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The Oregonian
Thursday, November 19th, 2009


Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict

by Irene Vilar

Telling the Utterly Confounding Truth

A review by Cheryl Strayed

I'll say it now: Irene Vilar had 15 abortions in 15 years. That's the blunt opening one-liner that fails to tell the whole story of this beautiful and brave book. Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict is a memoir less about 15 abortions than it is the story of a young woman who never got enough love.

At age 8, Vilar watched her mother commit suicide by leaping out of a car. At 12, she read The Diary of Anne Frank and felt scarred -- not from the horror of the Holocaust, but because she so deeply understood the plight of a girl who lived in an attic and had to ask permission "to exist in that smallest of holes." At 17, far from her home and broken family in Puerto Rico, she began a sexual relationship with her 51-year-old college professor that lasted 11 years.

In Impossible Motherhood Vilar does exactly what the best memoirists do: She tells us the truth about everything, even when the truth utterly confounds. How was it that she could allow herself to conceive unwanted pregnancies over and over again? What compelled her to pursue and eventually marry the domineering man who insisted that to be with him Vilar had to "endure the burden of freedom" by remaining childless, yet rather than get a vasectomy preferred to stand by while Vilar --who was not only painfully young but often suicidally depressed -- had abortion after abortion? In prose that's searchingly honest and gorgeously wrought, Vilar takes us into the depths of her psyche and family history, daring to tell a story that's unsettling and complex and ultimately redemptive.

It's when Vilar takes us most deeply into her story that Impossible Motherhood is most compelling, which is why I thought it unfortunate that the book opens with a forward by feminist writer Robin Morgan. There is nothing wrong with the forward itself. The information Morgan presents about abortion and birth control and the forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women is interesting and relevant, and her insights about the personal struggles Vilar writes about in the book are moving and apt. But I couldn't help but think that Morgan's words were there to legitimize Vilar's, to acknowledge and head off readers squeamish about a story that in Vilar's words, "is a perversion of both maternal desire and abortion, framed by a lawful procedure that I abused."

Her story is perverse in the truest sense of the word -- it deviates from what is accepted as good and reasonable. And she tells it to us with courage and grace and a true writer's skill. By memoir's end, Vilar has carried a pregnancy to term and birthed a daughter who she loves as fiercely as most mothers do. The baby's birth is an occasion of joy that's made all the more meaningful by what it means to Vilar: that after so much sorrow, she found a way to be born anew.

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