Impossible Motherhood

April 9th, 2010 by EVENTS

 Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict by Irene Vilar

About neither addiction nor, precisely, abortion, Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict is the story of a Puerto Rican-American woman and her destructive relationship with an older man. As engaging as it is revolting, Irene Vilar’s memoir chronicles her childhood in Puerto Rico, her decade-long marriage to an Argentine-American professor in the United States, and her eventual reconciliation with both the bitter experience of self-mutilation and her own identity.

At the age of 17, the author and her 51-year-old professor began an affair rooted in his expert manipulation of vulnerable women and her sickening compulsion to appease the unappeasable. He held feminist theory over her head to teach her how much having a child would ruin her life, yet did not recognize his own influence as patriarchal and misogynistic: “All his ex-wives had gone on to build lives and have the children he refused to give them. They all still called him on the phone. He said they called to steal energy from him, some of the fire they themselves squelched by betting on the perils of domesticity and motherhood.”

Though Vilar claims that she was addicted to abortion, her actions were more in line with self-mutilation or an eating disorder. For the author, pregnancy and abortion were the only aspects of control she had in a controlling relationship. A self-described “free man,” her husband threatened to leave her if she wanted children just as he left his previous wives when they expressed a desire for children. Becoming pregnant was thrilling for her because it was breaking his rules, taking control of her own fertility. That she ended each of her twelve pregnancies in abortion was her capitulation; each time, she chose his happiness over her own.

Vilar makes sense of her experience and identity through meditations on colonialism, romanticism, the exploitation of Puerto Rican women and their reproductive systems, and national and familial roots. She recognizes a tragic, destructive theme in her family and attributes that to part of her own identity and experience.

My mother was a gothic character who jumped out of a car to her death. Her mother (Lolita Lebron) was a romantic one, going into the US Congress with a gun in her purse and shooting at everybody there. For some reason, I am not as ambitious. I chose a more intimate theater to play out my drama.

Reading Vilar’s account of her life story was a frustrating experience–due in a large part to her exceptional voice. She is a typical people pleaser with a manic twist, finding self-value only in how much others approved of her. “I had aborted a pregnancy I wanted, had almost died, and all I could feel was terror at becoming a man’s problem.” At times I felt like this was the stereotypical martyr’s or self-mutilator’s equivalent of a pro-anorexia website. The emotional drama of her compulsions were so delectable that at times I felt as confused as she did, even though we both know better:

The dramatic, deadly power struggles that propelled almost everyone around me, and in the case of my mother had resulted in tragedy, wedged me into a corner of exacerbated obedience and compliance and action . . . . I evaded all conflicts and did not stop moving, aiming to overachieve at everything. I was perceived as the most passionate, all-giving, and submissive little girl who had ever set foot in the world.

Her skill as a writer is much to her credit, but it’s disconcerting to guess how many readers in destructive relationships could find justification in her account. This is not, after all, a self-help book for people who self-mutilate, but a “testimony” to reveal truth after a life of secrecy and shame.

My frustration and confusion as a reader are a credit to her ability to express her own frustration and confusion. Vilar’s relationship with this man was stomach-turning, and her defiance was grotesquely self-destructive, but I must applaud her honesty and her ability to recall her feelings so accurately and with such insight. Vilar acknowledges how mistaken she was, but recounting them is absolving in itself, and Vilar’s child, at least, brings no imagined absolution.

Reviewed by Amy Kunkel

Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict by Irene Vilar
Other Press, 2009
Paper, 240 pp, $15.95
ISBN-13: 9781590513200

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