This is the first part of a new “Artists at Work” series, featuring individuals who are working to shift culture through art. This series is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.
For the last three years, Melissa Madera has traveled to 18 states and eight countries recording more than 200 abortion stories in four languages. Her motivation? The 13 years she spent silent about her own abortion experience. Three years after she first told her story, she started the podcast with the hopes of connecting with other people who shared her experience.
Certainly, abortion storytelling isn’t anything new. Reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates have told stories, employing various forms of storytelling, for decades to normalize abortion as a social good. (Rewire launched earlier this year its own podcast called CHOICE/LESS to center the voices of those hardest hit by anti-abortion laws.) Madera’s podcast, however, offers an intimacy and authenticity not often found in public conversations around abortion.
As Madera explains it, she created the podcast because when she wanted to hear the voices of other folks like her who had an abortion, she couldn’t find what she needed online. Sure, there were videos of people sharing their abortion story at a speakout or for an organization’s online campaign, and articles by people sharing their experiences accessing this basic health-care service. But Madera was searching for an audio recording of someone telling their story in a way that clearly wasn’t rehearsed, and one in which the storyteller didn’t seem to have an agenda or a script to follow; she was looking for a podcast that was not about changing other people so much as helping the person speaking or listening who had an abortion. Her search for such a podcast came up empty, so she created one.
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From Northern Ireland to Tulsa, Oklahoma, Madera has met with people in places where they feel most comfortable—their home, a friend’s home, their office, a park. Before clicking the record button on her laptop, she will have a casual conversation with her guest to warm up, and at the completion of the recording, she’ll linger awhile to close out their time together. The only edits she makes before uploading the podcast to her website are for ambient sound or if the person mentions during the interview that they want something taken out. Otherwise, what listeners hear online is the raw version of an abortion story told by people like you and me.
More recently she curated an accompanying exhibit, titled ar·ti·facts: abortion stories and histories. This traveling exhibit debuted at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, in early 2015 and will soon be making its way to other colleges and communities. Among the artifacts included in the exhibit are art objects that podcast participants created as a way to process and document their abortion experience; pictures of the storytellers; and an old rotary phone that, once picked up, begins to play a podcast recording. It’s as if the person is speaking directly to the listener on the phone, she explained to Rewire during a recent Skype interview.
Rewire spoke with Madera in September about her motivations for creating the Abortion Diary Podcast, the abortion rituals some have followed, and the effect storytelling can have on policy and culture. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Rewire: Who is the audience for the podcast?
Melissa Madera: From the beginning, the audience has been other people who have had abortions, or people who are in that process of deciding whether to have an abortion and need to connect with someone who has had that experience. I thought it was important that we have a space for each other, a space where we could go and be connected to one another.
I think most of what’s out there is really about the perception of abortion. It’s the idea that we need to share our stories because we need to change how people think about abortion. And for me it was like, actually, I just want to meet other people who have had abortions. That helps me process and shift the narrative I have in my head about my experience. I had so many different feelings about my abortion, and I thought I was the only one who felt that way.
People who are thinking about having an abortion really don’t know what’s it like, what it entails, or where they might need to go for more information or to have an abortion. Listening to people’s stories can offer that kind of information. And that’s what I also wanted: that people who are needing that kind of support system would have it.
Rewire: What are you hoping to accomplish with the podcast?
MM: To show that the experiences and feelings of people who have had abortions are really different and they don’t have to fit into any narrative. That’s one of the reasons why I had a hard time talking about my abortion experience at first: It doesn’t fit into the “main” narratives that people hear about abortion. My abortion, my experience is complicated. Everyone’s experience is really complicated. Being in pro-choice circles has been really hard for me, because in trying to normalize people’s experiences, the movement and the stories shared as part of it stigmatize other people’s experiences.
Rewire: How so?
MM: The idea that we need to fit into a box of “we made choices and everything’s OK now.” Or, “You should not have any sort of complicated feelings about it: You should not feel regret, grief, sadness, or any kind of trauma.”
You can’t say what someone’s experience is going to be like. That person doesn’t even know what it’s going to be like until it happens and they’re processing it much later on. Even when people share their stories with me, they don’t know what they’re going to feel. They just feel whatever they feel in that moment. It’s not simple.
There’s also a lot of conversation about the diversity of narratives in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, socioeconomic status, and age, but that often doesn’t take into account the diversity of emotional, mental, or physical experiences. Both are incredibly important to me as a first-generation Latina of Dominican immigrant parents, as a bisexual woman, and as someone who has had an abortion. It was a really complicated experience that I didn’t talk about for many reasons, including the fact that I didn’t see, read, or hear any of those kinds of experiences around me, online, or in the media. Those are not the stories that tend to be amplified. I think as a society we must learn to grapple with ambiguity, complexity, and difficult experiences. I think the pro-choice community, especially, does not want to accept or deal with ambiguity or with narratives of regret or ones where people speak of sadness or trauma or grief. But I think we would be so much stronger as a community and movement if we did. By not listening and not putting forth diverse narratives, the movement itself stigmatizes and silences. It censors the lived experiences of many people who’ve had abortions. Moreover, when people don’t see their stories reflected around them, they feel stigmatized and silenced, and they may never feel safe to share their own experiences with anyone. That’s really heartbreaking to me.
Rewire: Your podcast website features a dedicated section to post-abortion rituals. Why was it important for you to focus on this topic in particular?
MM: It was important because sometimes people are looking for some way to process and they don’t know what to do. Abortion rituals are a way to create space that allows for time to process this experience. Most people have done something that was meaningful to them or helped them to process.
When I started listening to people’s stories for the podcast and people started talking about post-abortion rituals, it blew my mind. These people knew that they needed something and they created it for themselves. I later realized that the Abortion Diary is that ritual I created for myself; listening has helped me process my abortion experience.
Rewire: What are some of the rituals and practices that folks have shared on your podcast that helped them process their abortion?
MM: One person made a comic book. Interestingly enough, three people based in different parts of the United States, did a Japanese Mizuko Kuyo ritual using Jizo, a patron saint of lost children and travelers. One woman made casts of her belly for the six weeks that she was pregnant and put those in an art installation for her college. A few people wrote songs about their abortion experience. There also was a lot of art, poetry, and writing in general. Some people decided to take solo road trips by themselves and went on other adventures.
Rewire: Your podcast features stories from people who had to seek an abortion through illegal means, because it was (or still is) illegal. Why are these stories important to highlight?
MM: As a historian, archiving is really important to me. So, the podcast is not just about talking about abortion, but also about compiling these stories. There’s something really powerful about saying to someone: “Your story is going to be around forever. It is there for you and someone else to hear, and that is something special.”
We need to remember how difficult it was for people to access abortion. If they went to the wrong person, they could be dead. It was scary, and they put their life at risk because they didn’t want to be pregnant. This is a choice that should be much more easily made for them. What happened in our past is the current reality in many other places. And I think I knew that when I first started, but traveling to those places made it more real for me.
Rewire: Why is it important for people to share their abortion stories?
MM: It’s important for people to do it for themselves, and it’s important for us to share our stories for each other, so that we know there are many others out there like us. There is so much talk about how we need to share our stories to shift the landscape or to shift policy, but unless we start sharing stories in community with each other, nothing will change.
Rewire: Although you have made it clear that you aren’t motivated by the political aspect of shifting the conversation on abortion, what effect do you believe storytelling can have on policy and culture?
MM: Yes, my priority is the story sharer. I don’t speak to the political explicitly because I don’t want to ever shift my main focus: providing people with a platform to talk freely about their abortions, because they don’t have anywhere else to do that.
There are people who share their stories with me who have never told anyone else and probably will never tell anyone else. And there are people who after they share their story with me feel like they can tell other people around them. We don’t have many spaces to be able to talk about this experience, even with people who love us. If the podcast becomes a political project, it erases that for some people. And I don’t want to do that ever.
But I know, from people who have listened to these stories and who have emailed me or have gone to the exhibit, this work shifts people’s beliefs and understandings around abortion, because it humanizes the experience 100 percent. These are real people, and we can hear their voices and there’s nothing calculated about it. We are not speaking to one agenda. We are telling our stories, each of us offering our own experience. Every single person who shares their own story shares and offers their own message.
After recording more than 200 stories (some of which are still being processed for publication), Madera told Rewire that she can honestly say no two stories are alike. While each story is unique, starting and ending in different ways, the one thing they all have in common is stigma. Abortion is still a taboo topic everywhere, even in seemingly progressive cities and liberal countries, making it a challenge for people to talk to friends, family, and other people in their life about their experiences—even in 2016.
Stigma is an exercise of oppression, to encourage people to feel guilty about receiving care that is a normal and critical part of reproductive health. The result is that people become silent. Hidden. Ashamed. Isolated from other people, their community. So while Melissa Madera’s Abortion Diary Podcast and accompanying exhibition aren’t an explicitly political project, one could argue that archiving these stories is inherently political, because it is up against the very systems that make people silent in the first place.