Her mother told her, “I had an abortion after you because you were such a terrible child!” Michelle Zauner in Crying in H Mart, a marvelous memoir, writes, “I knew there was no way I was truly to blame for the abortion. More than anything, I was just shocked she had withheld something so monumental.”
I know women who have had abortions. You do, too, even if you are not aware of it, and there is a good chance that you know women who had illegal abortions, as I do. Many women, however, do not mention their abortions, as Michelle’s mother did not until she had that pique of anger. Too often when we learn much after the event that a woman terminated a pregnancy, we conclude that she kept it a secret because she was ashamed of her action. Instead, as with many things in all our lives, we should see that it was a private decision—it involved her right to privacy–and she has every right not to divulge her action to others. Most people are not ashamed of having had sex. Most do not divulge the details far and wide. These events are private actions, and a woman has the right when, where, or if to discuss them. The passage in Crying in H Mart, however, had me thinking about anovel and another memoir from earlier times that told us, whether we realize it or not, abortion has been an important part of our history.
Bad Girl by Viña Delmar was a bestseller in 1928. My copy is from its fifteenth printing that year. (Sales were apparently not hurt when the novel was banned in Boston.) In the novel, Dot, a working-class New York City woman, does the unthinkable and has premarital sex. She gets pregnant and marries her lover. She fears childbirth, about which she knows little, and the book has a frank discussion of her attempts to terminate the pregnancy.
Even though it is against the law, she gets a purported miscarriage-inducing concoction from a pharmacist. Although she takes it “religiously,” it fails to work. Dot then turns to a more upper-class friend, Maude, who urges Dot not to have the baby and tells her that only an operation, not any medicine, will work. Dot asks whether the operation hurts, and Maude says it does “the first time, because most girls are crazy enough to try it without ether.” With the anesthetic, however, “you don’t feel a damn thing.” The friend gives Dot an address and tells her not to pay more than fifty dollars, an enormous sum to Dot. Maude states that the hospitals are open to the woman giving birth, but not to the one who doesn’t want a baby. “High prices, fresh doctors. It’s a man’s world, Dot. To the woman who knows her place they will give their charity, but the woman who wants to keep her body from pain and her mind from worry is an object of contempt.” Dot, not having fifty dollars, goes for a preliminary visit to the doctor, who determines she is pregnant, molests her, charges her five dollars, settles for the only two dollars she has, and tells her to make an appointment soon because she is in the second month.
Dot and her husband Eddie are constrained from talking freely about what they are feeling. Eddie thinks that a pregnancy termination would be murder, but he also thinks a man “would have a hell of a nerve” to tell a woman to have a baby. “What right had a man to say what she should do?”
Dot talks with other friends. Edna says a woman has the baby whether she wants it or not. “Abortion” is never uttered. Instead, in a different way from the way we use the term now, that procedure is referred to as “birth control.” Thus, Dot “was not anxious to debate the pro and con of birth control” with Edna, and Edna to herself was trying to figure out, “Who was the birth-control advocate, Eddie or Dot?”
Edna urges Eddie to oppose the abortion, but he replies, “It’s her business.” Edna then indicates that “nine-tenths” of young married women are ignorant about childbirth and abortion. She states that there are only a half-dozen New York City doctors who do abortions without serious complications such as blood poisoning. For a birth, Edna maintains, a woman can find a good doctor, but “the other way you’ve got a guy who couldn’t make a living the way other doctors do. . . , and in case you have religion, you’ve sinned against it.”
Finally, Dot decides. “After all, it was her body that was to be the battle-field. She had been wrong. It was her place to do what she pleased, not to stand by and wait for Eddie to pass judgment.” The thought of the horrid abortionist was repulsive, and she feels happy and peaceful as she announces that she will have the baby.
I have not seen many references to Viña Delmar, who not long after Bad Girl, became a screenwriter, but she makes a cameo appearance in the 1935 noir novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy. The novel’s setting is a marathon dance held in a hall built out over the Pacific. As the marathon goes on, Hollywood personalities attend. One night the personality to fire the starter’s pistol for the brutal “derby,” where the couples race around an oval painted on the floor with the last couple being eliminated from the competition, is Miss Delmar. Rocky, the emcee, played by Gig Young in the movie “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”—it is hard to say which is better, or more depressing, the movie or the book—explains, “Miss Delmar, is a famous Hollywood author and novelist.” I am not sure why Viña, of all the possibilities was plunked down in this book, but it could have been an homage to Bad Girl. Both books, written less than a decade apart, explore, with sensitive understanding, the difficulties of lower-class life in the 1920s and 1930s. Abortion is at the core of Bad Girl and is an undercurrent in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Early on in McCoy’s book, Gloria, played by Jane Fonda in the movie, urges a fellow competitor who is pregnant to get an abortion. At the book’s end, Gloria worries that she is pregnant by Rocky, and she does not want a child. “Suppose I do have a kid?” she said. “You know what it’ll grow up to be, don’t you, just like us.” The narrator, her dance partner says to himself, “She’s right; she’s exactly right. It’ll grow up to be just like us–.”
(continued June 1)