When Stories Develop Lives of Their Own
Once you tell a story, it develops a life of its own and, like your children, it stems from you but no longer is you. By simply describing what happened to me, my story sparked fiery debate about life, death and God, the disability rights movement, the limits of political power, the slipperiness of words, and inevitably, the strength of stories themselves. It has also become a valuable commodity for pro-choice advocates who see that stories pack far more punch than a dry treatise about reproductive rights. After all, personal narratives humanize politics because they put a face to abstract thoughts.
How you tell a story is how you frame an issue. I suspect that my story had traction because it sat in that nuanced center between the crusaders on either side of the abortion debate. Unwittingly, I’d framed my story in a way that people from most political stripes could understand. I’d had an abortion but it was an abortion for a planned and much wanted pregnancy. I believe that a woman’s rights trump that of her fetus, yet I referred to my ‘fetus’ as my baby, my child, my son. I fiercely believe that women should have the right to choose if and when to become mothers, but I never thought I’d have to make that choice for myself. Indeed, my experience of having an abortion showed that, like most people, I live in that fuzzy gray zone where ideology loses ground in the face of reality. I’m a tangible character and that — for us story-loving humans — packs punch.
For that reason, my narrative also held high value for the media and for pro-abortion activists. Influential organizations in Washington D.C. asked to use my story in their campaign literature. I gave interviews to journalists from as far afield as Sweden. Each interview was difficult because of my increased vulnerability from going public. After all, I’d allowed myself to be scrutinized by strangers, some of whom were so ideologically opposed to me and so angry about abortion, that I began to fear that I’d exposed my family to risk. Despite this, I believed strongly in my reason for going public: that personal stories provide the most powerful frame possible for criticizing antiabortion laws. However, I’d failed to anticipate how my story as currency could lead it — and by extension, me — to being treated like a commodity in the pro-choice debate. In one notable case, I gave a lengthy interview to a journalist who, somewhere between asking for my time and recording my experience, failed to recognize the emotional sensitivity of our subject. After submitting to an indelicate interview, I felt that I’d been exploited by someone for whom I was simply ‘the source.’ The personal costs for having told my story were growing and, after that interview, I began to wonder whether I was paying too great a price. Yet I was conflicted. As both a writer and a proponent of reproductive justice, I could see that good articles need real people. Luckily, three wise friends suggested something very simple: if you don’t want to do more interviews, don’t do them. They reminded me that my story now existed without me and, by raising awareness about the futility of antiabortion laws, it had achieved what I had hoped for it. I unhitched myself from my story and felt enormous relief.