After my abortion, I set about punishing myself.
I was 19 and a freshman in college. It was 1967, six years before Roe v. Wade made abortion a thing that could happen in the daylight. My abortion happened in a dark room on a dark night, everything about it was furtive and secret. Illegal and unclean.
The first punishment was the suffocating box of guilt.
The box was, like my abortion, dark, secret and unclean. I wore it everywhere on campus, unable to move my arms or legs more than tiny inches, breathing only now and then through cracks in the box. It was stifling and small and it was only at the end of the day, back in my dorm room, that I could peel the box off and lie on my bed smoking cigarettes. I listened to Joan Baez sing The Death of Queen Jane for hours in the dark, the lights of the campus casting shadows on me. “Queen Jane she turned over/She fell all in a swoon/Her side was pierced open/And the baby was found.”
People I’d only known a few months since the start of freshman year would ask me what was wrong. I’d changed, they said. They thought I was heartsick because my boyfriend was so far away. They couldn’t see that my abortion had pierced me, it was an event that had run me through.
I couldn’t tell them I was different now. I was marked. By the abortion but also by having sex without being married. I washed my face every morning thinking about it. I was a slut now. That’s what I was. Even if no one knew. I knew. I was embarrassed and sickened by this, ashamed in the deep nauseating way I was as a child when my mother would look at me when I’d done something wrong and quietly say, “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
The second punishment was leaving my boyfriend. And he was a lot to leave. Handsome, tall, strong, capable. He was 19, too, but a fully grown man, even in high school. He drove a Jeep with a canvas roof, scuba-dived in deep quarries, and read books about politics. He was a boxer whose trainer thought our relationship was a distraction; a serious boxer would stay focused, the trainer said. My boyfriend laughed. I adored him.
Then I went away to college and he stayed home. I spent a fortune on long distance phone calls, sometimes, in desperation, charging the call to a made-up number, the first remotely dishonest thing I’d ever done. His letters told about the old boat he’d bought and his plans for taking the boat on Lake Michigan; he loved the life he was living even while I was awash in the misery of a central Michigan winter. But he loved me. I had no doubt. And because of being so sure, I became pregnant.
After the abortion, I couldn’t love him anymore. It wasn’t allowed. It would have to be part of the price to pay. I blamed him for my guilt. He should have given me more options, offered to marry me rather than talking about how we were too young and needed to wait. That I had become a slut was now on his head. That’s what I believed. And he did nothing to make it better; he’d put the abortion behind him as soon as it had happened. He wondered why I was stuck on it. It was done and over. And would never happen again. He would make sure of it. He promised. It wasn’t enough.
The third punishment was dread.
I would have to pay for my sins but it wasn’t clear when or how. A person just can’t do these things, go against the rules like I had, and not suffer consequences. I wavered between thinking the payback would be massive, like I would die, or specific to my crimes, like I would be forever childless or give birth to a terribly deformed baby or, worse, give birth, but have the child die later from some vicious cancer. That there would be a tremendous punishment was certain in my head, there was a score to be settled, by whom I didn’t know. I’d stand in the shower at night, the water beating down on my head, and think of the many tragic things that awaited me. This wasn’t once in a while. It was every day, every shower. The dread was my punishment; they say fearing execution is worse than the execution itself.
I was 19 thinking these things. Just 19. I felt already that I had lived a terrible life. It was meant for me to feel that way; it was intended for me to feel guilt and loneliness and dread. It was my punishment for making a mistake. And like all punishments of women around the world, this one eventually delivered a strong message. The message was stamped like a brand on the palm of my hand but it took decades for the letters to become clear, years of studying my own heart, and understanding the rightness of my ownership of my own body, my own self.
I see the words that were written. They are still there, deep, indelible, lasting. They say this to me and the world: You did nothing wrong.
Photo: Glenn Carstons-Peters