Essay: Abortion Lies, Secrets, and Silence
On the film Happening
Anamaria Vartolomei as Anne in Happening. Photograph: IFC Films/AP
Arabic translation of Abortion Lies, Secrets, and Silence
It takes a while to catch up to yourself; to reconcile the “severe and tender feelings toward the women I have been,” as Adrienne Rich puts it in her essay collection On Lies, Secrets, and Silence.
At its best, art is the facilitator.
Watching the French film Happening, based on Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical novel about her illegal abortion in France in 1963, I felt as if I were reading a letter from my past to my present. Caught up and in conversation, finally.
I had an “illegal” abortion in Egypt in 1996 and a “legal” abortion in the U.S. in 2000. I feel like I straddle a surreal "before" and "after” that is about to go into effect but in reverse in the U.S. as the Supreme Court stands poised to overturn the 1973 Roe v Wade case which legalized abortion. Happening opened to limited release in the U.S. just as the country comes dangerously close to an “after” and “before.”
I use inverted commas around “illegal” and “legal” because I reject the State’s attempt to control my uterus. I reject its power to declare what is “legal” or “illegal” when it comes to my abortions. The State–and the Supreme Court–can fuck off with its opinions about what I can and can’t do with my uterus. That control belongs to me.
Winner of the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Happening facilitated a long-overdue conversation between my “before” and “after,” ironically enough, through silence.
Unsurprisingly and stunningly at once, the word “abortion” is not mentioned once in a film about a 23-year-old woman who becomes increasingly desperate to have one. France did not legalize abortion until 1975. Back in 1963, when the character Anne wants to end her pregnancy so that she can finish her university studies and become a writer, it was dangerous to even talk about terminations let alone help a woman have an abortion.
In 1943–just 20 years before Annie Ernaux had her illegal abortion–France executed abortionist Marie-Louise Giraud by guillotine. She was the last person executed for abortion in France. After the end of World War II, France outlawed the death penalty for abortions, but the heavily Catholic country continued to aggressively prosecute them.
Annie Ernaux’s illegal abortion was my “before.” Director of Happening, Audrey Diwan’s legal abortion was my “after”. And yet again silence is the leitmotif.
Diwan, who was born in 1980–forty years after Ernaux–was familiar with the author’s other novels but did not know of Happening until a friend recommended it after Diwan herself had an abortion and wanted to hear about other women’s experience.
“I think there is a reason why I’d never seen this one before, because as soon as I talked with Annie, she told me that of all her books, this was the only one that didn’t have any media echo. Journalists were not interested. They didn’t really want to hear about the topic of illegal abortion,” Diwan said.
The director has spoken of her rage at “this story of illegal abortion. Women can't even imagine what it was like then.”
“I didn't know what a clandestine abortion really was - the journey, the violence, the complexity, and the loneliness." Diwan said. “Abortion has been a silent topic somehow. I think there is fear - we fear a woman's body and its secrets."
If silence is the bell hanging around the neck of illegal abortion, deafening and cacophonous, then surely once abortion is decriminalized, we can remove the bell of silence and close the drawer on its clamour?
Diwan, who had spent three years making Happening, was only convinced to talk publicly about her own abortion after the actor who plays the film abortionist mentioned her own during a news conference at the Venice Film Festival. Diwan said it was then that she realized “the vestiges of this shame still had an effect on me.”
The silence around our abortions is heard by nobody, except for those who are tuned into its specific ringing. And for everyone else, it acts like silence; it is absent.
For as long as patriarchy can shroud abortion with silence, it will continue to stamp it in shame. So I broke my silence to break free of shame.
And that was how the artistry of Happening–from the autobiographical novel to the film it is based on–helped me reconcile the “severe and tender feelings toward the women I have been.” It took Annie Ernaux 37 years to write about her illegal abortion. Even the three years of working to portray Ernaux’s novel were not enough for Audrey Diwan to feel comfortable publicly sharing her legal abortion experience.
Ernaux and Diwan, the illegal and the legal, separated by so much time and yet united by too much silence. It is important to distinguish whether privacy or secrecy undergirds that silence, Carol Sanger writes in About Abortion: Terminating Pregnancy in Twentieth Century America.
“What matters is that we recognize and appreciate the important substantive difference between these two modes of concealment when the subject is abortion. Abortion concealment in contemporary society aligns not with privacy but with secrecy. That secrecy is a much darker, more psychologically taxing, and socially corrosive phenomenon than privacy,” Sanger says.
Furthermore, “the decision to keep a matter secret in the context of abortion is often a response to the threat or prospect of harm, whether harassment, stigmatization, or fear of violence.”
Photo: Robert E. Rutledge
It took me 25 years to write about my abortions. I had told a select few friends over the years but I recognize that it was secrecy, not privacy, that rang my bell of silence.
One of the reasons I decided to finally speak was to say what I had long yearned to read: I had an abortion because I did not want to be pregnant. That’s it. In so many of the abortion narratives I read, it was as if women were pleading for a mercy and forgiveness that belonged to no one to give; it was as if they had to prove they were “worthy” of the abortion–whether by virtue of the pain they had endured in becoming pregnant (through rape or incest) or the pain they would endure by carrying the pregnancy to term; it was as if they had to prove their abortion was a “good” one because they were “good.”
And that was in the United States, where abortion is (for now) legal. So imagine the compounded interest accrued in silence in countries where abortion is illegal.
Our stories are like guide stars that lead us toward solidarity. Gather here, they say, and banish loneliness. And the role of artists is to place those stars in the heavens. Look, they say, you matter.
For as long as patriarchy can shroud abortion with silence, it will continue to stamp it in shame. So I broke my silence to break free of shame. And to say, what is now my mantra that I say in all my essays about my abortions: I was not raped. I was not sick. The pregnancies did not threaten my life. I did not already have children. I just did not want to be pregnant. I did not want to have a child. I am glad I had my abortions. They gave me the freedom to live the life I have chosen.
When I had my “illegal” abortion in Egypt, I spent weeks after searching for abortion stories online because like Audrey Diwan. I wanted someone to talk to about having sex, about having an abortion, about wanting to continue having and enjoying sex post-abortion. I was adamant to dispel the thought that becoming pregnant and having an abortion were punishment for having sex. I was still fighting the guilt of having pre-marital sex, which I had fought (myself) so hard for. Whatever trauma I experienced was not because of the abortion, which brought me relief. It was because of the silence and stigma.
Much of the secrecy around my “illegal” abortion, as it was for Anne, would have involved acknowledging that I had pre-marital sex, which in 1963 France – as in Egypt in 1996 and still the case today – was taboo. But even today in France, where sex is ostensibly not taboo and abortion is legal, for Audrey Diwan and others, secrecy still silences. Just this March, French President Emmanuel Macron said abortion was “always a tragedy for women.”
My abortions were no tragedy for me. They gave me the freedom to live the life I have chosen. And I share them now, with the zeal of someone freshly liberated from their former shackles of secrecy and shame.
“Sometimes, the only way to create change for the future is by telling our stories from the past–and the present,” writes Dr. Meera Shah in You’re the Only One I’ve Told: The Stories Behind Abortion, in which she shares the personal narratives of people who have had abortion but who have rarely if ever told anyone.
I have learned to listen to what the silence around my abortions has been telling me and I have muted the shame. To be tender, and not severe, with my younger selves, I had to disrupt the silence around my abortions by flooding it with subversion.
Our stories are like guide stars that lead us toward solidarity. Gather here, they say, and banish loneliness.
And the role of artists is to place those stars in the heavens. Look, they say, you matter.
“I wrote Happening to preserve the memory of the savagery inflicted on millions of girls and women. It was also to descend as far as I could into what I call, at one point, ‘the shock of the real’,” Annie Ernaux said.
And when we see enough of those stars, and when we tell the stories of our lives and remember that we matter, we move the private into the public and we force change.
I wrote about the two-part exhibit Abortion is Normal which was co-curated by Jasmine Wahi and Rebecca Pauline Jampol.
In 1998, when a referendum to decriminalize abortion in Portugal failed, artist Paula Rego made a series of works to highlight the "fear and pain and danger of an illegal abortion, which is what desperate women have always resorted to." The Abortion Series, which depicts women in the aftermath of illegal abortions, was a powerful part of the campaign that led to a second referendum, in 2007, after which abortion was finally legalized in Portugal.
Watching Happening helped me meet again my younger selves–Mona who had an illegal abortion and Mona who had a legal abortion. I have learned to listen to what the silence around my abortions has been telling me and I have muted the shame. To be tender, and not severe, with my younger selves, I had to disrupt the silence around my abortions by flooding it with subversion. Because the most subversive thing a woman can do is to talk about her life as if it matters. Because it does.
Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author, commentator and disruptor of patriarchy. She is editing an anthology on menopause called Bloody Hell! And Other Stories: Adventures in Menopause from Across the Personal and Political Spectrum. Her first book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (2015) targeted patriarchy in the Middle East and North Africa and her second The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls (2019) took her disruption worldwide. It is now available in Ireland and the UK. Her commentary has appeared in media around the world and she makes video essays and writes a newsletter as FEMINIST GIANT.
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