The title of Irene Vilar's new memoir, Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict, is a bit misleading. Although Vilar chronicles 15 abortions over 15 years, "addiction" as a diagnostic category is only hastily grafted onto her tale of existential angst. Cynical readers will wonder whether the packaging of this story as "abortion addiction" originated in the writer's workshop or the marketing department.
Whatever the intentions behind the title, it has provoked pro-life ire--one blogger refers to Vilar as a "serial killer"--and pro-life smugness--a spokesperson for Americans United for Life points to Impossible Motherhood as proof that "abortion is part of a very sad story for women."
There has been favorable coverage of the book as well--most notably a Washington Post story that portrays Vilar, now a mother of two daughters, as a woman who has finally "embraced the role of motherhood" and given reign to her "maternal instincts." The accompanying slide show features romantic photos of Vilar in the nursery, surrounded by her children and their toys. In coverage like this, we can witness the power of motherhood as redemptive fetish.
As a mother, a lesbian, and a feminist, I'm always suspicious of sentimental depictions of motherhood. In the back of my mind, I hear feminist theorist Lauren Berlant, who reminds us that sentimental appeals to the universal goodness of motherhood and domestic values are politically volatile--they can be used for both radical and conservative ends. (One need look no further than the recent battles over marriage rights to understand how such appeals have been used to support both expanding and restricting civil rights.)
It's hard to believe that Vilar herself can stomach the saccharine aftertaste of such sentimental appeals to Motherhood with a capital M. Her first memoir, The Ladies Gallery, chronicled her complex relationship with her mother, who committed suicide when Vilar was eight, and her grandmother, Lolita Lebron, the Puerto Rican nationalist activist who served 27 years in a U.S. prison. In contrast to the earlier work, which located personal biography in the context of imperial and familial history, Impossible Motherhood is much more an individual drama of self-making.
The plot revolves around Vilar's fifteen-year relationship with her former professor, a man who used a mishmash of existentialism and Romanticism to bend Vilar to his own narcissistic whims:
He spoke as if his life had been weighed down by the burden of these lives bound to his and he acted as if this weight of responsibility obliged him to move cautiously through life and set his freedom above love and the like.... He called a house a coffin and often made the point that homes stifled his imagination and turned it into a meander of useless thoughts on the past.
In this passage, and many others like it, threats to freedom are gendered as feminine: home, domesticity, love, tradition, maternity.
When I read the professor's justifications, I couldn't help thinking of my first college encounter with Being and Nothingness, when I realized that, in Sartrean thought, threats to freedom were not-so-subtly gendered with language like slimy, cloying, clinging, voidlike. Luckily, I found feminist critics who helped me analyze the metaphors and make sense of the feelings of self-loathing that they evoked. Vilar was not so lucky. In the preface to Impossible Motherhood feminist author Robin Morgan writes, "I kept wondering where was the Women's Movement as a support/sanity making/survival factor in Vilar's life?" Morgan ponders whether it was "the" Movement's ethnocentrism that failed to connect, but the time that Vilar chronicles in her memoir, which begins in the mid-1980s, was a period of intense cultural and intellectual activity among U.S. Third World feminists and postcolonial feminists. However, Vilar describes a life of total emotional, social, and financial dependence. Her former professor turned husband controlled what she read, whom she met, and even how she wrote.
In fact, Vilar's relationship to her previous memoir, which she wrote and revised under her then-husband's tutelage, is perhaps the most interesting part of Impossible Motherhood. In an era when Oprah can interrogate James Frei as if memoir is some kind of contract rather than a literary genre, Vilar's reflections on the limitations of memory, her acknowledgment that she has shaped her story different ways for different ends, reminded me of the more sophisticated days of Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.
The publication of Vilar's initial memoir and its subsequent translation are part of the story of Vilar's eventual liberation from her relationship and from the cycle of pregnancy and abortion. The book can be read a künstlerroman or story of the education of a young artist. In telling this story, Vilar leans heavily on her own version of the existentialism that justified her husband's controlling behavior. She quotes Camus, de Beauvoir, and existentialist theologist Paul Tillich. She frames her multiple abortions as failed acts of transcendence: "I could impregnate myself and abort; no one else could control my fate when I showed such strange ownership." Later, Vilar learns from her therapist that "I was to assert my own freedom and responsibility by self-assertion, no matter the anxiety."
Until the very end of Impossible Motherhood, I waited for Vilar's rebellion against this existentialist language of freedom, responsibility, choice, and self-creation. I longed for some acknowledgment of how gendered this language can be and had been in Vilar's relationship with her husband. In my opinion, existentialism's emphasis on individual freedom is ill-equipped to deal with the action of larger forces like colonialism, racism, poverty, and sexism on individual biography. Perhaps that's why Vilar's consideration of the history of U.S. imperialism and the mass sterilization of Puerto Rican women feels more like an addendum than a thread that weaves its way through her story. There's a moment, however, when Vilar's critique of the rhetoric of reproductive choice promises to tie it all together:
I can't think about my mother and in general Puerto Rican women without thinking about 'choice.' The language of choice invokes free will based on individual freedom, obscuring the dynamics between social constraints and human activity. Choices are framed by larger institutional structures and ideological messages.
This is a familiar point to anyone who has followed feminist critiques of mainstream, white, U.S.-based feminism's narrow focus on abortion as "the" reproductive issue. In the context of Impossible Motherhood, it also serves as notice that Vilar is complicating--but not discarding--her existentialist framework.
By the end of the book, Vilar has recast motherhood itself as the ultimate act of existential bravery, the ultimate resignation to one's circumstances.
Survival is a phenomenon of consciousness, a discovery of oneself as a tenacious entity. I was not a survivor until I overcame my fear of mothering the child in my womb. It was halfway through my sixteenth pregnancy that I found peace with my maternal desire and fell in love with my situation and the future gestating in me. My daughter Loretta Mae became the coherence emerging from the shameful mass of thirty-five years.
Thus, Vilar manages to recast the terms of the heroic, to depict motherhood as an act of authenticity that redeems the false consciousness of the abortion years. As a reader, I found myself wondering whether she had really dismantled the master's house with the master's tools. To speak the language of existentialism, this version of motherhood sounds suspiciously like a predetermined essence. On the last page of the book, Vilar addresses her infant daughter: "It also occurred to me that one day not in the distant future, you would stand by a crib watching your own child asleep..." Although the baby is only a few months old, it's already a given that motherhood will be her future. If opponents of abortion rights wish to use the book as justification for restricting abortion access, they probably won't care about Vilar's project of authentic self-making. But her depiction of motherhood as destiny will give them plenty to work with.