Lucy Burns: Why I wrote a book about the untold reality of abortion

·6-min read
Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

Lucy Burns' visceral and compelling debut, Larger than an Orange, recalls her confusion and pain following her abortion in 2017. It is a powerful book, one that breaks taboo about the way in which some women feel after terminating a pregnancy while remaining strongly pro-choice. The restrictive and archaic abortion legislation in Texas has made women who have the freedom to choose feel fortunate to live where they do. It has also amplified the feeling that to talk about abortion in any other way is somehow to fuel the fire of anti-abortionists, that any accounts of guilt, confusion and sadness after terminating a pregnancy will be co-opted by those currently attacking women's reproductive rights. We are scared that to talk about abortion in these terms that our precarious rights - or the rights of others - will be removed.

This of course says more about misogyny than anything else and is an argument challenged by Burns in her book. By silencing women who have found their abortions to be traumatic we do them a disservice - we leave them to suffer alone. It also prevents any progress from being made in the abortion process.

Here, Burns writes about the intense pressure of writing so personally about such a polarising issue, and why we must discuss the full spectrum of abortion experiences had by women.

I still don’t really know when or why I started writing about the abortion. At first, it was the odd image from the clinic (the 'NO CHILDREN ALLOWED' sign in the waiting room), then I started to remember phrases from my frantic googling after the procedure (‘Go to the hospital if you pass something larger than an orange’). Soon enough I was staying up late, churning out hundreds of words about the nausea and the bleeding and the shame. I remember being scared by how easy it was to go back to 2017. In a few words, I could be in the ultrasound room.

I didn’t worry about what I was writing or who would read it; I just wrote down everything I could remember. On some level, I must have hoped that it would help me to understand how I felt about what had happened. But I also think I was using these writing sessions as a kind of self-harm. They weren’t always productive, or cathartic, or revelatory. Sometimes I didn’t want to remember the abortion, but I forced myself to sit down and relive it as a punishment. I knew that the abortion was the right decision, but I also felt confused and ashamed (and confused and ashamed that I felt so confused and ashamed, and so on). These feelings seemed to come from nowhere. I had always described myself as ‘pro-choice’ (now I prefer ‘pro-abortion’ because it feels less evasive), but suddenly I was telling myself that what I’d done was wrong, that I was dirty and disgusting, and so on and so on.

It was only through writing about my experiences that I recognised how bad things were. After the abortion, I had a mental breakdown. I became obsessed with anti-abortion memes. I thought that people could tell that I’d had an abortion just by looking at me. I was so terrified of being exposed that I kept a list of everyone who knew about the abortion. The anger, the paranoia, and the intrusive thoughts were exhausting. It wasn’t until I wrote about the experience of having sex for the first time after the abortion that I realised how disconnected from my body I felt. And it wasn’t until I tried to put everything in chronological order for the book (and saw that I couldn’t remember what happened when) that I realised I probably had post-traumatic stress disorder.

Larger than an Orange is intensely personal book. But the person in it also doesn’t feel like me. It is an edited, rearranged and redacted me. This is partly out of a desire for privacy (just because I’ve written a memoir it doesn’t mean I have to share everything), but it’s also just what happens when you write a book.

There are lots of things in the book that I felt, while I was writing, that I wasn’t supposed to talk about. No one had ever told me I wasn’t supposed to (they never have to, this isn’t how it works), but what I was saying about my abortion – that it was difficult, confusing, and painful – made me feel as if I was putting access to abortion for others at risk. I was able to have a free, safe, legal abortion – what was there to complain about? It’s taken me a really long time to understand that being pro-abortion, believing in a fundamental right to abortion, doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to talk about the difficult and ambivalent aspects of your experience.

My book is not a manifesto, it’s a memoir. I didn’t write it with a message in mind (this is not to say that I didn’t feel like I had some sort of responsibility while writing it). People like to tell me that they’ve learned x and y about abortion from reading my book, but this was never my intention. Now it’s finished, what the reader gets (or doesn’t) is not really any of my business. I’m often asked what I hope my book will achieve, and I don’t really have an answer. Sometimes it feels as if it’s not enough to have written about my experience of abortion – it has to be for something.

This pressure of feeling that I have to contribute to the ‘debate’ (it is not a debate) can be stifling sometimes. It’s one of the reasons why when I started thinking about the book as a book, I told myself that I could keep writing under one condition: anything I produced had to be anonymous and could never be traced back to me. No names, no places, no identifying features. I blacked out the medical records that appear in the book. I removed any details about my life that might help identify me. I was frightened of the effect that writing about abortion would have on my life.

Sometimes, I’m still frightened. I don’t feel brave, or determined, or courageous – although I understand why people use these words to describe the book. But this fear isn’t about shame. I’m not ashamed that I had an abortion. I’m not ashamed that I wrote a book about it. And if my book is for anything, if it has to be, then I hope it might help others to feel the same. We have nothing to be ashamed of.

Larger Than An Orange by Lucy Burns, published by Penguin, is available to buy now at Amazon.co.uk

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