Irene Vilar was just a teenager, a pliant young college undergraduate in thrall to a fifty-year-old professor, when they embarked on a relationship that led to marriage—a union of impossible odds—and multiple abortions. Vilar knows that she is destined to be misunderstood, that many will see her nightmare as a story of abusing a right, of using abortion as a means of birth control. But it isn’t that. Her nightmare is part of an awful secret, and the real story is shrouded in shame, colonialism, self-mutilation, and a family legacy that features a heroic grandmother, a suicidal mother, and two heroin-addicted brothers. Hers is a story that touches on American exploitation and reproductive repression in Puerto Rico. 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. 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 of shame and servility as told by a writer looking back on her history of addiction. Abortion has never offered any honest person easy answers, and Vilar’s dark journey through self-inflicted wounds, compulsive patterns, and historical hauntings revisits the difficulties this country has with the subject and prompts an important, much-needed discussion—literary, political, social, and philosophical. Vilar’s is a powerful story of loss and mourning that bravely delves into selfhood, national identity, family responsibility, and finally motherhood itself.
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Excerpt from Impossible Motherhood
My life could be summed up by the extreme human experience of abortion. For years, reading or hearing about an abortion immediately turned the words into a maelstrom of emotions. Every time I came upon the song by America “A Horse with no Name” or the book The Last of the Just, which accompanied me during a shameful decade of my life, I was deeply upset. It is not a comfortable thought to contemplate the morality of my actions. The moral issue of abortion is a difficult one, I think, because it is unusual. And it is unusual because the human fetus is so unlike anything or anyone else, and because the relationship between the fetus and the pregnant woman is so unique, so unlike any other relationship.
I began this book in 2001 as the Pygmalion/My Fair Lady, story of an older man and a teenager, a teacher and a student, and the predictable but not uninteresting dissolution of their mutual fascination. But this changed. The story that needed to be told was that of an addiction. Despite my efforts to fight it, I became obsessed with the idea. Following through with the book seemed a terrifying prospect, especially for those close to me. I was warned about the possible hatred directed at me from both pro-choice and pro-life camps. My testimony was fated to be misunderstood.
The other choice would have been to just remain silent. Yet, the fact that my personal experience of pregnancy and abortion is a difficult thing to understand did not seem a good enough reason to dismiss it. Furthermore, that clandestine abortion is a thing of the past does not make legalized abortion a “normal” event. Those who choose to have one, no matter the reasons, tend to remain silent; a veil of secrecy hangs heavily. I, myself, have eluded until now my feelings about abortion and about the identity of an embryo and a fetus.
This testimony, though, does not grapple with the political issues revolving around abortion, nor does it have anything to do with illegal, unsafe abortion, a historical and important concern for generations of women. Instead, my story is an exploration of family trauma, self-inflicted wounds, compulsive patterns, and the moral clarity and moral confusion guiding my choice. This story won’t fit neatly into the bumper sticker slogan “my body, my choice.” In order to protect reproductive freedom, many of us pro- choice women usually choose to not talk publicly about experiences such as mine because we might compromise our right to choose. In opening up the conversation on abortion to the existential continuum that it can represent to many, for the sake of greater honesty, validation, and a richer language of choice, we run risks.
Abortion is a painful experience brought about by inadequate actions. “Pro-life” advocates exploit and sensationalize the experience and ignore the mistakes. One such human “mistake” is the economic pressure compounded by ignorance that is the most common reason for undergoing abortion. It is inevitable to see an anti-life sentiment in the pro-life movement when it protects ignorance by opposing family planning, sex education, and informed use of contraceptives. A recent article in the New York Times disclosed Latin America’s abortion statistics and the alarming results of a rigid fundamentalism combined with poverty and ignorance. The United Nations reports that over four million abortions, most of them illegal, take place in Latin America annually, and up to five thousand women die each year from complications from the procedure. The rate of abortions in Latin America is forty per one thousand women of childbearing age, the highest outside Eastern Europe.
These figures reflect, among many things, the ineffectiveness of teaching abstinence as the only form of contraception, which is the general program followed by churches and schools. Latin America holds some of the world’s most stringent abortion laws, yet it still has the world’s highest rate of abortions. In the United States, however, where abortion is legal and sex education is broader, the abortion rate reached a twenty-four-year low in the 1990s with its lowest level in 2002, when there were 20.9 abortions per 1,000 women ages fifteen to forty-four, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute. Nevertheless, Western European youths who are as sexually active as American girls but have a significantly greater exposure to sexual education and informed use of contraceptives, are seven times less likely to have an abortion and seventy times less likely to have gonorrhea. It becomes unsustainable to identify at any level with the “pro-life” movement when it fundamentally calls for the United States to regress to Latin America’s horrific abortion and female-mortality figures and bluntly ignores Western Europe’s impressive low abortion statistics.
As much as I am determined to tell the account of my addiction to abortion without dwelling on the political and philosophical debate surrounding Roe v. Wade, I cannot go on without acknowledging that thirty-three years after the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its landmark ruling, states are placing an increasing number of restrictions on abortion. The ruling gave women a constitutionally protected right to choose abortion in the early stages of pregnancy. Unlike “pro-life” beliefs, the ruling acknowledged and addressed the fact that the human missteps leading to the painful reality of abortion, like the psychological ones afficting me or the economic ones pursuing so many, are beyond control. Thus, a nation’s obligation to ensure a woman’s right to life and health—which anti-abortion laws violate—had to be the overriding principle. With the alarming increase in abortion limitations, the mis-steps and lapses that make up the tragedy of abortion can only be compounded.
Mine is a story that in part reveals the lack and then emergence of a sense of responsibility when I exercised my right to abortion. I want to explore how when abortion takes on repetitive and selfmutilating qualities it can point to an addiction. In the process, I hope to address questions that might elucidate how pro-life and pro-choice advocates are, as it is with many profound and extreme human positions, both right and wrong.
For years, it didn’t occur to me that there was anything to tell about abortion. Quite 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) had had a prior abortion. Close to 20 percent had had at least two previous abortions and 10 percent three or more. A considerable number of these repeat abortions occur among populations with high levels of contraceptive use.
“I had twelve abortions in eleven years and they were the happiest years of my life.” (Fifteen in fifteen years, when counting three others by another man.) I wrote those words years ago, before I came to understand the truth. I know I’m destined to be misunderstood, that many will see my nightmare as a story of abusing a right, of using abortion as a means of birth control. It isn’t that. My nightmare is part of the awful secret, and the real story is shrouded in shame, colonialism, self-mutilation, and a family history that features a heroic grandmother, a suicidal mother, and two heroin-addicted brothers.
I know this account can’t resolve the moral dilemma of my actions. Yet, I wanted 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 sixteenth time. I don’t think I would have been able to give birth without the call to accountability and self-reflection writing this story down 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 except for the burden of life interrupted that shall die with me.
Forward by Robin Morgan
Irene Vilar had ﬁfteen abortions in ﬁfteen years. These pages chart her course to discover why—a search that deﬁes stereotypes we were certain we had long relinquished.
First, it should be noted that Vilar can write (unfortunately not a given in authors these days). Consequently, this memoir reads as hauntingly as an Isabelle Allende novel—but here the Latin American genre of magical realism is brutally true. These pages expose intricate, intimate nuances of female suﬀering, survival, and self-reclamation in complex terms that, as Vilar notes, won’t ﬁt on a bumper sticker.
Second, Vilar is a pro-choice feminist who for years refused to write this book from understandable fear that she might be misunderstood and, worse, that her story might compromise women’s reproductive right to choose. She even wrote an earlier, self-censoring memoir, The Ladies’ Gallery, wherein the “horror script I lived out with the man I loved and became pregnant by multiple times…is absent.”
Third, Vilar is a Latina, a Puerto Rican American, and therein lies a tale of colonialism compounding sexism. As she writes, “Latin America holds some of the world’s most stringent abortion laws, yet it still has the world’s highest rate of abortions…many repeat abortions. It becomes unsustainable to identify at any level with the ‘pro-life’ movement when it fundamentally calls for the United States to regress to Latin America’s horriﬁc abortion and women mortality ﬁgures and bluntly ignores Western Europe’s impressive low abortion statistics.”
Vilar’s story unfurls against densely layered backdrops: patriarchy in the home and the state, racism, colonialism and neo-colonialism, and a “tradition” of secrecy about sexual abuse of girls by male relatives.
It begins with a larger-than-life grandmother, forced to sell herself for rent at age seventeen, leaving Puerto Rico to seek survival in New York’s sweatshop factories. Her ﬁerce commitment to the Puerto Rican Nationalist movement culminated in 1954, when she raced up the U.S. Capitol’s steps with a gun and a national ﬂag in her purse. This woman, Lolita Lebrón—famous or infamous, depending on political perspective—served twenty-seven years in prison for “attempting to overthrow the government of the United States.” Decades later, still militant at age eighty-four, she was imprisoned yet again for protesting the U.S. Navy’s presence in Vieques. Lebrón was a heroic ﬁgure, but her chosen sacriﬁce also required “public mythmaking” that cost her family—especially the women—dearly.
Lebrón’s daughter grew up with a sexually abusive uncle and sought refuge in marriage at age ﬁfteen, forging for herself “pleasure in making a show of servility.” She became a Valium addict who attempted suicide—ﬁnally succeeding at it by throwing herself out of a moving car when her daughter, Irene, our author, was only eight. Meanwhile, Vilar’s father was addicted to alcohol and gambling, and two of her three brothers were heroin addicts, one dying of an overdose. It’s mildly miraculous that Irene Vilar is vertical at all.
Context is crucial. She writes, “I can’t think about my mother and most Puerto Rican women without thinking about ‘choice’ ... [a word that] invokes free will based on individual freedom, obscuring the interplay between social constraints and human activity… [R]ampant poverty in Puerto Rico, created by American domination, was obscured through blaming population growth…[with] U.S. social scientists and anthropologists assigning fertility and reproduction as the source of…the Puerto Rican ‘problem.’ For liberals, the relentlessly fertile Puerto Rican mother was victimized by endless children and they longed to rescue her from her own ignorance and macho men, such as my dad, who proved virility through her suﬀering maternity. For conservatives, she was a dangerous fecundity that had to be halted.”
Vilar is tragically accurate. From 1955 to 1969, Puerto Rico was a U.S. government laboratory testing female contraceptives, in particular high-dosage pills with hazardous side eﬀects that included sterility. I remember demonstrating with other young feminist activists against the use of Puerto Rican women as contraceptive “guinea pigs.” That was in 1968, when women in Puerto Rico were more than ten times likely to be sterilized than were women in the U.S. By 1974, 37 percent of Puerto Rican women of childbearing age had been permanently sterilized. By 1980, Puerto Rico had the highest per-capita rate of sterilization on the planet.
Vilar’s mother was sixteen when she ﬁrst gave birth, in January 1956, followed that October by a six-month preemie. She used a controversial birth-control pill, but in 1961, after another birth, the public hospital refused care if she didn’t consent to tubal ligation. Eight years later, her tubes became untied and Irene was conceived. When a doctor recommended a hysterectomy, this woman was sent home with no reproductive system and no hormonal treatment—at age thirty-three. Vilar sums up the result: “What growing up poor and an orphan, the daughter of a woman imprisoned in the U.S., and the wife for twenty-three years of a man unable to value her could not do, the U.S. mass sterilization program and its racist population control ideologies did… .[My] mother came undone while I watched.”
Watching, the child learned multiple, conﬂicting lessons, becoming more confused once denial set in with familial familiarity. Even decades later, Lebrón railed at her granddaughter’s desire to write the truth: “[M]y family is the nation of Puerto Rico to which I have given my life, and you listen well, anyone who threatens the nation is the enemy… saying Tatita did not die in a car accident but killed herself… You publish that book and the movement won’t forgive you… I am the Movement!”
So what happened to that bright, eight-year-old little girl who watched her mother lose her mind and then, deliberately, her life?
Determined to rise above grief, yet clinging to her inheritance— the disease to please—she earned straight A’s in seven schools in seven years and entered college at ﬁfteen. So far, she had changed the trajectory of tragedy via her intellect, not her body. But the past catches up to that intelligent, passionate, young woman trying to negotiate between deprivation and education, false liberties and real freedom. And patriarchy whispers to that hungry intellect that there is only one way to feed it.
She can never herself become the brilliant, Great Woman she longs to be. She must ﬁnd a Great Man, a Pygmalion, a Svengali, a lover-tutor-father ﬁgure to whom she can surrender herself, through whom she can bloom. At age sixteen, Irene found her Great Man, age ﬁfty. During her decade in his thrall she endured multiple abortions and suicide attempts, and hospitalization in a mental ward.
Ah yes, the Great Man.
These days, the feminist prophecy “We are becoming the men we wanted to marry” is actually true. But until quite recently, educated, intellectual, otherwise strong young woman—especially though not exclusively artists and writers—were particular prey for Great Men. We went nervously but willingly; so accustomed were we to superimposing ghosts of ourselves into the generic He’s, Him’s, and Mankinds; so reconciled to seeking anything resembling our alternate realities between the lines of theirs—for their reality was almost always one in which female human beings were absent, oﬀstage, and one- or two-dimensional. Worse, we stuck it out, validating the very lies we’d been taught about “inherent female masochism.” We rejected identifying with other women (even many lesbians did so: Gertrude Stein, Elizabeth Bishop), because only men were fully human, only men possessed the agency to act on life. Each of us desperate to be the “exceptional” woman in her Great Man’s judgmental eyes strained for power, for voice itself, through him.
When we had served his purpose—adoring student, muse, mate, mommy, sex toy, breadwinner (so he could work at his art), harpy (if we rebelled)—he destroyed us. Some women—Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton among them—gave him the convenience of their suicide. Some of us managed to escape. I was one such woman— but it took me twenty years to break free. So I don’t dismiss Vilar’s predicament lightly.
Her Great Man was one of her teachers, a professor of Latin American Literature and Theory who boasted friendships with such Other Great Men as Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, Manuel Puig, and Octavio Paz (that list alone could serve as a warning to spirited women). An Argentinean Jew, atheist philosopher, survivor of a generation jailed and murdered under dictatorship, he was a rebel. Vilar’s rebellion, not permitted to her directly, could be manifest via him.
He positioned their relationship as her salvation, on his terms— a permanent audition. He told her his lovers never lasted more than ﬁve years, that family kills desire, that he’d fought to stay fatherless, that previous companions couldn’t bear the price of a life in freedom. He told her mature, less pliable women were riddled with worries and wounds. Amazingly, he admitted ﬂat out, “I need an unformed woman, unﬁnished, with not too many wounds. That’s why I like young women.”
The sole rebellion Irene Vilar could manage was to “forget” to take her birth control pills (redolent anyway of cultural and family humiliation)—and get pregnant. With each pregnancy she deﬁed him. But to keep the lifeline he represented, it was then imperative to become unpregnant. So was the cycle established.
Meanwhile, she devoured writing by men he prescribed. Cortázar, Fuentes, Fernández, Bertrand Russel, Martin Buber, and especially theologian Paul Tillich, whom she read when pregnant the ﬁrst time. Tillich’s inﬂuence runs through her book, in her quest for what he termed “the courage to be.”
So it’s worthwhile pausing brieﬂy to examine the alternate reality regarding that particular Great Man, revealed to us with compassionate but uncompromising honesty by his widow, Hannah Tillich, in her book, From Time to Time (Chelsea, MI; Scarborough House, 1973). After his death, she tells us, she “unlocked the drawers.” There was the pornographic letter hidden under his blotter; the revelation of his favorite fantasy of naked women, cruciﬁed, being whipped; the discovery of all the photos, aﬀairs, mistresses, sexual secretaries, one-night stands, the abuse of worshipful female students. Hannah Tillich writes, “I was tempted to place between the sacred pages of his highly esteemed lifework these obscene signs of the real life that he had transformed into the gold of abstraction—King Midas of the spirit.” Instead, Hannah Tillich dared write this book alchemizing her own integrity out of “the piece of bleeding, tortured womanhood” she writes she had become.
So dares Vilar—who insists on taking principled responsibility for her own actions, even while contextualizing them: in oneeight-month period, she was “responsible” for an aﬀair, a suicide attempt, three car accidents, two boat collisions, and three abortions. Her weight dropped to ninety-five pounds—at five foot six. “Each time I got my period, I was sad. Each time I discovered I was pregnant, I was aroused and afraid.” But Vilar ﬁnally noticed that when she began to write seriously—in those “moments of creativity and validation, I evaded the drama of pregnancy and abortion and ‘remembered’ to take my birth control pills.” My, what a coincidence.
While reading this book, I kept wondering where was the Women’s Movement as a support/sanity making/survival factor in Vilar’s life—as it has been for the past 40 years in so many millions of women’s lives? How did we fail her? We know that there are countries where access to contraception is so drastically limited that women are forced into multiple abortions as a method of birth control, but that was not the case here. Was her addiction so deep or his spell so strong that she avoided the visible, available feminist groups on campus, in the cities and towns where she lived? Or did some feminists, trapped in an ethnocentric myopia of our own as “gringas,” fail to reach out meaningfully so that all the intersecting factors in her suﬀering, including racism and colonialism, could be addressed?
Vilar did have close women friends, but they seemed unable or unwilling to exert suﬃcient counterbalance to the Great Man— nor did she always allow them into the full truths about her life. Yet a major shift occurred on reading Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, “which shook me profoundly about the intimate picture of a young woman growing up aground in a suﬀocating world and striking out on her own with such existential ambition that even a mother’s death becomes a footnote to her story.” At last, Vilar dared admit she “felt cornered, obliged to choose between him and my life.”
Then of course, to keep her, he plied the ultimate twist of the knife. He said she didn’t have to have another abortion the next day. He said he was ready to “give” her a child if that’s what she wanted. Irony begets irony. She found herself shocked to realize she didn’t want his child.
In a 1974 essay, “On Women as a Colonized People” (collected in Morgan, The Word of a Woman: Feminist Dispatches, W.W. Norton), I analyzed how Franz Fanon and Albert Memmi had deﬁned the characteristics of colonization: the oppressed are robbed of culture, history, pride, and their land itself, and are forced (by systemic punishment and reward) to adopt the oppressor’s language, values, even identity. In time, they become alienated from their own values, even their land—which is being mined by the colonizer for its natural resources. The colonized are permitted (forced) to work the land, but not beneﬁting from what it produces, come to feel oppressed by it. Thus, alienation from their own territory serves to mystify that territory, and enforced identiﬁcation with colonizing masters provokes eventual shame for themselves and contempt for their land. It follows that the ﬁrst goal of a colonized people is to reclaim their land. What Fanon and Memmi never grasped was that women per se are a colonized people. Our history, values, voices, and (cross-cultural) culture have been taken from us—manifest in patriarchal seizure of our basic “land.” Our own bodies have been taken from us, mined for their natural resources (sex, children, and labor), and alienated/mystiﬁed, whether as stereotypical virgin, whore, or mother. It follows that as women, to reclaim our lives we must reclaim our ﬂesh.
Irene Vilar, multiply colonized, reclaimed her life when she ﬁnally brought to term and birthed the woman she is today, after so many decades of a tragedy inﬁnitely worse than all her pregnancy terminations: the aborted self. Those who think the struggle for women’s freedom and power no longer necessary or single-issue simplistic would do well to read this book. We dare not forget that a woman’s right to control her own body includes not just the right to control her womb but also her voice. Irene Vilar has courageously let that voice sing. Listen to it.
New York City
March 8, 2009
Praise for Impossible Motherhood
“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.”
“Impossible Motherhood is another dark perfect gem from Irene Vilar and 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 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
“Irene Vilar is a writer of extraordinary passion, erudition, and intelligence
“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 Islands
“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.”
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