In Impossible Motherhood, Irene Vilar writes, "I want to explore how when abortion takes on repetitive and self-mutilating qualities it can point to an addiction." But her book is really an exploration of a single tragedy-stricken life.
Those who saw Vilar's appearance on ABC know she comes from a Puerto Rican family both lauded for its political activism and dogged by mental illness and addiction, and that she had fifteen abortions in fifteen years, twelve of them during her marriage to a much-older professor she met as an undergraduate. The beginnings of her "abortion addiction," as she repeatedly calls it, lie in this tumultuous relationship. Thirty-four years her senior, her husband told her early on that he liked young women, women "without too many wounds." He would get one but not the other.
Vilar's husband also told her that "family kills desire," and that women who had children became "gender casualties" who only reproduced because they couldn't handle "the challenge of freedom." He himself insisted on said "freedom," by which he meant living on a sailboat for much of the year, and breaking up with women when they began to want children. Vilar, both determined to stay with him and seduced to some extent by his ideas, aborted every time she got pregnant. So why did she get pregnant so many times?
It's a question that Vilar doesn't answer until the very end of the book. Throughout her account of her marriage, which finally ended after eight fraught years, she tells us about her husband's narcissistic and controlling behavior, his encouragement of her writing followed by resentment of her success, the death by overdose of one of her brothers and the addiction of the other, her financial woes, and her father's frustrating detachment. But except for a few passing mentions of "remembering" or "forgetting" to take her birth-control pills, we don't get any explanation of what went through her head when she exposed herself to accidental pregnancy fifteen times. And we don't find out if her child-averse husband, who knew about most of the abortions, ever tried putting on a condom.
Then, in the final chapter, Vilar suddenly lets us into her psyche. She writes,
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. [...] 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 other's needs.
She traces her addiction to her mother's suicide after an unnecessary hysterectomy, writing,
I had no control over my mother's decision to abandon me. But I had control over my body. I could impregnate myself and abort; no one else could control my fate when I showed such strange ownership. Repeat abortions "remembered" an element of the experience of death and abandonment. If my mother chose death over me, I chose to tell the story fifteen terrifying times.
It's a relief to finally get Vilar's explanation for her actions, but I wished this explanation had been woven in throughout. If it had — if we got a fuller representation of Vilar's thought processes during her painful marriage — perhaps her book would bear out the claims of universality she makes in the prologue. Vilar writes, "my testimony is not unique. Beyond the antiseptic, practical language of Planned Parenthood and the legalistic or moralistic discourse of Roe V. Wade and its pro-choice and pro-life counterparts, there are few words to articulate individual, intimate accounts." She also mentions that 10% of women who terminated pregnancies in 2004 had had three or more abortions.
But though Vilar promises to "address questions that might elucidate how pro-life and pro-choice advocates are [...] both right and wrong," she never really does so. And though she does touch on the painful memories, cultural influences (women's reproductive rights in Puerto Rico were compromised by many factors, including experimental birth control pills that sterilized many women), and emotional abuse that led to her "addiction," she never again mentions other women with repeat abortions, or gives us much of a clue about how her book might tell us about them. Are there really many women who use abortion pathologically as a way to gain a sense of control over their bodies and their lives? And would the lives of these women really force us to rethink our beliefs about abortion? It's difficult to tell, because Impossible Motherhood only gives us one of their stories.