Lacy Johnson and Anjali Enjeti on the State of
With Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
In this episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, Anjali Enjeti and Lacy Johnson speak with hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about recent news and legislation about abortion, as well as its depiction in literature and film.
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Readings from this Episode:
“Is Masculinity a Terrorist Ideology? Lacy Johnson on Rachel Louise Snyder and the Ways We Name Violence,” on LitHub ·
From the episode:
Whitney Terrell: Where does the control of women’s reproductive rights—these abortion bans—fall in your analysis of the private and public acts of abuse?
Lacy Johnson: I think of them as another form of the terrorism that I’m describing here. At a different point in the essay I talk about how we think about domestic abuse as physical violence. And though it is often also that, it far more often takes the form of coercion and control, and I can’t think of anything that’s more coercive and terrorizing and controlling than changing the law to force a woman to gestate and give birth to a child she doesn’t want to have. One additional thing that makes clear is the way that this isn’t simply a matter of some kind of American evangelical equivalent of the Taliban exerting strict patriarchal control over women’s bodies—but as Anjali was talking about earlier, these politics are inseparable from the politics of white supremacy. Because this control is not just a gendered one, but is also a racial and racist and white supremacist one.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Anjali, in your essay “Borderline,” which won first place in nonfiction from Prime Number Magazine, you talk about being pregnant for the first time and viewing the image you see on an ultrasound at six weeks as, “my baby,” and not “my embryo,” or, “my pregnancy,” and that timeframe is close to what Georgia and other states are proposing as the cutoff for allowing an abortion. Could you talk about how that thought lives on alongside your political convictions about abortion rights?
Anjali Enjeti: Oh, absolutely. Sugi, what I tried to do in that essay, among other things, was to address the fact that an individual person’s views on when life begins is wholly separate, and really irrelevant when it comes to talking about the state’s ability to make decisions about an individual’s health and their body, the state’s ability to control a person. I’ve been pregnant six times, three of those pregnancies resulted in children, the other three resulted in miscarriages, and they were very devastating to me. The moment I found out I got pregnant, I saw them as babies. They were wanted and loved, and I was also pregnant at times in my life where I had the immense privilege of being in a position to be able to raise children. But none of this has anything to do with whether I think a state should control a person’s body. It’s about health. My grandmother had three illegal abortions, and she almost died from one of them. And I think the so called pro-life movement has forced us to keep talking about things like viability, or things like when does life begin, when that’s never actually been the issue here. The issue is about the civil rights of a person who can bear children.
VVG: It’s interesting to see the way that myth and tradition and history about women’s bodies and the way that men talk about them pervade this discussion, and Lacy, The Reckonings points all the way back to the Code of Hammurabi, and Greek myth, and Ovid, as possible sources for the way that men have come to view themselves as the administrators of women’s bodies. So how do you see myths, or legends or the history of the discussion of women’s bodies showing up in headlines and journalism about this now?
LJ: I think that the myth that informs these laws, or perhaps the set of myths that inform these laws, come from a very particularly American, Southern white conservative, evangelical interpretation of the Bible. The idea that God intended the structure of society to be a patriarchal one, and that women in the Bible who fall out of line are evil. If you take the origin myth—Eve, her curiosity and disobeying the orders that she wasn’t supposed to eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, was the precipitating event for the “Fall of Man from Eden,” right? Or—it’s not necessarily in the Bible, but it’s very much in the evangelical consciousness—the mythical woman who preceded her, Lilith, who refused to submit to Adam, to lay beneath him during intercourse, and was then cast out of Eden for it and went on to give birth to a race of monsters beside the Dead Sea, I think.In this ideological framework, an unborn child isn’t a poor child, or a child who’s going to grow up and vote you out of office, just a blank surface onto which to project all kinds of possibility.
And so women continue to be instructed by these myths and traditions, that to serve God they must serve their husbands, and that their bodies exist only to serve the needs of this patriarchal religion. But I think even more than this, the most prevailing myth that that I see in these headlines is that any of this is about the sanctity of life. If you take Alabama, for example, Kay Ivey signed this legislation into law. And then the very next day, Alabama executed one of his prisoners on death row. And it has nothing to do with the sanctity of life or preservation of life. This is very much just about the white supremacist patriarchal control of women’s bodies and their reproduction.
VVG: It seems to me like there’s also a way in which it’s being framed very subtly as a conversation about justice. If you behave a certain way, then you get what you deserve, and so there’s a way in which abortion is being framed as some sort of secret get out of jail free card or something—that no one could possibly deserve to have as an option. The lines of argument are things like—well, this is what’s meant to be, so: destiny. You have to believe that what was meant to happen is what has happened, if you have survived sexual assault and become pregnant as a result, no, you have to have faith—again, a religious line—you have to have faith it it’ll all turn out the way that it’s supposed to, or just, what did you think would happen if you behaved in this way? So you sinned in some regard, and now your body must face the consequences. And there’s this way that this whole conversation is being discussed as though pregnancy is—it’s weirdly being framed in some ways as a punishment, and then, in other ways, abortion is being framed as just an avoidance of responsibility, which I find to be really bizarre, and connected to I think what you were saying about in The Reckonings when you wrote about Hammurabi—if this shall happen, then that shall happen. I wonder what you think about that.
LJ: I think you’re definitely right. And in the conservative white evangelical tradition we have to remember that intercourse outside of wedlock is considered a sin, right? So if you get pregnant for that, it is at once both a punishment for that sin, and also God’s will somehow. I heard one of the people on the floor debating—I don’t remember which of the states that the debate was occurring in, but someone was saying that if a child results from a rape, that that’s part of God’s will, and that perhaps then the rape is also God’s will, and there shouldn’t be an exception for rape in those cases, because however God chose to work through our bodies, the child is the ultimate goal.
Obviously, there’s so much hypocrisy in that and so much talking out of both sides of your mouth, in thinking the bodies of women are irreducibly sinful, especially if they are using them in any way, in any kind of autonomous way or with agency, but the bodies of unborn children are always a sort of surface, a blank surface onto which to project all kinds of ideological ideas and goals and ambitions. In this ideological framework, an unborn child isn’t a poor child, or a child who’s going to grow up and vote you out of office or anything, it’s just a blank surface onto which to project all kinds of possibility, I guess, that the materiality of human bodies resist.
WT: That idea of agency reminds me of a section, Anjali, from your essay “Borderline,” where your grandmother, Oma, goes in to have an abortion. The doctor asks her—since she’s married, why would she end her pregnancy, and she says, because I’m tired, I do not want any more. In other words, this idea that she has a choice here. I found that to be really effective and interesting passage.
AE: Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about that essay and my grandmother for a couple of reasons. She had three illegal abortions, and it was one of them that she was having, where a midwife came to the house, performed the procedure, and she started hemorrhaging, and she was rushed to the hospital. And she was actually very, very lucky that the doctor that treated her in the hospital was willing to help her. Because it was illegal. So she could have bled to death, even in the hospital. But it was interesting, because I’ve been thinking a lot lately—obviously, we all have—about agency and choice. And yesterday, I was in the car with one of my teenage daughters, and she asked me, Mom, what will happen if this law actually does go into effect and I need an abortion, and I can’t get one?
And I had this chill that ran along my spine because I was thinking about how little time has really passed, where abortion has, in fact, been illegal. I mean, it’s always been very inaccessible, but at least it’s been legal. And I was thinking about how my grandmother did not have a legal right to an abortion during her reproductive years. I was born in 1973, a few months after Roe v. Wade became the law of the country, so it’s really only been one and a half to two generations of people in the United States who have had this legal right to an abortion during their reproductive span. And here was my child now, who is facing the possibility of not being able to legally have the right to an abortion.
WT: That reminds me of the first book I read about abortion, which was The Cider House Rules by John Irving—I know that’s a man writing about this issue, but I thought, since one of our core principles here at Fiction/Non/Fiction is that all the news you read about in your Twitter feed has already been written about somewhere in literature, and we’ve had you on the show because we thought your writing in particular applied to this issue—I wonder what texts, be they novels, essays, or poems, have been most important and influential to you on the subject of abortion?
AE: For me, there’s just been so many—it’s hard to name a few, but I would say one has been Jessica Handler’s memoir Invisible Sisters, which is actually a memoir about the fact that she had two younger sisters who passed away at very young ages for diseases that were inheritable, and which Jessica might give one of her children, should she have them. And so she saw the tremendous amount of pain and suffering her sisters endured, and when she became pregnant, she decided to have an abortion. Another one is Brit Bennett’s The Mothers, such a beautiful story about how abortion can shape somebody’s life. Then Susan Ito wrote an incredible essay several years ago called “An Abortion That Saved My Life.” She had preeclampsia two weeks before her son Samuel would have been viable, and had to have an abortion so that she could keep living. And then I would say there’s Gwendolyn Brooks’ gorgeous poem called “the mother,” which really highlights the very complicated and fraught feelings that some people experience when it comes to unwanted pregnancies and abortions. But yeah, we do have a really rich tradition of literature on the topic, and hopefully, as the issue becomes something even more frightening in this country, hopefully, people will be willing to write these stories.
VVG: Lacy, how about you?
LJ: Those are such great examples. I guess the book that comes to mind is more of a handbook. It tells a certain kind of narrative—Our Bodies, Ourselves, you know, that classic landmark book, which is interesting, for the simple reason that it’s been an evolving text all these years, and began definitely as a handbook on reproductive health. And unlike some other literature on the subject, it, it has evolved to address the impact of poverty and race and gender identity on reproductive care. But because it’s so evidence-based, I really value that text so much. But also, you know, books like The Handmaid’s Tale and the book Pro by Katha Pollitt, who has revealed herself to be a certain kind of feminist on Twitter, but the argument she makes in that book is a compelling one, and she talks a lot about how there’s the culture of shame around abortion, but also how it is not just a legal right, but a moral one, to be able to secure one, that it’s a decision to make with one’s healthcare provider, it’s a decision between a woman and her doctor, that it’s a medical procedure, that it’s a healthcare procedure, it’s not necessarily the ground on which to fight these moral battles.
WT: Speaking of the culture of shame idea, I wanted to talk about a story that is about abortion, that I think should not be taught anymore, and that has been taught for generations, which is Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” which addresses this issue in all the wrong ways. The guy who’s telling the girl in the story to get an abortion, or that he wants to get an abortion, is framed as the bad guy and the girl who’s having these moral qualms is framed as the good person. And I feel like there’s something so screwed up about the way that he sets that story up, and it has, in some ways, I think, infected the way that we think about this issue, because so many people have read and studied that story. Do you guys agree with that? What is your read on that story?
AE: I will say that the first time I read the story was quite a long time ago, and I never heard of the term “grooming,” before, which is what a sexual abuser does to their victim, to engage in sexual assault, but I remember thinking, wow, this to me—the dialogue sounds like grooming.
WT: It’s a deeply perverse story that’s been presented as a classic for years. It’s got to stop!
AE: “Trust me, I’m only thinking of you, here’s how I feel, but you make the decision. But here’s how I feel.” It’s really very grotesque and perverted and, and the woman character is infantilized, so yeah, I don’t know people who are still teaching this story, I’m sure it’s still taught. But yeah, it’s something that we need to eject from our syllabi.
WT: It is definitely still taught because I have students in the graduate level who have all read that—they all know that story.
LJ: You know, the dialogue in that story reminds me a lot of—there was a chart floating around on Twitter the other day about the ways that the various digital voice assistants like Siri and Alexa are programmed to respond to sexual harassment. Did you see this? Yeah, you know, so for instance, if you call Siri a slut, one of her programmed responses is to say “I would blush if I could,” so to me—
VVG: Oh my god!
LJ: Yeah. To me that says more, I think about the fantasies of the male programmers that it says anything about reality, or about women, and I think that this Hemingway story similarly says more about the fantasies of Hemingway than it says about anything else.
VVG: It seems to me, like, there is an antiquated way in which, in the same way that an old-school conservative approach to writing about race would perhaps deploy race, or race-marked persons in contrast to whiteness, almost purely as a plot device. So in a lot of literature, perhaps one would see abortion appear rather than as a normal part of life, purely as a plot device that would advance the story, and thereby, it would almost automatically probably turn out badly. I mean, I think about me telling my students to do terrible things to their characters. So then, for example, if an abortion appears in a story, doesn’t that make it more likely that it’ll go awry? And then when I think about it in that way, like you would have a character in a story who wasn’t white, and someone might say to you, but why are they not white? Like, what’s their motivation, which was kind of this this crazy-making thing.
Whit mentioned The Cider House Rules, and I was thinking about Beloved as a story that was adjacent to this in some way, and then my friend who I was talking to about Minnesota Planned Parenthood mentioned Revolutionary Road, and I don’t know how this didn’t occur to me, but I think the first abortion narrative I saw was actually Dirty Dancing, and when I was a kid I had no idea that it was an abortion narrative. I just didn’t know what was happening at that part. And it’s a story in which a rich boy gets a working-class girl pregnant, avoids responsibility; a working-class boy helps the young woman to get a backroom abortion that then goes horribly awry, and then—I should have spoiler-alerted Dirty Dancing for the 1 percent of America that hasn’t seen it yet—and then Baby’s father, who is this upper-class doctor, helps her, but then assumes that the working-class boy is responsible, and judges him for it. And actually, I think that maybe as first exposures to abortion narratives go, maybe that was pretty good. What do you guys think?
LJ: Yes. I mean, I absolutely think so, and honestly, when you asked me about literature that dealt with abortion, my first thought was Dirty Dancing. However, I was like, no—let me think of some books.
WT: Nah, movies count. We we should have included that. The screenplay—that’s literature!
LJ: There’s another thing that’s running under that, which is that—doesn’t Baby ask her father for money to help pay for this abortion?
VVG: Yes, right. Yes.The father is more ashamed to learn that his daughter is sleeping around than he is about the fact that we live in a society where this woman had to get a very dangerous abortion.
LJ: And then it goes horribly wrong. And then when he figures out with the money was supposed to be for he shames his daughter, he shames this working-class boy, he shames this other woman—there’s so much shame around everyone’s bodies, and what is essentially just being sexual people. And making choices. But at that time, not at the time that the movie was made, but the historical time that the film was set, right, abortion was not legal, it was a backroom kind of illegal procedure that had gone wrong, as you point out.
AE: It’s very relevant to today, because in the movie, the father is more ashamed of the fact that he’s learned that his daughter is sleeping around than he is about the fact that we live in a society where this woman had to get a very dangerous abortion in order to end her pregnancy. And that, even though—when’s it take place? In the ’60s, the movie? That attitude is actually still relevant today. The fact that someone would have sex out of marriage is still so pronounced today. Our attitudes, especially the attitudes that you referenced, Lacy, the white evangelical white supremacist attitudes, they’ve not changed at all.
VVG: I wasn’t allowed to see that movie when it came out.
WT: Oh, me neither.
LJ: I watched it at a sleepover, at my girlfriend’s. It was on pretty heavy rotation.
WT: I was not allowed to see that movie. So I will put in a good word here for the John Irving novel, which I understand like, it’s told from a male point of view, but again, men need to engage with this subject as well, and I thought that—I really remember the early passages of the novel, which are about Wilbur Larch first becoming somebody who performs abortions, and he’s moved to it by the dangers of the illegal abortions that women he’s encountering are having, and the the graphic detail of how those were written about in Irving’s work really impressed me, and I think were important and changed me sort of morally on this issue when I was very young, I mean, this book came out in ’85, I didn’t know anything about the issue, but I give him credit for those scenes, and that novel.
VVG: So, part of what we’re talking about here is how normal abortion is, and I’m wondering how the language of journalists and legislators has failed on the subject of abortion. I was mentioning earlier that article on The Cut about heartbeat bills. And I was furious yesterday after reading that Minnesota bill that kept referring to “the female,” which is a noun I find totally odious. Do you have pet peeves as you’re reading about this, where you’re like, this is inaccurate or this is a problematic framing?
LJ: I also hate any reference to a woman as a “female.” I mean, to me, it’s just a clear tell of someone’s misogyny. The prime example of that is Quark on Deep Space Nine, who’s always talking about [imitates Quark] “females.” Right? And to see this in the legislation, it does call up this idea of all these Quarks writing it. People are fussing over these exceptions for rape or incest, which to me very much just strikes me as pandering because as we know, with a lot of these lawmakers, that’s impossible to prove. We saw this during Kavanagh’s confirmation hearing, just in September, that it’s not enough to say, I was raped; it won’t be enough to file a police report. Because I think we’ve seen the ways in which that’s impossible, and a woman’s own story about her experience doesn’t count as evidence in the same way as validation from a man. But ultimately, it is still a legal right to choose to have an abortion for whatever reason, and it doesn’t actually matter what your reason is. It shouldn’t matter if you were raped, or if it was a product of incest, or you just don’t want to have a child right now. You have a legal right to have an abortion, and your reasoning for doing so really, really shouldn’t matter, and I really think it’s important for us as writers and journalists to continue to insist on this: that it is our our legal right to choose to have an abortion for whatever reason we want.
AE: And I will add to that—that one of the big downfalls when we talk about abortion is journalism’s continued obsession with telling both sides of the story, in believing that by telling two sides of the story, that they are in fact doing non-biased or unbiased reporting. And I have to be in a certain mood and a certain state of mind to actually read articles about abortion, for example, because I just know that there’s going to be such problematic language in the pieces. Conservatives, extremists, have had for decades now the upper hand in the language that they’ve been using to describe abortion, like pro-life, when it’s really pro-forced birth, “partial birth abortions,” which was never even a medical term, right, decided by a conservative lawmaker decades ago, that this was going to be what he calls abortion after the 20-week mark.
And so what happens is that we have these articles that afford conservatives a substantial amount of space to use their language to talk about their position when it comes to abortion, and that validates it, it gives it a degree of credibility, even if they then switch to sort of the “other side of the issue,” which is that abortion should be legal and accessible. And this is causing tremendous amounts of damage, because the resistance is having to spend so much time in a defensive stature by proving that the language is wrong first before even asserting what should be done, and journalists are really culpable, and editors too. I mean, really, the editors should not be letting this fly at all. I mean, this is “forced birth,” that’s all it is, is forcing women to endure pregnancy and childbirth, which are very dangerous for women in this country, and it’s forcing them to endure that, let alone trying to raise a child that you never even wanted. The majority of people believe that abortion should be legal, so even using the word “debate” in this discourse is problematic to me.
Transcribed by Otter.ai and Damian Johannson. This transcript has been edited and condensed by FnF.