Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict
by Irene Vilar
222 pages, $15.95
Irene Vilar was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Her first memoir, The Ladies’ Gallery, was a Philadelphia Inquirer and Detroit Free Press notable book of the year and was short-listed for the 1999 Mind Book of the Year Award. She is a literary agent and series editor of The Americas at Texas Tech University Press, and lives in Colorado with her husband and two daughters. Despite all these achievements, Irene Vilar also had fifteen abortions in sixteen years and tried to commit suicide seven times. And no, her latest book, Impossible Motherhood, is not fiction.
Looking at the cover it’s easy to assume Impossible Motherhood is a sensationalist book. The “abortion addict” subtitle sounds like a strange marketing ploy, but Vilar shows that she was an abortion addict, similar to how her brothers were heroin addicts and her father an alcoholic womanizer. During her second abortion/suicide attempt, she almost bled to death. One of her last abortions was an illegal one in Puerto Rico inside a warehouse-like room. Vilar was at risk for cervical cancer and still had fecal matter from one of her pregnancies lodged inside her body.
But Impossible Motherhood isn’t really about her abortions. It’s about a destructive family legacy, self-mutilation, and, eventually, survival. Surprisingly, it reads easily and is a gripping book. Throughout I kept forgetting how many abortions Vilar had and kept hoping she would stop and save herself. In lesser hands this could have been an overwrought book, but Vilar doesn’t sensationalize, or make excuses. Most readers will be able to relate to the universal themes of trauma, depression, grief, loss and self-destruction.
With Vilar’s family background, it’s amazing she’s still alive and appears to be living a healthy life as a mother of two. Her grandmother is the famous Lolita Lebrón, the revered activist for Puerto Rican independence who sprayed the U.S. House of Representatives with gunfire in 1954. Before that dramatic act, Lolita sold herself to the owner of a coffee plantation when she was seventeen and later moved to New York City and worked in a sweatshop. One of Vilar’s brothers was handicapped from a car accident and later diagnosed with cancer. The other two brothers were heroin addicts and one of them was beaten to death trying to get a drug fix. Vilar’s mother was sexually abused by an uncle, married at age fifteen, and addicted to valium after a forced hysterectomy at the age of thirty-three. But most importantly, when Vilar was eight, her mother committed suicide in front of her.
Vilar describes the transforming moment of her mother’s death and abandonment beautifully:
“When my mother opened the door of the small Mazda my father was driving on our way home from my brother Cheo’s wedding, I called out “Mami!” and I remember the hard pull of her shoulder in my hand as I reached out. But abandonment began much earlier than her death. There are fragmented memories of waiting alone in deserted parking lots, beaches, smelly hallways of motels, my own bedroom. In all these memories, I’m waiting for my mother to come back.”
After her mother’s death, Vilar became “a guest child, waking up in different homes, among aunts, cousins, family friends…I had to beam a big smile at my generous hosts and ask permission to occupy some place in the world.” She kept looking for connections, and a home. Once President Carter pardoned her grandmother and she returned to Puerto Rico, Vilar tried to get to know her better. She wouldn’t let Vilar call her grandmother, or refer to her mother as ‘my daughter’ or ‘your mother.’ When Vilar asked her why, she said, “Tatita is her own person. She is not yours, nor mine.” It’s an interesting idea, but heartbreaking to a child who just wants to belong.
Amazingly, Vilar, the eager-to-please child, excelled in school and left Puerto Rico to attend college in the United States when she was fifteen. She became involved with her fifty-year-old professor when she was sixteen. He told Vilar, “I need an unformed woman, unfinished, with not too many wounds.” He wouldn’t give her a home, or pay for her meals at restaurants, even though she was poor and hungry, because he wanted to keep her a free woman. According to him, family and children kill desire, as does holding hands, and owning a home. Interestingly, he did marry her when she was twenty-one but wouldn’t wear a wedding ring. After her brother was beaten to death, her husband said, her “moods would end up killing our love story.” Thirteen of her abortions were with him. Her self-destructive behavior and abortions didn’t end with her divorce.
It would be easy for Vilar to lose herself within her own story, but every character in Impossible Motherhood has depth. One of the saddest and most political moments is with one of her doctors. He was about to perform his fifth abortion for her and he reminded her “his clinic had been attacked with butyric acid. He…risked his life every day by coming to his office and supporting a woman’s right to choose. But I was not choosing, was I?”
Like Vilar, I hope people don’t use Impossible Motherhood to prove a political agenda. It’s a personal, harrowing story about one woman overcoming a history of trauma, neglect, and self-mutilation to become a woman who can love and take care of herself, as well as her children. By the end of Impossible Motherhood, I wouldn’t say Vilar has become redeemed, but instead hopeful and aware. There are moments of beauty and tenderness throughout the book, especially between Vilar and her father, and with the mother of one of her friends.
Impossible Motherhood is best summed up with what Vilar’s father said to her after reading a draft of her first memoir, The Ladies’ Gallery: “Honesty, Irene, is the only thing we can hold on to and know it won’t let us down.” Vilar proves this to be true. Ignore any preconceptions you may have and pick up Impossible Motherhood. You might even become a little more empathetic. I know I did.
Irene Vilar will discuss her book at the Boulder Book Store on Monday, October 19 at 7:30 p.m.