Review of Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict

Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict

by Irene Vilar (www.irenevilar.com)

Other Press, 2009, $15.95

 

Review by Jessica Powers

 

Irene Vilar’s second memoir explores a part of her life that she left out of her first memoir entirely—the fifteen abortions she had over the course of fifteen years.

 

Twelve of those abortions were pregnancies with the same man, a former professor, a man more than thirty years older, who became her lover when she was still a teenager. Ultimately, he became her husband and, as she refers to him, her “master.” She wanted a baby every time she conceived—an average of every 8 months, with the exception of a year and a half when she was working on her first memoir and remembered to take birth control pills—but knew that she had to choose between her life and her love. “Pregnant, my life felt less-sub-human,” she writes. Yet from the beginning, her husband had told her how “women’s desires for children killed each one of his love stories” (p. 51). Vilar knew that if she ever decided not to terminate one of her pregnancies, she would be terminating the relationship instead. “If you are grown up enough to have a child, you are just as fit to be a single mother,” he told her. “But I will not be a victim of your displacement” (83).

 

She saw each pregnancy as a “death sentence” for the relationship but also “a chance to rise above it, and above him” (79). Yet each time, she chose to end the pregnancy instead of the relationship. Vilar suggests she was addicted to abortion, but I would argue she was addicted to this particular man, a cruel master who cared more for his own comfort than for the woman he spent so many years “loving.” On the other hand, if she was addicted to the man, she never would have jeopardized the relationship so often by becoming pregnant, so perhaps she is on target when she admits that the cycle of pregnancy-and-abortion fed some destructive need. She felt validated, even “aroused,” by each pregnancy, panicked by the possible demise of her relationship, and simultaneously relieved and empty whenever she had an abortion.

 

Throughout the story, Vilar explores the ways her mother’s suicide when she was 8 left her feeling abandoned and homeless, linking that incident to her own struggles as an adult. She talks about her family’s propensity to addiction—her mother’s addiction to Valium, her father’s addiction to gambling and alcohol, her brothers’ addictions to heroin, and her own to abortion. She explores the damage done to her psyche at a young age but she fails to link her feelings of abandonment to her willingness to submit herself—body, mind, and soul—to a man in his fifties when she was only 17. She fails to acknowledge the betrayal of the feminist movement, which has fought (and continues to fight) for women’s right to an “out” when they find themselves with an untenable pregnancy but which has never provided a sufficient structure for dealing with the psychological and physiological damage of abortion, particularly repeat abortions. And what of the many doctors, family members, and friends who sat back and watched as Vilar tried to destroy her own body? Vilar lets them off the hook without much protest.

 

Vilar’s story is not one for the faint-hearted, nor is it for adamant pro-life or pro-choice advocates. The questions surrounding Vilar’s multiple pregnancies, her legal right to choose, her recognition of and desire for the many lives conceived within her womb but whose voices were silenced before they were even heard are necessarily messy questions.  Vilar’s life is a chaotic, disordered one and she doesn’t shy away from showing just how confused she was for most of her adult life. One of the truths her story demonstrates is that by insisting on the right to “sex on demand” with whomever and whenever we want, protected from all physical consequences like pregnancy, we have forgotten that sex carries with it incredible power, a power which can be abused and a power which can be destructive. Vilar’s husband was guilty of abusing that power. Whether Vilar was ever conscious of abusing that power is hard to say; it’s certainly possible to question whether a 17-year-old girl, suffering from scars related to her mother’s suicide, separated from her surviving parent by thousands of miles, and involved in relationship with a man old enough to be her father, can exercise a completely conscious right to choose.

 

Ultimately, the line separating Vilar’s belief in her right to choose and her recognition of the life within is very, very thin—almost non-existent. When she is pregnant for the sixteenth time, a pregnancy she carries to term, she describes the ultrasound of her daughter taken eighteen weeks before she was born. “The ultrasound images show clearly a miniature head tilted back, an arm raised up, with the hand pointing back toward the face. It would have been possible and permissible to end her life at this point” (208).

 

Thus Vilar ends the final chapter of her book, completely blurring the line between pro-life and pro-choice politics as she recognizes her daughter’s existence and acknowledges the many times she had, in the past, exercised her right to choose.

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