Lilu is my only friend who has openly talked to me about her abortion. I know other friends have had them, I know family members have had them, I know 30 percent of women under the age of 45 in the United States have had them, but we don’t talk about it. At the time of her abortion, Lilu only told a few close friends. She didn’t tell her parents until years later. It felt like something she needed to keep a secret. Lilu had wanted to write about her abortion years ago, but a friend told her it would be a bad idea to have this story linked to her name, that it might affect her employability. Even now, she is not entirely comfortable publicly sharing her story, and so we have changed her name to Lilu. Later, she would say to me, The whole pregnancy proves that you don’t have power. You don’t have power if you have to keep it quiet.
Lilu has heard many personal stories of terminated pregnancies. Once people know about her experience, they reach out. Friends, acquaintances, and older women will tell her their memories. A story becomes a gift, a way to transmit comfort, wisdom, warning. Lilu describes these connections as an underground bond, a network of solidarity. Around us, everywhere in the world, there exists this secret shared history, a network of women, connected by the stories of their terminated pregnancies.
On her last day in New Orleans, Lilu got a phone call from her boyfriend telling her he had a premonition. She was on a school trip and her assignment was to collect narratives of the devastation left in the wake of Katrina. She had been spending her days walking through the Broadmoor neighborhood surveying the hurricane’s aftermath. Some houses had been redone and had fancy alarm systems, while others were left blighted. The effect, she said, was “like a mouth full of rotting teeth:” the resurrected houses didn’t quite make up for the jarring gaps in between. People were kind to her. They would offer her a Coke and answer questions about what they would like to see improved even though everyone knew her survey would not lead to tangible change. In between interviews, she would eat. The little sandwiches she was provided with weren’t enough. She would eat one sandwich and be ready for a second lunch. She craved French fries. She laughed about her hunger, cracking jokes about her growing body and how her bra no longer fit. She didn’t think much of it until the phone call from her boyfriend.
He called to tell her he had a premonition she was pregnant. They occasionally had unprotected sex and she wasn’t on birth control, but it had never been an issue. The thought that she might get pregnant hadn’t really crossed her mind. Yet when he had a hunch, Lilu listened. He had an intuition that could be a bit uncanny at times: he was a dealer, and always seemed to know when the police were going to pull him over before it happened, and he was always right. So when he told Lilu he just had a feeling and it was urgent, she immediately went to the pharmacy and bought a pregnancy test.
Lilu came from the kind of family where anti-war protests were a regular activity, where her demands to be a vegetarian at age 5 did not seem outrageous, and where being pro-choice was pretty much assumed. She had recently turned 20, was in college, and was leaving to study abroad in just over a week. Her boyfriend was what a mutual friend described as having “a wild energy.” He was younger and on the verge of being kicked out of school. She had been working at a cute local bakery making minimum wage plus tips. She knew that if the test came back positive, she would get an abortion.
She went to the bathroom, holding the tip of the test stick in her urine stream. She waited to read the results on the mini screen, but even before the requisite three minutes were up, she could see the plus sign.
The test was positive.
Shit, she thought. I fucked up.
I wasn’t supposed to get pregnant. That’s one of the things you’re not supposed to do.
My introduction to Lilu’s pregnancy also began with a phone call. She called me once she left New Orleans, and I remember the drama of that conversation. I got very quiet and I went to sit outside on the steps so my mother couldn’t overhear us talk. Lilu and I had been friends for years. We called each other when big things happened, and we called each other when nothing happened. We would spend hours glued to our phones planning how we might run away to China together and rent a two-bedroom apartment; we analyzed our parents, our friends, and our romances; we pondered the possibility of lesbian animals. This felt more intense. I could feel her fear as she panicked about how to organize an abortion in a limited time-frame. She was leaving for India in a week and a half. Woven between the terror and stress of the logistics of an abortion was a kind of wonder that she had something alive inside her body at that very moment. It seemed fantastical.
I remember her describing how even just a few weeks in, being pregnant made her senses so sharp she felt like she had superpowers. She went into a deli and could smell every ingredient in a man’s sandwich from across the room. She could smell chips through the bag. She felt alert and alive.
Now, six years later, I find myself returning to this moment in her life. I went back through our Facebook messages in the hopes of finding clues to what this experience was really like for her. We mostly spoke on the phone, so there is hardly anything about her abortion, but there is a lot about our friendship. What I found most revealing was a comment from just weeks before her pregnancy about the nature of memory and our relationship. She wrote to me:
I lam drunk. Its weird how we have other peoples stories in our own memories. Like I remember the time when you were in the temple of heaven and at inauguration. Oh oh ohohohohohohohohdfk;sdf;laisdjfilsdjflas;fdijsdfijsfjisejfisjfeifjaiefjisdfjaeijrawljfslddjfeijfskajdfeijfksdjfeiwjfsajfeiwj I am making a beat on the keyboard.
Her message speaks to how, at that time, we almost viewed each other as extensions of ourselves. I remember when she got pregnant. I remember when she got an abortion. I can feel how she felt — drunk and nostalgic, tapping out a rhythm on her keyboard. Her experiences became my memories, not just in the sense that I remember what it was like to be me while she was experiencing this, but also in that because I felt so close to her it is almost as if I lived a second, vicarious life through her. I remember her experience through my memories of that time. But the story feels incomplete.
I know my own memories- they are dense and full and I can access other dimensions of them at will. I can pull out colors and feelings, impressions, and sometimes, even smells. I also have Lilu’s memories, but they are fragmented: I can piece together bits from stories, Facebook messages, photos and questions. But there are infinite details I cannot access. She and I have always been different and we cannot fully hold each others’ memories or truly know what happened to the other. This tension and distance is something we desperately tried to fill with our friendship, and my desire to investigate her story is another attempt to bridge this gap, to bring us closer. Her memory is at once within my reach and a mystery. The challenge of writing about Lilu’s abortion lies in how fully I can remember something that I never experienced.
Scheduling an abortion in the United States is not easy, especially when it is urgent. Lilu was leaving in just 10 days for a study abroad semester that would take her all over the world. Her imminent departure meant she needed an appointment, immediately. She worked up her courage and dialed the number for Planned Parenthood. She explained the situation and was told there were no openings within her timeframe. So she called another clinic. She was turned away. Again, and again. This happened seven times. Seven different clinics could not accommodate her. After the third clinic told her they had no spaces within the next two weeks, she started to panic. She called clinics in other cities. By the sixth phone call, she was frantic. Finally, on her eighth phone call, a clinic in New York had an opening. Lilu had her appointment.
On the day of her procedure, Lilu waited outside the clinic with her boyfriend for her cousin to join them. Her cousin would describe them both as looking unhappy. The boyfriend seemed, “nice enough, but awkward, and unhappily in this emotionally difficult situation.” Lilu told me she wasn’t unhappy; mostly she remembers just feeling disconnected and aloof, and also wanting to put her cousin and boyfriend at ease. Her biggest fear had been that she wouldn’t be able to undo her pregnancy, that she “wouldn’t be able to fix her fuck-up,” and she was grateful and relieved she had finally found a place she could get a safe medical abortion.
She entered the clinic, and paid $420 upfront, in cash. She didn’t want it to show up on her family insurance plan, so she and her boyfriend had scraped their bank accounts just that morning. It felt expensive. Passing over wads of bills made the procedure feel illicit.
The waiting room was a microcosm of New York women. It was diverse and chatty and overcrowded. Some women came with partners, some with friends. Lilu was the youngest. She observed how the women interacted with their partners, and to her, the room pulsed with “baby mama drama.” Her cousin surveyed the room and was struck by the normalcy of the situation: it felt like any other waiting room, but with more tension.
Sitting there, Lilu began to feel afraid. She didn’t know much about the procedure. She didn’t know how much it would hurt. Her cousin tried to comfort her with stories of other women in the family who had had similar experiences.
One by one, women were called to come to the back room. The women all received treatment at the same time; an assembly line abortion. They all got their fingers pricked, and then all got their blood taken, and then all got ultrasounds. They were dressed in little smocks and sent back to the waiting room. A myriad of women sat arranged in identical chairs, dressed in identical little gowns. Their shoes were different. Their situations were different.
They waited for two hours.
Lilu sat in one of the sterile gray chairs, dressed in her little hospital smock and combat boots, and observed the carefully curated fertility art that decorated the walls: a ballerina slipper balanced on an egg, flowers that looked like vaginas, a curvy indigenous woman resting in some sort of nature scene. The 40-year-old Virgin was playing on the TV. The nervous energy of the waiting room was amplified by a loud slapstick scene where Steve Carell frantically struggles to put on a condom. The ludicrousness of movie choice was not lost on anyone.
Someone commented that she was hungry, that she wanted a burger. This was met with murmurs of agreement.
Lilu chimed in, saying she wanted French fries.
This provoked a strong reaction. All the women started cheering for French fries.
French fries, French fries, French fries, chanted the pregnant women.
A nurse came to take Lilu back, and she left amid the cries for fries.
In the back room, she slid her feet into the cold metal stirrups. An anesthesiologist searched for a vein. He instructed her to count to 10. 1, 2, 3, she began, and then everything went dark.
Lilu would leave her appointment groggy and nauseous. She would gingerly step out onto the street, weighed down by an enormous pad, and buoyed up by the procedure which had lifted a heavy burden from her uterus.
Vacuum aspiration abortions are common in the United States. A tube in inserted through the cervix into the uterus. A machine pulls away the uterine tissue, sucking the area empty, and success rates are 99 percent. Very occasionally, complications occur. This normally happens if the patient is in the earliest weeks of her pregnancy. Lilu was in the earliest weeks of her pregnancy. The less than one percent who experience complications can easily be assessed and treated during a follow-up appointment.
But Lilu was going to India, and would not be able to attend her follow-up appointment.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few weeks pushing Lilu to explain how her abortion affected her. On one hand, it is vivid; it is alive with details, dramatic twists, and bizarre synchronicities. On the other hand, there is something about her experience that remains ephemeral and hard to grasp. I desperately want to know, Did it change you? What did it end up meaning for you?
Abortion is often significant not so much for what happened, but for what didn’t happen. Lilu didn’t have a baby. A baby would have changed her. But I think her abortion had impact beyond what it prevented. To me, the event felt pivotal, and I’m trying to understand how.
I asked her cousin Lea what she thought. Lea was understandably reluctant to ascribe meaning to somebody else’s experience, and I understood; it felt wrong imposing my own interpretations onto something so deeply personal to an experience that was not my own. I think about Lilu telling me, I felt angry about people trying to control me: politically, old white men trying to control my body. I wonder if my writing about this somehow imposes upon Lilu’s memories and story my own agenda, an action that inadvertently echoes the behavior of those who take moral and political issue with abortion. I push Lea to tell me her thoughts, and she muses that perhaps it was a kind of personal test for Lilu.
Talking to Lea, I was reminded of the greater context around Lilu’s abortion. Lilu was not having an easy time. Her parents were going through the kind of divorce that surfaced difficult and painful truths. She was in a relationship with a boy who was in an unstable period himself and hungry for all her energy. Everyone was demanding something from her, and what they were asking for never seemed to be small. In the midst of all this turmoil, Lilu was able to be strong for herself. As Lea put it, “she was able to assert herself in a moment when other people were needing so much.” To Lea, the clinic visit felt like “a defining experience for Lilu as a woman. It was this moment of autonomous decision making, sexuality, reproductive health politics — it felt like she was a grown person in the world dealing with stuff grown people in the world deal with.”
Two days after her procedure, Lilu boards a plane to Delhi. She mingles with her new classmates, students she will spend the next few months travelling around the world with. She keeps her recent experience a secret. She doesn’t know them yet.
The first time she throws up, she is stepping out of a motorized rickshaw. She is by a temple orange with marigolds and decorated with monkey life, their quick feet lending movement to the static structure. She inhales the thick stench of exhaust and incense, and then vomits spiced peas and roti. She wipes her faced with lined scratch paper because she doesn’t have a napkin. The second time she throws up, she is hovering over a pile of trash in a back alley. Two skinny white cows watch her and eat from the trash pile. She also throws up in the school bathroom, hovering over the squat toilet, and on her way to the Taj Mahal. She thinks it might be the food. And then she gets worried.
Weeks pass. She doesn’t feel well. She isn’t getting her period. She decides she needs to see a doctor, and asks the program director to arrange an appointment with a woman’s doctor — she is vague on the purpose, saying she needs a check-up. She does not know the politics of abortion in India and isn’t sure how open she ought to be about her situation. She doesn’t want her teachers to know.
Abortion is legal in India, and safe in most city centers.
Her program arranges for her to see a gynecologist and sends a translator with her. She and her translator bundle themselves in a colorful rickshaw and head to the hospital. They meet with a doctor who does an ultrasound. The screen is faced away from Lilu so she can’t witness what is happening inside her. Behind the doctor is a sign which says that showing the results of an ultrasound is illegal; the government, afraid of female foeticide, attempts to discourage any knowledge of the sex of a fetus.
The translator and doctor have a conversation in Hindi.
Lilu is nervous.
The translator speaks. The baby is not gone. They left something in there. You had an abortion.
It sounds like an accusation.
Do women in India have abortions? Lilu asks.
We try not to. The judgment of the translator is obvious, something Lilu can feel, a tangible accusation left hanging in the air.
People everywhere try not to, Lilu thinks.
The translator announces that she must leave for a party and abandons Lilu, even though the doctor has not yet finished explaining what went wrong, even though there are still steps Lilu will need to be guided through: she must go to the hospital pharmacy to pick up a prescription and she still needs the medication instructions translated. But the translator leaves.
Lilu wanders around the hospital complex, lost until an 8-year-old boy comes and offers to help. He takes 20 minutes out of his day to shepherd her around the maze of buildings, bringing her to the pharmacy and helping her pick up her medication. And then she leaves, making her way back to her Indian host family.
In their home, she breaks down for the first time.
I can’t do this.
She looks at the pills. One is a medication she is supposed to put inside her which will kill any bacteria. The other pill will empty her uterus.
Shit, she thinks, I’m still pregnant.
I recently spoke with the clinic that performed Lilu’s abortion in New York and with an ob/gyn. Lilu was not still pregnant. A vacuum abortion would have cleared out the fetus. Occasionally, however, in less than one percent of cases a vacuum abortion may leave behind “retained product.” A follow-up appointment is essential to determining the best way to resolve any issues, and a pill can easily induce the uterus to shed this placental tissue, though it may involve cramping.
Lilu had already taken the first pills when she sought out one of her teachers. A beautiful Jain woman, elegant in a rich sari with matching bindi, her teacher makes some phone calls on Lilu’s behalf. She calls to find out about the pill Lilu has been prescribed, and in the process of translating, figures out what happened. Why didn’t you tell me? She chides. We are all women here. She says. She translates instructions for how to take the pill, and shares one of her own experiences. And like that, Lilu has an ally.
Lilu left for Senegal. Flying in she could see through the window the shadow of the plane miles below. No clouds, no haze to obstruct the view, just the dark silhouette of their 747, clear and tiny.
In Senegal, she jumped on a trampoline by the ocean, her pink patterned skirt flying up. She rode a horse. She sat in traffic and made eye contact with a ram, casually perched on the roof of a car ahead. She took a pill, likely medroxyprogesterone, designed to induce her period. She played Terminator Salvation in an arcade, pulling the trigger of her fake gun, aiming at the characters running across the flickering screen. Finally she was able to flush her body of whatever the doctors had left behind in her uterus. She shopped for fabric, picking her way between the boldly outlined geometric patterns of blues, oranges, and vibrant greens. She had minor cramps. She snapped photos of graffiti, taking note of the “G Unit” tag messily scrawled on a fading yellow wall. Her uterus was slowly evacuated.
Eventually, the students found themselves on a bumpy bus ride, making their way to a village several hours away. Lilu had only a vague sense of their location, and later, she would be unable to pinpoint it on a map. The village was small, roughly half the size of a college campus. They had never seen white people before, or Asians, or Latinos. There was a striking absence of men. The locals were polygamous, and the male to female ratio heavily favored women not only within the family unit, but also in the village. Most men had migrated, looking for work elsewhere. Left behind was a community of women, the very young, and the very old.
Every female above the age of 14 had a child. Mothers gazed at her, babies stacked on their hips and clinging to their shins. Four children seemed to be about the average. The women appeared joyful. Laughing and smiling, they made constant jokes about babies and motherhood. They playfully jibed the program leader, Why don’t you have children? What are you waiting for? How can you be 30 and childless? The program leader was conspicuously silent the rest of the stay.
Lilu was introduced to her host family and found her way inside her home for the evening. The walls were teal, the roof thatched and leaking sunlight, and she sat on the edge of a brightly patterned bedspread. A girl climbed into her lap. She had tightly woven braids and wore a blue t-shirt tied around her neck like a scarf and matching blue shorts. She had 18 colorful plastic bangles adorning her small wrist.
Lilu felt nauseous.
Why wasn’t she having a child? Lilu looked at these women, leading lives so different from her own. She thought about her recent choice. How could she be so mechanical and technical? She told me she felt shaped by her industrialized society, and wondered if her choice had somehow failed to consider a critical element.
“I started feeling very dark about it,” she said.
That night, she had the worst sleeping experience of her life. She lay awake on the large bed, babies sprawled out on either side of her. She felt mice scurry across the sheets, and thought about her abortion. She thought about the village women, about everyone raising each others’ children. It was beautiful and uncomfortable.
It is difficult for me to pin Lilu down on the meaning her abortion had in her life. I don’t know where a single experience ends and begins in your life narrative, she says. It’s not a tidy thing. It was both traumatic and empowering.
And then she begins listing how this experience had impact.
It taught me that I’m ruthlessly independent, like, I will not ask for help for better or for worse. It taught me something about myself that I probably knew, but it was a very strong proof of my character with myself, with my flaws included.
It encouraged me to get birth control. And now I’m sort of afraid of sex.
There’s a lot of emotional baggage that gets stirred up. You start noticing babies and the technologies in having babies. And your interest and disinterest. You don’t say, oh if I was pregnant now, I would have the baby. I know I would not have the baby. It comes back so hard and hits you. It makes you a little more of a realist.
I feel like I can participate in the conversation around abortion. I ended up studying to be a doula.
I own a part of myself from that experience that I like, which is that I’m not weak, and I’m not needy.
I was so lucky.
You’re not pitiful in an abortion story because you had a choice, Lilu tells me. Lilu is not pitiful in this story, at least not to me. In fact, I am moved by her strength. The first time she tells me her narrative from start to finish, I am stunned, quiet. There is something about this unfiltered story that leaves me with a deep respect for my good friend. I have heard pieces of this story over the years, but when I hear her tell it from start to finish with no interruptions and in full detail, it’s like she’s dropped a shield and I see her exposed in all her bravery and determination. She is funny, bright, and modest, and these decorations sometimes have a way of masking her substance. When I hear this story, it is her fierce courage that catches me.
Just before she boards her plane out of Senegal, Lilu gets a phone call. Her grandfather has just died.
It hits me like… I just get put into Jello. I can’t see or feel anything… everything is just shut off… all my senses felt shut off.
Lilu was close with her grandfather. Very close. On the plane, she watches the moon for the entire ride. It is balancing on the tip of the plane wing.
She thinks about her grandfather’s death. This baby was supposed to be my grandfather. If I had given birth to this baby, it would have been his spirit.
She feels a sudden painful regret that she gave up this opportunity to see him again.
When she tells her boyfriend, he says she is crazy.
I just had a lot of spiritual balancing questions in my head. I know it’s ridiculous to think about reincarnation, but I still can’t separate it.
On one of their last nights in Senegal, two of Lilu’s classmates decide to hold a ceremony. It is night, and it is warm out. Everyone sits in a circle. They light a candle and begin storytelling. The candle is passed from person to person, and whoever cradles the little flame is asked to share the deepest place in their emotional history. Lilu is surprised by how fully people open up. One person describes her battle with anorexia. Another speaks about her mother doing crack. Everyone is sobbing.
The candle is passed to Lilu.
When else do you have the opportunity to tell a story that’s really cutting to the bone? She thinks. I want to do this whole trip 100 percent. I could talk about something distant, or I could talk about this, what’s happening right now. It just came out.
She tells her story, but in very few words.
It goes, “I was dating this boy before I came and we thought that me coming on this trip would be the end, but then I got pregnant, and then I had an abortion, and it didn’t go well, so I had to go to the doctors in India.”
After telling her story, Lilu feels a palpable difference in how the group relates to her. Everyone’s mood toward me changed. They just treated me with so much respect. It was this thing I felt very secretive about, and they were silenced by it. It just became this sort of woah component.
When I first wrote this story, I didn’t include this ceremony. And then I realized that perhaps I had cut out something crucial. I hadn’t understood why Lilu ended her account of her abortion with this anecdote. I had heard her talk about the ceremony before. Many times, in fact. She told me about it shortly after it happened, and she talked about it occasionally in the years since. She would describe it as a bizarre, almost-mystical encounter. It was intensely emotional, and created a moment of bonding and connection in a way she had never quite experienced before.
I believed her. I thought I understood. But I didn’t give it much thought. It seemed irrelevant, like an add-on: at that point, her abortion was already over. She had her period, a new endometrium was building up inside her, the process was complete. So I cut it out, excluding this bit of her narrative from my account.
And then, it hit me. She kept telling me about this experience because it was significant to her. Sharing her story with her classmates had meaning. And of course it did. Underneath her entire account, their lies a sub-narrative of shame and silencing. Six years ago, when thinking about her approach to her situation, she thought I’m going to keep quiet about it. I’m going to pretend like nothing happened. She was afraid to tell certain people. She was afraid to tell her parents. She didn’t want her classmates to know what she was going through. She was afraid to tell her program leaders, even when she needed a follow-up gynecology appointment. She didn’t tell her doctor in India, waiting for him to understand when he looked at her ultrasound. Later, she considered writing about her experience, and was advised by a good friend to keep silent. After her clinic visit, she sent me a message saying she wished she could change how abortion is treated, she wished she could “make it not shameful.”
Lilu’s quiet cracked when she opened up in that circle and spoke about her experience. Telling her story allowed her to share herself in her authenticity, to defy the shame imposed by others, to defy the shame imposed by herself, and to defy the shame implicit in silence.
I send Lilu a copy of this story, and she responds, it feels heavy and foreign even though it is accurate. There was a lot of dark comedy in the actual experience. Moments that in retrospect were ridiculous more than painful.
As I finish writing her story, I realize I told my own. I originally wanted to tell a story about a time I was sexually assaulted. I would tell people what I was thinking of writing about, and they would respond, are you sure? The implicit message was, don’t. And so I decided to tell Lilu’s story. She is my friend, I felt she had a powerful memory. But after writing her story, I’ve realized I unconsciously made it my own. Though the details, experiences, actions, and quotes come from her, the tone has been warped by the teller, by me, and the layer of melodrama and darkness is not hers. As I ascribe, even impose, my lens onto her actions, I realize I cannot help but understand her life through the filter of my own experiences.
I tell Lilu what I have done, and she says, I imagine our two stories layered on top of one another in varying opacities. That is ok. I think this space we are creating on the page is just the physical manifestation of our relationship. A safe space where we can blend opinions and emotions and, conversations where the manuscript is fluidly ours, not rigidly mine or yours.
I am drawn back to thinking about the nature of our friendship. About the parallel processes that we have undergone with each other. About the parallel processes we have undergone with everyone. The parallel processes, you, the reader, have undergone with Lilu, and the parallel process you have undergone with me, the writer. I think about stories. When we tell the stories of others, are we really just telling are own? When we listen to the stories of others, are we really listening for our own? Perhaps this is why we use share as the verb for storytelling. Can we inhale the lessons, the meaning, the substance of what happened to someone else? Does sharing a story, a friend’s story, also mean sharing the burden?
Allegra Chen-Carrel is completing a master’s in Global Thought at Columbia University.