Just after my mother learned she was pregnant with me, and a few months before she married my father, she was prescribed a drug, diethylstilbestrol (DES), intended to prevent miscarriage. The pregnancy was unplanned, and she had never before miscarried; my mother’s doctor simply gave her the pills and ordered her to take them.
DES caused my own reproductive organs to develop irregularly in utero, as was the case for many other thousands of “DES daughters”—women whose mothers were prescribed the drug in the middle decades of the 20th century. Candy Tedeschi, a nurse and activist for people affected by DES exposure, examined me when I was a teenager and explained that the irregularities in my reproductive organs caused by DES would make conceiving a child difficult. She declared my cervix cockscomb-shaped, one of about five possible irregularities in the cervixes of DES daughters. The drug has since been banned for use on humans.
I had my first pelvic exam at 13 so that I could be tested for clear cell adenocarcinoma, a cancer linked to DES exposure. As a virgin, I found being examined with a speculum so daunting that the doctor prescribed me Valium to take the day of the exam, and I was allowed to wear my new Walkman. I cried during the exam and felt humiliated, though I had done nothing to cause the circumstances in which I found myself. This early experience with my reproductive health may be part of the reason I find myself, at 50, volunteering as an escort at a women’s clinic in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
The West Alabama Women’s Center is a one-story brick building in a nondescript office park. Beside the clinic are a dentist’s office and a real-estate agency; across the parking lot, parents drop off children at a day-care center. We stand in the shade of a magnolia tree, the three of us in rainbow-striped vests with clinic escort printed on the front and back in large black letters. Still, patients sometimes mistake us for protesters and give us a wide berth. Few medical procedures are more emotionally fraught than abortion, and the circus atmosphere patients encounter as they prepare to go through with a private but vilified decision is overwhelming. Imagine arriving for chemotherapy or dialysis and encountering a hostile group of strangers alternately shouting at and trying to cajole you, countered by friendly but oddly clad strangers who are offering assistance. It’s freaky.
Bonnie, one of the regular protesters, wears a visor and patrols the invisible boundary in the parking lot beyond which she’s forbidden to pass. She has assembled what she calls “blessing bags”—cloth bags full of candy (“shitty candy, like Laffy Taffy,” one of my fellow escorts reports), hand-knit baby booties, and propaganda about the dangers of abortion. As patients exit their cars and head toward the clinic, Bonnie holds a blessing bag in a hand stretched over her head and calls, “I have a present for you! We can help!” Beside Bonnie is James, an older African-American man in a baseball cap and sunglasses. James rarely speaks, but he always brings his prop, an empty baby stroller he sometimes uses to hold up a sign printed with the word “CHOICE?” superimposed over a photograph of an enormous adult hand holding a tiny, fully formed fetus in its palm.
As you might assume, most people heading into a medical facility have little interest in discussing their personal lives with strangers. Escorts are acutely aware that even our well-meaning advocacy can create stress for patients. Often, we just greet them as they arrive and offer smiles. And yet, because the protesters are so aggressive, we’re trained to find ways to ameliorate the particular stress of a stranger shouting, “Mama, don’t kill your baby!” across a parking lot. As we were reminded repeatedly in our training session, we’re here for the benefit of the patients, not the protesters. One unexpected result of our presence is that, once we shepherd a patient indoors and there’s no one for the protesters to shout at, their attention turns to us. A male protester hears me blasting the O’Jays’ “Love Train” on my car stereo as I arrive (a ritual I’ve developed to psych myself up for my shift) and searches on his phone for the song’s lyrics. For a good part of the two hours I’m there, he sings the chorus of “Love Train,” adding a few dance moves to amuse himself.“Few medical procedures are more emotionally fraught than abortion, and the circus atmosphere patients encounter as they prepare to go through with a private but vilified decision is overwhelming.”
If there’s one thing protesters and escorts share, it’s the tedium of standing around between patients’ arrivals and departures. The protestors have one particular boredom-relief strategy they like to use. If an escort is pulling into a parking spot near where they’ve set up camp, one of them hops over just as the escort’s car noses into the spot. By law, a protester isn’t allowed to block a parking space, but one woman in particular likes to leap into a spot and then, when one of us calls the police, insist to the officer that the escort tried to run her over. After all, the logic goes, we’re defenders of baby killing. What’s to say we’re opposed to running over a grown woman?
One day, a young red-headed woman, with her hair shaved on one side and left long on the other, goes in to fill out her paperwork, then comes back out and stands under the magnolia tree near me and an escort named Justin. “Can I smoke?” she asks. I’m surprised: this isn’t our clinic; we just volunteer here. “Of course,” we say. Justin is a percussionist from New Orleans and has long hair pulled back in a ponytail. He’s half my age.
Taking long drags on her cigarette, the woman begins to tell us, unsolicited, the circumstances that brought her to this moment. She stands under the magnolia tree, maybe 15 feet away from us, but faces forward, not angled toward us, as she speaks. Her standing like that under the magnolia tree, smoking a cigarette, makes me feel as if I’m witnessing the most dramatic moment in this young woman’s life, and yet we are strangers to each other. She tells us she already has a young daughter, who was born with health problems and has had 14 surgeries. The number stays with me: 14. For a while the child was under the care of doctors in Tennessee, but the care provided was substandard. She pulled the child out of the hospital and filed suit.
“They almost killed her,” she says, then pauses to take a drag off the cigarette. “I’m sorry I’m telling you all this.”
Perhaps she’s gotten to the end of her story. But no. She got married two months ago, and now she’s getting a divorce. “They’re nice until they have you and then they turn on you,” she says. “It’s better when it’s just Avery and me.”
I allow myself to exhale; it has been a long time since I drew a breath. What was I doing at 23? I was in graduate school, teaching freshman composition in the Animal Sciences building at Colorado State University and fighting an eating disorder, nothing on the magnitude of what this young woman has experienced.
“I know God will judge me for this,” the young woman says. “But if I have another baby I won’t be able to care for Avery.” She volunteers that she was a triplet but that her mother miscarried one of them early in the pregnancy. “It was just a bloody mess.”
Justin and I remain silent.
“I don’t approve of women getting them after there’s a heartbeat.”
Then she goes inside to get hers.
I’m a freshman in college, equipped with a diaphragm I’ve never used, but which my mother decided I should have just in case. A close friend from high school calls to tell me she’s pregnant. How could this have happened? All in a rush, my friend tells me the guy’s name, that he’s from Lebanon, that she thought she couldn’t get pregnant the first time. I try to calm her down, and I say I’ll call my mother to ask for help. When we get off the phone, I lie on my bed in my dorm and try to absorb this information. She thought she couldn’t get pregnant the first time? How could my friend, who’d spent so much time at my house, not have basic reproductive knowledge? Decades later, this friend will tell me she loved visiting my house as a teenager because my parents were so easygoing and open-minded. My agnostic, hippie parents with their mandalas on the walls and Supertramp records had been a welcome respite from her strict Catholic-immigrant upbringing. My hippie mother helps her get an abortion.
That first semester in college, I’m having my own bewildering sexual experiences. A man named Don, who has a single room on the first floor of my dorm, invites me to spend late afternoons with him; we kiss and fondle each other on his bed on top of his black fuzzy blanket, which has a giant lion’s head on it. Both the décor and the experience fluster me. I have a sense we’re supposed to do more, go further, but that he knows I’m a virgin and doesn’t want to scare me off. I meet another man, this one named Matt, who has a single just down the hall from Don. He, too, invites me to hang out in his room. Since these rooms contain only a bed, a dresser, a desk, and a single chair, we end up on the bed. First we talk, and then the talking segues into fooling around. I embrace a sense that this is just how romantic relationships in college are meant to develop, in the privacy of these small rooms that smell like sports equipment.
One day, as we’re fooling around, Matt reports to me that I’m the only one of my three roommates who is still a virgin. Perhaps the only girl on the fourth floor of Elton Hall, even. He asserts his claims with such force that I don’t pause to wonder how he could possibly have come by this knowledge. Women aren’t in the habit, after all, of volunteering their sexual histories. As the weeks go on, Matt’s assertion eats at me. A graduate of a public high school instead of the prep schools so many of the other students have attended, I’m already deeply insecure about my status at this exclusive liberal arts college. While Matt makes his rounds each night as a self-employed doughnut seller, calling, “Dough-nuts! Die-etary doughnuts!” down the dorm’s long hallways, I consider his offer to relieve me of my burdensome virginity.
I lie on Matt’s bed one Sunday and get it over with. “Put your legs up,” he instructs me. It hurts, and I cry, but he wears a condom, and though he’ll humiliate me before the end of the semester by dumping me for one of my roommates (they’ll later marry and have three children), the loss of my virginity will prove otherwise inconsequential.
Gloria Gray is a tanned, diminutive older woman with a pronounced limp. She drives a black Mercedes sedan, favors a French manicure, and frequently pushes off her forehead a stray curl that escaped from a carefully sculpted bang. She wears big jeweled rings on her pointer and ring fingers, gold hoop earrings, and a necklace with a round medallion that looks religious. Her eyes are deep set, but you can’t miss their steady cornflower-blue gaze.
“What are those idiots up to today?” she asks as she pauses under the magnolia tree.
Gloria Gray looks like the last possible person I would expect to own an abortion clinic, and in a way, she is. Raised Pentecostal in rural Alabama and trained as a bank officer, Gloria stumbled into her current line of work by way of her friend Joy, who was working at a satellite clinic in Tuscaloosa that referred patients to a clinic in Birmingham in the late 1980s. Plagued by health-department violations, the Birmingham clinic needed someone, in Gloria’s words, to straighten it out. She was bored at the bank and had administrative skills, so she decided to try a new line of work. Not long after, a new doctor bought the Birmingham clinic. “I didn’t like how he treated women who came to him for an abortion,” Gloria said. “He was, in his words, ‘building an empire,’ buying clinics in Alabama and Mississippi.” She felt he didn’t he respect the women who came to the clinic. “He would pull patients to the end of the table, slap them on their bottoms.”“Gloria Gray looks like the last possible person I would expect to own an abortion clinic, and in a way, she is.”
Several months later, after Gloria helped an undercover investigator gain evidence of the doctor’s shady business practices, he quit, and Gloria found herself contemplating the prospect of being the owner of an abortion clinic. Not a fan of Birmingham, she decided to open a clinic in a college town: Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama. “What better place to offer these services?” she asks now, 25 years later. On the five days a week the clinic is open, it’s not unusual for the overflow of clients to camp out in folding chairs on the clinic’s sloping front yard. Alabama now has only three clinics that perform surgical abortions, and Gloria’s is the only one that sees patients five days a week.
A medical abortion, also called the “abortion pill,” is available a bit more widely for women in the early weeks of pregnancy, but a host of restrictive laws passed by conservative legislatures has made any kind of abortion more difficult to obtain, especially for poor women. Alabama’s neighboring state of Mississippi now only has one clinic that performs abortions, in Jackson, so the parking lot of the clinic in Tuscaloosa is often filled with Mississippi license plates.
The day after Mother’s Day, Gloria offers us pieces of cut fruit from an edible bouquet someone gave her. “So expensive,” she frets. “I wish they hadn’t spent the money on it.”
We help ourselves to pineapple slices and watch as the doctor pulls up and parks his BMW sedan diagonally across two spots in his usual idiosyncratic way. He’s a bit of a rogue in this town, performing abortions at age 79, unfazed even as protesters show up at his church on Sundays to harass him.
“Payne,” Gloria says. “Quite a name for a doctor.” She makes a face as she regards the elderly man in blue scrubs. He is the main doctor here, but he only supervises medical abortions and performs first-trimester procedures. (For any procedure beyond the first trimester, Gloria relies primarily on Dr. Willie Parker, an African-American gynecologist originally from Birmingham, who has made his career as an itinerant abortion doctor in the Deep South. One or two days a month, this imposing, muscular man arrives in a gray sweat suit, navy bandana tied on his bald head, and trademark round black glasses. He always thanks the escorts for volunteering.)
Payne is a skinny guy with just a fringe of white hair above his ears and a too-tan pate covered with age spots. Gloria sighs. “He voted for Trump. God, he knows how to pull my chain.”
A few days later, Gloria arrives for work with a rectangular button pinned to her charcoal gray scrubs. “This will piss him off,” she says. The button reads, Don’t Blame Me: I Voted for Hillary. With a full Louis Vuitton bag heavy on her shoulder, Gloria lingers outside with us as she often does and assesses the day’s protesters. There are the regulars: Bonnie in her visor; Ellen, who also often wears a visor but is much taller than Bonnie; Lyle, who usually arrives in a sport coat on his way to work; and Pat, a former professor in the English department at the University of Alabama. At one time, he was my colleague. Now, Pat is retired and wears the kind of khaki vest you see on old men traveling around Europe with a camera and a nylon pouch containing their passports hanging around their necks. He’s the kind of fire-and-brimstone Catholic who assures me with great certainty that I will burn in the fiery furnace of hell. Once, as I was getting into my car after a shift, Pat yelled at me through the driver’s side window. “As a former member of the English department, I would expect you to . . .” he shouted. I pulled my car out before learning what he expected from me.
Gloria surveys the protesters philosophically as she tells a story about some trouble she had with a patient who was rude to the staff and asked to see someone in charge. The woman complained to Gloria that the staff members were rude to her, and she asked to see someone above Gloria. At this, we all laugh: Gloria is the Chief Cook and Bottle Washer at this modest establishment; there is no one above her. Then the woman threatened to report Gloria. “Go ahead, I’ll give you the number,” Gloria told her.
Occasionally, women who visit the clinic behave this way, Gloria laments. She recalls a woman who started throwing the chairs in the waiting room, years ago. Women who are conflicted about their decision project the anger they have toward themselves or their circumstances on the people who help them: friends who accompany them to the clinic, receptionists, nurses, the doctor himself.
Late one night in 1997, Gloria got a call at home from her security service informing her that the alarm at the clinic had gone off. Hurricane Danny was passing through that night, and she assumed fallen branches had set off the alarm. She told the caller to get back to her if there were any real problems, then turned over and went back to sleep. A little while later, the service called back to say firefighters had arrived at the clinic, which burned to the ground. Investigators ascertained that someone had thrown explosives into the air conditioning vents. The perpetrator was never found, but Gloria has her suspicions. She had worked with the Alabama Attorney General to revoke the license of a gynecologist who had injured several patients and had one die on the table after he removed her Norplant device and she bled out. The doctor had it in for Gloria after that and stalked her, once throwing a letter opener at her. Gloria relates these incidents with the resignation of someone used to being harassed.
“I guess it’s all one story,” she says. “Once I survived one thing, I knew I was strong enough to survive another.” The history of the struggle for women’s rights broadly, and for reproductive rights in particular, is a story of repeatedly starting from scratch, whether that means fighting in court to protect rights under attack from legislators, or rebuilding an abortion clinic burned to the ground.
Most patients are accompanied, at least on the day of the procedure, by companions who, like escorts and protesters, hang out in the parking lot, fighting boredom. Companions talk on the phone, pace in front of the clinic, eat fast food from paper bags. They don’t always speak to us, but today, a woman with a sandy blond ponytail asks if she might smoke. Another woman, hugely pregnant and wearing a low-cut black stretch dress, joins us on the steps, lowering herself slowly by holding onto the railing. The pregnant woman is here with her sister, who, she tells us, “does not need to have a child right now.” She seems to have come to terms with the irony of being hugely pregnant while taking her sister to terminate a pregnancy, but I can’t get over it. What are the odds? “My first one was an accident,” she says, laughing. “This one I planned.”
The two women begin a lively conversation about motherhood. The one with the ponytail volunteers that she has four children, the last two twins. “When I found out I was pregnant with twins I just screamed. I screamed and screamed.” The cigarette in her hand remains unlit as she pauses and seems to reflect on her life. “I didn’t even want kids.”
I stare at her in stunned silence. How can anyone with four kids say she didn’t want kids?“For women of childbearing age, in a culture in which support for mothers is often non-existent and access to abortion uneven and fraught, the abyss yawns open each time the possibility of pregnancy presents itself.”
The pregnant woman reveals that she’s a bartender. At a strip club. “Wesley’s Boobie Trap, in Dora. Topless bar,” she says. “It’s the family business.” I notice her ample breasts spilling from her low-cut dress. Some of the same people who enjoy topless bars likely object to women nursing in public. The ideologies around women’s sexual and reproductive capacities often place us in the midst of irreconcilable contradictions.
“My friend”—the ponytailed woman gestures toward the clinic—“has only one kidney. She can’t have another child. Her health isn’t good enough.”
These details—one kidney, the child who has had 14 surgeries, drug addiction—are invisible to the protesters across the parking lot.
In March 2016, I meet my sister and her three children for a weekend in Washington, D.C. This is before Donald Trump is president, before the Access Hollywood tape reveals Trump bragging to host Billy Bush that he could do anything to women, even “grab them by the pussy,” before millions of women gather all over the world in pink knitted pussy hats to protest the newly inaugurated president. On this mild spring day, I eat raw oysters and enjoy the cherry blossom trees in full bloom as I wait for my sister and her kids to arrive. Later, I walk in brilliant sunshine beside my nine-year-old nephew down a block of high-end hotels. A striking dark-skinned woman in a white eyelet dress steps out from behind the door of one hotel.
“Eye candy,” my nephew says. Then, shaping a baby bump with his hand in front of him, he laughs and says, “Wait till I get through with her.”
I’m too shocked to say anything, and soon my nephew’s asking his mother for root beer and the moment’s gone. It’s difficult to come to any but the obvious conclusion about what he meant, though I can’t say how much he understood. What kind of culture are we living in that produces a regular American boy who could make such a statement? My nephew is a smart kid with a great sense of humor. He plays lacrosse, and when he was learning to read, he loved for us to read books about a pig named Mercy Watson who had a particular fondness for buttered toast.
Could this kid grow up to get a schoolmate pregnant? Shame a naïve college freshman into losing her virginity? I try to wish away these thoughts, but they trouble me. I think of a woman who worked at the university where I teach, who told me at her retirement party that she planned to ride her horse more often. “Women understand horses,” she said. “Both women and horses: we’re prey.”
Wait till I get through with her.
Grab ’em by the pussy.
A little more than a year after my trip to Washington, on the steps of the abortion clinic, the ponytailed mother of four says, “You know what I felt in that waiting room? It’s a vibe, and you can feel it. It’s relief.”
I’ve never had an abortion—never needed one, probably thanks to the tendency of pharmaceutical companies to push miracle drugs without doing adequate safety research. But of course I can recall times my period was late; I was sometimes not as careful as I should have been, and there were times when the condom broke, and, acutely aware of the quotidian, fluorescent-lit incongruity of having to buy a cheap plastic kit in a box at the drugstore for what felt, internally, like a grim march toward certain doom, I grabbed a few other toiletries off the shelves so as not to have to place the First Response kit on the counter by itself for the cashier to ring up.
For women of childbearing age, in a culture in which support for mothers is often non-existent and access to abortion uneven and fraught, the abyss yawns open each time the possibility of pregnancy presents itself. Seeking to terminate a pregnancy, even 45 years since Roe v. Wade decriminalized abortion, remains a highly contested act.
At 51, I’m happily married and child-free, and I’m quite certain that, if I’d had a child, I would have been an adequate mother, though not a happy one.
The Saturday before Easter marks the end of another Forty Days for Life campaign. Protesters are especially emboldened during these periods, and one greets me when I get out of my car by whispering repeatedly, “You know you’re a cannibal for murder, right?” I can’t even parse the meaning, and I ignore my former colleague, Pat, when he shouts as I cross the parking lot, “You know tomorrow is Easter?”
As I put my vest on, a young black woman leans against the brick wall in the entranceway to the clinic, smoking a cigarette and sipping from a can of Red Bull. She has driven someone here from Mississippi. Another woman plunks down on the crimson bench decorated with the University of Alabama “A”—donated by a former patient’s mother—and applies herself to a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts in her lap. A young white couple arrives, and the protesters shout across the parking lot that they can help. “Will Jesus pay our medical bills?” the man shouts back. Everyone laughs, except the protesters, preparing for their next chance to offer a blessing bag and make their pitch on behalf of the God they think they know best.
This essay originally appeared in Creative Nonfiction Issue #67.