By Anna Rollins
Tove Ditlevsen’s The Copenhagen Trilogy (published in Danish from 1969-71 and available in English in 2022) tells the story of the author’s childhood, youth, and dependency. Her ultimate dependency occurs after her second abortion. During the procedure, she describes the injected anesthetic as “a bliss I have never before felt spread[ing] through my entire body.” Following this abortion experience, Ditlevsen struggles with addiction. Eventually she would succumb to it, dying by suicide.
Even before her abortion, though, dependency was Tove Ditlevsen’s birthright. As an ambitious woman, Ditlevsen was exposed to unspeakable sorrow in a world shaped by systemic sexism. It wasn’t abortion that turned Ditlevsen into an addict; it was her lack of agency that left her alone with her own pain. In the first volume of Ditlevsen’s memoir, she describes a fraught relationship with her mother in childhood. Her mother was lonely and frustrated because she, too, lacked independence and choice, confined at home alone all day with her children while her husband went out into the world. Her “dark anger always ended in her slapping my face or pushing me against the stove,” Ditlevsen writes. In the absence of maternal nurturing, Ditlevsen turns into herself, in introspection and rumination, finding an outlet for expression in the written word.
Still, she feels compelled to conceal her writing, even as an adult: “for me, writing is like it was in my childhood, something secret and prohibited, shameful, something one sneaks into a corner to do when no one else is watching. They ask me what I am writing at the moment, and I say, Nothing.” Ditlevsen learns early that any use of voice or demonstration of need could be used against her—and so she practices concealing and repressing her passions.
Ditlevsen marries young, largely to escape her childhood home. She looks at women with babies walking the streets, and she longs to build the sort of family she envisions they have. But this, too, is denied her. She notes that her husband is “careful not to get me pregnant. He says that women authors shouldn’t have children; there are plenty of other women who can. On the other hand, there aren’t so many who can write books.” It is in Ditlevsen’s writing that she can explore her true desires, her deepest pain. “I take out my novel and write and write and forget everything,” she says after her husband leaves for work. Only on the page is she allowed space to have a voice unmediated by a man.
Eventually—after leaving her husband for another man—Ditlevsen does become pregnant. She describes her elation in stark terms: “I’m going to have a baby. I can hardly believe it. A tiny clump of mucus inside me is going to expand and grow every day, until I get fat and shapeless like Rapunzel was when I was a child.” Despite her lack of sentimentality, Ditlevsen remains excited about her journey toward motherhood, or, as she later describes it, normalcy.
After giving birth, Ditlevsen describes her reaction to her new child: “she’s so ugly, I say, surprised, looking down at the little bundle of baby in my arms.” Still, Ditlevsen is not unhappy. She expresses her joy with this sentiment: “now we are a father, mother and child—a normal, regular family.”
Postpartum proves difficult for Ditlevsen. Several months into caring for a child, she realizes “that the only thing I’m good for, the only thing that truly captivates me, is forming sentences and word combinations, or writing simple, four-line poetry.” Now that she’s a mother, though, Ditlevsen has less time and energy to devote to her lifelong outlet for expression.
Breastfeeding a baby, Ditlevsen is starved and depleted, unable to fulfill herself or her husband. “He says he’s sick and tired of being married to a writer, who’s frigid on top of everything,” Ditlevsen writes of her husband’s frustration with new parenthood. One night, her husband cheats on her. Even after his confession of infidelity, Ditlevsen stays with him, desperately hoping that once she begins to recover from the physical labor of pregnancy and breastfeeding, her libido will return.
And eventually, it does—just as she’d hoped. But soon after, she is pregnant again. The thought “makes [her] legs tremble.” She knows that another pregnancy will destroy her marriage. To save the small family she has, she decides to seek an abortion. “Our marriage won’t be able to bear another period of nursing frigidity,” she reasons.
During her unwanted pregnancy, she looks at women in the streets, imagining their lives, assuming that they “don’t have anything growing inside them that they don’t want.” She gazes at men with anger: “men seem to be excluded from my world right now. They’re foreign creatures, it’s as if they came from another planet. They’re not in touch with their bodies. They don’t have any tender, soft organs where a blob of slime can attach itself like a tumor and, completely independent of their volition, start living its own life.”
Ditlevsen goes to great lengths to obtain an abortion, visiting doctors, seeking referrals from friends. Her attempts to end her unwanted pregnancy are frequently thwarted, belittled, and demonized. She finds herself gazing at other women, again. This time, she is not envying their families. She is wondering about their secrets. “Maybe she tried to have an abortion too, with that child, or a later one,” Ditlevsen considers. “Maybe lots of women have done what I’m doing now, but no one talks about it.”
This observation—that so much of a woman’s suffering is done in silence and in secret—is central to Ditlevsen’s memoir. While the men’s lives play out in the public sphere, the women experience life in the confines of home or in the secret parts of their own bodies. Their anguish is private, and consequently, often unspeakable. There is no one to be with them in their own pain. Female suffering is solitary. This is what will destroy Ditlevsen in the end—not the pain itself, but her inability to find companionship in its midst.
Eventually, two days before Christmas, Ditlevsen obtains her secret abortion. Her descriptions of the “shiny pointed instruments” are juxtaposed with a Christmas tree’s “tinkling glass decorations and a star on top.” Ditlevsen is surrounded by women bleeding with nausea and fevers, and yet, she is celebrating. After, she writes a poem about her experience. She notes that she has little regret, and yet, “in the dark, tarnished corridor of my mind there is a faint impression, like a child’s footprints in damp sand.”
Soon after this, Ditlevsen becomes pregnant again—this time by a man she slept with after attending a Tubercular Ball. “If I’m not writing, I say, then I’m pregnant,” she laughs. She describes the baby’s father as “quite ugly.” He happens, though, to be a doctor—which means that this time, Ditlevsen has no difficulty obtaining an abortion. Prior to the procedure, he offers to give her a shot so she “won’t feel a thing.” This is, perhaps, what Ditlevsen has been searching for her entire life.
Her description of the painkiller is the closest we have to an orgasm in the entire text. Men have been unable to give Ditlevsen true pleasure—but drugs can. She writes, “Demerol [. . .]. The name sounds like birdsong. I decide never to let go of this man who can give me such an indescribable blissful feeling [. . .]. I am preoccupied with the single thought of doing it again.”
The rest of the text transcribes Ditlevsen’s unravelling. She loses her health and beauty, wasting away into a shadow of her former self. She becomes pregnant, and this time, she hardly even notices her situation—with drugs, she can let go of her obsession with the state of her body. She can let go entirely. The pressures that have plagued her for so long seem to become inconsequential— but to escape her pain, she ultimately ends up destroying herself.
Tove Ditlevsen’s memoir interrogates a world where women’s suffering emerges from their inability to make decisions about their own bodies and lives.
It was not abortion that led to Ditlevsen’s unravelling—it was her own desperation leading up to it. Voicelessness and loneliness are central to Ditlevsen’s narrative. By exploring her own entrapment, Ditlevsen provides, ironically, a beacon of hope for women experiencing similar pain due to their own lack of agency. By divulging the things that are often secret, shameful, and hidden, Ditlevsen offers her readers a gift that she herself never received: the gift of feeling less alone.
Anna Rollins is an instructor of English and directs the Writing Center at Marshall University. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, Electric Literature, Newsweek, and Insider, among other outlets. In her scholarly work, she has written on writing center studies and advising at-risk students in higher education. A lifelong Appalachian, she lives with her husband, two young sons, and two beagles.