My Reproductive Life in Hair: Abortion, Oprah and the Importance of Telling Stories

Politics Features Reproductive Rights
My Reproductive Life in Hair: Abortion, Oprah and the Importance of Telling Stories

“NARAL needs a mother and daughter pair: the daughter had had an abortion as a teenager and both mother and daughter believe parental consent laws for abortion were wrong. They want this mother and daughter to go on Oprah,” my mother explained, over the phone.

“We’d be great,” I replied, instantly. “We know exactly what to say.”

“I was afraid you’d say that,” she replied.

What I remember about myself at twenty-four, amongst other things, is my hair. Thick, long, dark, when I wore it out, which was most of the time, it fell like a triangular tent all the way down my back. When I pulled it into a ponytail, I often broke hairbands. I rarely cut it, so the ends were split and dry, like kindling. I washed it daily, and never used a hairdryer. I brushed it in the morning, yet it was never terribly neat. My hippie hair matched my Birkenstocks and loose clothes.

I had bushy eyebrows, nearly one eyebrow just barely thinner at the divide above the bridge of my nose. Like a lot about myself in my twenties, I didn’t know what to do with all that hair, so I lived with it. I wouldn’t say I embraced it, but I knew it was mine. I felt similarly about my reproductive experiences to that point. This might seem like a non sequitur, but like my hair, I was more defined by these experiences than I had planned upon being.

At seventeen, I was a high school senior desperate to escape. This is, at least, how I tell this story to myself in midlife. I felt so excited to go—college—and so afraid to leave, for many reasons as tangled as very long, not well brushed hair. I believe, with decades of hindsight, my not so harmoniously divorced parents would agree, if they truly remember at all, that I was unequipped for independence. Anyway, imagine me with an older boyfriend. Rather than say, “I’m worried you’ll have sex,” my mother said, “Midnight curfew.”

“Anything that can happen after midnight can happen before midnight,” I shot back, and of course, midnight didn’t turn out so well.

The phone call that delivered the news, “positive,” reached the pit of my stomach immediately, an alarm without an off button. My body itself became an emergency. I returned to the clinic, which I barely remember, save for bright, informative posters and the slick, multifold brochure ten-clinic list that felt too smooth and too thick and too long in my sweaty hands. My best friend’s mom got me an appointment with her gynecologist. Upon hearing that my mom was a board member of an organization called, seriously, CHOICE, he gently but firmly urged me to tell her. “I think she’d want to know,” he insisted. For perspective, then to now, the procedure, because I was under eighteen and so federal funds covered me, was free.

Years later, the doctor saw my mom at a fundraiser, and said something kind about me and added that he related to her as a parent, because he had a daughter, too. His daughter was just two. Tenderness is tenderness. Confusion is confusion. While I did tell my mom, and while she paid attention, and listened, and found me a therapist that summer after my abortion and graduation and before college, I didn’t move much beyond being overwhelmed.

Except, I experienced the depth of this trite-sounding phrase: the personal is political.

Lots happened in the years between seventeen and twenty-four, and one of them was I learned to live by that phrase. So, by twenty-four, my two jobs were political activist and abortion counselor.

My mother, meantime, had become the director of CHOICE. That’s why she’d gotten the call about Oprah, and that’s how I found myself in the back of a limo across from a very teary daughter and mother, who’d sued Planned Parenthood over the daughter’s abortion, which she’d crossed state lines to obtain lest she have to tell her mother, who would certainly have stopped her.

In the limo, I sat next to a leader of the National Right to Life Committee. She was tall, and coiffed, and as put together in her pastel pink suit as I was a free-flowing hippie. “I feel sorry for you,” she told me as we rode from hotel to television studio early that morning. My mom was flying in, with none other than the head of NARAL. “The audience is going to be against you,” she said. And then she smiled.

I was amazed, really, that this powerful lady would bother trying to intimidate me. I looked… seventeen. She had no idea I was a young professional in the field. I might have grieved many things between being seventeen and that morning, but killing a baby wasn’t one of them. I said nothing in response. I just thought some curse words and made mental notes.

I was determined to represent teenaged women I’d met, whose shame about being sexually active got in the way of their obtaining contraception. It was especially hard when their families thought premarital sex and birth control—and abortion—were sins. By the time those young women found their way into my office, they’d racked up sins to hide from their families. Silence was stigmatizing, shameful. Many tears fell. These young women were often scared and lonely.

I believed that by breaking silences the personal became political. That belief landed me under hot, blinding lights, subjected me to name-calling, and ensured “everyone” would know, post-Oprah, about my abortion. It was such an easy choice to sit there and play seventeen and discover that, at least during a contentious taping, Oprah wasn’t terribly warm or friendly. She swooped in, shook our hands, filmed, and disappeared.

The next day, a teenager, accompanied by her very supportive parents, came to my office. They recognized me. “You got through this,” my client said. “It was okay for you.” I nodded. We all had tears in our eyes.

Somewhere in my idealistic, sincere twenty-four year old heart I trusted that our encounter post-Oprah represented progress, justification that breaking silences worked. We just had to keep telling, keep talking. We know that’s not exactly what happened. My hair is shoulder-length now, mostly grey, and still pretty thick. I am not overwhelmed by it any longer. I don’t break every one of my silences either. Still, I see, as I learned for sure the day after Oprah, that our stories do matter. They make issues real. We are not theoretical, after all. When I first told my story, I felt brave. I knew I’d done something important. Now, this story is easy to tell, and I wish it could have become obsolete. It hasn’t. So, I tell it again. Although it won’t change everything, I have to keep telling it anyway.

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