This is a story Christa Parravani never thought she’d tell. By 40, she’d lived through her twin sister’s death, a failed marriage, and psychiatric hospitalization, all movingly detailed in her 2013 memoir, “Her.” Now that she was remarried with two small daughters and a job she loved teaching writing at West Virginia University, she hoped to find emotional and financial stability. Then she found out she was accidentally pregnant.
Parravani knew she wanted an abortion, but the first doctor she sees refuses to help her. Shocked, she calls a friend in California, who suggests that she write about this experience. Parravani recoils, thinking, “I was a good mother. A mother who struggled in private.” But she gradually realizes that being a good mother might mean sharing her story. The result is her new memoir, “Loved and Wanted: A Memoir of Choice, Children, and Womanhood.”
Despite self-acknowledged privilege — “I have a car. A career. A college education. I am white” — Parravani does not get the abortion she wanted, although she keeps trying after her first attempt. “I was naïve,” she muses bitterly. “I still believed what I wanted mattered.” The nearest providers were two or three hours away, with 24-hour waiting periods, and she had students to teach and children to watch. Her husband was often away for work and seems unsupportive, although Parravani declines to probe this issue, insisting: “Had my husband been a financially stable and faithful, kind hero, the cost of daycare would have been the same, the potential loss of my career the same, the distance and barriers to reasonable healthcare the same.” Another local ob-gyn could secretly provide an abortifacient pill, but Parravani has worries — what if people in her town find out? What if she has complications? She wanted an abortion to preserve the life she had, but feared abortion threatened that life. “It would’ve been possible to get an abortion in Pittsburgh at Planned Parenthood, but it would have been difficult,” she writes — partly because of these barriers and partly because of the way they make her feel, like “a person who wished to commit unspeakable acts, who deserved every hard thing.”
Parravani anticipates readers’ possible frustration with her seeming passivity when she writes, wearily, about all the people who have suggested abortion was not out of her reach. She tries to explain: “The very reasons I wanted that abortion — exhaustion, lack of funds, dimming sense of self- determination and confidence — were the things that made it nearly impossible for me to get one.” While sympathetic, I felt some of this frustration, especially when Parravani considers dilation and extraction (sometimes used in second- and third-trimester abortions, which are rare) and writes, “I couldn’t bring myself to schedule a D&E. Could you?” What about her readers who have experienced this procedure?
This problematic part of an otherwise nuanced book shows how strongly some people having abortions feel pressured to justify themselves, even though they shouldn’t have to. Conservatives insist that people have abortions carelessly and regret it later — and thus need to be protected from their own bad choices — but in fact the opposite is true: people engage in deep moral calculations and, studies show, ultimately tend to feel they made the right decision.
Parravani’s focus on autonomy becomes the book’s most interesting thread when she discusses how West Virginia, despite its anti-abortion stance, fails to protect babies. Not long after Parravani moved there, she had her second daughter, who was born with kidney problems, more prevalent in West Virginia than anywhere else in the country. The antibiotics her daughter needed rotted her teeth; by the time she was 3, she had 17 cavities and had to get a mouth full of metal crowns. These problems may stem from the water her mother drank while pregnant, polluted by industrial solvents that accidentally leak into the rivers. “There was a feeling then my body wasn’t mine,” Parravani writes. “I had no control over what happened to it, and to my babies. We had no choice but to take the water in, and the air too.” A culture that doesn’t respect women’s rights before birth is not a culture that respects mothers or children. Just as Parravani’s feelings were dismissed before the birth, they are again ignored when she believed her newborn son had health issues. She had to take him to doctors outside West Virginia to find out he had a broken collarbone and needed tongue surgery.
Parravani wonders what her son will think of this book. When he, and others, read it, they may understand her insistence that “I can both want to have had reasonable access to abortion and love and want my son.” She makes the compelling argument that “Choice bolsters the miraculous attachment we have to our babies. If we bring our children into life with our agency intact, we remain strong enough to raise them in this world of wolves.” She also writes of the abortion she had at 20, finally realizing that she can both feel grateful for the opportunities it gave her and mourn the child she might have had. After that abortion, she writes, “I didn’t stop crying for days, and not because I’d made the wrong choice, but because sometimes the right choice hurts.”
“Her,” Parravani’s first book, took the shape of a recovery memoir, ending in new marriage and motherhood. The ending here is more ambiguous. Parravani has a beloved son in addition to her two daughters, but she imagines that one day “it would come like a bolt, my son realizing he’s more important than me…. I was worth less, his sisters too.” Her marriage is still troubled, West Virginia’s public policies still fail to protect its residents from the health impacts of environmental degradation, and reproductive choice in America is even more imperiled.
Fran Bigman, an associate editor at Guernica and a freelance critic, is writing a book on abortion in literature and film.
LOVED AND WANTED: A Memoir of Choice, Children, and Womanhood
by Christa Parravani
Holt, 224 pages, $26.99