Today is the forty-first anniversary of Roe v. Wade – an occasion of which I am keenly aware, in part because the last one played such an important role in my life. 2013 was the busiest, most productive year ever for me, the one in which I take the greatest pride – in part because it marked Roe v. Wade’s fortieth anniversary.
I’ve received a good deal of attention lately for something completely unrelated: “Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving NY,” a popular anthology I edited for Seal Press, featuring twenty-eight essays by celebrated women writers, all inspired by Joan Didion’s 1967 essay about leaving New York. But I want to draw your attention to some other work I helped bring to fruition in 2013, important projects that have changed me, and which I hope will bring about change in the lives of others – both of which raise money, ongoing, for Planned Parenthood.
Beginning in 2012, I put my head together with two different incredible women: Kim Wyatt, with whom I co-edited a collection of essays called “Get Out of My Crotch: 21 Writers Respond to America’s War on Reproductive Rights and Women’s Health,” (Bona Fide/Cherry Bomb Books, $18) released on January 22nd, the exact Roe v. Wade anniversary; and Eva Tenuto, executive director of TMI Project, of which I am editorial director, with whom I collaborated on “What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting: True Stories of Slips, Surprises and Happy Accidents,” an ensemble theater piece featuring men and women telling true stories about all the ways in which they dealt with unplanned pregnancies, and how they were affected by those choices.
Both projects were born not only out of a desire to commemorate Roe v. Wade, but also out of a sense of frustration with conservative legislators who were trying to turn back the clock. “Up to my neck in stories about trans-vaginal ultrasounds and personhood and the evils of contraception,” writes Wyatt in the introduction to “Get Out of My Crotch,” she felt the need to do something. Eva and I also watched in horror as Senator Todd Akin explained how women can’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape” because “the body would just shut that whole thing down” – especially as we helped a workshop participant find the courage to read onstage a monologue about an abortion she’d had at fourteen, when her body failed to “shut that whole thing down” after her brother raped her.
There was a third factor, though, in the creation of “What to Expect…” During in incredibly eye-opening women’s writing retreat we were running, Eva and I – two women who’d been harboring abortion secrets of our own – were struck in a huge way by the importance of sharing our reproductive histories and dispelling the shame around them.
It was the winter of 2012. Mitt Romney was promising, if elected president, to de-fund Planned Parenthood and overturn Roe v. Wade. At a later point in the writing retreat weekend, following one of our writing exercises designed to help participants access and release true stories that have left them holding onto shame, a seventy-eight-year-old woman overcame her fear of being judged to read what she’d just written about an illegal abortion she’d had pre-Roe v. Wade.
“I’ve never told this to anyone,” she said, visibly and audibly nervous, as she introduced the piece.
When she was done reading, the room went silent for a moment. There was a tension in the air that quickly gave way to warmth and empathy. There were tears and hugs as another participant, in her sixties, took a deep breath and confessed, too – for the first time – to having undergone an illegal pre-Roe abortion of her own. She was followed by another, and then another.
Next came the confessions from a handful of participants who’d been keeping secrets about legal abortions, including Eva and me. Somewhere in the middle of all that, another woman told the story of defying her parents’ insistence, at sixteen, that she have an abortion, and going on to become a fiercely devoted and loving mother way before she’d ever expected or felt equipped to.
Hearing stories about people’s unexpected pregnancies, the choices they made, the ways they affected their lives, shouldn’t have surprised me. To begin with, about half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned. And, accordingly, in just about all the memoir and monologue workshops Eva and I teach, we regularly encounter the full gamut of these stories – not just the ones about termination, but also stories about men and women going through with having kids they hadn’t planned for, for better and worse; stories of tracking down children they gave up for adoption when they were teenagers; stories of children finding their biological parents, and more. The pop star who was once vehemently anti-kid, years later becoming a needy parent desperate for the love of his son. The woman who’d aborted while in an abusive relationship at twenty-two trying – and trying – to conceive at 35. The woman in her sixties who can make peace with having given up her first son for adoption after meeting him years later, and learning of the happy life he had. The infertile couple who are turned away at the hospital the day they are supposed to pick up their adopted son, because the college-age biological parents have changed their minds.
At that fateful women’s retreat, while I might have been little bit taken aback by the sheer number of unplanned pregnancy stories to emerge, the big surprise came in one participant’s reaction. When everyone was done sharing their stories, it became clear that she was the only woman in a room of thirteen who hadn’t had an unexpected pregnancy. A college sophomore raised in a relatively religious household, she was just nineteen. Even before she spoke, it was evident from her facial expression that she couldn’t believe what she was hearing – namely eleven or so women she’d been bonding with for the prior two days now admitting they had committed what she’d been told was a sin, the epitome of evil.
“I have never known anyone who had an abortion,” she said, tentatively, “and I always had a very dim view of those who had. This is really changing my mind.”
All it took was putting faces – familiar, friendly faces – to choices she had once judged so harshly, for it to register for her: This sweet grandmotherly woman, these other women I’ve come to care about in the past forty-eight-hours – they’re not shameful, evil people. I’ve heard why they did what they did, and I understand in a way I hadn’t before. Maybe other people who do what they did aren’t shameful and evil. Maybe what they did isn’t either… You could see the wheels turning in her head.
In that moment it became exceedingly clear to both Eva and me that this is why we need to share our reproductive histories, especially with the younger generation. And, as we saw evidenced in that weekend workshop, it is only through the very sharing of those histories, and coming to understand one another through them, that we can dispel the shame surrounding them. That is what TMI Project is all about: starting conversations by telling the truths we usually keep to ourselves; learning we’re not so different from one another; letting go of judgment; letting go of shame. Changing the world, one humble, honest, human story at a time.
It was that young woman’s startling revelation that button-holed for Eva and me a plan we had long been considering: to put together our first themed edition of “Too Much Information,” a series of shows with monologues we’ve been producing since 2010 – the theme being unexpected pregnancy. The result is “What to Expect…,” which covers the gamut of stories I mentioned earlier – some funny, some tragic, all touching.
Eva and I worked hard putting the script together, incorporating true stories from an assortment of workshops we’ve run, which would then be told mainly by the people who lived them. We also created composite characters based on incarcerated teen fathers we worked with at a juvenile detention center, and teen moms we worked with at a special school for them, as a way to protect their anonymity. And we held a special, separate writing workshop for older women who had survived illegal, pre-Roe v. Wade abortions.
There were five of them in all, and when we brought them together at a rural facility that functions as a hippie “art incubator,” we couldn’t believe how similar their stories were, down to the tiniest details, such as where they were supposed to leave their $500 in cash (the back of the toilet), the cabs in which they were supposed to lie face down, and the nurses who’d greet them disguised behind sunglasses. Our mouths were agape in disbelief the whole time.
Later, Eva braided the five voices together into an ensemble piece, “The Lucky Ones,” in which the women’s stories overlap, and they finish each other’s sentences. It is the most powerful piece in the show, made even more so by an original song, also called “The Lucky Ones,” written especially for the show by Julie Novak, and performed by her at the end. Again and again, people tell us they were blown away by the show, and especially by this piece.
We debuted “What to Expect…” at a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, on June 29th, 2013, four days after Wendy Davis’s filibuster of Senate Bill 5, greatly limiting Texas women’s access to safe, legal abortions. By the time the day arrived, Eva and I had been so mired in scripting, and she in directing, that we had no idea how the show would be received. Did it have too much tragedy? Enough humor? Too many stories? But the audience was riveted. They laughed, they gasped, they sighed in all the right places. Half-way through, Eva and I grabbed hands backstage and started to cry tears of joy. “Holy shit,” she said, “this is actually good.”
During a Q&A at the end, someone shouted, “Take it to Texas!” Soon afterward, we began fundraising to take the show on the road, to colleges and to states where reproductive rights are in the greatest jeopardy. We decided to eventually make the script available for use by others the way Eve Ensler does with “The Vagina Monologues,” with a stipulation that a portion of proceeds from every performance must benefit Planned Parenthood.
We’ve taken the show a few places, most recently Bard College. At the end of that performance, one of the sixtysomething women featured in “The Lucky Ones” asked the audience, full of students, how many of them hadn’t known at all about illegal abortions pre-Roe v. Wade, like the one she’d endured in 1966. About eighty percent of the audience members raised their hands. Eva and I looked at each other, as we have so many times since we debuted the show, with an expression that silently said, “Oh, my god, we were right. This is important.”
So, while it is unspeakably exciting for me to see “Goodbye to All That” featured in The New York Times (three times!), on prestigious best-of-2013 lists, and prominently displayed in the window of The Strand bookstore, it’s even more gratifying for me to be present at performances of “What to Expect…” To witness the incredibly brave women and men telling their stories, and receiving rousing applause and standing ovations for it. To cry at the end, every time I hear those older women share their harrowing experiences. To take the final bow with Eva. As I reflect on 2013, it is this work that I’m most proud of.
That auspicious year may be behind me now – goodbye to all that, indeed – but our mission to employ “What to Expect…” as an engine for education has only just begun. We’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of us, and we’re going to need help doing it. Fundraising for the show is ongoing – you can donate at http://notexpecting.org Please help us take it to colleges and every other place where these stories most need to be heard.