Despite the new challenges facing the reproductive justice movement, we resolve to stay positive about shifting conversations about abortion care. One way to stay hopeful about a brighter future is to read great literature. The perfect place to start is with the new novel The Mothers about the ways one girl's abortion affects the different members of her African American faith community. Author Brit Bennett presents different perspectives with honor and respect, and without capitulating to stigma or anti-abortion biases. What follows is ACP Board Member Jeannie Ludlow's book review.
As a literature instructor who studies abortion and stigmatization, I read a lot of fiction and poetry about abortion. I’m happy to report that I have a new favorite: Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. This novel is the best I have read at leaving behind the simplicities of “prochoice vs. anti-abortion” and telling a complex, honest, and anti-stigmatizing abortion story.
What are our most difficult conversations about abortion, the ones that we wish we could avoid? Race, religion, the fetus, men’s experiences, money—this novel focuses a shimmering and compassionate light on all of these as it traces the reverberations from one high school girl’s abortion into the faith community of her African American church in southern California.
The novel is told in the plural voice of “the Mothers,” the women elders in the church, who bring their collective wisdom, compassion, and judgment to the story. The novel opens, “We didn’t believe when we first heard because you know how church folk can gossip. Like the time we all thought First John, our head usher, was messing around on his wife . . .” In these two sentences, Bennett establishes the Mothers’ tone, simultaneously understanding and disapproving, familiar, and just a little unreliable, always giving themselves an out in case they are mistaken. After all, they are the “church folk” whose gossip drives the story.
When seventeen-year-old Nadia gets pregnant a few months after her mother has killed herself, the community should not be surprised. After all, as the Mothers tell us, Nadia “had earned a wild reputation—she was young and scared and trying to hide her scared in prettiness.” Nadia’s father, absorbed by his own grief, cannot see her struggles. Nadia arranges for and has an abortion without his knowledge.
One of the things about abortion that Bennett gets so beautifully right is how hard it is for people to talk about. Nadia and Luke, her boyfriend, talk past one another, neither one ever saying what they really want. When they do get adults involved, the adults can only say the easy, stereotypical things about consequences and responsibility that, we know, cover over deep-rooted fear, disappointment, and guilt.
The scene in the abortion clinic is respectful, and spot-on accurate. There’s the angry mom who chastises her daughter in the waiting room: “‘Cut all that out,’ she said. ‘You wanted to be grown? Well, now you grown.’” There’s Nadia’s clothing: “she felt the nurse give her a once-over, eyes drifting past her red blouse, skinny jeans, black pumps. ‘Should’ve worn something more comfortable,’ the nurse said. . . . ‘Someone should’ve told you that when you called.’ ‘They did,’” Nadia replies. After her abortion, Nadia lies to her dad about her cramps and then sneaks out to a party that she really should not attend.
Bennett has successfully written a nuanced abortion story in which everyone gets it a little bit wrong and a little bit right, even the Crisis Pregnancy Center counselor who befriends Nadia’s boyfriend years later. The author makes it possible for us to sympathize with Luke and Nadia and their parents, even as we shake our heads (with the Mothers) over their failings. These characters are human, real, neither ideal nor flawed. When Nadia’s abortion story comes to light several years later, its aftermath reveals both the fragilities and the strengths of the church and its people.
The Mothers presents many different perspectives on abortion with respect and care, while refusing to participate in abortion stigmatization. It has been named a “best book of 2016” by NPR, Elle, Vogue, Goodreads, and Entertainment Weekly, all well-deserved honors. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.
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