Preface

“Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.”

—LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN

 

Twenty years ago I attended a party at which a numerolo­gist offered to analyze my name. After performing what appeared to be complicated mathematical computations she told me my number was eleven—a “power number”—then looked at me quizzically.

“How strange,” she said. “This is the first time I have ever seen this.”

“What is it?” I asked, genuinely concerned.

“Your numbers tell me that you make money from war.”

I met her gaze steadily as I replied, “I do.”

As an only child growing up in 1950s Philadelphia, I occu­pied myself with warrior fantasies. My imagination soared with visions of knights, kings, and queens who populated the English history books I would get from the library. The dra­matic tales of battles driven by focused energy and height­ened danger excited me. It wasn’t conquest I was after; it was the warriors’ extraordinary sense of mission. I was moved by an empathic connection with the vulnerable and oppressed. I wanted to challenge a great evil power, to lead troops into battle for the most noble of causes.

Unfortunately, the world in which I was living allowed for few grand heroics. Rather than a battleground, it was a special kind of wasteland. I grew up at a time when one’s worth and acceptance as a female were measured by the width of a crin­oline skirt, when French kissing branded you a sexual outlaw, and when little girls’ dreams revolved around their weddings and lessons learned from watching Queen for a Day’s ritual of “improving” one’s life with domestic conveniences. It was a vast wilderness of mothers, teachers, and friends encircling me in traditional femininity, creating a suffocating loneliness that I could not name or understand.

I felt powerless to change my fate until Queen Elizabeth I, whose story I discovered at age ten, finally broke that silence. Her survival skills were legendary: her mother was beheaded when she was three and her stepmother executed when she was nine; she was sexually molested at fifteen; and she spent two months imprisoned in the tower, a hair’s breadth away from execution herself. She learned to carefully scan the political and emotional landscape for signs of potential danger.

She ruled sixteenth-century England by herself, refusing to marry or to bear children. The androgynous strategies of this woman who wanted to be “both king and queen of Eng­land” were unheard of for a female monarch of her time.

I kept the lessons I learned from Elizabeth close to my heart and my head when I broke free from Philadelphia and came of age in New York City in the 1960s. The time was ripe to pick up her gauntlet and challenge women’s tra­ditional roles. I became a child of one of the greatest social revolutions in history, at a time when it became politically possible for women to legally gain and exercise reproductive choice—the power of life and death. A time when the right to choose became the fundamental premise of the movement for women’s liberation, and when the expression of that truth was every woman’s entitlement. After years spent feeling I should have been born in some earlier, more romantic age, I have come to realize that my life’s work would not have been possible in any other era but this one.

In 1971, two years before Roe v. Wade, I opened one of the first legal abortion clinics in the country and thrust myself into a world that came with battles to fight (replete with inva­sions, death threats, and killings), opportunities for courage and heroism, and the necessity for bold leadership, strategic thinking, philosophical debate, and entrepreneurial skill. There were barbarians at the gate, self-identified as Right to Lifers (anti-choicers, or “antis,” as I call them throughout this book), waving pictures of bloody fetuses and sometimes hid­ing bombs or guns under their coats. My sword was a six-foot coat hanger held high over my head as I declared my sisters would never return to back-alley butchery. I raised a bullhorn to rally fellow soldiers, decrying the clinic violence that swept the nation. This was my historic stage. It was a war, and I finally felt I was living my destiny.

I helped midwife an era in which women came closer to sexual autonomy and freedom than ever before in history. The very idea that women could rise up and act in their own best interest electrified men and women alike during those years, and the foundational works of second-wave feminists inspired millions of my peers. But my feminism didn’t come from books or theoretical discussions. It came in the shape of individual women presenting themselves for services each day. I began to understand the core principle of feminism as I held the hands of thousands of women during their most powerful and vulnerable moment: their abortions.

I wasn’t immune to the physicality of abortion, the blood, tissue, and observable body parts. My political and moral judgments on the nature of abortion evolved throughout the years, but I quickly came to realize that those who deliver abortion services have not only the power to give women control over their bodies and lives, but also the power—and the responsibility—of taking life in order to do that. Indeed, acknowledgment of that truth is the foundation for all the political and personal work necessary to maintain women’s reproductive freedom.

My story is the story of women’s struggle for freedom and equality in the twentieth century, but it is also a personal story of obstacles, survival, and triumphs. Like Elizabeth, I did not want to give birth to my successor. I never dreamed of being a mother, nursing a child, shaping a young life. I wanted—needed—to give birth to myself. And, in the arms of the women’s movement, my delivery was aggressive, even violent, with pressures pushing down on me from every direction at times, crushing and battering me as I reached for the freedom to become. Most painful of all were my terrify­ing glimpses of the all-encompassing sense of being alone. Whatever one can say glowingly about the women’s liberation movement and our “collective problems requiring collective solutions,” this fact cannot be denied: becoming is nothing if not a solo journey. Yet my singular voyage has been enriched with allies, friends, lovers, and family, unexpected intimacies that bear meaning, depth, purpose, and joy.

Thomas Merton taught that there were three vocations: one to the active life, one to the contemplative, and a third to the mixture of both. This book is the story of my mixed life. I am an activist, a philosopher, a transgressor of boundaries. I strive to live in truth—or, perhaps, truths. I have not escaped this war unscathed; like all women who have gone into battle, I am scarred. But perhaps that is the definition of wisdom. Perhaps our wounds, the crevasses and cracks in our inno­cence of perception that come as the price of experience, are our marks of understanding.

How do you feel about being self-interviewed by The Nervous Breakdown?

Intrigued and challenged. I’ve always been tempted to have one (a nervous breakdown)—but that is a luxury I could never afford. There is an unyielding voice in my head urging me to go further, do more, achieve—and that sense of responsibility has never allowed me much rest, or the space to emotionally deconstruct. It is also the reason I don’t drink or do drugs.

 

Why did you name your memoir Intimate Wars?

We are all soldiers (whether we consciously enlist or not) in the great struggle for reproductive justice.

Ultimately women’s bodies are battlefields in the most intimate of wars; that is, the ability to determine when and whether or not we want to become mothers.

 

For a relatively private person, you have shared a lot of yourself in this book—was that difficult for you?

I am comfortable leading marches and defying dangerous forces, but it did take a special kind of psychological courage to look at myself in such a bright light. I gave myself no place to hide, and in the end, I learned that I accepted all of it—who I was and who I am.

 

How did a budding concert pianist end up founding and owning one of the largest women’s medical centers in the country?

When I gave up studying to be a concert artist and began working to create Choices, my mother told me it was a “sin against God not to use the talent I was given.” But I quickly found that the process of creating a new reality from theory, law, and philosophy was the most artistic thing I could do. To define the meaning of abortion in society and politics, to create the concept of Patient Power, and to help to save thousands of women’s lives was the ultimate expression of the “art of the possible.”

 

You write that you are a “philosopher”—which philosophy do you feel most congruent with?

The Stoics. I very much like Marcus Aurelius. He understood the fleeting nature of reality—the drive for fame, ambition, and the importance of being true to your nature. And as an emperor, he had to deal with a lot of administrative issues. He also had many “paid enemies,” so I can relate to that. And of course Nietzsche, whose dictum “what does not kill me makes me stronger” has become my mantra.

 

You have been called a “Hitler” and accused of making a business out of abortion—how do you respond to that?

First of all, I do not take any of these attacks personally. As Elie Wiesel told me:  “You cannot let these words hurt you— people who call you that do not know what the Holocaust was.” And as far as abortion being a business—well, women’s lives are my business, and I make no apology for that.

 

What do you think would astonish people most about you?

That I love country music and dinosaurs, and that I am an armchair mountaineer. Maybe that I belong to the Society of Friends of King Richard III, or that I manage to get at least six hours of sleep every night.

 

“I want to rule out cancer,” the hippie doctor with bad coffee breath tells me as I sit exposed on a cracked vinyl examining table in a run-down clinic downtown. My mind starts racing as my fingers probe the canyons in the vinyl, picking at the foam core.

Cancer. I’m so young.

“We’ll run some tests,” he quips as he scratches notes in my file, my life unworthy of neat penmanship. He snaps it shut, sets it down, far away from my eyes, as though my illness should be kept secret from me.

Feeling my neck with his fingers in little circular motions, he mumbles to himself, uh-huh-uh-huh-uh-huh, another secret he keeps from me.

“Is it bad?” I stammer, trying not to cry in front of this man who looks like he lives in his car, the byproduct of me not having insurance, which is also racing through my mind. Health is a privilege in this country. You have no right to it, no entitlement, and I have learned not to expect it.

But I never expected cancer.

I eat right, organic for the most part, and I exercise every day. I quit smoking cigarettes years ago, and though I occasionally enjoy a joint now and then, I seldom drink, though I’m told a glass of wine now and then is good for you. I control my sugar intake, watch the red meat, skip anything with hydrogenated anything in it or bleached four or high fructose corn syrup, which is now being relabeled as just corn syrup because consumers have caught of to the food conspiracy.

How did this happen to me?

“I’ll know more when I get the results,” he says already on his way out.

“Ok,” I barely utter as the door closes.

And then I am left alone. Alone under the stale fluorescent lights. Alone with the cracked vinyl and wooden tongue depressors and blood pressure machine.

I think about the first time I died, when my sister jumped on my head in Lisa Buell’s pool and knocked me out. Lisa’s dad had to give me mouth to mouth, and I remember the taste of cheap beer, probably Coors Light. Dying then had been peaceful, as I wasn’t conscious to struggle against the water that came crashing through my lungs. It was coming back to life that was violent, and I’ve often wondered if that was a mistake, if I wasn’t supposed to die there on the Spanish tile by the side of the pool.

I think about all the people I’ve wronged. Make a mental list of everyone who deserves an apology from me, including Debbie Gordon, the girl I beat up in eighth grade for spreading rumors about me. She might have deserved it, but violence never solves anything. I know this now. I’m sorry, Debbie.

I think of my Mom, of how her face will crack and spill onto the floor when I tell her I might have cancer. I watch her heart fall from her chest and crash onto the floor and shatter into a million jagged pieces.

I hear my sister cry in her bathroom, shut away from the ears of her six children, my beautiful nieces and nephews, who listen at the other side of the door unbeknown to her. I see their confused and conflicted faces as I wipe the tears away from my own eyes.

Then I see my brother cry, and that undoes me. The tears fall, and I don’t care if the homeless doctor sees them.

Forty five minutes and a box of Kleenex after I’ve been handed a bomb to hold, a nurse finally enters with a yellow tackle box of needles and vials. She rolls up my sleeves and taps at my veins. “Oh, you’ve got great veins,” she says, smiling. She’s too excited by them, and I wonder if she’s a junky. I try to examine her teeth, but she’s looking down, down at my blue veins that may or may not be pumping cancer through my body.

“That’s all there is to it,” she says, snapping off her latex gloves and tossing them into the trashcan. “We’ll call to schedule the biopsy. You’ll need to pay at the desk on the right on your way out.” Then she leaves without any fanfare, and I’m left wondering if this is how it all ends, in a dimestore clinic with buzzing overhead lights on a cracked vinyl examining table in the middle of winter.

Death be not proud.

And neither should the dying.