Hillary Jordan's book, When She Woke (Algonquin Books, $14.95) is now available in paperback.
Soon after my second novel came out last October, I gave an interview to a newspaper reporter from Upstate New York. It was a friendly, chatty kind of interview, drifting from "Where did you get the idea for the story?" to "Do you think your dystopian vision of the future will come true?" to "How did you like growing up in Dallas?" And then, toward the end, she said, "I know other reporters will ask you this. Have you had an abortion?"
Thwack! That would be the sound of my jaw hitting the floor. For a moment I was too flabbergasted to speak, and when I finally mustered a response it wasn't the one the question deserved: "It's none of your business." What I said was, "Oh, I can't imagine anyone would be rude enough to ask me that." Pretending she hadn't just done exactly that.
I should mention that the heroine of my second novel has an abortion. But. When She Woke is fiction, not memoir. Says so right on the cover: A NOVEL. So how had writing this imaginary woman's story made the intensely personal subject of my own reproductive choices fair game in an interview with a stranger?
The incident has nagged at me ever since, so recently I surveyed some of my author friends to see whether a) they found the question as appallingly presumptuous as I had and b) they'd ever been asked anything so personal. While almost everybody said yes to a) and no to b), only three writers expressed real shock.
"Jeez. I'm flabbergasted, too," Richard Russo wrote. The other seven were unsurprised, given the tendency of readers to believe that every work of fiction is partly autobiographical fact.
Benjamin Percy told me he'd been asked about his nonexistent daddy issues, his wife's nonexistent miscarriage and why he hated women (a laughable notion for anyone who knows him). Barbara Kingsolver wrote, "I would say most reporters (and people in general) assume that I have done everything I write about in fiction, including adopting a baby someone left in my car."
Julia Glass echoed those sentiments, but she also said that based on her own experience, she felt women were "expected to 'confide publicly' about a lot of very personal issues no one would dream of quizzing men about." To that I will add that if we authors do our jobs well and put our guts on the page, readers sometimes feel a false intimacy with us. But none of the above, to my mind, fully explains the question I was asked last October.
There's only one thing that does: the fact that we live in a culture that has normalized and systematized intrusion into women's personal lives to such a degree that anything is fair game. Our bodies and our most private decisions regarding them are on the political table--and in the headlines--every day. Which is simply not true for men, not in the real world nor, I suspect, the literary one. Ben was asked about his wife's nonexistent miscarriage, but I find it hard to imagine anyone asking him or any other male writer whether their character's vasectomy or sexual disfunction or sperm donation was based on personal experience. We just don't go there with men.
That the reporter who went there with me was a female pro-choice liberal speaks to how pervasive the problem is. Disregard for women's fundamental privacy is infecting the whole country, propelled by the relentless drumbeat of the extreme right. Since the '94 elections that swept them into power, Republican-male-dominated legislatures have passed hundreds of laws denying women the very same 14th Amendment protections they seek to extend to fetuses, and hindering, intimidating, humiliating and misleading women who try to exercise their legal right to an abortion--and in some cases, even to birth control.
This year alone, "pro life" Republicans have tried to defund Planned Parenthood, allow hospitals to deny a woman an abortion even if it's necessary to save her life and redefine rape as "forcible rape" only (as if there were any other kind). But the blue ribbon goes to the Virginia legislature, which passed a law in February requiring women to have an invasive, medically unnecessary vaginal ultrasound prior to having an abortion. As an editorial in the Virginian-Pilot put it, "Under any other circumstances, forcing an unwilling person to submit to a vaginal probing would be a violation beyond imagining."
As little as ten years ago, these would have all been violations beyond imagining. Today, such assaults are an unremarkable, seemingly inevitable part of our political landscape. And that should frighten us all. Roe vs Wade hangs by a thread of one black robe. But as we're seeing, Roe doesn't have to be overturned for right-wing extremists in public office to make life hell for millions of women. They just have to keep winning elections and chipping away at our personhood.
If you're still reading at this point and not busy composing hate mail, I'm guessing you're pro choice. I'm also guessing you're a woman, but maybe you're a man. Maybe you're planning to vote Republican this November because you object to Obamacare or higher taxes on the wealthy. Maybe you don't plan to vote at all because the system feels so broken and all the candidates seem like carbon copies of each other.
Here's what I want to say to you: women's reproductive freedom hinges on this election like never before. NO person who is pro choice can afford to stay home on November 6 or to vote for an anti-choice candidate for any reason. We can't risk having leaders like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, who put a fetus's personhood before that of the woman carrying it, or representatives like Todd Akin, who claim that in cases of "legitimate rape," a woman's body will prevent her from getting pregnant. Because if these extremists have their way, we'll wake up one day to a world we don't recognize, in which the very notion of women's reproductive rights is a preposterous anachronism.
This November, we must stand up and say to our would-be elected officials what I was too flummoxed to say to that reporter last October--"It's none of your business"--in the only way they will listen: by voting for someone who says, "You're damn right it's not."