By Madeline ffitch
“Two years ago the United States Congress ratified the Personhood Amendment, which gives the constitutional right to life, liberty, and property to a fertilized egg at the moment of conception. Abortion is now illegal in all fifty states. Abortion providers can be charged with second-degree murder, abortion seekers with conspiracy to commit murder. In vitro fertilization, too, is federally banned, because the amendment outlaws the transfer of embryos from laboratory to uterus. (The embryos can’t give consent to be moved).”
—Leni Zumas, Red Clocks
When I was in graduate school, a friend and I were invited to write a “docu-drama” about abortion access before 1973, when Roe v. Wade enshrined it in federal law. The project was a collaboration between the Women’s Studies, History, and English departments. History grad students supplied us with nearly a thousand pages of research, and we sifted through testimonials from people who’d sought illegal abortions, interviews with the Jane Collective, sobering statistics about how common it was before Roe for women, especially those who were low-income and not white, to be injured or to die from illegal abortions. Somehow, we gathered all these voices and patched together a draft of the play, after which one of the faculty sponsors invited me into her office. The draft was too cavalier, she told me. She let me know how important it was to emphasize that getting an abortion is never an easy choice. She shared with me that she’d had an abortion, and that although she believed strongly that her right to choose should be legally protected, ending her pregnancy was the most painful decision of her life, as it was for most women. To make it seem otherwise would be playing into the hands of the other side.
But stories like hers were already being told, I retorted, and sometimes it seems like that’s the only story we hear. In order to prove that those of us with uteruses deserve the right to choose abortion, we must also perform our anguish, our grief, even our shame about the procedure. It’s the pro-choice version of being told to smile more, I told her.
So there we were, two annoyed pro-choice women staring at each other across a scuffed wooden desk in a windowless office of an underfunded state university. I found her condescending, patronizing, unbearably third wave. She found me immature, unserious, possibly damaging to the cause. I was in my twenties. She was in her forties, the age that I am now.
What I didn’t tell her is that I too had had an abortion. Predictably. Nearly one in four of us will. I didn’t want to connect about it, though. I certainly wasn’t going to offer up my personal feelings on the experience, although it wouldn’t have taken much time if I had, as my personal feelings essentially amounted to one word: relief.
I thought about all of this again recently while rereading Leni Zumas’s novel, Red Clocks, a propulsive page-turner that is heartbreaking and funny and wild and also about abortion. And birth. And death. And parenting. And marriage. And pack ice. And polar exploration. And fermented lamb meat. And beached whales, polar bear livers, sex, love, friendship, loss, loneliness, a woman’s body kept in a chest freezer, possible cannibalism, and Celtic goddesses bent on revenge. It can be hard to describe, in fact, just what Zumas’s novel contains, because it contains so much, and part of what makes Red Clocks so revelatory is Zumas’s insistence that all of this material belongs between the same two red cardboard covers, that so much—everything, in fact—is connected to reproduction.
I understand why the mainstream pro-choice movement decided to simplify messaging around abortion, to focus on strategic rebuttals to anti-choicers, leaving behind FREE ABORTION ON DEMAND in favor of the anodyne PRO-FAMILY PRO-CHOICE. I am deeply grateful that artists such as Zumas operate under no such rhetorical obligations. Red Clocks is plainspoken and strange, as irreducible as people themselves. Like all good novels, it contains truths we’d rather not acknowledge, questions with no answers, desire, violence, misfits, secrets, people wanting what they aren’t meant to want and feeling what they aren’t meant to feel, totalizing systems that are bound to fail. What Red Clocks has to say about abortion would never fit into a political ad, a protest sign, a sound bite, or an Instagram post, and for that reason it is exactly what everyone should be reading right now. Red Clocks rotates among perspectives that Zumas labels The Daughter, The Wife, The Biographer, and The Mender. The daughter, Mattie, is a teen with an unwanted pregnancy. The wife, Susan, a mother of young children, desperately craves an escape from her marriage. The biographer, Ro, is a high school history teacher, single, who is trying and failing to become pregnant. The mender, Gin, who once gave up an infant for adoption, lives reclusively in a cabin in the woods where she administers practical folk remedies. Throughout, we are treated to glimpses of the biography Ro is writing about Eivør Mínervudottír, a Faroese female polar explorer from the nineteenth century. The story is set in a present-day town on the Oregon coast, in a world very like our own. It takes place two years after the passage of something called the Personhood Amendment, which has criminalized abortion and IVF, and also laid the groundwork for an adjacent law which says that only heterosexual married couples may adopt. In 2018, when it came out, Red Clocks read as realism with a cautionary twist. Reading the book again now, only a few months after losing Roe v. Wade, the twist is gone. The book seems only as dystopian as our current condition.
Zumas roots her novel in the circumstances of repressive legislation, yet she prepares us to think about abortion not by highlighting laws, elections, or political movements, but by inviting the reader to reexamine our own relationships with bodies and with life and death itself. Early on, we find out that when Gin’s beloved aunt Temple died nine years ago, Gin kept her aunt’s body:
The mender did not want anyone taking the body away. She couldn’t give her aunt to a funeral home to be gutted and waxed; and the ground was hard; and Temple never liked fire. So the mender clipped off her nails and her hair and her lashes, shaved the skin from each fingertip, and put her body in the chest freezer, under salmon and ice.
Here, Zumas launches the distinctive style that will be crucial to the way that this book does its work, insisting on an unvarnished and clear-eyed approach to the physical. Anti-choicers are motivated by their belief that an embryo is a person, while pro-choicers often argue that an embryo is a cluster of cells, but Zumas bypasses this binary and approaches personhood in an entirely different way. Whether or not you believe an embryo is a person, you will certainly agree that Aunt Temple was a person, yet that fact alone doesn’t amount to a set of foregone values. Gin uses Temple’s fingernails, hair, and skin in her remedies. This might seem ghoulish, but delivered through Gin’s perspective, we understand it as part of her value system, not apart from it. It’s a value system she has inherited from Temple, who raised Gin and trained her to heal. For Gin, practical use of the human body in order to nurture other human bodies is not at odds with respect for the one who has passed. Instead, it is intimacy. It is a no-nonsense act of love.
Throughout the novel, Zumas puts readers through a process of defamiliarization, not only with the physical, but with our own cultural practices, expectations, and values surrounding birth and death. This is particularly evident in Eivør’s story, which we get to see through the work of the biographer, Ro. The paragraph that introduces us to Eivør also gives us the stark facts that accompany her into the world:
In 1841, on the Faroe Islands, in a turf-roofed cottage, in a bed that smelled of whale fat, of a mother who had delivered nine children and buried four, the polar explorer Eivør Mínervudottír was born.
This manner of birth, its odor and unpredictability, its closeness with mortality, has of course been ordinary for much of human history. Eivør’s passages chronicle what the body can undergo, from her harrowing birth story, to sailors’ skin peeling off after eating polar bear liver, to fingers lost to frostbite, to menstruating, to finally drowning under polar ice. Through Gin and Eivør, Zumas reminds readers that our relationship to birth and death are not settled points and never have been, that we are indeed captives of the present, of a particular brand of moral rigidity that may not make intuitive sense to many of us, and certainly wouldn’t have to most of our ancestors. In the face of right-wing rhetoric about the fixed and fated nature of gender, family, and reproduction, Red Clocks is a bracing tonic.
Zumas is steadfast in her refusal of sanitization and euphemism, building an implicit contrast with our current predicament, where we are more accustomed to debating matters of morality than we are to facing the actual facts of the human body. Red Clocks is a rude book. It’s filled with shit, piss, broken bones, blood, comically bad sex, not to mention labias so loosened from childbirth that they clap. Zumas reminds us that bodies cannot be made to behave. Bodies are unruly. Birth is unruly. Death is unruly. Babies, as most of us can personally attest to, are unruly. Novels, good ones, are unruly too.
To some, the rudest provocation in Red Clocks might be that Zumas returns and returns to the inescapable fact that humans are animals. When whales wash up on the beach at the edge of town, the daughter, Mattie, thinks of her best friend, who was so badly injured during an underground abortion that she needed a hysterectomy, and is now imprisoned. The two of them, Mattie remembers, made a list of the weights of different animal hearts, discovering that “the heart of a sperm whale weighs almost three hundred pounds.” On the beach, Mattie nears one of the whales. Moments later, it explodes from internal decay, spattering onlookers with gore. Mattie observes that “the gray belly, split wide, leaks slimy bundles of pink intestine and purple organ meat. Fat shreds of flesh flap in the wind.” Whether bodies are dead or alive, Zumas never depicts them as static or passive. They always come with their own built-in dramas. Mattie’s whale is a whale, not a direct metaphor for pregnancy, abortion, or humanity, yet this bit of misdirection pushes us to take a good long look at flesh, at blood and guts, and before long we are thinking about our own flesh, our own blood and guts, about the material—“perpetual though impermanent,” as Aunt Temple might say— that makes all of us.
When Gin thinks “humans like to name these things normal and those things peculiar,” she makes it clear that she has little use for the distinction between human and animal. She sees “human” as a category that dresses up the truths of the body in clothes that don’t fit. She is the one that the buttoned-up residents of town go to with the secrets of their bodies, after all, and she knows that humans are animals, whether we like it or not.
Is it anti-feminist to call myself a whale? A cow? An ox? The single best piece of advice I got before I went into labor with my first child was from a trans friend who had just given birth. “Become a musk ox,” he said. When the time came, I grunted. I groaned. I growled. I heaved. I vomited. I shit. I bled. I lowed, deep and guttural. Later, I ate my afterbirth. At no time is it more apparent that we are animals than during birth and death.
I got my abortion at a small clinic in a red state. It wasn’t particularly expensive, and it wasn’t hard to get, although I had to wade through a sea of angry protestors to enter the clinic. My older boyfriend didn’t want me to do it, though he paid for half. The people who helped me before, during, and after the abortion were birth workers, mothers, women and femmes who remind me of Gin, unafraid of bodies and suspicious of those who put rhetoric over reality. None of us, in these times, are completely unaware of the political discourse, but, like the mender, these friends were so unfocused on the discourse that they seemed not to have heard of it. They were far too practical to make it the center of their lives. The midwife who cared for me was the same woman who boiled an elk skull on our stove all day to render the fat, who tended to the body of another friend in the hours after his death. Another of my caretakers, a low-income rural mother, whose toddler we all took a hand in caring for, told me she herself would not have an abortion. She said this with no judgment about mine. Recently, I have heard several people correct right-wingers when they describe us as pro-abortion. We are pro-choice, they say. No one is pro-abortion. To me, it is more accurate to say that no one is against abortion. Or that being against it is beside the point. It’s like being against birth and death. Abortion exists outside of the state. People will do it, and will have every possible feeling about it, no matter what lawmakers say or do. Even people who say they are against abortion know this to be true in their private lives. Even communities where abortion is frowned upon know this, and that includes the Christian right.
Red Clocks is unequivocally on the side of reproductive rights, but it has something to say to the pro-choice mainstream, which has had its own problems.
Arguments about why poor women should not be forced to have children they can’t afford to care for can be compassionate and feminist, but such discourse has historically also made sordid bedfellows with classism, racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and even eugenics. Conflating the cultural values of the white middle class with the definition of a healthy and deserving family leads to brutal repression.
When I was researching our docudrama, I read accounts from Black women who had undergone forced sterilization, and coercive birth control prescriptions. When I visit in-laws in my partner’s Native community, I am disturbed at how common it is for women my age and younger to have undergone hysterectomies without informed consent. As a Medicaid and WIC recipient, I can attest to the patronizing ways that low-income women are talked to about reproduction and birth control. Women on the margins have had to make their own way when it comes to reproductive justice, resisting forced birth control, as well as forced birth, not to mention theft of babies and children by state actors. The logic of domination does not only come from the right wing; it can come from healthcare professionals and others who vote reliably pro-choice.
Reproductive rights must not be controlled by fascist theocracy, but the conversation around them should not reinforce the pieties of the liberal middle class, either. Reproduction is wilder than all that, bigger and smaller and better and worse. Abortion is like art, like novel-making, like sex and desire, like birth and death. It can’t be shoehorned into totalizing moralities, let alone into anything as prosaic as legislative policy. The best we can do—and this is of course non-negotiable—is to ensure that people can get abortions safely and easily and for free and without facing coercion or criminalization.
After Mattie’s underground abortion, Ro watches her in the kitchen of the safe house of the Polyphont Collective, a feminist outlaw abortion clinic where, thankfully, Mattie was treated by an ex-Planned Parenthood doctor. Zumas writes: “Mattie sits bundled up in her peacoat, drinking a glass of water. She looks sleepy and bleary and younger. Seeing the biographer, she grins wide. ‘Well,’ she said, her relief unmistakable, ‘that happened.’” Reading this passage, I was awash with visceral sympathy. I was a little older than Mattie when I got my abortion, and afterward, I spent a few days on the couch. I knit and watched movies and drank tea and ate herbs and organ meat my friends brought me. I broke up with my boyfriend. I got on the pill. Like Mattie, I felt only relief.
Now, two children and twenty-two years later, I am more like Ro, the biographer, nearing the end of my reproductive years and harboring fluctuating and ambivalent feelings about that; or I’m like the wife, a woman who understands, for better or worse, what it actually means to raise children rather than just to imagine them; or I’m like the faculty mentor who I faced across that desk all those years ago. If I had an abortion now, it would be a painful decision. I would mourn. In no way is this a repudiation of my younger self, except for one thing. I wish I had not felt threatened by the older woman’s feelings, as she was threatened by mine. Then, I was allergic to direct expression of emotion. I was overcompensating, living in reaction to years of gendered expectations, and to the constant shadow of my right to choose being stolen.
How much of my own feelings about abortion have been formed in response to a zealous Christian right? What would I say about it if I didn’t feel that my bodily autonomy was threatened by the state? Would I feel the need to declare certitude about when life begins? Would I feel the need to decide if abortion is an agonizing choice or an easy one? At the end of the book Ro takes stock: “She wants more than one thing,” Zumas writes. “She wants to stretch her mind wider than ‘to have one’ . . . Wider than ‘not to have one.’” Like Ro, I want to be allowed ambivalence, and to allow others ambivalence as well, to let go of the fear that someone else’s feelings about abortion might impact whether or not the people who want one can get one, no questions asked.
How far does this sense that we must justify our lives to the state, or to niche religious extremism, extend? In Red Clocks, Zumas anticipates what we are hearing now from the right-wing: ugly personal attacks not only on women’s reproductive choices, but about whether or not we choose to marry or remain single. Ro half-heartedly tries to find a partner, but her heart really isn’t in it. She knows she’s not doing this for herself, but because it’s what is expected of her:
. . . her okayness with being by herself—ordinary, unheroic okayness—does not need to justify itself . . . the feeling is hers. She can simply feel okay and not explain it, or apologize for it, or concoct arguments against the argument that she doesn’t truly feel content and is deluding herself in self-protection.
Here, Zumas connects reproductive rights to an overall system of control. One of the great strengths of Red Clocks is the way it dramatizes that the criminalization of abortion is related to so much else, to the regressive yet enduring myth of dominion over women, over nature, to the belief that the full range of autonomy and experience and choices should not be open to all of us, whether it’s to marry, to have a child, to express the full range of gender identity, to parent our children in a way that supports their authentic selves. It’s no coincidence that right now, trans children and their parents are under attack, the rights of Native children and their sovereign communities are under attack. These efforts to control us are linked. If that wasn’t clear before, it should be clear now, as clear as the ice that Zumas’s Arctic explorer Eivør is trapped beneath when she dies.
Zumas, of course, closely observes that process. Patiently, she details the animals that eat Eivør, as well as what happens to her body under water. “The explorer comes, over time, apart,” she writes. Eivør is digested by a shark, which is in turn eaten by Icelanders off the coast of Greenland. Zumas writes that Eivør “did not leave behind money or property or a book or a child, but her corpse kept alive creatures who, in turn, kept other creatures alive.” As with Gin’s treatment of her aunt, Zumas is unwilling to look away from the body, from its realities and its possibilities, and this is a no-nonsense act of love. Red Clocks illustrates that, just as Eivør’s body is connected to so many other bod- ies, there are no discrete borders between abortion, autonomy, human, animal, birth, death. Anti-choicers decry the godlessness of pro-choicers, at the same time forgetting a humble spiritual truth: we must manage to live as part of the great mystery of creation, not declare that we are the ones who’ve solved it. When her fellow explorers find Eivør’s body beneath the ice, it is almost as if she is still in action: “They saw her face first, as if pressed up to glass, one cheek flat and white. The blacksmith wrote later, to his wife: I have never seen an eye opened wider.” Zumas leaves us with the indelible image of Eivør’s wide-open eyes. Her eyes are as wide open as our own eyes must be. We can’t let those whose values we refuse dictate what it means to be born and to die, to care for our own bodies and to care for the bodies of others. We must keep our eyes wide open for the long fight ahead.
Madeline ffitch is the author of the novel Stay and Fight and the story collection
Valparaiso, Round the Horn. She is at work on a second novel.