Archive for the 'sex' Category

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Masters of Sex

Book Review by Jessica Powers


Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love

By Thomas Maier, Basic Books, 2009


When Virginia Johnson retired to a nursing home in relative obscurity in 2002, some people wondered about her fate. How was it she had dropped off the face of the earth? Why hadn’t she received the recognition she deserved? “Where were the 1970s feminists and the sexually confident professional woman of Generation X….[who] owed a debt to her more than they knew” (371)? The “sexually confident professional woman of Generation X” describes me but I’ll admit, until I read the book, I had no idea who Virginia Johnson was—or how much influence she and her partner William Masters had had on the world in which I grew up. Though the sexual revolution of the 1960s might have occurred without Masters and Johnson, it was their research into the physiology of sex—far more than any studies conducted by Alfred Kinsey—that gave Americans the ability to talk about sex knowledgably and scientifically and openly.


In Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love, Thomas Maier has provided us with a comprehensive biography of the couple who spent several decades together researching and writing about sex. The book encompasses both their personal and professional lives, exploring a central key question: How was it that William Masters and Virginia Johnson—whose research spawned a radically new, successful approach to sex therapy, and which did more to change America’s public perception of sex—could fail so miserably in their personal love lives, both with others and, ultimately, with each other?


In the early days, much of Virginia Johnson and Bill Masters’s research was conducted privately. Because they were using machines and video cameras to literally observe hundreds and thousands of men and women having sex and masturbating, they knew that their project would be shut down if the truth emerged. Carefully, systematically, and dogmatically, they recorded what they discovered. The result was one of the most influential books of the 20th century, Human Sexual Response, which catalogued everything they had discovered about human sexuality. “Masters and Johnson’s mechanical approach, rooted in the American reverence for science, made their book palatable to a tongue-tied nation,” argues Maier, suggesting that their work was a seminal influence in the sexual revolution. “Specific sexual information suddenly became part of the standard fare for newspapers, magazines, and television talk shows, which recognized the audience appeal for this sex talk involving Masters and Johnson” (174).


The book launched their careers as sex therapists. If Bill Masters was the scientific steamroller behind the sex studies, Virginia Johnson pioneered their therapeutical approach to sexual dysfunction. By pairing a team of therapists—a man and a woman—to help married couples reach sexual satisfaction, she created a “totally innovative” and highly successful method for curing problems from erectile dysfunction to premature ejaculation to lack of female orgasm (178). In addition to providing standard sexual therapy, the pair experimented with sexual surrogates—a highly controversial method that, at some point, they publicly disavowed, even while continuing to secretly use it.


For many years, Masters and Johnson rode at the height of success. But their 1978 book on homosexuality—in which they claimed they had successfully cured several homosexuals and transformed their gay orientation into a heterosexual one—and then their book on AIDS in the 1980s, which went against conventional wisdom, changed public perception of the pair. Their personal relationship—for many years, a professional one with “benefits,” as the saying goes, which ultimately morphed into marriage when Masters worried that Johnson was planning to get married and leave their partnership—foundered as their professional reputations publicly soured. Masters reconnected with the first woman he had loved, divorced Johnson, and married for the third time, this time happily. Masters and Johnson kept a happy public face in terms of their professional relationship, but secretly, Johnson grew bitter over the way she had been treated throughout the partnership but especially after their divorce. Furthermore, though they should have made millions, they had never achieved the financial success that their fame could have led to.


Though detailed and lengthy (375 pages), Masters of Sex remains interesting from start to finish. Maier has written a book that not only explores the psychological and professional lives of America’s most famous sex duo, but also reveals the changing American landscape in its response to human sexuality.


Jessica Powers is the editor of The Fertile Source. Her first novel, The Confessional (Knopf, 2007), explored racial tension and violence on the U.S. Mexico Border, while her second novel, This Thing Called the Future (Cinco Puntos Press, forthcoming April 2011) explores South Africa and AIDS. She is also the editor of Labor Pains and Birth Stories: Essays on Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Becoming a Parent.

Bought a Pack of Cigarettes Today

a poem by Nicelle Davis

At this distance, street lamps are reduced to strands of Christmas

lights strung between windows

where televisions are erupting like fireworks from the eyeholes of

track homes. A lit cigarette reflects

as a birthday candle off the surface of my windshield. Fighter jets

pass as the slowest moving stars-their

engines low moans-loud as breath in my ear. A semi-truck passes

as a streak of light chasing flight. Beneath me, red

ants are carrying the body of a black ant to their underground city.

If  I didn’t know hunger, I would think they were leading a funeral


procession-if I didn’t know limitation-I would think the world

was in celebration of loss.  It is


cold. Tonight. Please. Let me clarify.


I’m in an empty lot-next to a suburban neighborhood-alone

leaving you-

that is-three vacancies placed next to a thousand homes. When


I say


“a” cigarette, I mean “mine.”       When I say “my”

windshield, I mean “the car’s.”

There is distinction in ownership.


Guilt belongs to me. You gave me HPV, but I took it willingly-

wanting to believe in the religious alchemy of becoming one

flesh-put on cancer like relief. Impossible. Love. For me. There are

places in the sky untouched by shine. And this is what I focus on.

But must search for these rare absences between structures made

for together. Looking for dark


I catch sight of a couple making love in an upstairs window. The wind

is a torrent; I am wet from its intangible hands on my thighs. We are


done with each other. I recognize. I drove this far out of town to hide

from our son that sometimes I choose cigarettes over tofu and sit-ups.


I understand my mother better at moments like these-know how she

could drag the body of a deer under her car for miles, because she had to

get away and needed all her available concentration to obey the directives

of traffic signals.


Stop. Go. Slow.


I imagine the naked man in the window is being given direction. I have

nowhere to go. Tonight is your turn with our family. Ours is a separate

matter. You tell me I’m leaving too fast. I say,

I can’t think right with the pain of my own teeth at my hands. I need to


stop eating cancer-

need to read books about spiders saving pigs to my son-

need to stop dragging a corpse every time I search for

a place to be. Quiet night. Birds


are sleeping in their twig cages built from the down of other birds. Harvested

from bones. Their chicks blanketed in another’s insulation. I long for


the friendship of morning, to see its red currents seeping through my closed

eyes. To see myself divide. To have my shadow self-

proportioned as a little girl with giant arms reaching for warmth. Again. I wish


to make comrades of variance. Light and shadow never stop touching. Again.

I flip a lucky. Spit the yoke of mucus. Wonder if this leaving will ever end.


 Nicelle Davis lives in Southern California with her son J.J. Her poems are forthcoming in, The New York Quarterly, PANK, Two Review, and others. She’d like to acknowledge her poetry family at the University of California, Riverside and Antelope Valley Community College. She runs a free online poetry workshop at:
Check out Poetry Editor Tania Pryputniewicz’s interview with Nicelle Davis on She Writes as well as earlier work we ran by Nicelle, From What I Understand About Quilting on ectopic pregnancy.



Small Wreckage and Single Girls

by Anne Champion


The women stood at the door
with their rosaries, thrusting
the tiny beads into my hand.

I had been told to have my music on,
or maybe wear a hat, look down,
pay them no mind.

But I took them, repeating
quietly Dickinson’s lines
that had run through
my head all morning:

Shame need not crouch
In a world such as ours.
Shame-stand erect!-
The universe is yours.


Who supports you in your decision today?
I pause, remember something he said
the night before:

Under different circumstances,
I could see you being a really good mother.


You’d think I’d feel godless
the moment my body cried out
and the cramps came in waves
like fists beating at my insides.

But I imagined the Pieta,
in my blurred focus
of the woman standing over me,
not my mother,
cradling my head, placing
the cool washcloth to my brow, caressing
my hand, whispering
It’s okay.
You’re almost done.


My friend that came with me
said that sometimes she regretted it,
sometimes she still awoke
in the middle of the night
dreaming tiny palms beat
at the window to be let in,
but it turns out to be only a branch or rain,
as if the world wants to remind her
that it’s still there.


The night I told him,
he slipped his hand beneath
my robe and caressed me.
Then he crawled beneath the blanket,
stood on his knees, and wrapped
it around his back, before he threw himself
upon me, so that the blanket followed,
inflating like a parachute,
collapsing above our heads.
And then it was like any other time
and every other man I’ve kissed:
everything went black,
and then went black again.


Sex is the only common religion
we all worship.  On our knees,
we become both God and prayer,
devotion in its purest,
most fervent form.
Yet how consistently we
crush our idols.


I asked the woman to see it,
but all there was to see
was a dark spot on the screen,
the shape and size of a lima bean,
a blip on the radar of my life,
small wreckage to be sunk
in the vast ocean,


When I came to, the woman
guided me to a wheelchair.
I asked for something to vomit in,
and began creating a hierarchy of pain,
running moments through my head
that hurt worse-the tattoo I got when
I was eighteen, the broken thumb,
the infected wisdom teeth,
a broken heart.

for Adrinna Morris

We are not the women on TV,
not the women of light and shadows,
sitting at bars, looking at each other
through the transparent colors
of glowing red, green, purple, and blue
we sip on, no crescent lemon twist
lying at the bottom of the martini glass,
nothing to make us feel wild
and desirable.


This world was not designed for one.
The monthly rent and bills assume at least two,
a couple to justify the cost.
Everywhere we turn we see
“value” and “family size;”
a box of macaroni and cheese
becomes a waste of money and food
and then there’s the stench
of old produce and expired milk;
we scour grocery aisles
for small cans of beans.


I lay on your bed in sweatshirt and jeans,
and you’re in your pajamas listening
to me cry, again, over him.
You have your new baby on your knee
and she can’t stop crying either.
I ask relentlessly, When? How?
I am a broken machine.


Your daughter is marvelous
in her lack of a past.  Her skin,
translucent with the first bloom of life,
her wondrous brown eyes,
shiny marbles gazing up at me.
I don’t want to believe
that she, too, will have to reinvent
herself over and over again
and, like us, hope
to be good at it someday.


Tonight the moon shows
only her good side.
The other side is slid neatly
into the sky’s darkness
like a slit in an envelope.
She does this sometimes, slips
part of herself quietly from sight,
forced to go under.

Anne Champion recently finished her MFA in Poetry at Emerson College. She has work previously published in Our Time is Now, The Minnetonka Review, Pank Magazine, The Aurorean, and elsewhere.  She was also a 2009 recipient of The Academy of American Poets Prize.  She currently teaches Freshman
Composition at Emerson College, Pine Manor College, and Massachusetts College of Pharmacy.
You may read some of her other work at the following links:

Into the Weeds

Fiction by Curt Alderson

So I stop by the apartment during my lunch hour the other day, and there’s this little yellow slip in the mailbox telling me Sonny’s at the downtown branch and I’ve got to go sign for him.  I got, like, thirty minutes before I’m supposed to clock back in, so I drop the rest of the mail on the kitchen table and hot-foot it to the post office. 

Sonny’s there, waiting, all bubble wrapped and stamped.  I hand my little yellow slip across the counter to the clerk.  She slides another one back at me.  I sign the thing, scoop up the package, then race back across town.  By the time I make it to the office, I’m ten minutes late. But nobody seems to notice.

I take the package in with me and prop it against the wall of my cubicle as I check the messages on my voice mail.  I lean back in my chair and stare at the row of stamps in the upper right-hand corner.  There’s no name on the thing (other than my own), but the return address is from Richmond so I figure it’s from Megan.  We talked the other day.  She called to tell me all about it.  This was two days after the service.

She was wrung out-you could hear it in her voice-and I really felt bad for her.  But I was put off too, at first.  Genuinely pissed.  I mean, my best friend dies and gets planted; he’s six-feet-deep and cold before I so much as hear about it.  Megan says she didn’t even think to call me until it was too late.  Somebody said something at the service-asked about me-and that was the first time I crossed her mind. 

So we’re talking on the phone and she ends up falling to pieces before she can even finish whatever it is she wants to tell me.

“Look,” I say, “forget it.  It’s okay.  I understand.”  Jesus.  Her old man dies, and she’s apologizing to me?

I finish the day out.  I do my time until four, then split.  I tuck Sonny up under my arm and head for the parking garage.  Traffic is hell outside, so I decide to let things simmer down before I make my way back home.  I stop off at Leon’s for a cold one.  Out in the parking lot, I lock my doors, leave Sonny on the passenger seat.

They got the overhead fans turning inside, but it’s hotter than forty hells.  Geraldine’s tending bar.  She says the AC’s on the blink, but Happy Hour’s been extended until eight.  “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” she says to me with a wink.

“Seems I heard that,”  I say back.


I get home close to nine.  I can smell whatever my neighbors had for supper as I move down the hallway.  It’s a weird combination:  meatloaf,  spaghetti, tuna, grilled onions.  The stale air hangs hot and heavy all around me.  It’s like breathing someone else’s body heat.  A couple of folks have their TV’s going full tilt.  I hear them through the doors.  Sit-coms.  Hollow laughter. 

There’s a cool rush of air when I open my door.  It’s dark inside.  I cut on the lamp next to the easy chair and make my way into the kitchen.  There’s some cold fried chicken in the fridge, leftovers from a couple of nights ago.  I pull the plate out, snap a beer off the six pack I picked up on the way in, and settle into my chair.

I get the TV going and dig in.  I left it on some God-awful station the night before-the Learning Channel or something-but by the time I figure this out, I’m up to my elbows in chicken grease.  The remote’s sitting next to me, but I figure what’s the use?  I just sit there, stripping meat off a breast bone, watching this geek go on and on about plankton levels in the North Sea. 

After the chicken, I think of Sonny.  He’s still out in the car, waiting like he has been since work.  I drop my dish in the sink with the others and go out to the parking lot to fetch him.

Megan’s a very meticulous girl.  That’s not something she picked up from her old man; I can assure you of that.  She’s triple wrapped everything in plastic and used up almost half a roll of Scotch tape.  Eventually, I pull the videocassette free from all the wrapping and pop it in the machine.  There’s a note-card taped to the side of the bubble wrap.  I peel it off and hold it up under the lamp to get a better look.


It’s not the same as being there, but I wanted you to have this.  I know how much my dad meant to you.  He talked about you lots.

Look me up the next time you’re in town.  We’ve got a spare bedroom and would love to have you as our guest.  Mi casa, su casa.

Take care,


I set the note down on the coffee table.  For a second, I think about going back out, maybe catching a band somewhere.  Megan’s all heart.  I know she means well.  But I’m creeped out by the whole thing.  No other way to put it. 

I go back to the kitchen, open the fridge, and check for limes.  There’s one left.  It’s rolled behind a can of Hi-C, so I almost miss it.  I reach in and pull it out.  I take it to the chopping block by the sink, cut it into four fat wedges, and mix a gin and tonic.  The tonic water’s half-flat and the gin is rot-gut.  Just like Sonny used to like them, I think to myself, almost smiling.


Sonny and Tina had been married only a year or two when I first met them.  Back then, I was still living in this little three-bedroom cracker box out in the burbs.  Sonny and Tina lived next door.  Our houses were the last two in the cul-de-sac and we had adjoining backyards that ran right up to this thick stand of trees.  The woods were choked with kudzu.  In the summer, the vines turned dark green and snaked through the high branches until they formed a canopy so thick no light could get through.

Shortly after they got settled, Sonny built a big deck on the back side of their house, overlooking the woods and our two back yards.  When the weather allowed, the three of us would get together back there in the evenings.  We’d grill out, maybe have a few beers, shoot the breeze.  After dark, we’d lean back and listen to the stereo play through the screen door as the fireflies danced all around us. 

Sonny and Tina had moved from Montana and Sonny liked to brag on the fishing he’d done back there.  He’d tell me all about the cutthroat he used to go after along the Gardner.  Said how some days you’d have bighorn ram or bull elk coming right down to the waterline for a drink, with you standing just a few feet away.  I told him about Little Buckhorn and the monster browns you’d find there in the back eddies of the north fork.  Tina never said much once we got started.  She’d just sit there grinning, shaking her head every now and again like she’d heard it all before, which I’m sure she had.

A lot of nights went that way.  But this, of course, was long before the rabbits, long before Sonny and Tina’s marriage went south and Sonny followed suit, splitting for Phoenix.

As soon as their trouble started, I could sense a change.  Things got weird.  Tense.  The three of us didn’t get together as much, and the two of them started spending more and more time apart.  Tina would take these weekend trips to Baltimore, where she had people, and Sonny would stay home alone for no apparent reason.  He’d mope around for days, doing bullshit stuff just to keep busy.  I figured a fishing trip or two might help to take the edge off.  I mentioned it to him one night.  He didn’t seem thrilled, but he didn’t say no either.  We talked about heading out early-before daylight-and hitting the mountain streams, but we never made it any farther than Hollet’s Pond.

Hollet and I used to work second shift together at this ceramics factory.  One night we’re sitting in the break-room drinking coffee, and he tells me about his farm-a little fifteen-acre plot about twenty-minutes outside of town.  Said he bought the place with some money he’d had willed to him.  Hollet was what you might call a gentleman farmer.  He kept a half-acre garden, raised a few beef cows, but that was about it.  He wasn’t much on fishing either, but when he figured out I was, he told me about the pond he had, nestled in the far corner of the back pasture.  Said I could come on over and give it a try any time I felt the urge. 

“Don’t really know what you’ll find there,”  he said.  “Bluegill’s about all, I suspect.”

He was right.  After he gave me the green light, I fished Hollet’s Pond every day for a solid week but never caught anything bigger than my hand.  Still, it was nice to go there in the evenings.

Sonny liked it too.  Whenever the two of us went, we’d take our fly rods and one dry fly apiece.  Then we’d make a game of it, keeping track of who caught the smallest fish, because that was something too.  Getting a hit was nothing, but setting the hook could be a trick.

One evening, after we’d been out there a few hours and caught maybe a dozen each, Sonny walked over to where I was still fishing and took a seat on the berm. The light was fading from the sky and the bats were coming out to feed.  I wanted to get a few more casts in before we headed out. So I kept at it while Sonny sat in the grass breaking his rod down.  I knew he was right there next to me, but when he finally spoke, it made me jump a little.

“I don’t think we’re gonna make it,” he said.

I thought I knew what he meant, but I didn’t say anything right at first.  I just stripped a couple yards of line from my reel and made a cast for a cattail stand near the opposite bank.

“You remember that night I took her to the emergency room?” 

I did.  He didn’t say her name, but I knew he meant Tina. 

“It was real late,” he said.  “Past midnight.  You remember?”

I nodded. 

“Well, I told you she had the stomach flu, but that’s not how it happened exactly.”

I reeled everything in, and snipped the fly off the end of my line.  Sonny didn’t say anything for a while.  I had almost finished packing up all my gear when he started up again.

“We’d been trying to make a baby, see.  But we lost it that night.  That’s why I took her to the hospital.  That’s why we both stayed home from work the next day.  She took to the bed and I stayed home to look after her.”

“Damn.  I’m sorry,” I said.  “I hate that for y’all.”

Sonny nodded.  Then he caught a glimpse of a bat circling high above our heads.  It swooped down on the pond for a drink then flew away.  Sonny watched the little ripples moving toward him across the surface of the water.

“Thing is,” he continued, “it wasn’t the first time for us.  Same thing happened once before.  Back in Bozeman.  She was further along that time, so it was pretty bad.  We been to see a few doctors, but I don’t think they know what’s going on exactly.  They said we shouldn’t give up.  Said it was a fairly common thing.  But when it’s happening to you, it don’t feel common at all.”

“What’s Tina saying?”

“Not much.  She’s turned quiet on me.  It’s hard to tell what she’s thinking anymore.”

“So you imagine the worst.”

“Pretty much.  Sometimes I think we should try again, but I don’t know.  I’m scared to even bring it up.  I think she blames me.”


That was August.  By December of that year, Tina was pregnant again.  She and the baby made it through the first trimester without a hitch.  But the doctors ran a sonogram the first week of March, and things didn’t look good.  The baby died before the month was out.  The doctors said they couldn’t do anything with it on account of  Tina being so far along.  So she carried it, dead inside her, a solid week before her water broke and she finally had the miscarriage.

Sonny and Tina missed a lot of work through all this, and money started to get tight.  The doctor bills piled up, aggravating an already miserable situation.  Their house fell into disrepair.  The bushes and shrubs along their property-line grew wild, ragged.  One gray afternoon, a storm blew through the neighborhood and knocked down a couple of limbs from an old Dutch elm at the edge of their driveway.  The limbs stayed right where they fell in the front yard.  Weeks passed.  The green leaves withered and slowly fell away. 

Weeds took over the yard, out back especially.  Come May, when the days grew warmer, they started blooming.  It was a strange scene, peaceful almost.  The buttercups would bob and sway in a gentle cross-wind.  The purple clover came alive with bumblebees.  I said something to Sonny once-offered to push mow for him, clean things up a bit.  But he just looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language and disappeared back into the house.

A couple days later, I noticed Tina’s car missing from the driveway.  But I didn’t bother going over to see Sonny.  This once, I figured some time alone might do him good.

Later that afternoon, I’m stretched out on the couch watching a ball game.  It’s halftime and UNC is whipping the piss out of Virginia.  They’re getting ready to sound the horn for the second half when I first hear the commotion outside.  It’s Sonny.  He’s dragged his push mower out.  He yanks the rip-cord ten or twelve times before the engine finally comes to life, choking and wheezing at first, then gradually smoothing out to a steady hum.  I lay there on the couch a while longer with the volume on the TV turned down low, listening to Sonny tackle his back yard.  I hear him grinding away for a moment or two before the inevitable “CHUNCK” of the mower locking up.  I raise up and peek out the window.  I can see him, creeping along, an inch at a time.  When the mower starts to bog down, he tips the front of the deck so the blade can spin freely.  I think about getting my mower out, maybe starting on the far end of Sonny’s yard, meeting him in the middle.  Then I remember the look he gave me the last time I said something.

I give up on the ball game midway through the fourth quarter when UNC starts running four corners.  It’s not quite suppertime but getting close.  I go to the kitchen to see what I can dig up.  I’m standing there looking through the perishables, listening to the refrigerator motor buzz, when I realize I haven’t heard Sonny for a while.  I swing the door shut and walk over to the kitchen window.  From where I’m standing, I can see him.  The bright sunlight glares against the curve of his bare back.  He’s sitting in the tall grass, hunched forward, shoulders trembling.

I rush out my back door and cross over into Sonny’s yard.  He doesn’t turn when I call his name.  The mower’s sitting right beside him.  I can hear it pinging as it sits there cooling.  The heavy scent of burnt motor oil hangs in the air.  Sonny just sits there, shoulders hunched, eyes red, face wet.  He’s trying to say something, but his lips are drawn tight so the words never make it through.

Then I hear something rustling. I catch faint hints of movement out of the corner of my eye.  They lay there, squirming in a tangled heap, inches from where Sonny sits.  Baby rabbits.  He’d run up on a nest of them.  Some are cut clean in two, others lay thrashing, half-dead on the grass.

I get Sonny to his feet and help him into the house.  He’s crying but he doesn’t make a sound, only jerks at the shoulders some.  Inside, he sprawls out on the couch while I go over to the stereo and cut the tuner on.  I get it set on something mellow, but crank it loud.  Sonny never so much as looks my way.

I leave him there, go back to my place, and head straight for the nightstand next to my bed.  I open up a box of shells and fill the chamber of the .38 I keep stashed there.  I drop a couple extra shells in my pocket for good measure then cross back over to Sonny’s yard to finish the job.

After I find a spot for them deep in the woods out back, I go in to check on Sonny.  He’s up from the couch, sitting in a recliner.  The music’s still blaring through the speakers, but Sonny just sits there, staring dead ahead at a stack of magazines on the coffee table.  Zoned.

I turn down the volume and move into the kitchen.  Sonny always kept his fixins up under the sink.  I pull everything out, get some tumblers, and mix us up a couple.  Sonny snaps out of his trance long enough to latch on to the highball I hand him.  I turn the stereo down a click or two then sit in a chair opposite him.  The shades are drawn, and it’s good to be in from the heat.  We don’t say nothing, just sit there listening, drinking.  Then the music stops all of a sudden.  An announcer comes on with the weather forecast.  He’s talking in this whispery voice, makes some remark about the barometric pressure or something.  He’s trying to be clever, but I don’t catch the gist of what he’s saying, and my lack of understanding depresses me.


Next thing you know, Sonny and Tina are packing their stuff in two separate

U-hauls-a his-and-hers set.  Hers heads for Baltimore, his for Phoenix. 

I stayed put a few more years, got new neighbors.  But things never were quite the same. And after a while, I put my house on the market too, got the apartment I live in now.  I’m closer to work this way, which is nice in the winter when weather hits.

I kept in touch with Sonny through the mail mostly.  The first letter I got from him was signed “Your Pen Pal.”  I chuckled when I saw that.  But really, that’s how it turned out for us: friendly but distant.  After he moved away, it was like there was always something between the two of us, something more than miles.

We were still friends, sure.  When Sonny re-married, I rented a monkey-suit and booked a flight.  Never thought twice about it.  I was there when Megan was born too.  But those visits never came off the way I thought they would.  Sonny had moved out there to make a fresh start, maybe forget a few things.  Then, every two years or so, I’d show up.  New salt for old wounds.  Of course, Sonny never said as much-treated me like family, in fact-but I knew what my being there did to him.  So I decided to more or less phase myself out.  I pulled a disappearing act.  Sonny’d made a good life for himself out there.  I just left him to it.


Now he’s gone.  Now, this thing’s all I got-Megan’s video.


I sit back in my chair for a time, stirring ice cubes with my index finger, listening to them clink against the glass.  I press play on the VCR remote.  The TV goes black.  Everything’s quiet.  Sonny’s name flashes up on the screen, followed by two dates.  Then they start up with the organ music.

Next comes the picture, a full view of the casket.  There’s flowers piled high on top of it, flowers to either side on wire stands.  I can see the backs of the heads of all the people in the first couple of rows.  I scan the crowd, over and over, but can’t seem to recognize a soul. 

They’ve got the lid up, but with the angle of the camera, I can’t really get a good look at the body.  I figure it’s best that way.  It’s not exactly Sonny they got boxed up anyhow.  I been to enough funerals-enough “viewings”-to know that much.  Wax dummies.  That’s all I ever manage to think.

The camera must be mounted in a far corner or something, because the shot never changes.  Every so often, somebody comes in frame, walks over to the casket, peeks in, then walks off the screen.  Some are clutching hankies.  They walk up, dab at their faces, then move along, their shoulders all hunched up.  A few people walk by with their hands stuffed in their pockets.  Real casual, or so it seems.  Like they do this every day or something.  After ten minutes of this, I still don’t recognize a single one of these people.  The family’s most likely in another room, out of view, hidden.

The organist plays all the old regulars:  “Just As I Am,” “Peace in the Valley,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”  I take another swig.  The gin sits cold on my belly. 

They finally lower the lid and a preacher comes into frame.  He stands behind the casket, offers a few words.  Says he didn’t know Sonny but that, over the past few days, he feels like he’s gotten to know him some.  Says he’s talked to family and friends.  Says he’s heard stories.  He tells a few and I watch a couple of heads nod up in the front pew.  The preacher does what he can, but he misses a heap.  A life’s a big thing, and he’s pressed for time. Gotta get on with it, clear the room for the next set of grievers.

He says a few words about Jesus, closes with a prayer.  Someone says “Amen.”  A couple fellas in dark suits show up.  They each take an end of the casket and wheel Sonny down the center aisle.  Then the music starts up again.  But it’s not the organ this time.  They got pickers somewhere, guitar and autoharp.  They play “The Old Gospel Ship,” and I think how it’s about the only good thing to come out of the whole damn production.

I watch as the last part of the casket slips away from the bottom of the TV screen.  The people in the pews all stand up.  I stand up too.  I hold my glass up high, tip it to one side, and let the rest of the highball fall to the carpet.  I don’t spare a drop.


Curt Alderson has been writing stories and poems for fifteen years. He lives with his wife and two sons on a small family farm in southwest Virginia. His work has appeared in various publications, including Currents, Red Crow, Pitch Weekly, and Aura Literary Arts Review. For additional stories, poems, and readings visit

Womanhood, Fertility, and Identity

by Jessica Powers

In college, my best friend once described her hips as “child-bearing hips.” She knew back then that she wanted children and, indeed, now has six beautiful and healthy daughters. 

Me? I didn’t even know what hips were. Literally. If somebody had provided me pictures of two headless bodies-one male, one female-I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish the outline of hips on the female body.

A boyfriend once pointed out a transvestite, then said, knowingly, “You can always tell the difference between a woman and a transvestite. A transvestite lacks hips.”

My response? “Huh?” The transvestite looked like a perfectly beautiful woman to me!


I was never one of those women whose overwhelming desire in life was to have children, what some childless men and women have sneeringly referred to as a breeder.

Motherhood was simply never one of my goals.

One of the reasons I left organized religion, in fact, was the emphasis it all too often places on motherhood. I always felt devalued as a woman in the Christian church, and it never comforted me to have my feminist concerns pooh-poohed with a well-meaning, but completely off the mark, comment like this: “But women are completely valued in the church. There’s nothing more important than motherhood. That’s the most important role in life, male or female.”

I heard a preacher one time say that he was sick and tired of hearing people say that God doesn’t value women. “God chose a woman to carry his only begotten son,” he said. “That should prove how valuable women are! They’re more valuable than men!” (I didn’t have the guts to raise my hand and ask if he actually thought God would have chosen a man to give birth to his only begotten son, which would have truly been a miracle….but I definitely thought about it.)

Whenever I heard the emphasis on motherhood in sermons, I wanted to ask: If women are valuable because they are mothers, what happens to a woman’s value if she’s infertile? Or if she can conceive, but her body is incapable of carrying a baby to term? If women are valued precisely because they are mothers, does a woman cease to be valuable if she is unable or unwilling to contribute to the ongoing human gene pool? And are women to be valued for nothing else? Can’t they be valued as scientists, artists, educators, and healers? What about being valued because we’re funny, smart, thoughtful, or we make a good friend?  

I never got around to asking those questions. I just stopped going to church. I was tired of crying all the time, tired of fighting people with stupid ideas about what constitutes a person’s value.

I’d go as far as to argue that this strong correlation between motherhood and saintliness, and the conflation of our value as women with our fertility, can be labeled as spiritual abuse.

A person is valuable because of who they are, not because of the fertility-related identity role(s) they assume in life, roles such as wife, mother, grandmother. A woman should never be valued simply because of her ability to conceive and bear a child, just like a man should never be valued simply because he produces viable sperm.

So why do so many women’s self-images founder on their ability to conceive and bear a child, to successfully raise functioning members of society-at-large?


I never thought of myself as a slow learner, but when it comes to parenthood, I’m definitely a late-bloomer.

Throughout my twenties, I was grateful that I didn’t have children. The life of an artist is hard enough without adding babies to the mix, I thought.

When I first got married in my mid-twenties, my husband (now ex) and I planned to remain blissfully childfree. I hadn’t anticipated, then, that my biological clock would kick in with a vengeance as I approached thirty. Suddenly, to my surprise, I wanted kids. Oh, not the goobery, snotty-faced, diaper-rashed babies that grow up into delightful, creative, intelligent young people; no, as I approached thirty, I suddenly realized that I’d be thrilled if my children could emerge from my womb, already 10 or 11 or 12 years old. Talking in complete sentences. Potty-trained. Relatively independent already. You know, little adults.

This was an impossible dream, of course, unless I was willing to adopt an older child and deal with the potentially debilitating emotional problems they might have-always a crapshoot.

In lieu of heading down that path just yet, my husband and I have recently been trying for the flesh-and-blood variety, a normal baby conceived in the normal way pushed out of a normal vagina at the normal age of 0 months’ old. I guess I’m willing to subject myself to sleepless nights, poopy diapers, and sore breasts so I can get that pre-teen, teenager, college-student, and adult child I long for down the road.

But even as I embrace my identity as a woman “TTC” (a popular internet acronym that stands for “trying to conceive”), I still vacillate in my desire for children and it has to do with that fragile thing called identity.

There is always one solid reason for me to give up on the idea of motherhood: my identity as an artist. I’ve worked hard to get to the place where I am. I write five or six hours every day, and then teach college writing classes and run my small literary press on top of that. Recently, I’ve started working as a writing coach, and offering private writing classes in my home for children, teenagers, and adults. I easily put in twelve hours a day. It’s hard to imagine how I’ll balance all of that with motherhood.

It’s when I contemplate the vast gulf between what I desire to do with my life and the reality of raising children that I begin to wonder if I really want them.

Yet just when I think I might be “okay” with foregoing the pleasures of parenting, I realize I’m still captive to the idea that being a woman means being a mother. Intellectually, I know that this is a false belief. Emotionally, somewhere deep inside of me, I still believe that to live a full life, experiencing the full range of human emotions, requires adopting the role of parenthood, however your children come into your life.

Why the hell do I continue to associate my value as a woman with my fertility?

And so, I’m on the verge of giving up, of saying, “No more. I don’t want to try to get pregnant any more. That doesn’t mean I’ll try to prevent pregnancy, but I don’t want my life to be dominated by cervical fluid, basal body temperature, and that period that comes late but inevitably comes.”

It’s true that I’ve only been trying for eight months but I’m already tired of the emotional roller-coaster. Twice, my period has been a week late. In those days when I think I might be pregnant, my mind jumps to sugary fantasies of what it’ll be like, and I’m overwhelmed by the I can’t wait-ness of it all.

And then the disappointment sets in when my basal body temperature drops, menstrual blood arrives, and I discover that I’m not, after all, pregnant.

I wonder how women do this over and over and over? You know, those women that try to conceive for years and years and years? Those women that go to heroic efforts, spend all sorts of time and money, all in their quest to have a child?

I don’t think I can keep it up.

I’m beginning to wonder if I’m willing to give up on the so-called “fullness of life experience” b.s. I was just blathering on about if it means some emotional sanity.

I’m fortunate. A few days ago, as we were having yet another discussion about my on-again off-again desire to get pregnant, my husband looked at me and said, “You are my world. I don’t need anything else.” And we once again talked about what we will do if we don’t get pregnant-move to South Africa or Mozambique, to the Caribbean, to Ecuador or Argentina or Brazil, or maybe to all of those places for a few years apiece. Or we could take in foreign-born foster children, generally teenagers by the time they make it here after spending years in refugee camps.

Without children, the world is our oyster.

But still, it all comes down to this crux issue: What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean for me to feel valuable as a person?

We all, we all, need to learn to value ourselves apart from these roles we assume in life. For me, that includes the role of artist. If I replace motherhood with artist, am I really any better off? I’m still valuing myself by something that is transitory, fleeting. We don’t achieve immortality through our art. Nor do we achieve it by bearing offspring.

As I move forward TTC, or not TTC, I hope I can learn to value myself as Jessica with no titles attached to my name.


Last November, I had a dream about motherhood and identity. In the dream, I was in a house, surrounded by women I know who have young children. I wandered from person to person, but I couldn’t relate to any of them. In fact, I felt inferior as I talked with them-there was a sense in which all of them had experienced a part of womanhood that I lacked, and so we couldn’t connect. I felt, well, robbed.  And even as I tried to interest them in non-motherhood-related topics, I realized what I was doing: they seemed to think I was inferior because I wasn’t a mother and so, subconsciously and nastily, I was trying to turn the tables by demonstrating that I’d had an interesting career and had traveled to so many exotic locales and done so many interesting things that they would never do, encumbered as they were with snot-faced babies and dirty diapers.

 Eventually, not liking that dynamic one tiny little bit, I separated myself from the mothers with babies and went to another part of the house. There, I was joined by my many African friends, and we discussed Africa, and politics, and health, and religion, and we ignored the issue of motherhood. Though many of my African friends are also parents, I felt none of the distance I’d felt from my mother-friends, who were treating me as though I was less of a woman because I wasn’t a mother.

I woke up and felt a moment of grief, like the dream was telling me I’d lost my chance at motherhood, that I’d traded it in for Africa and my writing.

On reflection later, I realized that of course, I have never given up my dream of motherhood-until the last few years, I didn’t have a spouse with whom I could have children. Instead, the dream was speaking to me about my hidden desire to be a mother as well as the obvious calling on my life to Africa and as a writer. My desire to have it all.

It was also reminding me of this unassailable truth: While all the other women in the room had chosen motherhood first-and let me add, they are all young women I admire, who have made the choices they wanted to make by choosing children over career, at least for the time being-I had chosen it second. And ultimately, I found myself in a room with the people I had chosen: Africans.

It was a revelation.

As I embark on this next stage of my life, trying to get pregnant, I’m constantly filled with doubts. Sometimes I wonder if motherhood is what God intends for me, or even if motherhood is something I want to add to my mixture of things I’ve already chosen (or that has chosen me)-Africa and writing. Sometimes I feel desperate to be pregnant, now, and sometimes, I secretly hope I’m not pregnant, so that nothing needs to change.  In fact, I worry about how motherhood will prevent me from doing the things I feel I’m supposed to do, in Africa, as a writer-those vague, hazy outline of things that make up my future. I’m still waiting for the clarion call from God, the angel of the Lord appearing to me in a dream, the way he did with Mary and Joseph, and telling me, “This is what you’re supposed to do. I’ve arranged everything for you. It won’t be easy but at least there’s no doubt about it.”

But that’s too easy and, in all likelihood, false. The path that God marked out for Mary and Joseph must have seemed hazy and uncertain to them. It is only clear in retrospect, when written about as a narrative, a narrative that brooks no other possible paths.

I wonder how fearful and frustrated Mary and Joseph must have felt as they walked down that road, wondering all the time if they could veer in a different direction, or if they even wanted to, or if this was really the path they were supposed to be on and if they weren’t just fooling themselves.

I wonder how much of this path I’m following I charted myself, and how much has been charted for me.

I suppose I’ll never know.

And, at least some of the time, I’m okay with that.


Jessica Powers is the author of The Confessional (Knopf, 2007), a novel that explores racial tension and school violence at an all-boys Catholic high school on the U.S.-Mexico border; editor of Labor Pains and Birth Stories: Essays on Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Becoming a Parent, editor of The Fertile Source, and publisher of Catalyst Book Press.

Esther Chavez Cano: “Because I Am A Woman”

by Bobby Byrd

Esther Chávez Cano died in Juárez on Christmas Day. She was 76 years old. She was a hero, a fronteriza woman who in the early 1990s in Juárez saw the continuing tragedy of women being killed and decided to do something about it. With much help she started Casa Amiga near downtown Juárez. At the time it was one of only six rape crisis centers in Mexico and the only one on the U.S./Mexico Border. She brought international attention to the continuing murders of women in Juárez and the uncaring and apathetic response by the Mexican government on all levels–city, state and federal–to these murders. Indeed, as we now know, law enforcement was more concerned with supporting the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S. than it was with investigating and prosecuting the murders of women. If anything, the authorities wanted to keep activists like Esther quiet because she brought attention to the vacuum of justice in Juárez. She has received many awards for her work, as the number of obituaries state, but she never veered from the task at hand–helping the women of Juárez.

In 2002, when Cinco Puntos Press was putting together the anthology PURO BORDER: DISPATCHES, GRAFFITI AND SNAPSHOTS FROM THE U.S./MEXICO BORDER, three of us–novelist Jessica Powers, who worked for us at the time, Lee Byrd and I—walked over the bridge and went to visit Esther at Casa Amiga. She was a diminutive and very hospitable woman with a quiet way about her but she had a presence that commanded respect. Her work at Casa Amiga was self-evident–women and children were coming and going, and some were staying, being protected inside the walls of the center from husbands or boyfriends who would harm them if they had the chance. Indeed, in December 2001 her receptionist, who had come to the center as a client, was killed by her husband in front of Casa Amiga. When we asked her why she started Casa Amiga, she replied quietly–

“Because I am a woman, because I felt helpless and because I have a conscience.”

Below I am pasting the mostly unedited notes that Lee took during that visit that I found in our archives (Lee also took the photograph above), and below that I am pasting an article by Tessie Borden that originally appeared in the Arizona Republic and that we republished in PURO BORDER. But first, Casa Amiga as always needs financial help. Those who wish to help may do so by making a donation to their account:

No. Cuenta: 65-50227820-0
CLABE 014164655022782007
1427 Suc. Plaza las Torres
Cd. Juárez, Chih. C.P. 32575

Notes from Esther Chávez Cano Interview, June 24, 2002

(taken by Lee Byrd)

There is terrible violence against women right now in Juarez. She will give us her list of the names of murdered women with pleasure. She gathered the list from reading the newspapers. She only includes the names of murdered women, not of children, or of people who have disappeared. We asked if she thought the authorities had a bigger list and she said it will do no good to check with the authorities. The authorities will not give us access to names. Everyone who has a list has gathered their information from the newspapers. But what of the women who never get mentioned in the newspapers?

She said, Here is an example of a girl who has disappeared and of what has happened with the mother. She shows us a photo of a girl, Brenda Esther Afrara Luna, who disappeared two years ago when she was 15. Several months ago (time is uncertain), the mother was told by the authorities that her daughter has been found. But the mother went and looked and it wasn’t her daughter. Then they told her again they had found her. It was not the body of her daughter, but the body was wearing her daughter’s dress. It was very confusing. Esther said there are many cases like this. The mother in this case has endured a lot of domestic violence herself.

Casa de Amiga was started on February 9, 1999, about three and a half years ago. Esther is the founder. We asked her why she started it. She said because she’s a woman, because she felt helpless, and because she has a conscience. It was funded initially with $31,000 from FEMAP. Last week they received $25,000 from the U.S. embassy [see article below]. It is earmarked for a project to provide therapy for women who suffered incest, rape or violence as children.

Casa de Amiga is the only center of its kind all along the border, the only one in Juarez. There is nothing for battered women.

She mentioned that there have been two deaths in Chihuahua that have similar M.O.s. [to the women being killed in Juarez.] Why is it different here, we asked. Why is there more violence [than the rest of Mexico]? This is the border, she said, with its traffic of drugs, its maquiladoras. Poor people come here to seek opportunities, they want to cross the river to live the American dream. In this city there are 500 gangs. There are no opportunities here, conditions are very poor. Have you been to Anapra? It’s a terrible place.

The police hate her. They don’t ignore her. “I would like it if they would ignore me,” she said. They campaign against her. One year and seven months ago, they began their campaign. Governor Patricio doesn’t like her: according to him, she doesn’t do anything right—she’s a terrible director, she steals the money, she herself is a violent woman. And so the stories go. When Esther began talking about the women, Patricio tried to silence her.

In this building, last December 21, 2001, her own receptionist was killed by her husband. This receptionist had four kids, eight years on down, and she was a wonderful worker, good, hard-working, prudent. The husband came to Casa de Amigo to kill her here. From jail, the husband has called for custody of the kids.

When we expressed dismay over this, she said that last week, she had to go rescue a woman who was impregnated by her father. She was 19 and had been raped by him for the last 8 years. She’d had two children. One, a little boy, died of malnourishment. The other, a little girl of 3.5 years, was asked by Esther what had name was. The girl said she had no name. When Esther took the 19 year old woman away, the father went to the Human Rights Agency and demanded that his daughter come back and they agreed to his demands.

There is another girl now who is 11 years old and in the fifth grade. She’s 7 months pregnant. Some woman, a neighbor maybe, took her to a man and he raped her. The father and mother of this girl are separated and she is treated like a puppet.


By Tessie Borden
Arizona Republic Mexico City Bureau
Feb. 26, 2002 12:00:00

JUAREZ, Mexico — It’s 9:30 a.m., and Esther Chavez Cano’s daily personal war with the unwanted problems of this largest of the border cities has begun.

She rushes into her office at Casa Amiga, the rape crisis center that grew out of the violence that has claimed the lives of more than 200 young women here in the past nine years. Close behind is a staff member describing this morning’s emergency: a neighbor found two girls, 8 and 10, wandering in the city’s El Chamizal park the previous night. They told the woman they were running away from their father’s beatings.

Chavez Cano immediately calls the local district attorney’s office, and one gets the feeling she has done this hundreds of times. In a firm but friendly tone, she calls on the attorneys there to take charge of the children and investigate what they say.

“The authorities just don’t do anything,” she whispers while on hold.

Chavez Cano’s Casa Amiga is the only center of its kind on the Mexican side of the 1,950-mile line that separates the country from the United States. Established in February 1999, it receives funding from both U.S. and Mexican organizations.

Chavez Cano, 66, a diminutive, retired accountant whose mild manner causes listeners to lean in just to hear her, is perhaps the most outspoken and militant voice here on violence against women.

In 1993, she noticed a trend among crimes committed in Juarez: dozens of young women were turning up slain in the surrounding desert. The bodies showed evidence of beatings, rape and strangulation. Many of the women fit a distinct profile: tall and thin, with long, dark hair and medium skin, between ages 11 and 25. Often, they came from the ranks of workers who yearly swell Juarez’s population from other parts of rural Mexico to work at border assembly plants, or maquiladoras.

Prodding the police

“They try to pretend these are not serial crimes,” Chavez Cano said of the local authorities. “It just brings your rage out. It makes you boil.”

Chavez Cano and others formed the Liga 8 de Marzo, an awareness group that collected data about the slayings and prodded police to give the murder investigations high priority – often by picketing the police station, holding crosses bearing names of victims.

No one agrees on the exact number of killings that are related. Chavez Cano says about 230 women have been found in the past nine years, the most recent in November when eight bodies were discovered in a shallow pit. Some slayings have been traced to jealous husbands or drug traffickers. But a large number share characteristics that make investigators believe a serial killer and perhaps copycats are at work.

After raising awareness of the problem to a national level, Chavez Cano decided someone should work to prevent the deaths, rather than just clean up after the murderers.

Help from elsewhere

With start-up money from the Maryland-based International Trauma Resource Center, the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the Mexican Federation of Private Health and Community Development Associations, Chavez Cano opened Casa Amiga near the city center. A paid staff of four and an army of volunteers served 318 clients in Casa Amiga’s first year, providing a 24-hour hotline, counseling and group therapy.

Last year, the center added three staff members and served 5,803 clients, of which 1,172 were new cases.

Chavez Cano now worries about a troubling side issue: child sexual abuse and incest. Fifty-seven of her clients in the first year were raped children. So among her most successful programs is a puppet show that teaches children about “bad” touching and instructs them, in a gentle way, to respect their bodies.
The center takes most of her attention, but Chavez Cano does not let the police off easy when it comes to the slayings of women in the desert. They, in turn, have lashed out at her.

An attitude of disdain

Arturo Chavez Rascón, Chihuahua state’s former attorney general, came in for some of her sharpest barbs because of his comments implying the victims contributed to their own deaths through their dress or lifestyle. It’s an attitude shared by police officers on the beat, who Chavez Cano says discourage families from associating with Casa Amiga.

The center used to receive about $3,000 a month from Juarez for rent and salaries, but that stipend has been cut, Cano said. Now, the center relies on money it gets from donations and showings around Mexico of the hit play The Vagina Monologues.

Tragedy close to home

Recently, the center suffered a blow of a different kind.

In December, Maria Luisa Carsoli Berumen, an abused mother who had become a client and then a staff member at the center, was killed in front of Casa Amiga, witnesses say, by her husband, Ricardo Medina Acosta. The two had had a long and violent history that led to Carsoli Berumen leaving him. A court granted custody of their four children to Medina Acosta. She stayed in town, planning to wait until after the Christmas holidays to resume the custody fight.

On the morning of Dec. 21, the pair argued and struggled outside the center, and she was stabbed twice in the chest as she tried to flee. A black bow at the door expresses the staff’s grief. No one has been in arrested in Carsoli Berumen’s death.

Fighting for respect

“The death of Maria Luisa forces us to work more intensely to instill respect in children, men and women, and to sensitize the authorities to the grave risk for families and all of society that domestic violence represents,” Chavez Cano wrote in a column in the local newspaper.

“Rest in peace, Maria Luisa, and watch over your children so they remain united and sheltered by your loved ones who lament your absence.”

Editor note: Likewise, may Esther Chavez Cano rest in peace after her many years of good work protecting women from violence and murder.


Bobby Byrd is a small press publisher (Cinco Puntos Press) and poet. His latest work of poetry, White Panties, Dead Friends, and Other Bits & Pieces of Love, was published in 2006. He is currently editing Lone Star Noir, an anthology of noir stories set in Texas, forthcoming from Akashic Books.

Waiting to Take the Pregnancy Test, Dreaming When the Moon is Full, Letter at Nine Weeks

3 Poems

by Wendy Wisner

Waiting to Take the Pregnancy Test

A yellow taxi, bright as blood,
stops behind the oak tree,
picks up no one, and slides away.

Every thirty seconds, an airplane
grazes the yolk yellow house
across the street.  Blue jays

spill from rusty maples-
swarms of them, hollow bodies.
I wish we bore our young

as birds do, outside the body.
Humans like to look
at what they make while they make it.

Each brief morning,
I gaze through the red veil
of my curtains.  I make a world.

In the afternoon I lose it.

Dreaming When the Moon is Full

My father picks me up in the old Datsun,
seats still sticky from the apple juice
I spilled as a baby.  My sister is a child
in her mint green T and it isn’t weird
when I bury my head in her chest.
It’s mushy there, like leaky down pillows
and she tells me everything will be fine
the way I told her on the phone last night
everything will be fine because the moon is full.
Then my father drops me off at your childhood
home.  Your mother’s hair is long and gold
like Rapunzel’s and she says it’s okay
if you and I sleep in the wild woods
of the unfinished attic.  As we climb
the stairs, I cup my hand on the small
of your back, rake my fingers through your
corn husk hair.  Even in the dream
I cannot give you a child, but you rock
and cradle me on the sawdust floor,
my body floppy as a doll.  Over and over
you forgive me, mouth sealed to my milky chest,
stars knocking like dice against the skylights.

Letter at Nine Weeks*

First the book said my womb was a plum,
then a small pear, a navel orange,
now a grapefruit, and this morning, you pushing
your almond body against the edges
of mine, drool blooming so thick and sticky
on my pillow I feared it was blood, I said to you
I want the world, I want it just a little.

Danny wakes, and we sleep,
my body splayed out, ripe, taking up space,
you stuck to me, secret as a silkworm.
The blender whirs, the phone rings.
Birds screech, but I am strapped
to this bed, not dreaming, not thinking, you gently sucking.

*”Letter At Nine Weeks” previously appeared in a chapbook published by The Zen Center of NY in October 2009.


Wendy Wisner’s first book of poems, Epicenter, was published by CW Books in 2004.  Her poems have appeared in The Spoon River Review, Rhino, Natural Bridge, The Bellevue Literary Review, online at Verse Daily, and elsewhere.  Wendy previously taught writing and literature at Hunter College; she is now a La Leche League leader and is pursuing her Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) certification.  Visit Wendy on the web at

Review of Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict

Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict

by Irene Vilar (

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.

A New Language

by Jazmine Green

Had she known, she would have said no right from the start.  She would have left no room for negotiations.  But he was careful. 

“It’s your decision.  Whatever you want to do, I will be here for you.  I will support you.  You know I love you.”

“I know.”  He rubbed his hands along her upper arms and kissed her on the forehead. 

“It will be OK.” 

“I know.”

Then the conversations changed.  She wanted to keep it.  She told him flat out.  He wanted to travel. 

“I want to take you to Costa Rica.  You will not believe the rain forests there.  It is so green.  And the sound at night-there’s nothing like it.  You will really love it.  I can’t wait to take you.”

Then later, “Let’s move to another country together.  Let’s do it.  Just leave everything here and move.  We can learn a new language together.  Don’t you think that would be great?”

“But how are we…?”  She didn’t finish, and only added, “That sounds great.”

He sent text messages all day spelling out the urgency with which he felt his life slowly coming to a close.  “I can’t wait to travel with you.”  “I love you.”  “Can I fuck you tonight?” 

The texts were left hanging without any reply.  She could conjure no answer.  She was uncommonly quiet most of the time.  Everyday she inhaled and exhaled her reality.  The thought settled in her diaphragm so that she couldn’t help but live every second with it.  Pregnant.  Pregnant.  Pregnant.

“I’ll have to drop out of school.”  He blurted it out one evening with hot, desperate breath.  She tried to assuage his worries. 

“My parents will help us.  Your parents will help us.”

“I’ll resent this child.” 

And there it was.  It took a while for it to come out so boldly.  It was his truth. 

Three days later her truth came out, without warning.  A stain that granted his freedom.  A stain that broke her heart.


Jazmine Green is a Los Angeles based writer and poet, currently working on her first novel. In addition to writing, she spends her time as  WriteGirl mentor, preschool teacher, and yoga instructor. Her most recent experiments with words can be found at

Under the Northern Lights

A Play in One Act

by John Ladd


(In Order of Appearance)






A motel room.  It is divided into an ante-room, that is at center-stage, and the bedroom that is, conceptually, off beyond stage-right.  The ante-room has the usual amenities including a table with two chairs as well as one particularly special feature- and is one that the audience cannot see– a north-facing, one-way glass wall and ceiling both of which are covered by imaginary drapes on imaginary drawstrings.


            Enter from stage left JIM and MARIE at the door to their room.  JIM unlocks the door, reaches in and turns on the lights (the house lights come up.)  JIM and MARIE enter the ante-room carrying and pulling their travel luggage.


                  (entering the room)

            Well, here we are.

                         [MARIE follows JIM into the room.]


                        (sitting down, exhausted)

            I can’t believe we’re finally here.

                         [JIM puts the luggage down and, similarly exhausted,

                        sits down in the other chair.]


            I know- I didn’t think that it would take this long.


            So, we’re in Anchorage.


            No Fairbanks.


            That’s right, Fairbanks.  And, what is so special about Fairbanks?


            You don’t remember?


            Jim, honey- I know why we’re here, but, specifically- there’ve been so many

            places for so many unique reasons.


            It’s the northern lights- that’s why we’re here.  They’re said to be a powerful

            fertility aid.


            I see- that’s right- I’m sorry, I forgot.  I’m just hungry, thirsty and tired. Continue reading ‘Under the Northern Lights’

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