a whole other tale too long for this one. They took her for the week I spent in the hospital recovering from the infection.
For the first time since my mother died, I wanted to call on her and say "help me." But life doesn't always allow for that.
When I got home, nursing the baby was difficult, but I was determined to give her as much of myself as I could, so I worked at it. The husband, he played Sega games. He'd wanted a boy. He had five sisters; who could really blame him? Except, you know, that wasn't very mature. Well, none of us were, then.
One day I was sitting in my favorite chair with the baby when the phone rang. Remember when you had to get up and go to where the phone was plugged in and answer it there? I didn't. It would have disturbed the baby. So it rang and rang until my husband came out, calmly answered it, had a brief conversation, and then began to beat me across my head over and over again for interrupting his game. It was the basketball one, by the way. I was shielding the baby and trying to shield my head, and his cousin came in from the room where they were playing and so he stopped.
That husband was a very quiet person, most people thought of him as gentle and genial. He was smart, quick-witted, talented at a number of things, inventive, and often thoughtful. I don't know. I don't have the answer for you. But I had to get away from him, once I was well. I didn't know how to do it. The in-laws were not even to be considered. I had someone from my job willing to help, but the next steps were uncertain.
You know that a woman is not supposed to have sexual intercouse until several weeks after she's given birth. Six or so. I got to wait nearly three before he decided, one night, to do what he thought would fix things between us and force himself on me. Good thing those antibiotics had done their job! He forced me to submit to him, and I had no choice because I knew he'd hit me if I didn't. He thought that we would both be glad and then everything would be okay again. But by this time, having been beaten while I held our newborn baby, I could hardly bear to look at him, much less have him touch me, and I didn't know, maybe few people do, that I could have had him just thrown out of our apartment, which was in my name alone.
I laid there while he tried to "make love," trying not to be sick, doing math, reciting a poem, trying to nod or look up at him when he demanded it. I don't remember much else. My brain is excellent at repression. He said something about us being together for always and everything being fine and I don't know what else. I made myself go to sleep.
The tale of how I got away a week or so later is a different tale than this one, filled with more violence, horror, deception, fear, and all the usual elements that come along with such events. I've never been able to write it, or much talk about it. I escaped with my life and my babies, and have been making friends mostly online nearly ever since. Very few of you know my real name. It's been 22 years and I'm having trouble maintaining composure as I type this.
This was long and guess what? It was just an introduction to what I really want to say. I had two beautiful daughters by that unbalanced man, and knew while I was pregnant with them something of who they'd be, because I knew him, or at least thought I did. They are like my mom in many ways. They're like their paternal grandmother in a few ways. The oldest one looks just a bit like her father, though much, much more beautiful. She has a couple of his best features, blended with my own. The younger one thinks like every eccentric person in my family, which is to say, all of us. She has some mellowing to do, but is coming along fine.
This is the end of part one. I need to breathe into a paper bag or something, then write part two, which will be shorter.
inside my head, outside of yours, part two
Friday, August 24, 2012
Whoops, this is even longer. Five pages, 1900 words. I didn't edit it; ignore tense confusion, where necessary. This is a frank discussion of sex, and, as mildly as possible, the sometimes violent nature that can accompany it.
When I knew I wasn’t going to have any more children, I felt such a sense of relief. When I saw other women pregnant, it was suddenly this alien thing to view, somehow both pleasant and awful. That was when I was in my late 30s, and I was ready for the next stage in life to reveal itself to me.
Oh, but I loved being pregnant. There was the scary time, the even more scary time, the worried-over-money time, the this-is-perfect-timing time, the no-way-how-could-this happen-again time, and the this-will-be-perfect-even-if-I-have-to-slay-the-rest-of-the-world time.
Incredible, right? I love all six of them so much that my skin feels aglow when I think about them. I remember, with each pregnancy, especially when most of the nausea and heartburn had passed, feeling a sense of burgeoning life; I’m not overstating that, feeling such utter joy and honor and an almost mystical sense of responsibility for all Creation.
I remember feeling the first flutters; by the fourth one I was feeling them very early because I knew what to look for, and scouring the books for just the perfect, perfectly meaningful name. I wrote poems to them, talked and sang to them, thought about what they’d look like, whether any of them would have Italian eyes, and how it would feel the first time I put their tiny little warm heads to my breast.
But here is something possibly shocking for you to know about me. Aware that at least one in three pregnancies miscarry by the third month because of one or more mutations within the cell formation or the womb being developed, I do not regard them as people residing within me until they are fetuses. And I do not regard it as my right to "decide" that for anyone else. Consider this; you sprinkle yeast in a cup of warm water, and in a few minutes it will start to grow. Then you can make bread out of it.
I know not everyone agrees with this, but I felt that what I’m about to write would be less honest if I didn’t admit that. Even if you don’t agree, I hope you will read the rest of what I have to say.
I had the honor and privilege of thinking about the people my little balls of cells would become because I knew their fathers intimately, and was in, at least initially with the first two, a safe and secure environment in which they would first experience life. I knew something of their skin tone, their hair color, that they would probably have a large nose and perhaps awkward teeth, that there might be male-pattern baldness in their futures, that in all likelihood they’d be quick-witted and visually or musically creative.
I also knew that from my side of the family there was a risk of a certain form of cancer later in life, and of alcoholism, and from their fathers, a propensity toward high blood pressure.
I knew where we’d all lived, where our ancestors came from, mostly, and what our childhoods had been like. I knew what kind of parents our parents had been, and the sorts of foods we’d grown up eating.
Imagine if I knew very little of that; only my own portion of it. Suppose it was my husband’s large and leering friend who forced himself on me when no one else was around? Perhaps imagine if I was much younger still, and was grabbed by a stranger as I walked home from work; he’d been watching me, perhaps, and knew when it was safe to push his way into me with no one around to stop him?
Or, imagine it had been a few weeks later when my husband forced himself on me, and the generally contraceptive nature of breastfeeding wasn’t working because my daughter hadn’t been breastfed as thoroughly as her sister? In that case, would you blame me for being pregnant again instead of having already made my unemployed escape?
Maybe you would. But you wouldn’t blame me if I became pregnant in one of those other instances, would you?
What would I feel, as 33 hormones accelerated their way through my body, causing low blood sugar nausea, an increased sensitivity to strong odor, perhaps extra hair growth, and the beginning of extra padding around my midsection in preparation for the eventual emergence of human life?
Let’s back up and talk about how I got that way, in complete detail, because this is something many men don’t fully apprehend. We all know that when a woman’s body is prepared to receive a man, fluid is released to make the act easier and more pleasant for both. Do you think about what that feels like to a woman? It’s strange how natural it feels, because when you’re very young, you simply cannot imagine it even being possible. But your temperature has increased, the surface of your skin seems to have more receptors on it, your breathing has changed, and it feels quite as though if the man does not enter you, life will stop working correctly. When he is there, radiating his own warmth and moisture, what you feel is that your body has hold of everything it could ever need in order to be complete. Your desire to take it all in overrides most anything else in your thoughts, at that moment. The hormones which are released to prepare you for this task also prepare your mind for union with another human being. What could be nicer?
I have no experience with same-sex relations. I can’t put myself in the mind of a woman who desires that experience only or also from another woman, and I think it would be insulting to try. But we are considering the usual biological path set before us, and not specifically the romantic desires which help it along.
Those hormones that make it feel so nice usually make us feel nice toward the man who stirred them up. It’s because we invited him to, subtly or overtly. When we’re young, sometimes the aftermath is confusing and worrisome; did I do the right thing? Will he care about me the way I care about him? You know the drill.
Here’s the other thing. We carry him around inside us, whether or not he ejaculated there, for the next several hours, days, or always. When we wash, we are washing a union we helped create.
So. Imagine we didn’t help create it. We scrubbed and scrubbed, but it’s still there, wait, back up.
We weren’t ready to receive him at all. It hurt. And it kept on hurting, even though our body’s natural inclination is to try to catch up and make it work okay. The correct hormones weren’t stirred up, only the ones that accelerate fear. He rubbed us raw, in and out, for minutes, maybe, I don’t know, two or three or more? He might be angry we aren’t ready for him because we are whorish and should be ready for any man and maybe he hits us in his anger. Then our bodies attempt to reject him further, and he’s more determined than ever to push himself inside and be there, for always.
Do rapists wear condoms? What a notion! What has he given us that we might pass on to a child? Herpes, HPV, gonorrhea, AIDS? He pushed his way in, and a tiny part of him will never leave.
Now consider what it would then feel like to know a cluster of cells is forming that might accelerate into human life? Each time we bend over a toilet, we are puking our guts out because of him. Our entire life has been bent in two, and there are people saying that this is too bad; life’s just like that sometimes.
These are sometimes but not limited to, the people who praise their creator for saving their life when all around them, others are coping with the aftermath of some great destruction.
They do not care that our life has been bent in two, and possibly broken. To them, the formation of potential life supersedes the brokenness of one that already existed. More to the point, they have given themselves the right and the power to decide that for others; the measure of a life, who lives and who dies, and the trajectory on which we are sometimes suddenly sent.
When I was 37 years old and the youngest of my six children was four, my life changed again, forever. I became pregnant, and, just like with the last one, almost violently ill, instantly. I was at home with the kids and bedridden, and at first I didn’t know why. Then the nausea ended but my period didn’t come. I was sick and getting sicker. The kids were running around that ancient house all day until their dad got home each afternoon to put things in order.
It took a few weeks and another missed period to figure it out, but there was a dead pregnancy inside me that was not naturally expelled. I had to, well, have it removed. Do you know, the process for that is identical to abortion? At the same time, I had a tubal ligation through laparoscopy. Yes, it took an operation to convince my body to stop rolling its eyes at contraception, that I wasn’t meant to be the population savior of the United States.
I had a wildly violent reaction to the anesthesia, and felt like I might die. There was a 24 hour period in which I think my husband thought I might die. And then I was okay, except that weeks of lying in bed next to what turned out to be a plumbing disaster brought on an asthmatic condition I have now been coping with for ten years.
Because odd circumstances caused me to think about what it would have been like for my family to watch me go through another pregnancy, to watch me bring them yet another child to make a seat for at the table, I have had occasion to think about what it’s like for young women and not-so-young women to nervously pass through the lines that sometimes form in front of places like Planned Parenthood, seeking medical advice, contraceptive advice, pregnancy advice.
Because I have experienced sexual coercion at the hands of someone I once trusted, I have had occasion to think about what it is like for young women and not-so young women to clean themselves up, dab antiseptic cream on their scratches, walk through the day wondering if other people can see it on them, and wonder, hope, pray to Anyone at all that they don’t have a disease, even more of a lifelong sentence than the one they’ll carry with them always, and that more than anything at all, the sperm of a violent stranger has not caused their body to start preparing for new growth.
What if that did happen? What do they do next? Which path will they be allowed to safely take? If they allow a child to grow, will the stranger demand rights to parent it, as he is currently allowed to do in 31 states?
You can't solve it with an arithmetic problem; 1+1=3. And you can't continue to view it as an abstract situation that can be repaired with the distant stroke of a pen. Life is messy and complicated, and sometimes it isn't safe.
Four years later, I want to add only that anyone who still thinks it's all simple; just a matter of Not Doing It, or Going Through With It, Arranging Adoption, and Moving On is absolutely not paying attention to our lives here today, our long, long cultural history, our broken-minded health care system, or to how it has all gotten worse in Texas. Let go of your need to be right, and focus on the need we have to make things better for everyone.