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Friday, April 30, 2004



Abortion in literature.

This is an entry in my occasional series on how abortion is portrayed in literature. I'm interested in this because my sense is that writers are apt to present a picture of abortion that is less agendized and more true to reality--that we'll find out more about how people really react to abortion by reading what is said in poems and novels than in opinion columns.

Today, we have a fascinating case in point.

Anna Quindlen is the author of four best-selling novels. She won the Pulitzer in 1992 for her opinion column in the New York Times. Currently, she writes a column every other week for Newsweek. Quindlen is well-known for her pro-choice advocacy. She has served on boards for Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League.

In one of her Newsweek columns in 2001, Quindlen complains that "many people still see abortion as a negative act."

Quindlen's 1998 novel Black and Blue was a national bestseller. Oprah designated it one of her Books of the Month. It has more than 400 reader reviews at Amazon.com.

"Black and Blue" is about domestic violence. Franny Benedetto is regularly battered by her sadistic, controlling husband, a New York City cop. She finally takes her 10-year-old son, flees to Florida with the help of an underground railroad for women in her situation, and takes on a new identity.

The novel has frequent flashbacks to abuse episodes, including the beating that is the final straw. It is made clear to the reader that Bobby will kill Franny someday. It's also made clear that the law is no protection against someone like Bobby--three other women in the novel who got restraining orders are murdered by their husbands.

The novel slowly, slowly inches toward the very worst thing that happens to Franny. We know it's the worst thing because when we finally get there, Franny tells us so. "It was the worst thing Bobby ever did to me. It was the worst thing we ever did." It's an abortion.

Franny is in the early stages of a pregnancy when she decides that she must escape Bobby to save her life. As part of what she feels she must do, she goes to an abortion clinic to have the child eliminated. The scene at the clinic is described in slow motion--the sights, smells and sounds that are painfully familiar to anyone who has been on one of those tables.

As we learn 90% of the way through the novel, Franny has been haunted by this abortion in ways that are entirely familiar to anyone who has experienced the range of thoughts, beliefs, memories and feelings that are are coldly and collectively labelled "post-abortion syndrome".

Franny dreams of a little girl who is drowning in an ocean as Franny turns her back and walks away. Painful memories and feelings come up when a new friend in Florida becomes pregnant. She thinks about the age the child would have been now, what she would have looked like, how they would have held each other. She describes herself as needing to "draw a curtain" over what happened that day.

When her new lover enters her in their first act of lovemaking, she numbs out. We find out later that this is because she suddenly feels the speculum inserted into her by the abortionist instead of her lover's penis.

"Many people still seem to see abortion as a negative act."

Apparently including Anna Quindlen, who doesn't allow herself to portray an abortion as an act that one might have chosen to finish a degree, or because the father doesn't feel quite ready to be a dad, or because the demands of motherhood seem restrictive and overwhelming. Nope, her heroine only gets to choose an abortion as an apparently necessary act to save her life. And even then she has to be haunted with regret, impaired sexuality, and intrusive flashbacks.

Lest anyone imagine that ferious pro-choice advocate Anna Quindlen would herself have ever made this choice, she hastens to reassure an interviewer that there are absolutely no autobiographical references in the novel.

"'There aren't any,' " Quindlen replies. 'It's very
satisfying for me to have written a book that's really
completely imagined.'"

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