Surviving Life, Creating A New One: An Interview with Corbin Lewars

Brittany Shoot

Processing the trauma of surviving sexual assault at a young age, quitting your unfulfilling day job, and having a baby at home might not seem like an obvious topic pairing, but for writer Corbin Lewars, the real-life experiences were inextricably intertwined.

Processing the trauma of surviving sexual assault at a young age, quitting your unfulfilling day job, and having a baby at home might not seem like an obvious topic pairing, but for writer Corbin Lewars, the real-life experiences were inextricably intertwined.

In her new memoir, Creating a Life: The Memoir of a Writer and Mom in the Making, she explains how the biggest components of her life came to a head all at once. Originally driven to make some serious decisions because of her obsession with having a baby, her preoccupation with pregnancy often overshadowed other issues in her life that needed to be handled—ones that came to light as she tried to navigate fertility complications and a miscarriage.

At around 12 years old, Lewars survived being raped at a party by a boy from her school. But it wasn’t until her early thirties that she started to fully deal with the emotional fallout from the experience. Undoing years of self-blame took a lot of work, but Lewars explains that after miscarrying her first child early in her pregnancy, she began the process of unraveling her own abusive. Like many survivors of sexual assault and abuse, control was a central theme in her life, and only in taking charge of the things she could—and letting go of the rest—did she begin the process of truly healing. Determined to be the best parent to her unborn child, she knew she had to battle her own demons before becoming responsible for an additional life.

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Lewars began counseling, quit a dead-end day job to pursue her passion for writing and editing, and eventually, she became pregnant again. As part of her quest to regain control over her body and her emotional relationship with herself, as well as to avoid an institutionalized medical system that had never seemed particularly right for her, she chose to have her baby at home. Convincing her family about her decision was sometimes tricky, but perhaps due to her strong conviction to do what was right for herself and her baby, she was able to surround herself with a supportive birthing team that helped her deal with the complex emotions of giving birth while still processing her own difficult past.

Like any journey through therapy and life-changing events such as career change and pregnancy, Lewars’ story doesn’t fit into a tidy package. While she covers several complex themes, her life’s story—so far, anyway—is linear and deeply engaging. Her life has changed a lot since her first child was born several years ago, and in the interim period, she got divorced, started working from home full time, and launched the Reality Mom zine. Corbin Lewars recently spoke to me about her journey.

There are a number of times in the book in which you describe blaming yourself—for being a rape victim, for not seeking counseling sooner, for your miscarriage. How do those feelings manifest today?

Starting therapy helped my brain understand that it wasn’t my fault, but I didn’t feel a shift until my body accepted that truth. Saying you’re not at fault is entirely different than believing you’re not at fault. One of the first things that helped that shift was reading Phyllis’ intro to my book, where she claims many children that are sexually abused don’t have an understanding of what is happening to them, as was true in my case. If I didn’t understand I was being raped, how could I blame myself?

My therapist explained to me that I went into shock and remained there for years. Combine that with the fact that in my family, I was often the person who felt and saw things that no one else wanted to see. So after years of being told I was “wrong,” I stopped trusting my gut, and my brain, and therefore blamed myself unnecessarily for thing I “knew” but didn’t believe. The difference now is I am not in shock, I surround myself with people who “see” and discuss emotionally vulnerable topics, and I constantly check in with myself.

Right before I started my book tour I took a couple of days to ask that little girl inside of me what she needed. She needed to be seen. And by taking care of myself before the tour, I am not only able to be seen and heard in a healthy way, I am serving as a catalyst for other people to share their stories with me as well. So they can be heard and seen as well.

You mention that in your younger single years, you always took responsibility for birth control. Why do you think you didn’t expect men to participate in the decision to have protected, safe sex?

I didn’t have the courage to ask them to. Even worse, I didn’t even have the language or skills to ask them to use condoms, so I only protected myself against pregnancy, not diseases. This surprises people who know me now, as a feisty opinionated person, but as a child I didn’t have any role models of women who asked for what they wanted/needed. Saying no to a man or asking him to do something for me was a language I not only never spoke, I never heard, so couldn’t even begin to emulate.

In my mid-twenties I started to befriend older, wise, strong women, Lori (mentioned in the book) being one of the dearest. And through them, I finally started to understand women have a voice and a say.

For a lot of women who have survived abuse and assault—myself one of them—it can seem easier to hide by repressing your feelings. In the book, you detail your significant progress in therapy. How would you explain the benefits of working through your pain to those who have yet to do it?

Therapy gave me a whole new life—a life I fantasized about, but didn’t know how to achieve. My depression lifted, my creativity and sexuality peaked, and I have more energy than I have had in years. It was worth going through and reliving and feeling for the first time the pain of the rape and other parts of my childhood to get to where I am now: living an authentic life where I feel things deeply, take risks, and constantly assess myself and my goals.

So when people say, “Does therapy help?” I say, “Immensely. But only if you want it to.” A lot of people don’t want to unpack and face their demons, so they could go to therapy for twenty years and not change anything. Therapy is not the cure all; you have to be willing to do the work outside of the office as well.

How was your partnership with your husband different after you remembered and began working through the memories of your rape? Do you think it would be different if you had recalled what happened the assault at an earlier stage in your relationship?

I never “forgot” the assault; I just never called it a rape. So when I told him what happened, about midway through our relationship, I was vague about it and didn’t offer details. Even while writing the book, we didn’t address the rape.

My now ex-husband and I had so many bad patterns—not talking on a deep level being the major one—that we were only able to shift by becoming divorced. We actually separated while I was writing this book. So again, I give therapy credit for this shift. Through therapy, I not only separated from a husband who couldn’t talk about painful subjects with me, but I gained a best friend (the same man) who now can tell me all of the things he couldn’t say while we were married. A few months ago, I told him he never said he was sorry I was raped and that I needed to hear that from him. He started crying, told me how terribly sorry he was, and we hugged for a long time. I told him I needed to hear that not just for my own healing, but to be sure that he would be willing to “see” and acknowledge it if anything ever happened to our daughter or son. And for the first time, I actually believe he will.

A lot of the book focuses on alternative medicine. Why were options like seeing an acupuncturist or using a midwife and doula the best choices for you?

As I explained in the book, I did not have a great track record with traditional doctors. I was also trying to be in control of my life and my choices for the first time, and alternative practitioners are much more likely to include you, your brain, your body, and your opinions into their care, rather than dictate what they think.

It took you a while to warm up to the idea of a home birth, even with information from your midwife. Do you think more women would give birth at home if they understood it as a safe, relatively uncomplicated option?

Absolutely! Unfortunately, doctors tell them the opposite. That it is risky and dangerous, where many studies show that giving birth in a hospital leaves women not only at a much higher risk of having an unnecessary c-section, but also exposed to germs that could lead to infections. Unfortunately, many of the midwives I know can’t afford to practice in the United Sates. They either move to Canada or give up their practice altogether, so who is left to inform women about their choices? You are!

At the conclusion of the book, your son Conor was four months old, and you and your husband were still figuring out the future. What are you working on now, and what happens next?

Many things happened next, including a second child, our daughter Stella, the demise of our marriage, finding an agent, firing an agent, and writing three books amongst other things.

I am not sure what I’ll do with my second book, Swings, which is supposedly fiction, but actually closely narrates the early years of my life with Conor and the thread that started to unravel my marriage. My agent shopped it for a while, but then we parted ways and I found Catalyst Book Press for Creating a Life.

The project I have more enthusiasm about now is another memoir I’m writing called A Year of Pleasures. It’s about my year of exploring all of my desires after separating from my ex-husband Jason. As I said, even our separation was pleasurable and having joint custody of the kids allows me time I haven’t had in seven years to explore what I want, rather than what Corbin the wife or Corbin the mother should do. Along with my single, divorced friends, who I call the Fabulosities—because they are all fabulous, creative women who know and own their power and sexuality—I am now able to go see art shows, listen to bands, watch burlesque performances, eat spicy, delicious food that my kids would turn their noses up at, take professional risks, and of course date. The book not only shows that divorce is not the end of the world for many women; it could even be a gift.

Currently, I am in the midst of a book tour and having my mind blown daily by the amount of women who share a similar story as mine. I received two emails today about “first time sexual encounters that weren’t so great.” Yesterday, during my memoir class, two women broke down sobbing about the sexual abuse they have endured. Everywhere I go, whether I’m talking about my book or not, women and men are sharing their painful stories with me. Much of it revolves around rape, molestation or sexual abuse, and although I could find this depressing, I’m actually inspired by it. Because every time a woman, or man, tells me her story, they are one step closer to removing the blame from themselves. Although they often say, “But I was drunk,” or “But I was wearing a mini-skirt,” I know by sharing their story with me—and of course having me tell them they should be able to wear and drink whatever they want without being sexually assaulted—they are starting to shift the blame off of themselves.

By sharing our stories, we can wake people up to this epidemic—which I believe is occurring to an even larger percentage of people than the reported one-in-four girls—and start teaching our youth some positive sexual education, rather than hoping they will be abstinent if we don’t talk about it. Girls in particular need to learn how to say no or yes to what they want sexually as well as feel free to state their opinions and needs, without fearing ostracism.

I used to only emphasize my daughter’s intelligence, believing too many people emphasize girls’ looks and not their brains. And I’ve given both of my kids many talks about, “Your body is yours and you get to decide who hugs you, kisses you, or whose lap you sit on.” I am confident that both kids trust their intuition in these matters, and feel free with their bodies, yet also only change clothes, hug, or even interact with people that they feel comfortable with.

Instilling in both kids the importance of stating their opinions and never downplaying their intelligence, as well as being comfortable with their bodies has been easy, but I wrestle with “beautiful.” Both of my kids are beautiful, and are often told that, but I want that to mean something more than how it’s often used, as in describing a “beautiful princess.” Beauty holds power, but many fairy tales—let alone the movies, which is why neither of my kids has ever seen a Disney movie—depict beautiful women as needing help and rarely mention her intelligence. What I hope for my kids is to feel comfortable with their beauty and their sexuality when they are older, but for it never to overshadow their intelligence and intuition. I want them to be “seen” as all of who they are and for them to see themselves that was as well, not as only one part. I am only recently allowing myself to be a beautiful, sexually desired woman with many sexual desires of my own, so I am learning myself as I try to teach my kids.

News Health Systems

Complaint: Citing Catholic Rules, Doctor Turns Away Bleeding Woman With Dislodged IUD

Amy Littlefield

“It felt heartbreaking,” said Melanie Jones. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights.”

Melanie Jones arrived for her doctor’s appointment bleeding and in pain. Jones, 28, who lives in the Chicago area, had slipped in her bathroom, and suspected the fall had dislodged her copper intrauterine device (IUD).

Her doctor confirmed the IUD was dislodged and had to be removed. But the doctor said she would be unable to remove the IUD, citing Catholic restrictions followed by Mercy Hospital and Medical Center and providers within its system.

“I think my first feeling was shock,” Jones told Rewire in an interview. “I thought that eventually they were going to recognize that my health was the top priority.”

The doctor left Jones to confer with colleagues, before returning to confirm that her “hands [were] tied,” according to two complaints filed by the ACLU of Illinois. Not only could she not help her, the doctor said, but no one in Jones’ health insurance network could remove the IUD, because all of them followed similar restrictions. Mercy, like many Catholic providers, follows directives issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that restrict access to an array of services, including abortion care, tubal ligations, and contraception.

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Some Catholic providers may get around the rules by purporting to prescribe hormonal contraception for acne or heavy periods, rather than for birth control, but in the case of copper IUDs, there is no such pretext available.

“She told Ms. Jones that that process [of switching networks] would take her a month, and that she should feel fortunate because sometimes switching networks takes up to six months or even a year,” the ACLU of Illinois wrote in a pair of complaints filed in late June.

Jones hadn’t even realized her health-care network was Catholic.

Mercy has about nine off-site locations in the Chicago area, including the Dearborn Station office Jones visited, said Eric Rhodes, senior vice president of administrative and professional services. It is part of Trinity Health, one of the largest Catholic health systems in the country.

The ACLU and ACLU of Michigan sued Trinity last year for its “repeated and systematic failure to provide women suffering pregnancy complications with appropriate emergency abortions as required by federal law.” The lawsuit was dismissed but the ACLU has asked for reconsideration.

In a written statement to Rewire, Mercy said, “Generally, our protocol in caring for a woman with a dislodged or troublesome IUD is to offer to remove it.”

Rhodes said Mercy was reviewing its education process on Catholic directives for physicians and residents.

“That act [of removing an IUD] in itself does not violate the directives,” Marty Folan, Mercy’s director of mission integration, told Rewire.

The number of acute care hospitals that are Catholic owned or affiliated has grown by 22 percent over the past 15 years, according to MergerWatch, with one in every six acute care hospital beds now in a Catholic owned or affiliated facility. Women in such hospitals have been turned away while miscarrying and denied tubal ligations.

“We think that people should be aware that they may face limitations on the kind of care they can receive when they go to the doctor based on religious restrictions,” said Lorie Chaiten, director of the women’s and reproductive rights project of the ACLU of Illinois, in a phone interview with Rewire. “It’s really important that the public understand that this is going on and it is going on in a widespread fashion so that people can take whatever steps they need to do to protect themselves.”

Jones left her doctor’s office, still in pain and bleeding. Her options were limited. She couldn’t afford a $1,000 trip to the emergency room, and an urgent care facility was out of the question since her Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois insurance policy would only cover treatment within her network—and she had just been told that her entire network followed Catholic restrictions.

Jones, on the advice of a friend, contacted the ACLU of Illinois. Attorneys there advised Jones to call her insurance company and demand they expedite her network change. After five hours of phone calls, Jones was able to see a doctor who removed her IUD, five days after her initial appointment and almost two weeks after she fell in the bathroom.

Before the IUD was removed, Jones suffered from cramps she compared to those she felt after the IUD was first placed, severe enough that she medicated herself to cope with the pain.

She experienced another feeling after being turned away: stigma.

“It felt heartbreaking,” Jones told Rewire. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights.”

The ACLU of Illinois has filed two complaints in Jones’ case: one before the Illinois Department of Human Rights and another with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights under the anti-discrimination provision of the Affordable Care Act. Chaiten said it’s clear Jones was discriminated against because of her gender.

“We don’t know what Mercy’s policies are, but I would find it hard to believe that if there were a man who was suffering complications from a vasectomy and came to the emergency room, that they would turn him away,” Chaiten said. “This the equivalent of that, right, this is a woman who had an IUD, and because they couldn’t pretend the purpose of the IUD was something other than pregnancy prevention, they told her, ‘We can’t help you.’”

Analysis Law and Policy

California Bill Aimed at Anti-Choice Videos Draws Free Speech Concerns

Amy Littlefield

“We wanted to make sure that we updated ... laws to kind of reflect a changing world and to make sure that we actually protect the doctors who provide these important services to women,” California Assemblymember Jimmy Gomez said, adding that his legislation would also protect patient safety and access to abortion.

A California bill that would make it a crime to distribute secret recordings of health-care providers—like the ones David Daleiden used in his smear campaign against Planned Parenthood—has cleared a legislative hurdle, but faces opposition from media groups and civil liberties advocates, who say the legislation is overly broad.

It is already illegal in California to record, whether in audio or video form, a confidential communication without the consent of all parties involved. But California Assemblymember Jimmy Gomez, who introduced AB 1671, told Rewire that while current law specifically forbids the distribution of illegally recorded telephone calls, there is no similar protection for videos.

“We wanted to make sure that we updated those laws to kind of reflect a changing world and to make sure that we actually protect the doctors who provide these important services to women,” Gomez said, adding that his legislation would also protect patient safety and access to abortion.

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AB 1671 makes it a crime if someone who violates California’s existing law against secret recordings “intentionally discloses or distributes, in any manner, in any forum, including, but not limited to, Internet [websites] and social media, or for any purpose, the contents of a confidential communication with a health care provider that is obtained by that person.”

Violators could be jailed for up to a year and fined up to $2,500, penalties similar to those already in place for making illegal recordings. But the new measure specifies that for both recording and distribution, the fines apply to each violation; that means someone like Daleiden, who circulated his videos widely, could quickly rack up heavy fines. Repeat offenders could face fines of up to $10,000 per violation.

The effort to pass the bill comes as abortion providers face a rising tide of threats and secret recordings. Besides Daleiden’s efforts, covertly recorded footage of clinic staff has cropped up in the documentary HUSH and in videos released by the anti-choice group Live Action. Planned Parenthood reported a ninefold increase in harassment at its health centers in July last year, when Daleiden began releasing the deceptively edited videos he claimed showed the organization was illegally profiting from fetal tissue donation. (Multiple federal and state investigations have found no wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood.) The National Abortion Federation recorded an “unprecedented” spike in hate speech and threats against abortion providers last year, peaking with the fatal shooting of three people at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood.

Increased Threats

“It was so alarming and so extensive that our staff that normally tracks threats and violence against providers could not keep up,” NAF President and CEO Vicki Saporta told Rewire. The organization was forced to hire an outside security firm.

Beth Parker, chief legal counsel for Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, told Rewire the new legislation is needed to protect the safety of abortion providers.

“If our providers aren’t safe, then they won’t provide, and we won’t have access to reproductive health care,” Parker said in a phone interview.

Daleiden’s group, the Center for Medical Progress, is based in California, and much of his covert recording took place there. Of the four lawsuits he and his group face over the recordings, three have been filed in federal court in California. Yet so far, the only criminal charges against Daleiden have been lodged in Texas, where a grand jury tasked with investigating Planned Parenthood instead indicted Daleiden and fellow anti-choice activist Sandra Merritt for purportedly using fake California driver’s licenses as part of their covert operation. The charges were later dropped for procedural reasons.

Last summer, California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced plans to review whether the Center for Medical Progress violated any laws, and in April, state investigators raided Daleiden’s apartment. Harris has not yet announced any charges. Daleiden has accused officials of seizing privileged information, a claim the attorney general’s office told Rewire it is working on resolving in court.

Harris, meanwhile is running for Senate; her campaign website describes her as “a champion for a woman’s right to choose.”

“We think there is an excellent case and the attorney general should have prosecuted,” Beth Parker of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California told Rewire. “Daleiden did more than just publish the videos, as we know, I mean he falsified driver’s licenses, he falsified credit cards, he set up a fake company. I mean, we have, as you know, a major civil litigation against him and his conspirators. I just can’t answer to why the attorney general hasn’t prosecuted.”

Parker said AB 1671 could increase incentives for law enforcement to prosecute such cases.

“What we’ve heard as we’ve been working [on] the bill is that criminal law enforcement almost never prosecutes for the violation of illegal recording,” Parker said. “It’s just too small a crime in their view.”

Assemblymember Gomez also said he hopes his bill will facilitate the prosecution of people like Daleiden, and serve as a deterrent against people who want to use illegal recordings to “undermine the fact that people have this right to have control over their bodies.”

“That’s the hope, is that it actually does change that landscape, that DAs will be able to make a better case against individuals who illegally record and distribute,” Gomez said.

Vicki Saporta of the National Abortion Federation says the actions of law enforcement matter when it comes to the safety of abortion providers.

“There’s certainly a correlation between law enforcement’s response to criminal activity aimed at abortion providers and the escalation or de-escalation of that activity,” Saporta said, citing the federal government’s response to the murders of abortion providers in the 1990s, which included the deployment of federal marshals to guard providers and the formation of a task force by then-Attorney General Janet Reno. “We had more than a decade of decreases in extreme violence aimed at abortion providers, and that ended in 2009 with the murder of Dr. [George] Tiller.”

But media and civil liberties groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union of California, have expressed concerns the bill could sweep up journalists and whistleblowers.

“The passing of this law is meant to chill speech, right, so that’s what they want to do,” Nikki Moore, legal counsel of the California Newspaper Publishers Association, which opposes the legislation, said in an interview with Rewire. In addition to potential criminal penalties, the measure would create new civil liabilities that Moore says could make journalists hesitant to publish sensitive information.  

“A news organization is going to look at it and say, ‘Are we going to get sued for this? Well, there’s a potential, so we probably shouldn’t distribute it,’” Moore said.

As an example of the kind of journalism that could be affected by the bill, Moore cited a Los Angeles Times investigation that analyzed and helped debunk Daleiden’s footage.

“Planned Parenthood’s bill would criminalize that behavior, so it’s short-sighted of them if nothing else,” Moore said.

Assemblymember Gomez disagrees about the scope of the bill. “We have tailored it narrowly to basically say it applies to the person who illegally recorded the video and also is distributing that video, so it doesn’t apply to, say, a news agency that actually ends up getting the video,” he said.

Late last week, the California Senate Appropriations Committee released AB 1671 to the state senate floor on a vote of 5 to 2, with Republicans opposing it. The latest version has been amended to remove language that implicated “a person who aids and abets” the distribution of secret recordings, wording civil liberties groups said could be used to sweep in journalists and lawyers. The latest draft also makes an exception for recordings provided solely to law enforcement for investigations.

But the ACLU of California and the California Newspaper Publishers Association said they still oppose the bill. (The Electronic Frontier Foundation said it is still reviewing the changes.)

“The likelihood of a news organization being charged for aiding and abetting is certainly reduced” under the new language, Moore said. But provisions already exist in the California penal code to implicate those accused of aiding and abetting criminal behavior.

“You can imagine scenarios where perhaps the newspaper published it and it’s an anonymous source, and so now they’re aiding and abetting the distribution, and they’re the only person that the prosecutor knows might have been involved,” Moore says.

In letter of opposition sent in June to Assemblymember Gomez, Kevin Baker, legislative director of the ACLU of California, raised concerns about how the measure singles out the communications of health-care providers.

“The same rationale for punishing communications of some preferred professions/industries could as easily be applied to other communications —e.g., by law enforcement, animal testing labs, gun makers, lethal injection drug producers, the petroleum industry, religious sects,” Baker wrote.

Gomez said there could be further changes to the bill as talks aimed at resolving such opposition continue. An earlier version passed the assembly easily by a vote of 52 to 26. The latest draft faces an August 31 deadline to pass the senate and a concurrence vote in the assembly before the end of the session. After that, Gomez said he hopes California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) will sign it.

“If we can strike the right balance [between the rights of privacy and free speech], my hope is that it’s hard for him not to support it,” Gomez said. 


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