True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility,
Adoption, Single Parenthood and Abortion
Edited by Karen E. Bender and Nina de Gramont
MACADAM CAGE; 351 PAGES; $24 (PAPERBACK)
This collection could have been called the Book of Job, so relentlessly do these personal essays exhibit, actually, a lack of choice. In contrast to the title, virtually none of these women presents herself as actively making decisions; they're all passive, with circumstances–usually harrowing ones–happening to them.
Perhaps "Choice" is ironically titled, then, the message being that we don't have choices–not pre-Roe vs. Wade, and not now. If so, who is the intended reader for such a book, and what is she (presumably) meant to glean from it, beyond the notion that American womanhood is, inexorably, a trial?
The long-winded introduction by editors Karen E. Bender and Nina de Gramont is preachily peppered with "shoulds," "musts" and "needs" (and, unfortunately, several dangling modifiers), though it also includes some interesting news–such as a proposed law in Ohio that would make it a crime to accompany a woman to another state for an abortion–and reiterates the familiar but crucial fact that, historically, outlawing abortion does not decrease its frequency.
The first essay, Pam Houston's "Thirty-Four Years Old Today," is the breeziest in tone, reading like a first draft but peaking with wise humor, as when she wryly depicts the cavalier abortion-rights advocate whom anti-abortion activists seem to have unrealistically in mind: "the one who strides in and out of those off-green rooms in thigh-high boots and a miniskirt, grabbing a couple of Nilla Wafers and a cup of juice on the way out and saluting the abortion counselors, see you in a couple of months, gals!"
But then the horror stories begin, with a parade of villains: the small-town folks, judge and husband who turn on a woman acting as a surrogate for an infertile couple in "The Ballad of Bobbie Jo"; the Ratched-esque nurse who barks "Shut up!" and slaps terrified 16-year-old Janet Mason Ellerby when she cries out with labor pains; the father in "Personal Belongings" who coldly tells his daughter, frantically calling from the airport where she is hemorrhaging after taking RU-486, to "go buy more pads and try to manage the pain"; the doctor in "Termination" who purposely miscalculates how far along Deborah McDowell is, to let off the hook the basketball star who coerced her into having sex (for the first time).
When misfortunes aren't inflicted deliberately, they fall from the sky: chromosomal abnormalities, pre-eclampsia, hemophilia, a 5-year-old daughter's death. Not that every book is required to be a feel-good read, and not that we can't learn from adversity, but here the lesson, if there is one, is often obscured by melodrama and treacly platitudes.
"Being a single parent means that one must be a slayer of dragons, many dragons," Velina Hasu Houston rhapsodizes at the end of "Matters of the Heart." "And so I raise my sword–my pen–in the name of choice."
And the last lines of Kate Maloy's "A Normal Woman" are especially foggy: "the important thing is not to do the right thing, since we can't ever see the long-range consequences of any act or decision. The important thing is to be as true to ourselves as possible under the circumstances."
There are two beacons here. Sarah Messer's poetic, pared-down "Trees in the Desert," about being a pregnant and poor 18-year-old on her own in 1985 Utah, features lovely, original descriptions, as when, during her home urine test, her boyfriend "took the warm cup from me and placed it on the back of the toilet like a small china lamb." With a few simple strokes, Messer vividly conveys her poignantly numb state: "I had convinced myself that the clinic would say I wasn't pregnant–some strange belief that the condition only existed while I was in my apartment."
And Catherine Newman's cleverly titled "Conceiving Is Not Always the Same as Having an Idea" is a welcome respite, as she wonders with hilarious frankness at the correlation between sex and parenthood: "Wouldn't it be funny if other bodily indulgences had the same outcome as the sexual kind? Oof–I ate a platter of sushi and a package of Ding Dongs, and now we're having another baby! Or other kinds of friction? Thanks to my rubbing of that butcher block with mineral oil, you're going to be a big brother!"
"Choice" rightly asserts that the debate over reproductive choice is more layered, more personal and less political than it appears at first glance, and some stories stand out because they aren't often told: an adoptee who chooses to have an abortion, a woman whose fertility treatments were covered by insurance when she was married but no longer are when she's in a committed same-sex relationship.
The final piece, by Francine Prose, an insightful, if dry, analysis of the language of Roe vs. Wade, is a refreshingly impersonal entry after 300-plus pages of keening, even if it, too, ends on a down note: "How far we have come from the language of reason and of sympathy for our fellow humans, for women who must make these difficult and painful choices that occur on–and in fact define and demarcate–the raw edges of human existence."
Sarah Saffian, the author of "Ithaka: A Daughter's Memoir of Being Found," is on the writing faculty of Eugene Lang College at the New School in New York.