Coming to Terms with Abortion Addiction

Mandy Van Deven

Mandy Van Deven interviews Irene Vilar about her book, Impossible Motherhood, and her self-described history as an "abortion addict."

I am one of those pro-choice people who say things that are so
insensitive, so anti-natalist that I frequently make other pro-choicers cringe.
Irene Vilar’s confession of having had fifteen abortions in as many years made
me cringe. I cringed continuously as I made my way through her painfully honest
story not because I stand in misconstrued judgment of her actions, but because
the writing breathes such raw emotion that it becomes difficult to read it with
the same air of necessary detachment with which Vilar has lived a great deal of
her life.

In many ways, Vilar’s propensity for physical and emotional disconnection—a
trait with both saved and damned her—makes the conditions that allowed for
repeated impregnation and termination somehow more disturbing than if she had
penned every last brutal detail. The words are cutting yet so beautifully
lyrical that I found myself enrapt in the writing to the point of forgetting
about the next impending pregnancy until it arose again.

The past is written on our bodies, at times literally, and Vilar’s
tragically happy story is plainly an amalgamation involving an overwhelming
amount of self-destruction and conquest. Its melodic cadence lulls you to a
state of empathy and understanding of the fluid dynamism of identity, the power
of shame, and the absence of truth. An addiction can be all encompassing, and
this memoir is as powerful as any drug. We are all fortunate to taste the “bitter-sweetness”
of this terribly wonderful and devastating work, which to me feels like an odd
sort of victory.

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increasing number of women have recently begun speaking out about the need to
discuss the complexity of abortion. What influenced you to write this book now?


My goal in going public with my testimony was
threefold: One was to understand and explain the complexities of my self-destructive
actions. Next was to find the connecting vessels between my personal pathology—the
terrifying ways I related with my reproductive body—and my historical relationship
to my parents, culture, and country. The third was to use my extreme difficulty
identifying my addiction to the drama of pregnancy and abortion to open up the
field of psychohistory inquiry for women and cultural studies, especially for
exploring the possible resistance some women have to their fecundity being controlled
or robbed from them. Perhaps some of the repeat abortions of women supposedly
on birth control are, in part, a rebellion and a resistance. It is not a
rational behavior, but I think many women who unconsciously "forget"
to take their pill might see in my story—no matter how extreme—the ways the
fantasy of getting pregnant, the fantasy of potential motherhood, and the
reassurance that one is fertile can be at war with the reality of having a

In the
prologue you address the tricky issue of the morality of having multiple
abortions, which serves the book well since people’s snap judgments could
easily interfere with their ability to hear your story.

I wanted to establish right from the start the complexities of my
destructive actions by framing the story as one women’s attempt to grasp the
meaning of her life by asking how conscious I had been of what I was doing to
earn a feeling of worth, and by what lies I would tell myself. I wanted to
show how elusive this examination can be as a result of the fluidity of the
selves one sheds along the way and the questionable morality of one’s actions.
How will my account withstand the merciless judgment that comes with reality?
The prologue was my attempt at asking myself what my social responsibility was in
writing this story about a personal experience anchored in what is one of the
most controversial and inflammatory subjects in American society and politics.

What were
your fears in writing this memoir?

My main concern was about the inevitable
polarization the book was fated to encounter: the rigid resistance from both
abortion foes and pro-choicers to encounter the testimony on “fair”,
intellectual grounds. I knew people would politicize my book. Many see it as a
pro-choice extreme, but in fact, it has little to do with the pro-choice
movement. When one is looking for a strategy of survival one uses what makes
sense, with whatever limited tools one has.

Abortion happened to be the effect of my neurotic
behavior, but it is not the fact of it. Abortion happened to be the target of
my addiction—or to be more precise, the target of my pathological adolescent
rebellious strategy. It is very tragic that my illness involved a fetus, and
this presses my condition against the polarized discussion on abortion in this
country. But I wrote this book with a specific reader in mind. I am certain
that eventually, once it frees itself from the tabloids, the testimony will
find its right, fruitful place as an important document in cultural and postcolonial

How did
your cultural background shape your experience?

I believe my Puerto Rican experience informed the
shape of my neurotic strategy, but I’m solely responsible for my actions. As a
Puerto Rican woman brought up by a depressed mother who had been sterilized
despite herself as part of an American-led experiment, who was betrayed by her
husband, who had little opportunity to access education, and who eventually
committed suicide, I had one desire: to escape to America and be free to do
exactly what I wanted.

As a fifteen-year old freshman in college, this
meant I did not have to submit to any rule or law when it came to my
sexuality. I wanted control over my body and the way I chose to have
control could not have been more terrible. I fell in love with my literature
professor, a philosopher and self-proclaimed feminist who wanted no children
and thought women should be sterile if they wanted a career and a true life of
freedom. I "unconsciously" and systematically “forgot” to take my
birth control pills, and I know today that with each pregnancy I defied him as
much as I defied the politics of sterilization that took my mother away from

A central
character in this book is your ex-husband, whom you never address by name. Why
did you choose to keep him in a cloak of anonymity?

It was a way to protect and heighten my
subjectivity, which was something crucial in pursuing greater self-accountability
for my actions. It was also necessary to generate and maintain control over my
story, which historically I had cloaked under his.

You said
abortion became an addiction for you. How did it function as such?

Getting pregnant brought a strange feeling: I could
bring it on with nobody’s permission, and I could interrupt it with nobody’s
permission. Of course, this did not mean I wanted
to do it again and again—a drug addict also wants to stop every time. I was a
creature in suspended animation addicted to the high of agency in pregnancy and
the shame of the down side. My blinding desire for control was at the core of
my neurosis. The experiences I had can explain my “addiction” in part, but of
course someone else with similar life experiences may have reacted differently.
They may have become depressed, or manic, or anorexic, or masochistic, or
they may simply have been lucky and come out unscathed. For my part, I think
several elements contributed to my choice of behavior, if we can call this a

mention the chiding you received from the abortion practitioners who performed
your repeat terminations. Was it important to you to express their disapproval?

Absolutely! Abortion doctors risk their lives
assisting women in exercising their right to choose. Repeat abortions among
women who supposedly are on birth control baffles them as much as it baffles
many of us. It was important for me to give their account of their predicament
in my quest for self-accountability.

There are
many times throughout the book when you deny yourself sustenance in exchange
for companionship, making hunger a recurring theme. What were you hungry for
that was more important than nourishment?

I think I had a mild form of anorexia. Deprivation
was another way of keeping control. The anorexic defies the world by refusing
to eat; nobody can make them. Nobody could make me submit to contraception or
to chastity or to motherhood and its responsibility. Of course, this is not
rational; it’s unconscious. I relished in an in-between state, a rare condition
to be sure. I didn’t surrender to pain. I didn’t want to be human because it was
too dangerous. I fought my humanity where ever I could.

pro-choice movement is framed as one that supports a woman having the freedom
to choose whether or not to bring a child into the world. Ironically, your
story is about having multiple abortions as a result of your lack of freedom in
this regard. How did this contradiction play out in your experience?

Abortion happens to be the target of my addiction
or, to be more precise, the target of my adolescent rebellious strategy. It is
truly unfortunate that my “illness" involves a fetus—but how could it be
otherwise since my psychic playing field was a struggle between my wanting to
be an intellectual free of constraints and the thrill of feeling pregnant as
the ultimate signature of womanhood? For one minute I could have my cake and
eat it too. On some level this is a universal fantasy. Many women feel that way,
but don’t carry out this fantasy to the extreme that I have. My book could, to
some extent, be a caricature of the plight of the modern woman: how to be two
things at once.

I think the context in which I grew up makes this
situation more blatant. There is an asymptotic relationship between my
addiction to abortion and the controversial abortion debate. My story is
about abortion and it is not about abortion. It is about abortion only in that
I owe my life to the legalization of abortion and that my pathology involved a
drama of pregnancy and abortion. It is not about abortion in the sense that
what I really show is that my addiction is the reverse of the "freedom to
choose." When I was finally in a position to choose, I had my
first baby.


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