It would seem that I’ve told my story of getting an abortion at seventeen about a thousand times (well, not that many, but plenty). To date, I’ve written about the experience, spoken about it publically (at Speak Outs–Breaking Silences about Abortion–an annual feature of the absolutely jaw-dropping reproductive rights conference at Hampshire College), and I’ve even appeared on Oprah (with my mom; we were a mother-daughter pair against parental consent laws for abortion). The Pitts-Stupak amendment spurred me to write about it again the other day. I shared my story—seventeen, able to find an abortion, have it paid for in 1981 because I was a minor so federal monies were available, and able to choose when or whether to tell my parents—because what my story illustrates is this: I had agency over my body and truly was able to make a decision about my life that worked for me. I had access to reproductive health services, and I used those services, gratefully.
Here’s what I learned again from telling: the story is the same and changes over time (certainly, I emphasize different aspects). And this story, like any other, hits people in different ways. For example, one friend worried she’d been too breezy in response, while another asked about Oprah, and my goddaughter saw the story as one an older woman wishing the world still allowed younger women those freedoms and protections was willing to share along with that vision.
These days, the story is, for me, about freedoms and protections, about equality, about womanhood and about budding feminism. At other times, it was about silence and invisibility (do you say, in polite company that you just had an abortion and are struggling? You do not). It demonstrated a teen’s denial about being sexually active. It was about a mother’s not wanting her daughter to be sexually active and just saying no rather than asking questions of her daughter. And it was about realizing that as a woman, clearly a fertile one, I could become a mother… someday.
As a writer and a former political organizer, I guess it’s safe to say I am a great believer in stories. I find stories powerful, how they open hearts, how they change minds, how they make us all more real to one another.
Many times over, I’ve seen how a personal story can really make a large, lofty “issue” become tangible and real through the human connection and give the impersonal thing a voice.
In a writing group many years ago, I first heard Doug Anderson read about his experiences in Vietnam (a must-read, his knockout memoir, Keep Your Head Down, which exemplifies brave and compassionate storytelling).
Dan Savage’s funny, honest and poignant memoir, The Kid, tells his adoption story so well that my cousin, Janet, gave copies of the book to her family as she and her husband embarked upon their own adoption odyssey, because his experience as an adoptive father so ably explained what open adoption actually is. What’s more, Savage was one of the first writers to bring gay parenting out into the open.
When my much beloved friend, Andrew Harkins, was diagnosed with a brain tumor, he sent a postcard to well wishers, a photograph (that he’d taken; he was a wonderful photographer) of his bandaged head beside his sister’s very pregnant belly, with a simple caption—Not all bumps are bad—and told a story. Not that the entire cancer experience was equally upbeat; yet Andrew maintained a kind of optimism through that extraordinary (way too early) illness and death that keeps those who loved him retelling his stories, and somehow we are still buoyed by those tales, memories, and images. To wit, the photograph featured with this post is by another high school friend, Jordy Rabinowitz, and tells its own story about carrying Andrew forward.
My friend, Jennifer Jacobson, believes storytelling can support children in becoming change-makers. By telling stories, they are given the opportunity to hear their own voices, and in so doing, feel how powerful their stories are. Her organization is called When Children Save the Day. Once a child has a story, and a voice, that forceful young person can take words into action (community service, of some kind). Not unlike Joanna Macy’s Despair and Empowerment in the Nuclear Age model, both approaches make a connection between finding voice and feeling able to take action. Sometimes, when I’m caught up with writing and find myself lacking on the “doing” end of making social change, I have to remind myself that stories and conversations about those stories often provide the impetus for action. In this way (and others), our stories are invaluable.
In the current issue of Poets and Writers, author Debra Gwartney writes about how vulnerable she felt writing a memoir, Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of RunawayDaughters and Reclaimed Love, in which she describes her two teenage daughters running away from home. She worried she was telling a story that wasn’t hers. After reading a draft, her daughters gave both their blessing and the freeing gift of their perspective; the story their mother was telling was less about them and really about her, so she had to tell it. They pinpointed something so essential about telling—that our best stories reveal us.
Recently, I had an email exchange with the former boyfriend (of seventeen, whose own story about that time would almost inevitably be different from mine, with overlaps), in which we were reflecting upon the nature of being seventeen (as his daughter is now). Of that time, he wrote, “I also think about how, when you were that age, I saw you as a woman…and I was right and wrong about that. And now I see my daughter as a kid…and I'm right and wrong about that too.”
Another thing I love about stories: sometimes, they seem like gems or rocks, to be polished and held in our hands and other times, more like sand sifting through our fingers leaving a dusty residue. That is to say, sometimes, we share them and other times we simply hold onto them or let them go, but each time we tell them, we find something new: in the telling and through the resulting exchanges.