‘History begins with someone else’s memory of you.’ This is how Julia Cohen opens her essay on abortion for the New England Review, and I know this because I have been relentlessly scouring the internet for essays on abortion and for poems, song lyrics and admissions of any kind. History begins with someone else’s memory of you, and my mother tells me that, as I pressed steadily on the fleshy walls of her womb 28 years ago while she lay in the rickety restored cubbyhouse she shared with my father, a home brief and unassuming, she knew me. She couldn’t possibly have known me, which seems a cruel but necessary diagnosis. I tell myself this because, if history begins with someone else’s memory of you, if my mother knew me then, my own child’s history began at my kitchen basin as I heaved bile and worry, the smell of my cat’s litter fixed in my nostrils like some kind of malignant aura or rotten eggs. The air carrying a thick decay around me, never leaving. Until, of course, it did. Three weeks later, my queasiness departing my body with the same fervour, the same immediacy that my pregnancy did. A moment. A womb the shape of a could-be home. A sort-of child, as in something, someone, brief and unassuming.
A month after my abortion, a friend meets me for a drink at Jones Park, a hilly stretch of grass in Brunswick East that looks over the city. She brings a casket of tea, I bring two beers. Apart from the occasional drop of booze, I am sober: a deliberate and necessary decision I made after my termination in a hopeless bid to bury my addiction to grass and powder in the cavities of my past, alongside my stunted pregnancy. My eyes well and leak, and before hers do too, she asks me if I’ve listened to Joanna Newsom’s track ‘Baby Birch’. She is not the first to ask me this. I haven’t, but in the dimness of my room that evening, I do. Seven times. ‘I saw a rabbit as slick as a knife and as pale as a candlestick, and I had thought it’d be harder to do but I caught her and skinned her quick,’ she mewls. The metaphor is grim, visceral. In one live performance I stumble across, Newsom gazes longingly at nothing in particular—how presumptuous of me—before closing her eyes and resting her head on her harp’s golden body, something akin to a shoulder. My instrument is my journal, is this page. Is word. But when the doctor tells me that people generally feel relief after an abortion, I want to scribble over my sorrow furiously, in the same ballpoint pen I used to jot it down.
Abortion will never not be tied to language, to slogan. That is part of its political DNA, its tissue and mantra. Each molecule of abortion access wraps itself around scripture of the heaviest kind, terms large and onerous such as ‘life’, ‘death’, ‘choice’, ‘child’, ‘good’ and ‘evil’. A young anti-vaxxer holds a placard that reads ‘My Body My Choice’ as she protests COVID-19 legislation in Manchester five days before I terminate my pregnancy, stealing from me something I don’t have the language to make sense of, stealing from me a phrase that carries with it a complex and bloodied history.
As she spits and carries on, maskless and proud, holding above her head a pro-choice rallying cry, she draws together a dangerous analogy. This is because every anti-vaxxer who occupies the public space harms others. But, as Eva Wiseman writes in the Guardian, ‘a person who doesn’t want to be pregnant harms nobody by choosing an abortion. Making that choice does not result in her breathing abortions on to six strangers’. A person who doesn’t want to be pregnant harms nobody, I recite, like a spell. A person who doesn’t want to be pregnant harms nobody. I harmed nobody.
Three days after my abortion, bleeding and light-headed still, I punched the eight-letter word into TikTok’s muddy search engine. It paired itself to a measly hashtag, and that’s when I discovered @abortionqweenn, a vivacious 21-year-old who declares herself ‘famous on TikTok for having abortions’. She’s camp and eager, unmoved by her abortions, and proud of it. One video is framed by the text ‘abortion check’, two words bookmarked by a pair of sparkly emojis. Kitsch, cute. It reveals her donned in a mask in an abortion clinic, frolicking about nonchalantly with her girlfriend as she sits on a sterile chair, flailing her legs in the air. She reminds me of myself as a teenager: it’s something about the way she carries her limbs, her silliness, the way she giggles unbothered.
It irks me, and I don’t know why. I’m embarrassed that it does. The sadness I feel about my own abortion feels dowdy, drab. Pitiful even, when compared to hers. I’m angry. Not at her, of course. I’m angry because when an act of self-governance is so politicised, when the freedom abortion offers desperately needs to be promoted, needs to be flexed, in a bid to muffle the grisly hate it is met with, women and pregnant people are expected to display their agency ostentatiously. All smiles, all strength. All choice. Even in writing this, I feel it is precarious, wrong, to say that my abortion was a kind of trauma. But it was. I don’t regret it. I am staunchly pro-choice. All statements ought to be true, because all statements are true. Because I am bleeding, miserable and free.
The abortion counsellor asks me, three weeks later, if I regret my decision. I recoil. Regret, a thing tangled and ugly. Regret, as Julie Beck defines for the Atlantic, is the emotional price we pay for free will. She writes, ‘We can only regret things we think we have control over. If we had no choice, no agency, if we were but tossed about on the tides of fate, there’d be nothing to regret.’
There are smaller and larger things I regret: (1) not pissing after sex as I pump a litre of cranberry juice down my gullet for the third time in a month; (2) sleeping past ten, as my dog whimpers to be let out and walked; (3) letting the young man who whispered threats in my ear hold me afterwards, lying cold in a university dorm in Denmark, our inevitable break-up a kind of eyesore, hovering above us. This is not one of those things.
It is not the mention of regret I find disagreeable. It’s the word ‘decision’ that leaves me irritated, as if this were ever my decision, to have life dissolve inside me only to push it out, a thing bloodied and hapless. No woman, no pregnant person, decides to make this decision. When Gwendolyn Brooks writes in a poem addressed to her incomplete pregnancies—is that what I ought to call them?—‘if I poisoned the beginnings of your breath, believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate’. I breathe deeply, my breath a hot sigh that holds something akin to relief in its body, but not quite. Even in my deliberateness, I was not deliberate. Even as I willingly placed four powder-coated pills between the grooves of my gums and my lips, knowing well the ensuing upheaval that would take place in my body, in me, I was not deliberate.
There are a handful of things I do in a bid to listen to ‘Baby Birch’ alone in my car, belting out harmonies with Newsom as if my life depends on it, knowing now that life does—and ought to—depend on something. My life, at least. I leave a gig early, vowing to meet my housemate at home once she’s ready, once the night is over, my lipstick still precise. I pull up in a McDonald’s car park, my engine still running, and sing between stuffing my mouth with handfuls of soggy fries. While I sing, I google the lyrics, read interviews with Newsom, read them again. I scour through pages of idiomatic analysis, the holy writ of eager fans on Reddit threads. It has been a little while now, which means that there is no longer a quiver in my voice when it comes to the bridge.
My father told me, when I was ten years old, the two of us huddled over a CD player of an afternoon playing a single, scratched-up Eric Clapton album, that Clapton’s song ‘Tears in Heaven’ was about the loss of his little boy, who fell 50 storeys to his death from a New York City apartment building. He also told me that Clapton had to stop singing it after a while, when it stopped stinging, when the initial hurt subsided, when his quiver disappeared. At 27, I try to find evidence of this, and instead find the suggested Google search, ‘Is Tears in Heaven the saddest song ever?’, a statement so curious and strange to ask a bot, I laugh. If it were about an unwanted pregnancy, perhaps I’d agree.
Still, I choose not to listen, worried about what I’ll find. I tell the person I shared my pregnancy with, in the dim light of a house lamp peering from a nearby window five days after my abortion, sometime past 4 am, that our baby was a boy. A regrettable comment, said as if drunk on loss. I could just feel it, something shared by poet Leyla Josephine, whose poem ‘I Think She Was a She’ muses on a hypothetical birth, on the tragic joy of familiarising oneself with another could-be person, in the dawn of its—of her—wreckage. I could just feel him rather, uncut and cheeky—like the man I had come to adore, a love laced with urgency, a love that opened its arms readily to heart, to heat, to lust and longing and then, as quickly as it had the words to describe it, to death.
When I started this essay, two months after my abortion, I read Julia Cohen’s proposition that ‘history begins with someone else’s memory of you, remember?’ and assumed she meant the first memory. Or perhaps I thought she meant the first moment, the origin of what you remember, what comes first when recounting a story. It might be the way, over occasional sips of hot coffee, you lay emphasis on certain moments to eager friends, certain cliffs. You sprinkle details in the parentheses—those you’ve decided on, the more you recite it. But it has been four months now. My memory of my abortion is different, has changed. The initial hurt has subsided, but unlike Clapton, I continue singing. Not all of the time, but sometimes, the tremble in Newsom’s voice carrying familiarity now.
There’s an anthology, aptly called Choice Words: Writers on Abortion, which was birthed in the wake of editor and writer Annie Finch’s own abortion, an anthology dedicated to language, to the deliberate literary dissection of an experience that straddles life, death, morality, spirituality … a handful of gigantic players when it comes to making sense of the human experience. Given this, as Ellen Jones aptly considers in the Los Angeles Review of Books, abortion should be ‘one of the great themes of literature’. This is where my deliberateness lives, in my want to use language to describe, to honour, to resolve what it means to contain genesis and destruction in my small body simultaneously.
It is one thing to make sense of an experience gruesome and jarring, to watch—and feel—as something akin to life, but not quite, leaves the body. Something of its own body (again, but not quite), bathed in the redness of my insides. To borrow from SeSe Geddes’ 2015 poem ‘Tugging’, ‘it’s the final moment—the tugging— / that’s the worst. A sucking deep within the pelvis / where the body contracts as if / to cling to that tiny growth.’ It is another thing to experience this in a world that has married the termination of pregnancy to slogan, to religious and conservative catchphrases, to snatch choice from you: first, the choice to terminate; and second, the choice to describe it however you feel fit. To adopt language from something that has been scourged and whipped by the grossest of mantras, only to refuse to minimise it. To call it by its name.
Some days, my abortion feels like a kind of butchery. I am reluctant to say this, to use this kind of diction, because I know, intellectually, that it isn’t, that it wasn’t. I know this is the language of my oppressors, who sink their teeth into words that carry the most impact, the most force. On other days, my abortion feels like a beck and call, my path to obeying my own self, my salience as someone childless and free. When I consider how others have captured their own terminations, through lyrics and prose, I welcome whatever language they choose. I welcome the mention of blood, the gentle pleas, the emojis. The loss, and hope.
I am neither an ‘abortion queen’, poking my tongue out in the sterile room of an abortion clinic, nor another woman who has been ushered into the silence long expected to follow such a procedure. What I am is somebody who, when attending a friend’s wedding recently, struggled to hear the speeches over the insistent cries of a handful of babies in attendance, each tiny person being eased by their respective mothers as they spoke in noises I am yet to understand, in a language of tears and snot I do not want and am not willing to acquaint myself with. I will never know the sound of my own baby’s weeping, but I know the sound of mine, and finally have the words to describe it. •
Madison Griffiths is an artist, writer and the co-producer of Tender, a Broadwave podcast. Her essays can be found in the Guardian, VICE, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, on SBS and more.