Testimony of an Abortion Addict
Written by Irene Vilar
Irene Vilar was just a pliant young college undergraduate in thrall to her professor when they embarked on a relationship that led to marriage—a union of impossible odds—and fifteen abortions in fifteen years. Vilar knows that she is destined to be misunderstood, that many will see her nightmare as an instance of abusing a right, of using abortion as a means of birth control. But it isn't that. The real story is part of an awful secret, shrouded in shame, colonialism, self-mutilation, and a family legacy that features a heroic grandmother, a suicidal mother, and two heroin-addicted brothers. It is a story that looks back on her traumatic childhood growing up in the shadow of her mother's death and the footsteps of her famed grandmother, the political activist Lolita Lebrón, and a history that touches on American exploitation and reproductive repression in Puerto Rico. Vilar seamlessly weaves together past, present, and future, channeling a narrative that is at once dramatic and subtle.
Impossible Motherhood is a heartrending and ultimately triumphant testimonial told by a writer looking back on her history of addiction. Abortion has never offered any honest person easy answers. Vilar's dark journey through self-inflicted wounds, compulsive patterns, and historical hauntings is a powerful story of loss and mourning that bravely delves into selfhood, national identity, reproductive freedom, family responsibility, and finally motherhood itself—today, Vilar is the mother of two beautiful children.
Category: Social Science - Abortion & Birth Control
“Nuanced, intellectually ambitious and unnervingly frank.”—The Washington Post
“The strength of [Impossible Motherhood] lies in exposing the need to talk about abortion as a public health issue. It's impossible to take abortion out of the realm of morality, religion and politics and place it solely in the medical realm, along with diabetes and cancer and high cholesterol. But it is crucial to see it, first and foremost, as an issue of the human body: a woman's body.”—The Miami Herald
“Extraordinary and incendiary…a potential launching pad for a discussion about abortion that is more personal than political…Vilar turns her experiences into a reminder that the complexity of abortion extends beyond the scientific and political arenas…Impossible Motherhood doesn’t shy away from the wounds that are part of Vilar’s journey toward independence; it embraces them, making her remarkable story full of assurance but free of bitterness.”—Bitch Magazine
"Impossible Motherhood tells why [Irene Vilar] had 15 abortions in 16 years…How is that humanly possible in either sense of the word—the moral or the physical? In the telling, however, it seems as inevitable as sunrise...Vilar, who eventually escaped this horrid cycle to have two children, writes not to excuse, but to explain herself." —Elle Magazine
“In Impossible Motherhood Vilar does exactly what the best memoirists do: She tells us the truth about everything, even when the truth utterly confounds….[Vilar] tells [her story] to us with courage and grace and a true writer’s skill.”—The Oregonian
"Vilar does not mean to advocate on either side of the abortion debate; ranging far beyond the politics of abortion, her book is a controversial and intense tale of generational and national trauma…[Vilar is] a writer of brutal honesty and profound intelligence."—ForeWord Magazine
"Impossible Motherhood is like a journey into a harrowing underworld but guided by Vilar's gifts and her light we emerge in the end transformed, enlightened, and oh so alive." –JUNOT DIAZ , AUTHOR OF THE BRIEF WONDROUS LI FE OF OSCAR WAO
"I have never read a book like Impossible Motherhood, Irene Vilar's disturbing, heart-wrenching, and ultimately triumphant memoir, for the simple and understandable reason that no one of her gender has ever summoned the brutally raw, transcendent courage to write such a book–and yes, confess to such a troubling story." –BOB SHACOCHIS , AUTHOR OF EASY IN THE IS LANDS
"Irene Vilar's dramatic and beautifully drawn story forces the reader to confront the power of sexuality and procreation that often is the only power a young woman perceives she owns in this world. IMPOSSIBLE MOTHERHOOD is profound, raw, wrenching, and honest to the bone. Yet despite the title, its message is that no matter how intense the pain one has experienced, healing and redemption are in fact possible."—Gloria Feldt
Irene Vilar was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Her memoir The Ladies' Gallery (Other Press, 2009) was a Philadelphia Inquirer and Detroit Free Press notable book of the year and was short-listed for the 1999 Mind Book of the Year Award. She is a literary agent and editor of The Americas series at Texas Tech University Press.
For years, it didn't occur to me that there was anything to tell about abortion. The opposite. There was much to forget. But I discovered that many other women were hungry to come to terms with a past scarred by cowardice and the need to cloak themselves in someone else's power. Many had a history of repeat abortions. They, like me, were eager to find a language to articulate an experience they had seldom spoken about. 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. About half of American women having abortions in 2004 (of 1.5 million reported) have had a prior abortion. Close to 20 percent have had at least two previous abortions and 10 percent three or more. A considerable number of the repeat abortions occur among populations with high levels of contraceptive use.
My own account can't resolve the moral dilemma of my actions. Yet, I want to understand the spell a pregnant body exercised over me, my flawed desire to become someone, or something else. The diaries I kept guided me. My promise to the reader is to deliver an account of my addiction, a steady flow of unhappiness, the X-ray of a delusion, and ultimately, the redeeming face of motherhood.
Halfway through working on this book I got pregnant for the seventeenth time. I don't think I would have been able to give birth without the call to accountability and self reflection that writing this story demanded. My daughter became the coherence emerging from the shameful mass of thirty-five years.
Yes, I was an abortion addict and I do not wish for a scapegoat. Everything can be explained, justified, our last century tells us. Everything maybe, except for the burden of life interrupted that shall die with me.
My story is a perversion of both maternal desire and abortion, framed by a lawful procedure that I abused. My first pregnancy was a result of lying about birth control. He was inside of me when he asked: You are protecting yourself, aren't you? Later, I would take my pills and skip a day, a few, and often give up on the whole month, promising myself I would do better the next time. Not knowing how a pill or a handful of them would affect my fertility, my days took on a balancing act, and a high of sorts accompanied the days before my period was due. Half my pregnancies with him occurred during our first three years together. Each time I got my period, I was sad. Each time I discovered I was pregnant, I was aroused and afraid. Every pregnancy was a house of mirrors I entered and lost myself in, numb to the realities of a fetus, my partner's wishes, and the impossible motherhood I was fashioning.
I never craved that moment when I clenched my vibrating abdomen, feet high up on cold stirrups, and told myself never again. There was no high that came with that. My mood-altering experience was a shape shifter. At times the high took place before pregnancy, waiting for a missed period, my body basking in the promise of being in control. At other times it was the pregnancy itself, the control I embodied if only for a couple of months, and still other times it was leaving the abortion clinic, feeling that once again I had succeeded in a narrow escape. The time of my drama was my time, no one could interrupt it, and what was more important, I could not interrupt it to meet others' needs.
Feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, and disorder faded in the face of the possibilities of my reproductive body. An excitement, hyperarousal, almost euphoria surrounded my maternal desire. The craving gave structure to the confusing morass of events that made up my life. I would visit Marshall's and put infant clothes on layaway. I would start a diary. I would daydream about holding a baby girl and teaching her the alphabet. I would lie in the bathtub with a smile on my face, knowing that only I knew.
Tension would gradually build as my pregnant body crowded out all other things and emotions. After a few weeks, stress would set in and grow more acute by the day and with the physical changes in me. I would go in and out of denial. At times I would forget I was pregnant. Other times I could think of nothing else. I would stop eating. By the time I lay in an abortion clinic waiting for the procedure to begin, I would feel nothing but disgust and shame. When I left the clinic, I felt a calm respite, surrender. I always said to myself then, "This has to end."
It was a violent, intensely emotional drama that kept me from feeling alone. A moment came when not being pregnant was enough motivation for wanting to be pregnant. The fantasies subsided. Soon it was no longer about the control I had craved before. Getting pregnant began to be simply a habit. If I wasn't pregnant, something was wrong, more wrong than what was already wrong. I believe this habit formed with abortion #9 and pregnancy #10, shortly after I returned from Miguel's funeral. I didn't want anything to do with my husband or the pregnancy or myself. I overdosed and woke up in a hospital. I needed another self-injury to get the high.