Instilled in each woman is the belief that she is intransitive, that she cannot affect change or motion in her life, any more than she can resist the social code. To take responsibility for my actions — to say “I did this thing,’’ rather than “It happened to me” — is to breach culture’s dictates.
In late November, we locked the door to the office. Pressed against my behind with the force of our combined weights, the wooden desk was chilling. I shut my eyes against it, the overhead light. He smelled as he always had. Once again he pressed his cheek against my shoulder: I stroked his thinning hair: the tenderness – I no longer feel it – of nostalgia, not passion.
Three or four million spermatozoa. X or Y. One six-thousandth of an inch in diameter. Hairlike tails. The tails moved rapidly from side to side, propelling. An inch per 12 minutes. The body attacked them as they advanced, greatly diminishing in number. An ovum is ripe for approximately 48 hours.
He craned his neck for the obligatory kiss at midnight. New Year’s Eve. Mortality seemed remote. That was what 1 once felt in those final ten seconds of the old year. But that year, as I stood arm around this man 1 had ceased to love, the year coming in ten seconds was an ending. A referee’s count in a boxing ring. A month before, we engaged in a sexual act on a desk in an office. And there was no future for us. He did not know this. He did not know I would remove him from my life in this new year. I never planned those things deliberately. I held them at a distance.
“We” saw the new year in together. We stood kissing in the face of the new year. The year stretched before us in thin monotony. One point stood bleakly defined. A decimal marring the smooth unbroken year. It lay on a sliding track, shuttling unsurely between January and February.
I would do as I had been taught.
It is the same this day as it was then, as it has always been. Women do as they are told. Our obedience vindicates accepted mores. In this manner we protect the existing social order. We are the defenders of the status quo, the standard bearers. It is only the standards that have changed. The structure remains: the taboo that once forbade discussion of female sexual arousal now prohibits its exclusion from consideration.
Instilled in each woman is the belief that she is intransitive, that she cannot affect change or motion in her life, any more than she can resist the social code. To take responsibility for my actions — to say “I did this thing,’’ rather than “It happened to me” — is to breach culture’s dictates. Dictates with which one does not choose to comply or disagree. They are not external and are, therefore, irrevocable. That is not to say they cannot be revolted against. But the decision to conform to or defy society’s strictures is unconscious, unchosen. That decision is itself learned behavior, assimilated from the same culture from which we seek to divorce ourselves.
This is not an attempt to absolve an individual of responsibility for her actions. I do not seek forgiveness. This is what I mean to say: It is only through acceptance of our fundamental lack of self-determination that we can truly act responsibly.
Do not think that you have been untouched.
The movements of social reform that arose and died in the past 25 years left no one untouched. Those who did not participate actively in such movements are still inculcated with their dogmas by mere association. Adaptability, after all, is the key to survival. Current values, which reflect an insidious shift toward the philosophically inorganic — the postwar drive for individual success; the ruthless pursuit of personal satisfaction; the disintegration of the family (an institution that “outlived its usefulness”); the devaluation of human life; the preoccupation with Ethics and attendant controversy over what moral base to found them upon — are passively absorbed.
I was never forced by hunger, poverty, or racism to question the world in which these values had been conceived, had germinated. I am a white, middle-class woman, the fourth generation in my family to attend college. Obedience was easy; no matter what society might require of me, my basic needs would be provided for. I was dealt a fine hand. A hand it would have been a crime to bite.
We live in an age beyond the death of absolutes. What I did is considered immoral by some. But to my class and kind, it is an inalienable right. Let me say what is important: There is a question. There is a possibility that what I did was wrong.
Countless sexual acts spread over the last ten years, some engaged in with a passion which the resulting conception of a child would have been esteemed by; the child would seem a natural extension of the act. A fitting tribute. Some were acts of boredom or rebellion. Many were untenanted by contraception. All these acts, in which I indulged on the slightest provocation, and for which I felt so little responsibility, had taken place without consequence. Having arrived, at the end of a long childhood, to realize the full extent of my responsibility in these acts — that they were acts that involved not just me but everyone — and after six months of celibacy, I regretted those acts to the full extent for which it is possible for a child of my era to repent. Repentance is an admission of sin, but the notion of sin belonged to another age.
Individualism long ago became more important than social responsibility. One ten-minute interval in a fit of loneliness on a cold night, with a man I had once cared for deeply. An irony both tedious and commonplace. I thought of this as I drove to the clinic on College Avenue, dulled and doomed.
That atmosphere peculiar to medical facilities: dehumanizing. The soul is forsaken for the sake of the body. A personal trauma diminished by an efficient stream of tests to be made, forms to be filled. A urine test; a blood test. Pissing in a cup and handing it over to be examined by a technician. Read like tea leaves. Like consulting a card reader. The entrails of a chicken. I relied on science for the guidance previous generations had sought in religion. Science dealt, not with absolutes, but at least with exactitude.
I waited in the reception area for half an hour. I was sure that the tests did not take half an hour to analyze; I was being given this time to think things over — the little girl who had thrown a tantrum had been sent to her room. Contemplate your sins. The yellow plastic seats in the waiting room were bolted down. Two long windows paned in a discreetly opaque material. There were no magazines. Pamphlets wilted over the edge of a wall rack: by the time I had arrived here, all the cheery logic of their paper diatribes on contraception and the importance of family planning were of no use to me.
There were other women waiting. Girls. Black, Hispanic. Dressed, perhaps intentionally, in prim, feminine blouses and skirts: hoping to sway the sympathies of the centrifuge that spun their blood samples. One girl had her arm around another, spoke gently to her in Spanish. Moral support that seemed to me somewhat after the fact. There were no sisters, mothers, aunts when the culpable man was (by blackmail in slow degrees, or a more expedient method) coaxing her — with promises, imprecations, tender kisses, a knife — to spread her legs for him.
Our common dilemma made us kindred souls but also ensured that each of us was utterly alone. A wall poster represented an animated condom and a diaphragm: in my eyes they resembled dunce caps. We, sitting here, were dupes. Singled out by the mushroom-headed finger of Justice. I wondered if these girls were angry; and if so, with whom or with what. 1 wasn’t angry at the man who had fertilized me. The circumstances that had led me to this clinic, for this purpose, were actions for which I alone was completely responsible.
A girl came down the hallway, clutching a blue slip of paper. She wore a white lace blouse. Her innocence and youth angered me: I imagined coercion. Somewhere — the back seat of a car, perhaps — she had been seduced into sex. She had perhaps come here to be seduced, also, seduced into another course of action that would alter even more drastically the path of her life. But the seeking of advice is a deception; the seeker knows in advance what advice will be given and chooses her adviser accordingly. This girl had, as had I, already decided what to do; we came only for approval. Had I been religious, I suppose the decision would have been more difficult and the adviser condemning. Having no religion, I rely instead upon the customs of my class and culture.
The white-bloused girl’s eyes were on the linoleum tiled floor. She walked straight to the door and left. The explosive thump of the door behind her startled those still waiting. It seemed a bad omen. Another woman came down the hall. She cradled a sheaf of file folders in her arms. She glanced down at them and called my name. She swept her eyes over me; I don’t know what she was looking for. I was ushered into an office.
The woman at the desk put aside a full-color plastic model of the uterus and, smiling, explained that some young women who consulted her still didn’t know how the reproductive system worked. She was small and quick looking. She wore a doctor’s smock. There was a window with louvered blinds high in the wall behind her. A window through which to be spied upon; this clinic bred paranoia. The woman opened a file folder and read. She handed me a blue slip of paper. She told me the pregnancy test was positive.
She waited. She had been on the arbitrary end of this cataclysmic situation many times already that day, and the sympathetic look in her eyes had an edge of weariness to it. Despite having previously resigned myself, I was still shocked. I asked her, “That means I am pregnant, correct?’’ She nodded emphatically. She asked me if it was happy news or sad news. I told her it was sad. But I felt happy that I could conceive. Good news for the future.
The woman asked about my life. My job, my lover, my family. She held a ball-point pen in one hand. She punctuated her sentences by clicking and unclicking its stem. She asked if I’d considered all my “options.” It was a scripted conversation, taken from the play “they” had made up. A choreographed ritual, like a wedding. It was not a play I thought bore any relation to reality. There were no “options” for me — I had known for ten years what I would do if I came to this pass, what would be expected of a young woman like me.
I would have an abortion; I was sure. The decision was an easy one to make. In fact, it was not a decision at all. Decision implies choice, and I had none. A child could not fit into my life. My life had to this point been a series of failures. My job was boring and had no future. I had no money. I was no longer in love with the man who shared my culpability in this. He had no money either. I could not spend the next 18 years raising a child. I didn’t want to be tied to another failure. I would be miserable raising a child, a child whose life could only be miserable. There were enough children in the world, dying every minute.
The woman told me with a straight face that she normally didn’t advise abortion. She didn’t think many women could “deal with it ” The woman suggested perfunctorily that I carry the baby to term and then give it up for adoption. I was revolted perfunctorily by the idea of pregnancy and labor for no reward: squatting, my back supported by helpful but disgusted strangers, my vagina huge and torn. A fat, pink, bleeding vessel. Personal humiliation to ensure the continuation of my species. Trade my future for an outdated idea of nobility. Motherhood was not for me connected with God or serenity any more than sex was connected with propagation. Only with the ruination of my life. Any biological maternal instincts had long ago been thwarted. Fertility is no longer fashionable. Motherhood was impossible.
Again she smiled. She said that “in view of your intelligence” and “how sure you are of what you want,” she thought I should go ahead with the abortion. Her logic: because I was intelligent, because of my display of will, I was somehow predisposed to make my own decision in this matter. Clearly, stupid women had to have these decisions made for them — their weak minds prone to confusion over right and wrong. Or perhaps they were supposed to keep their unintelligent babies. She did not explain herself further. She opened a metal file cabinet. She held out to me a slip of paper on which was typed the name of a doctor on El Cajon Boulevard. She pointed with her ball-point pen to the phone number as she explained this, then wrote the amount, $300, next to his name and circled it. She gave me the paper and a white card I was to hand to the receptionist on my way out.
She wished me luck, then apologized for doing so.
I walked down the hall, imagining my expression must resemble that of the girl in the white lace blouse. It was more numb a sensation than despair. The waiting room looked up at me inquiringly. I knew they hoped I would look happy, for their sakes. If I had escaped, they could too. Before I gave the white card to the receptionist, I read it. The receptionist watched me quizzically. She must not have known how reluctant I was to hand it to her. Giving her the card was surrender. She would plug me into a machine. Add this to the list of unpaid bills at TRW. Name, address, tests administered. D.O.C. November, 1985. D.O.B. August 16, 1986.
As I drove home, I kept my mind blank. It was not an effort. I had learned in the years since high school to turn off those dangerous lines of thought that lead to depression and suicide. The one clear moment of sadness: realizing then the significance of August 16, 1986.
Every month I expelled life. My uterus contracted, disgorged blood; viscous liquids it had expectantly accumulated for an egg that was never fertilized. I felt subjugated by my effortless and unchosen fertility. The pain of the cramps in my womb, back, legs, and the soles of my feet, the malaise of mysteriously weighing five pounds more than normal, the tension; sudden and profound weeping. The monthly remainder of my erotic couplings. The monthly reminder. The reminder of what I was, my biological function, despite all my attempts to cloak it. A vessel for the reproduction of life. The abortion I thought would also be an expulsion of life; painful, but only marginally more sophisticated.
This business of my bodily functions — this master plan to which I was subject — seemed degrading. High school’s sentimental instructional film strips and flower-covered pamphlets indicated that society at large was interested in my reproductive capability. It was no business of theirs what I did with my body.
Reproduction, unlike sex, was a subject of shame, a subject not to be discussed. The stain of menstruation on a cushion in a truck my father had borrowed from a friend. It was a hot summer, dry; by the time my father addressed the stain with a garden hose, it would not come out. I apologized to my father. “I think it’s ruined,” he said. He never spoke to me about it again.
My parents’ marriage had been bulldozed by feminism and psychoanalysis. A mad housewife like so many others, my mother began a determined campaign to break the shackles of tradition that had led to her marriage, at 18, to a man she barely knew. She had always done what was expected of her; after the divorce, she resolved to try the forbidden. It was pointless and destructive: in the forbidden she looked for the same security and sense of purpose she had rejected in tradition.
She would bring men home to the house. She would become deeply involved with some of them for a year or two, then break with them. My mother’s room took on the aspect of an altar to Sex.
My father and his new family lived in a small, hot town five hours north of here. A place given to the vices that small-town boredom breeds. The adolescents there, in Levi corduroy bell-bottoms and T-shirts, spent their time attempting to obliterate their lives. They couldn’t wait to turn 18 and leave. Some did not wait, disappearing down the highway that ran through Main Street, sometimes to be picked up by the Highway Patrol helicopter that patrolled the roads connecting the network of small towns. While they waited, the children smoked marijuana, drove their Camaros and Mustangs and trucks far across the valley or into the hills, shot at tin cans and the beer bottles they’d just drained, and experimented with sex. Made up and dressed as appealingly as possible, my sisters and I looked, as our stepmother said, ’’like bitch dogs in heat.”
I lost my virginity to a boy whose name I don’t remember on a bed in a stranger's house just before the police burst in. It was not long before my stepsister became pregnant; her parents made her work off the price of the abortion in house chores.
My mother, following the pattern set by prevailing thought, shared details of her intimacies with us. I felt honored by her confidences. We were not afraid to experiment. We felt we had her blessing, or at least the passive approval of her disregard. She was “finding herself.’’
In the years that followed, I relied heavily on sex for both entertainment and gratification. I was pleased to think of myself as young, attractive, sophisticated. These were, after all, the most highly valued attributes a woman could possess.
Modern westerners have a mania for compartmentalization — we have in our minds separate little boxes labeled “work,” “family,” “friends,” “sex,” ad infinitum. We have separate rules, separate selves, for each. Our lives have no flow. Flow would allow one area to contaminate another. I, too, divided my life into categories; the pleasures or failures of each were thus contained. My sexual life was remote from the terrible depressions and suicidal moments of my teen-age years. It was my refuge from thought, an arena of success. As I grew older, the disparity between my physical and intellectual lives diminished. Instead of cultivating separate types of friends for conversation and sex, I began to sleep with people more like me. I became more selective in my partners but still maintained other “possibilities” as insurance against being alone. Being sexually desired was more important to me than any deeper bond. A deeper bond would lead to marriage and children; venues for respect and esteem rarely frequented by open-minded young women like me.
This was before the onset of AIDS. Sex was a place where one was both in control and surrendered one’s self in spontaneity. It was an act of will and forgetfulness, if not of sincerity.
College was not the new beginning I had hoped; only in my changing stream of lovers did I find renewal. I dropped out of UCSD the next spring, began a long pattern of falling in love and moving in with my lovers. As soon as the newness wore off, I would fall in love with someone else before terminating the old affair. In this fashion one avoids being alone, maintains a distance that safeguards against the loss of self-respect.
In the spring of 1985, I broke up with the man whose sperm later impregnated me. I had tired of romance, the futility of my cyclical avoidance of the future. It seemed to me that when I was seeing someone, it was as if I had to cut through layers and layers of something to get to myself. Something false. Being on my own for a while was frightening and exciting.
I liked to remain friends with my lovers: it testified to the prudence of my choice. The future father and I would meet perhaps once a week. He would pick me up in his car. We would eat in a restaurant, then watch television at his apartment and talk. Sometimes we would fall asleep on his couch, my head on his chest.
I began to get bored. Romance being a profitable distraction, and highly touted for its own sake, I spent more time thinking about a man at work I was attracted to. He was aloof. I planned conversations and invitations to draw him out. It dragged on toward winter.
Late in November my ex-lover and I locked the door to his office and had sex on the desk.
We are attentive to those things we prize: I always spent a long time dressing for work, examining my body, standing naked as I ironed my clothes. In late December, my nipples were larger and darker. I looked at my profile in the mirror. Knowing. This knowledge that I had not yet resigned myself to seemed resoundingly inevitable and unacceptable. Like the infinitely practical and unpleasant counsels of a mother, this knowledge belittled me. I pressed my abdomen with the palms of my hands, bewildered at the idea that there was a life forming in my womb. It was incomprehensible.
At midnight on New Year’s Eve, after the countdown and the kiss, my first thought was, “I will have an abortion this year.” Tellingly, it was the one remarkable event that I could foresee for myself. The one incident that could alter me more fundamentally than any other. I felt as if having an abortion would transpose me from one side of something to the other. As if the world were divided into two categories of women: those who had had an abortion and those who had not.
I spent the afternoon following my visit to the clinic grimly telephoning my parents, my sister, and the father of my abortion. It seemed the thing to do, like the protocol of immediately telephoning the relatives of a dead person — although their knowledge of the death can in no way alter its finality. They drop their work and defy speed limits to rush to the decedent’s side.
As is now the habit, the coauthor of my soon-to-be-nonexistent Scarlet Letter quite gravely agreed to split the cost of the abortion with me. He would, he said, be there to take care of me on the day. It was the gentlemanly thing to do. In the later half of the 20th Century, this is how these transactions are conducted.
My mother took it upon herself to telephone my father. In keeping with the etiquette of their generation, my father and his wife both spoke patiently to me: they would support me; I could live in their house — if I wanted to continue the pregnancy. In keeping with the etiquette of mine, I voiced a series of objections. Each reason I fashioned to justify my decision reinforced my conviction. The urge to discover more justifications for an action signifies that no reason is sufficient. I did not know this yet. My explanations were weightless. Yet the necessity was clear to me.
My mother entered into a well-intentioned conspiracy against me, coordinating calls of moral support. Sympathetic accounts from friends and relatives who’d undergone abortions. An aunt who had nearly died in Tijuana in the ’40s. Near-total strangers had been told of my plight and felt compelled to share their intimate histories with me, their survival of this rite of passage. The commiseration brought me some comfort. A sad feeling of solidarity: You, too, were beaten.
I made the arrangements as quickly as possible. There was a preliminary consultation, at which I met the doctor. The procedure was explained to me. I would be placed under a pleasant combination of general anesthetics — Demerol and Valium. Then they would vacuum me out. The doctor’s face betrayed neither disapprobation nor sympathy. The nurse and I arranged a date. The earliest possible appointment was the next Tuesday. I was handed more forms and papers. Instructions.
I felt terribly anxious in the intervening days. I wanted for it to be over with. I imagined the Supreme Court suddenly outlawing the act. I imagined rows of stem-faced white men in black robes, righteously pronouncing judgment on me. Squadrons of moralizing mothers shaking their fingers at me: it was your own fault and we demand retribution. The abortion seemed a penance imposed on me by a strict and sterile authority.
The soon-not-to-be-a-father visited me. He was fittingly sad, contemplating the loss of beauty, nothing more. It was my decision; he told me he would not interfere.
On Tuesday, the man who in an hour would cease to be a father drove me to the doctor’s office. He wrote out a check. The receptionist asked him to leave for a while: the lobby was full of young women not feeling very kindly toward men that day. Security in the office was very strict. When a package was delivered, the receptionist made the delivery man wait, outside, while she called the shipper for verification.
I pictured the office blowing up while I lay, legs in stirrups, attached vaginally to a machine.
It began, quite quickly, to happen to me. I was given a place to undress and asked to put on a paper gown. I was led to the table and asked to sit and relax for a few moments. There was an opaque window in the room through which the sunlight gleamed soothingly. A large green metal cylinder on wheels, like an old-fashioned washing machine. A corrugated tube, like a gasoline pump. A clear plastic suction hose. A large trash can labeled “biological waste.” I put my hands on my stomach and shut my eyes.
A nurse came in and examined me. I believe they gave me a preliminary shot in the arm which made me feel quite relaxed and detached. They warned me of a sharp pricking sensation I would feel on my cervix. I felt something needle-like. It didn’t hurt. I felt pleasant as they slid the IV into my arm. I do not remember counting backwards for the attendant. I do not remember seeing the doctor.
I awoke to sunlight. For a moment I was caught up in a clear and lucid joy unlike anything I have ever experienced. An ecstasy.
I was helped to dress and was led down the hallway. I left the euphoria behind.
I do not recall feeling contented and relieved. Just old. I slipped into my bed at home. I fell immediately to sleep, drifted in and out of consciousness in the manner of a fever. I was pampered like a sick child: my mother brought me a bouquet of wildflowers. She put a bowl of fruit on the nightstand. The former father gave me a novel to read. He sat next to me and held my hand. I slept periodically. When I woke, it took awhile to remember what had taken place. The heaviness did descend on me. The cold weight of what I had done.
I remembered the feeling from a few years before. A bright blue bottle of some chemical, a folded white handkerchief, and a bouquet of violets on a hall table. A peaceful still life. I was a visitor in a foreign country; the bottle’s label bore a trade name I could not trace to any word of the language spoken there. These objects held a significance unknown to me. The table and the objects on it were visible from the kitchen as we ate breakfast and lunch.
The husband came home at six o’clock. He took the mysterious bottle, the flowers, the cloth from the table and went downstairs into the garage. He returned half an hour later with empty hands. His wife was watching television in the living room. “Did you do it?” she asked. He walked to the living room door. He said yes. She slammed the door between them. I heard her weeping. He busied himself in the kitchen for a while, then went in to speak to her. “You know they are of no use to anyone. Cats are just rodents. You were raised on a farm. You used to drown them in sacks.”
It was in my recent memory of this I discovered the possibility of my guilt. My horror of their practicality now seems to me puerile.
Necessity makes us strangers to ourselves. For a long time, I have felt I ruled myself — by romantic impulses, by whatever random chemical reactions the body generates on its own. It is now evident to me that there was another force that influenced my actions; a set of standards to which I was compelled to oblige. Necessities I served.
After three days, I lost all feeling that something had “happened” to my body. I realized it would be possible to deny that this had ever happened to me, if I chose to do so. I could revise my personal history, and there would be no challenge to my new, painless version. As I lost the physical memory, I sought to lose the emotional memory as well. I had learned already it is better not to dwell on these things. I used to probe them as profoundly as I could, trying to determine their depth, how much of me they had conquered. I found they were bottomless. Thinking too much leads to suicide.
This is what I had learned: Free will is a lie. More precisely, a confusion. It is not possible to decide anything on one’s own. Morality originates outside of the mind. We all submit to our particular God. Having no God other than History, my submission has cold weight.
As a dutiful daughter of my era, like all women I have done what was expected of me. I am the product of an age, the servant of a particular moment. It is my misfortune to have been born when I was, long after the death of Faith. My actions are influenced by a blind and powerful force. A force that can provide no absolution for this thing I have done. Although fully responsible for the act, it is perhaps simple pride that makes me want to call the decision entirely my own.