Wounded Women; or, Women’s Wounds
“I want to insist that female pain is still news. It’s always news. We’ve never already heard it” – Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams
Trigger/content warning: this is an essay about violence against women and abortion.
Prologue: This is a work in progress.I felt the need to process my thoughts around the events that took place or came to be known earlier this week. I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback.
On Thursday, September 10th 2015, two unrelated and yet deeply connected events transpired on the University of Toronto St. George campus. The first was deeply personal but also political; the second was political but also incredibly personal. One more innocuous than the other, but traumatic nonetheless; the second was traumatic because it was so far from innocuous, despite the fact that some risk assessment professional from the Ontario Provincial Police had deemed it “low risk”
Around 1pm that day I walked by a group of anti-abortion advocates standing on the corner of St. George and Harbord, blown up posters of aborted fetuses in front of them. For reasons that I’ll explain shortly, this encounter left me visibly shaken. When I returned to my study carrel an hour or so later, I saw an email from Vice President and Provost Cheryl Regehr, warning students to stay vigilant as some anonymous threats had been made and campus security was being increased. Within minutes my Facebook newsfeed blew up; it was revealed that these threats were directed at women/feminists in Sociology and Women’s Studies departments. I’ve decided to not repeat the comments here, as I’m still processing the violence, cruelty, and anger that they expressed towards women. (You may read the first of these comments here, if you’re interested.) Two separate events, and yet they’re not so separate.
As I walked down St. George, my eyes were drawn to these graphic images, blown up so that you couldn’t miss them. I wanted to look at the women standing behind them; to try and understand why they felt so strongly that women shouldn’t have abortions. Their attempt to interpolate me into a conversation (“Ma’am, do you have any thoughts on abortion?”) almost worked. I wanted to tell them: “I’ve had an abortion. So yes, I do have some thoughts. But I’m not about to share them with you.” But I didn’t. For whatever reason, I took the same path back to my carrel, knowing that I would have to walk by them again. This time the scene was different: two other pro lifers had joined them – and they were men. Unsurprisingly these men were talking to other men. I felt enraged. When I returned to my office, I wrote this post on Facebook:
As someone who had an abortion as a teenager (a choice that saddened and continues to sadden me, despite the fact that I’m pro choice and know that it was the right decision), it’s quite triggering to see giant blown up pro-life posters on campus. And to add insult to injury, I have to see men stand behind those posters telling other men why having an abortion is bad. I continue to be appealed [should read “appalled”] by the patriarchy and the ways that men (and some women) try to control and pass judgment on women’s bodies. Feeling really grateful for all of the feminists in my life rn.
I’d like to think that I’m not a private or secretive person. And yet, I don’t really talk about my abortion. It might come up once in conversation, after a year or two of friendship. Recently, one of my closest friends remarked on how she’d never know that I’d had an abortion until it came up in a conversation with a mutual friend the night before. Our mutual friend told us that she’d recently had an abortion. I remember feeling like she’d opened up the door for me to talk about my own. I didn’t share much more than “I was 16,” “it was a late abortion; a two day procedure.” What I didn’t share was how scared I was. So scared that when I missed my period the first time, when my breasts started to feel tender, and the idea of alcohol repulsed me, I didn’t go for a pregnancy test. I waited another month. By the time the plus sign appeared on the strip, I was almost three months pregnant. My time was running out.
My boyfriend (we would break up a year later) and I had to raise the funds for my abortion. My health card had been missing for who knows how long (having a family doctor meant that getting it replaced wasn’t a huge deal). I couldn’t go to my dad and say, “Dad, I’m 16 and pregnant and need to get an abortion so it’s really, really important that we go and replace my health card.” Time was running out. So my boyfriend and I borrowed money from friends and raised the $400 we needed. I went to my vice-principle and told him that I’d have to skip school on Friday because the procedure would take two days and I couldn’t do it over a Saturday and Sunday. I would need him to not call home to report my absence. I still feel eternally grateful to that man for his empathy, his kindness, his ability to not judge me.
I had a friend living in Toronto so I told my father that I’d be staying with her Friday and Saturday night. A woman who became a surrogate mother to me, after my mom passed away from cervical cancer when I was 11, drove my boyfriend and I to the clinic in Toronto. All I really remember was the pain; the adverse reaction to the pain killers that made me throw up in the subway station before I could get to a garbage can; and feeling numb. That feeling of numbness would stay with me for many, many years. As Leslie Jamison poignantly writes, in The Empathy Exams: “Wound implies en media res: the cause of the injury is past but the healing isn’t done” (194). Perhaps the numbness (just like the wound) is still there – like a barrier, some sort of protective shield, or a repressive force that enables me to not think about the sadness that I felt then and continue to feel for my teenage self.
If seeing the anti-abortionists was a shock, the reopening of an old wound, reading the email and the details that followed terrified and disturbed me. I remember telling my partner later that day, back at home, that I really wanted to wear purple on Monday, September 14th, as a gesture of solidarity, but that I felt afraid. He told me how wearing the colour with so many others was supposed to signify that you weren’t afraid. To which I responded: “but what if you are?”
Two separate events, and yet they’re not so separate. The first event speaks to the fact that men (and in this case, also women) feel like they can judge what women do with their own bodies; can publicly shame them with grotesque and cruel images of aborted fetuses. The second event demonstrates the precariousness of being a woman who stands up for her body and demands that it not be violated, objectified, or fetishized. The first event speaks to what for many women, myself included, is an open wound. The second event also speaks to a wound; an always lurking possibility, and, as the Montreal Massacres, the 2014 Isla Vista, California shootings, and countless acts of violence against women have demonstrated, a lived reality.
It struck me when I came home that day that Jamison’s The Empathy Exams begins with an essay on abortion and ends with an essay about wounded female bodies. In the first essay, “The Empathy Exams,” Jamison lists her wounds (broken jaw and broken nose) and attempts to separate them from her pregnancy. But she quickly realizes, within the same sentence, that her broken nose, broken jaw, and impending abortion “were both times [she] got broken into.” And getting, “each one fixed meant getting broken into again” (11). In the final essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Jamison returns to these three events in greater detail, while also analyzing other female bodies in pain: Carrie, from the Stephen King movie of the same name; Anne Carson’s Nudes from “The Glass Essay”; and Lucy Grealy, who wrote a memoir entitled, Autobiography of a Face, where she tells the story of her childhood cancer and the facial disfigurement that came as a result.
Jamison tells us how she “want[s] to insist that female pain is still news. It’s always news. We’ve never already heard it.” This feels all too true. The possibility of female pain made the news this week, when a man named “Kill Feminists” threatened the lives of women at U of T. And yet his threats, his hatred towards women, and the possibility and realization of violence against women aren’t news: they’re part of an old story – just like the wounded women that Jamison describes. “The old Greek Menader once said: ‘Woman is a pain that never goes away.’ He probably just meant women were trouble. But his words work sideways to summon the possibility that being a woman requires being in pain; that pain is unending glue and prerequisite of female consciousness” (187). The blown up images and the threats uttered testify to the fact that not only does being a women require that you suffer, but that that suffering must be interminable; it’s not just about creating a wound, but about reopening it again and again.
Jamison makes the link between her first essay and her last all the more evident: “It’s news whenever a girl has an abortion because her abortion has never been had before and won’t ever be had again. I’m saying this as someone who’s had an abortion but hasn’t had anyone else’s” (217). Jamison is asking that we read her statement a couple of ways. On the one hand, when she writes that, “her abortion has never been had before,” she’s highlighting the fact that abortions are still a taboo subject. I’m pro choice; I don’t regret my abortion (although I do wish that I’d been using protection). And yet, I avoid the topic. My Facebook post was the first time I’d made my abortion public knowledge. It felt scary, vulnerable, but also necessary. It prompted other “confessions” (to say “I’ve had an abortion can feel like a confession, rather than just a simple fact); I received a message from a friend who told me that she’d also had an abortion, and felt like she should be able to/wanted to speak out about it – but didn’t feel like she was ready to do that yet. So many women feel the need to hide the fact that they had an abortion, and in so doing, it’s as though no abortion has ever been had before.
Read another way, Jamison’s statement, “I’m saying this as someone who’s had an abortion but hasn’t had anyone else’s” is asking us to respect the different ways in which female bodies feel and register pain. Your abortion is not my abortion. Your pain is not the same as my pain. As women living in a patriarchal society, a society that loves to control our bodies, many of us have had similar experiences. But we should resist any temptation to equate our suffering, because in doing so, we run the risk of setting a limit for how much pain, how much sadness, how much anger, is really acceptable. If you feel sad about having an abortion, you can quickly becomes the poster child for the pro life movement; because feeling sad means that you should’ve kept the baby, right? No. I can’t feel happy about my abortion. There’s no way I could’ve smiled through the procedure as Emily Letts does (for the record, I have a lot of respect for Letts’ project). My body was “broken into.” Similarly, I can’t wear purple on Monday and pretend that I’m not afraid. I am afraid. Afraid of the possibility of being broken into again.
I don’t mean to conflate these two experiences. I chose to have sex without birth control and I chose to have an abortion. I do not choose to feel unsafe on my campus (nor when I’m home alone or walking home late at night). I consented to have a doctor break into my body to remove the fetus (to borrow Jamison’s phrasing, this is a “voluntary loss” ). I have not and will not consent to living in a constant state of fear; to being the victim of another man’s anger and hatred towards women. What links these two events is not just their relationship to women’s bodies, to real and potential wounds, but their ties to the affective scripts that accompany them. I should be happy or at the very least, feel good about having an abortion or I should feel guilty. I should be able to walk by those images and not care, not feel traumatized. Likewise, I should wear purple to say: “I’m not afraid!” Or, “I won’t let you make me feel afraid.” But you have and I do.
So where do I go from here, from this state of, it would seem, constant woundedness? What do I do with my fear, anger, and sadness? Well I guess, like Jamison, I can write about it. I can call attention to it. In “The Empathy Exams,” Jamison tells us how “Part of me always craved a pain so visible—so irrefutable and physically inescapable—that everyone would have to notice” (12). I’m not looking for pain that is inescapable (physical or otherwise) – nor do I think that Jamison is looking for that either (although her past self might of, hence the past tense, “craved”). But I do want to mark the irrefutability of my pain; I don’t want to render my wounds invisible – even if, like my abortion, the wounds can’t be seen and have, perhaps, already long disappeared. “Wound implies in media res: the cause of the injury is past, but the healing isn’t done.” I am a wounded woman, and I continue to be wounded. This admission need not make me feel disempowered (although, of course there are times when particular wounds or people’s responses to those wounds and my relationship to them, have made me feel disempowered).
Perhaps another way to make my wounds visible is through tattooing — an act that, for me, has made me feel like I own my body. Yesterday I went to get a tattoo that would wound me (physically) and help me to close the wound of my mother’s death. Or perhaps this tattoo is not about closing a wound, for I don’t know if I’ll ever get over her death, which took place almost 20 years ago. But looking at this tattoo every day, I’ll be reminded of her (the cardinal) and of the sadness that her death has brought into my life.
This tattoo also represents my academic work, which focuses on the ways in which the emotions of young girls have been pathologized, dismissed, or downplayed — just like the suffering of the wounded women that Jamison discusses. I chose to get this tattoo on the lower part of my arm, so that it would be as visible as possible; so that it wouldn’t be partially hidden by a shirt sleeve. When you look at me, you’ll inevitably have to look at this sad girl tattoo, with her tears, reddened eyes. Woundedness might not be a subject position that you wish to occupy. For me, it is helpful, but certainly not the only position that I want to inhabit. But for right now, it feels right; it feels like the space for me to do some important grieving work, for my mother, for my adolescent self. To say “yes, I’m wounded,” and here’s the wound, feels like a productive space for working through some of the trauma of being a woman in a patriarchal society. When I look at my sad girl tattoo, I imagine her saying: “yes, I’m crying, I’m in pain, and I don’t feel ashamed of that.”Tags: abortion, grief, healing, misogyny, tattoos, wounds
This post was written by Margeaux