“I can’t wait to tell my daughter about your periodical. She is remarkably talented — all of her teachers think so — and she has written a story about abortion that is so good.”
And so my mind wanders away, and I brood over the purpose and prevalence of that developing genre — The Abortion Story — until the proud mother draws me back to the conversation with a comment that obviously requires a response.
It is easy to capture such a scene anonymously, as it happens all of the time, especially when one happens to be peddling a Catholic journal for fiction, poetry, essays and art.
The Abortion Story is a rite of passage for young Christian writers. I wrote one myself in earlier days, as have nearly all of my friends and colleagues who aspire with me to a literary vocation.
There is a positive glut of differing versions of The Abortion Story sitting around waiting to be picked up by an interested market. A very few of them are really well done; some of them are schmaltzy; most of them are highly sentimentalized; nearly all are predictable, and a considerable number of them are utterly unremarkable.
It is almost always a tale of repentance — and usually of an extraordinarily pat variety. Women articulate their deep suffering in evangelically clear tones, and abortionists either stalk menacingly about, twirling their villainous black moustaches, or wax visionary in a moral epiphany. We writers of The Abortion Story are prone to make use of the pathetic fallacy — the day is dark when a child is aborted and suffused with salvific light when a character stumbles his way into speedy repentance.
My own attempt began in the rain and concluded with a singularly improbable sunset.
The phenomenon — the rise of a genre — is worth pondering. Abortion is the deepest societal trauma of our present age and one that risks institutionalization in the coming years. The numbers are staggering; so much so that, although they are often repeated, they seem beyond reality. Such a mind-boggling death toll, and with so many remaining willfully blind to the horror of the slaughter, seems reason enough for a literary preoccupation.
What is the place and purpose of literature in all of this?
The impact of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was monumental, even prompting the apocryphal story that Lincoln called Stowe “the little lady who made this big war.”
The book’s legacy continues today, as the anti-slavery cause eclipses in the public imagination the myriad of other issues at stake during the Civil War. It is the righteous condemnation of institutionalized, intrinsic evil that resonates. The effect of the novel is encapsulated in George Shelby’s statement after the death of Uncle Tom:
“It was on his grave, my friends, that I resolved, before God, that I would never own another slave, while it is possible to free him; that nobody, through me, should ever run the risk of being parted from home and friends, and dying on a lonely plantation, as he died. So, when you rejoice in your freedom, think that you owe it to the good old soul, and pay it back in kindness to his wife and children. Think of your freedom every time you see Uncle Tom’s cabin; and let it be a memorial to put you all in mind to follow in his steps, and be as honest and faithful and Christian as he was.”
And so it was, over 150 years ago.
Seventy years have passed since Kristallnacht and the atrocities that followed; yet, the abiding horror of the Holocaust still reverberates across the literary landscape — Time’s Arrow: or The Nature of the Offense, Schindler’s Ark, Sophie’s Choice, and, most recently, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
Among these literary reflections, the most compelling voice is not fictional — that of 15-year-old Anne Frank, who posthumously realized her dream to be a great author. Anne’s maturation over the years and her intimate, authentic and deeply human story captures the imagination by its very simplicity and everydayness. Thus, the Dutch historian Dr. Jan Romein wrote of the diary in 1946:
“This apparently inconsequential diary by a child, this ‘de profundis’ stammered out in a child’s voice, embodies all the hideousness of fascism, more so than all the evidence of Nuremberg put together.”
The last line of Anne’s diary, written Aug. 1, 1944, a few days before the Achterhuis (“Secret Annexe”) was raided by the Nazis, encapsulates the yearning of a young girl “trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be if … if only there were no other people in the world.” The rest is silence.
This is the legacy of the Holocaust — horror and humanity.
From the horrendous scenes of torture, experimentation and genocide, stories have arisen of extraordinary self-sacrifice — from Edith Frank, who fasted, saving her meager rations to pass secretly to her daughters, to St. Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to die in the place of a stranger at Auschwitz.
The saint’s voice lingers like that of Anne Frank’s.
Three weeks of starvation and dehydration passed and still he lived — praying, singing and comforting his fellow victims — until everyone else was dead and the executioners injected Kolbe with a lethal dose of carbolic acid. The essential goodness of humanity has never been stifled by evil, and this abiding human reality inspires many eloquent and compelling fictions. The voice of man will not be silenced.
In the last few decades, literary critics have obsessed over suppressed narratives, the stories of marginalized characters who are given no voice or are only heard through the mediating lens of the narrator.
The literary-critical fascination has some interesting relevance to the question here at hand. There can be no true diary of the unborn child. Anne Frank was a victim to grave evil, but a victim whose voice could still be heard. She, like Stowe (although in a different key), and like all of those who gesture toward evil, was a voice crying out in the wilderness — voices who were not necessarily heard in their own time, but who are now rightly celebrated.
Now, as then, it is the moral duty of every man, woman and child to act in defense of those who cannot.
For the writer, therefore, there is a moral duty to speak for those who cannot, whether the vehicle be fiction, poetry or essay.
That said, with this high moral question at stake, there will necessarily be higher literary standards. We writers cannot award mere effort in such a war. Nor is the point to formulate a paradigm for all fictional attempts. With this in mind, some advice may be given.
Do not assume conversion — pray for it.
Don’t be so eager to describe angst or despair — such things must be touched lightly or they quickly descend to camp.
Do not preach — especially avoid characters who walk about serenely blurting out pro-life slogans at seemingly appropriate intervals.
Don’t calculatedly disgust, but be measured in your bloodlust — babies are human beings, be they dismembered or not, and the gratuitous use of bloody limbs and severed heads for shock value is morally and ethically very problematic.
Most importantly, stop trying to write The Abortion Story (or The Same-Sex Attraction Story or The Euthanasia Story or The School Shooting Story) — write about men and women instead.
If we are to be part of this larger conversation, we must earn the right to be heard. Anne Frank is not celebrated merely because of who she was and when she lived. Her writing is powerful — and needs not trot out credentials proving faith, humanity and historical pertinence. So let’s stow our soapboxes and stop striving for obvious “significance.”
And so we wait and watch and write, and meditate deeply on the voices of the silenced millions and on the need for a visionary to conjure up for us the host of slaughtered innocents standing athwart history screaming.
Eleanor Bourg Donlon,
a Dappled Things assistant editor,
is based in Charlottesville, Virginia.