It wasn’t exactly a secret. I just very carefully picked the places where I talked about it. I had to trust that people I told would have a good reaction. Even after decades passed, I couldn’t risk criticism and I really couldn’t gamble on someone asking me why.
I told my husbands but not always the boyfriends in between. I told a few women friends but I never told my family. I never breathed a word of it to my older sister or brother and I would have sooner died than tell my parents. They never knew. If they were alive today, I wouldn’t tell them.
Then one late afternoon in August 2012, after I’d heard yet another news report attacking women’s rights, I sat down at this computer and I wrote the story of the illegal abortion I had in 1967. The essay wrote itself, poured on to the page fully formed as if it had been waiting somewhere to be released and, all the while it was waiting, coming closer into view until I could smell my wet wool pea coat and remember scratching the frost off the inside of the bus window on my way back to Mt. Pleasant from where the abortion had occurred in Detroit.
The essay was published on my blog Red’s Wrap as The Wire. I also decided to put the essay on Open Salon, a now defunct platform operated by Salon.com. Later that night, after the essay had gotten hundreds of hits on Open Salon, the OS editor contacted me to request permission to post the essay on Salon.com where it appeared as My Illegal Abortion.
But even though I’d written the story and published in places where I knew a lot of people would read it, I was afraid of what people would say. My husband read the comments. I hid from them. I was waiting for someone to call me a murderer.
Then a young woman, a student at Central Michigan University, contacted me via Open Salon. She asked if I’d speak at the campus Planned Parenthood Chapter’s abortion speak-out. They would be happy to pay for my travel. My response surprised me. Yes.
So a few months later, my husband and I drove to Mt. Pleasant. While he waited at the Motel 6, I went to the CMU Library. It was a building that hadn’t been built when I was a student there. It was beautiful and serene like big university libraries are, with a lot of glass and heavily framed paintings of distinguished professors. I walked with the young woman who invited me and then sat in the audience while she stood at the podium and introduced me to the students who had come to hear me.
I’d brought my essay to read, thinking it said all I needed to say and already knowing that the words and sentences made sense. I’d read my own essay a thousand times at least. I wanted its protection.
I read a paragraph of my essay and then I looked up and just told my story. I told them how it was to be a young woman in 1967 at CMU. But it was hard information to convey. Describing the social customs, what was acceptable and what wasn’t seemed like explaining ancient Egypt. This is how it was, I really wanted them to know how it was. And how it was determined how I was.
I was a product of those times. So the shame of becoming pregnant without being married and of getting an abortion was still part of me. A small part but still a part. But amazingly, it became the tiniest black pearl in my pocket as I talked, a shiny, glowing jewel that spoke of courage and survival. Pride in my life and sisterhood with all women. In that one moment, on that stage at CMU, I stopped being ashamed of something I had done nearly fifty years before. I owned my life, all of it, with no apology and no looking away.
When I finished speaking, a woman in the very back of the auditorium raised her hand. “Did your parents ever find out?”
“No,” I said. “They never knew.”
Written in response to The Daily Post question: What’s the most significant secret you’ve ever kept? Did the truth ever come out?