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Original Essays

The Story of Women Everywhere

by Susan Wicklund
  1. This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor
    $8.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor

    Susan Wicklund and Alan Kesselheim
    "Through [Wicklund's] story is harrowing, the stories of the women she serves are becoming even more so as the number of obstacles blocking their reproductive choices increase, thanks to ever more conservative legislators." Booklist

    "This Common Secret puts flesh and blood on the [abortion] issue and gives it a woman's face." Barbara Ehrenreich, bestselling author of Nickel and Dimed

Like so much in my life, the fact that I wrote this book at all came as a surprise. For a year I took refuge in the basement guest room of a family who had befriended me when I first arrived in Montana. I was escaping the harassment of protesters who were stalking and threatening me, trying to close the clinic I had opened in Bozeman.

Alan Kesselheim and Marypat Zitzer took me in and provided a haven during one of the most hectic, frightening, and rewarding periods of my life. Inevitably, I shared my stories with them, relived the events of the day and of my career. We sat together at their kitchen table and talked late into many nights.

I had been toying with the idea of writing things down, trying to capture the truth of my life as an abortion doctor, along with the incredible tales that kept coming my way through patients. But I am not a writer. I have a good memory for details and conversations, have strong and clear convictions and have kept journals throughout. But I did not consider myself a wordsmith.

Al, however, is a writer, and he encouraged me to get started. More than that, he wanted to work with me. I trusted him. I felt he understood. More important, I believed he could help me fashion the raw material into something readable.

At first, I would start talking and Al would scribble like mad. We sat up late in his living room, talking, or at coffee shops on weekend mornings. He filled legal pads with his notes. I talked and talked, often shaking with emotion. Then he'd pull things together into a rough draft that we could hand back and forth, revising and shaping.

Later on we reversed roles. After talking things through, I would take a stab at a first draft, then hand it off to Al to work his magic. We leapfrogged along, me writing the next chapter while Al reworked the previous one.

My biggest dilemma was that I really didn't want to write a memoir. On a basic level, I felt, and still feel, that my story isn't that important. What is important, what can't get glossed over, is the reality presented by the patients that come my way. That is what I wanted to focus on. "It has to be about the women," I kept saying, "not about me."

Al kept nodding. He understood my motivation, but I could also tell that he didn't agree. "This story is about you, Sue," he said. "I know it's also about the women, the protesters, the big picture issues, but without you, it doesn't hang together. Like it or not, if you really want this to be a book that people will read, you have to reveal your own story."

Despite my own hesitations, I began to understand that readers are curious about how a woman like me might come to this profession. So much about abortion is kept secret and hidden. People need to understand so many basic things that are commonly misunderstood. What the abortion entails, for starters. How women are counseled and treated inside a clinic. How a medical career like mine is marginalized and exposed, and what effects that marginalization has on a doctor's family life, personal safety and daily routine.

Very tentatively, I began to open the doors to my own life, and to tell my own story. It has not been easy or comfortable. I have had to relive many things I'd rather forget. And, to be honest, I am afraid.

For me to be visible and exposed is dangerous. Abortion doctors have been murdered by fanatics who call it justifiable homicide. Clinics and doctor's homes have been bombed and burned. The danger is very real. Besides, in telling my story I am forced to reveal my mistakes, my regrets, my failures to follow rules.

At one point in the writing process I got cold feet. I told Al that I didn't feel able to go on. I wasn't secure enough to risk that kind of exposure. We put the book on hold, a sheaf of typed pages kept in a file drawer. Years passed. Women's stories kept coming to me. I kept working. My life took unexpected twists.

Then, several years ago, Al and I had coffee one morning, catching up. Towards the end of our visit he casually brought up the book project. He said he was still willing to work on it if I ever felt able to.

I jumped on the possibility. I had been thinking about it as well. I was ready. I was completely frustrated and outraged by the politics that limit women's options to control their lives. Even if I was still afraid, I also believed that by sharing my story, along with the stories of patients, I would find support in greater measure than I would encounter harassment.

Ultimately, this book is in memory of my mother, a woman who believed it would happen, a woman who stood by her convictions, who was a feminist and social activist before those labels came into vogue. So, as I wrote, as Al and I collaborated again, it was her image I held tight to. Hers, and my daughter, Sonja's.

As it happens, This Common Secret is only superficially my story. It is, more accurately, the story of women everywhere, facing the dilemmas that are the universal legacy of pregnancy and sexuality. Mine is a story I share with my mother and grandmother, my daughter, my sister — with all women, and the generations of women to come.

÷ ÷ ÷

Susan Wicklund has worked in the field of women's reproductive health for more than twenty years. For much of that time she has been on the front lines of the abortion war, both as a doctor and as a spokeswoman for women's rights. She has been interviewed by numerous leading media outlets, including 60 Minutes and Fresh Air. spacer

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