Unwinding Unwind

By Hilary Brewster

Featured Art by Ross Di Penti

Dystopian novels for teens, who are “trying to understand their world and their place in it” are written with gripping plots and first-person narration that “may have the potential to motivate a generation on the cusp of adulthood,” write Balaka Basu, Katherine R. Broad, and Carrie Hintz in their introduction to Contemporary Dystopian Fiction for Young Adults. It’s not a coincidence, I don’t think, that a “plethora” of these texts were published in the post-9/11 era of the mid-2000s, culminating with what John Green called an “explosion” in 2007-2008 that included the first installment of perhaps the most successful of all the franchises, Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy. With the commercial success of this burgeoning market, YA writers created fictional worlds to warn teens about too much surveillance, like in Little Brother; the dire consequences of obsession with unattainable standards of beauty, in Uglies; and damaging conformity, like in the Divergent series. Although dozens and dozens of realistic YA novels deal with teen pregnancy, abortion, adoption, and other matters related to reproductive healthcare, not as many dystopian novels do. But Unwind, by Neal Schusterman, is an exception.

One question scholars ask of YA dystopian novels—a particularly relevant question when considering abortion—is whether the text espouses radical political change or masks an inner conservatism (Basu, et al.). Schusterman’s Unwind, published in 2007, is set in a futuristic world where the United States has fought a Second Civil War: this time about abortion. After years of deadly conflict, a treaty was signed that satisfied both Pro Life and Pro-Choice armies. The premise of this treaty—as well as other moments of didacticism—seems to reveal the “inner conservatism” of the text. (A note on the language: while I prefer to use the term “anti-choice,” Schusterman uses “pro life”; thus, throughout this essay, I will use the linguistic terminology set forth by the author to avoid any confusion.)

The treaty, called The Bill of Life, is a set of constitutional amendments, and it “states that human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen. However, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, a parent may choose to retroactively ‘abort’ a child . . . on the condition that the child’s life doesn’t technically end. The process by which a child is both terminated and yet kept alive is called ‘unwinding.’” Schusterman’s authorial conservatism is hardly masked. (How the human Neal Schusterman actually thinks is unknown—though I did search his Twitter for any hints—and irrelevant. The authorial Schusterman is almost certainly on one side of the issue, or at least presents the “pro-life” side as being morally superior.) The basic tenet of the modern “pro-life” movement is appeased: life begins at conception, end stop. However, the notion that the “pro choice” side agreed to “retroactive abortions” as their end of the compromise by accepting the mental gymnastics that one’s soul remains in one’s donated organs belies any realistic ethical considerations of the actual debate. Disassembling your teenager for parts is murder, a word the anti-abortion activists like to bandy about regarding the issue. In an attempt for drama, Schusterman muddles the stakes entirely.

Unwind follows the story of three teenagers, Connor, Risa, and Lev, whose irreversible Unwind orders have been signed for one reason or another. Their paths cross as they attempt to evade this death sentence and survive until they turn eighteen. As a teen runaway story, it’s rather exciting, involving an underground railroad system to help Unwinds survive. As they navigate this system, Connor, Risa, and Lev separate and reconnect. However, built within the narration and exposition are more moments that reveal Schusterman’s conservative authorial stance on the matter. For instance, Connor, a troublemaker being unwound by his parents, accidentally finds his orders, and takes it upon himself to “make them suffer. Let them know for the rest of their lives what a horrible mistake they made” by behaving, getting good grades, and otherwise acting like the model son they gave up on. Sure, it might be human nature to “prove your would-be murderers wrong,” but the “horrible mistake” narrative is frequently part of the anti-abortion rhetoric, despite overwhelming statistics that most people who choose to have an abortion don’t feel this way. Risa is being unwound by the authorities of her State foster home, which have inevitably become overcrowded because they are one of the few options for anyone forced to give birth after an unwanted pregnancy. In the scene where she learns of her orders—which come about because her artistic talents are not enough to save her—she asks the committee “don’t I have a choice in this?” This echoes another rallying cry of the anti-abortion advocates—doesn’t the fetus have a choice?—though usually this language is presented alongside an image of a cherubic infant. By pointing out situations when an “abortion” would obviously be unethical, Schusterman seems to play the pro-life game, but by co-opting the phrases of the anti-choicer, he criticizes the “compromise” as well. Murder is wrong, he affirms, when it kills an actual person with experience and agency. If this part of the compromise is what the pro-choice army “got” in exchange for the elimination of in utero abortions, isn’t he by design criticizing their larger stance?

Although the story is mostly narrated by the trio of aforementioned teens, occasionally Schusterman breaks from that mold to interject with a one-off narrator. The ninth chapter is narrated by “Mother,” a nineteen-year-old woman with a days-old newborn. Though Schusterman grants a moment of empathy, noting that the delivery was “traumatic” as this young mother makes her way down “back alleys” to “Stork” her baby—legalese from the Treaty of Life which allows secretly leaving it with a family who is then legally bound to adopt it—he ultimately chastises her, writing, “As she hurries down the street, she thinks how wonderful it is that she can get a second chance. How wonderful it is that she can dismiss her responsibility so easily.” In the political landscape of Schusterman’s novel, “dismiss her responsibility” falsely equates several issues. First, he’s giving the same emotional weight to “getting rid of” a human infant to “getting rid of” developing fetal cells—which upholds a pro-life notion that the two are the same. Yet Storking is basically forced adoption minus legal contracts (or consent). Again, this moment seems to buttress an authorial conservatism: modern pro-life arguments tend to include a “just give it up for adoption!” stance as the alternative to “murder,” seeming to ignore the myriad emotional and legal complexities of that decision.

In a twist of events that only happens in fiction, Connor and Risa temporarily end up with this infant. The drama of their potential capture is heightened in these scenes, resulting in their being hidden away in a basement by a kind anti-Unwind activist. Interestingly, this woman tells Risa that she could avoid being unwound for nine months by getting pregnant, which unquestioningly favors the life of a baby over the life of a mother in this post Heartland War narrative world. Connor and Risa eventually turn the infant over to a married teacher who wants her. After she hands over the baby, having cared for her for about a week, Risa closes her eyes. It makes her furious that she actually misses the baby. It was thrust upon her at the worst possible moment in her life—why should she have any regret about being rid of it? she thinks about the days before the Heartland War, when unwanted babies could just be unwanted pregnancies, quickly made to go away. Did the women who made that other choice feel the way she felt now? Relieved and freed from an unwelcome and often unfair responsibility . . . yet vaguely regretful?

At least Schusterman acknowledges the gendered unfairness of pregnancy, but he again emphasizes regret, which is not a common response in research about abortion. Here, again, Schusterman is attempting to make this a gray area, yet he implicitly places his characters in a conservative landscape. Additionally, his “quickly made to go away” language is a vast misunderstanding of the obstacles facing those seeking abortions, even in 2007 before the flurry of legislation and TRAP laws put in place by conservatives, like waiting periods, required ultrasounds, or even minimum doorway widths at a clinic—an arbitrary building regulation that made keeping an abortion clinic open more difficult.

Immediately following that scene, Risa reflects on conversations she had with nurses in the State Home about this general issue and wonders which is worse: “to have tens of thousands of babies that no one wanted, or to silently make them go away before they were even born? On different days Risa had different answers.” Here, Schusterman allows for a grayer area than before, yet of course continues to conflate living, breathing babies with an embryo.

Connor and Risa successfully move through the underground railroad and land up in The Graveyard, a decommissioned military base used as a hideaway for runaway Unwinds until they turn eighteen. To get there from one of several safe houses, the teens are transported like cargo on planes. During this cramped flight, Connor and his crate-mates engage in a philosophical debate about the nature of the soul. Hayden, a kid whose divorced parents put in his orders rather than losing custody to their ex, asks the other boys if they would rather die or be unwound. Emby, a boy with severe health issues whose guardian unwound him for financial reasons, says, “I don’t think unwinding is bad. I just don’t want it to happen to me.” This sparks a lively debate about the value of human life. Emby declares that the unborn have souls “from the moment they get made—the law says,” and Connor retorts, “Just because the law says it, that doesn’t make it true,” but Emby points out that the law doesn’t mean it’s false, either. The argument continues; Emby decides that once a baby sucks his thumb or kicks in utero, they’ve got a soul, and Connor posits that it’s only once a baby is outside of the mother that it has one. Diego thinks the existence of the soul depends on whether a baby is loved. Hayden, though, admits he doesn’t know the answer, which “was perhaps the first truly honest thing Connor had ever heard him say . . . ‘Maybe it’s the best answer of all. If more people could admit they really don’t know, maybe there never would have been a Heartland War.’” The boys spend the rest of the flight in thoughtful silence.

This is one of those clearly didactic moments found so often in YA dystopian texts (Basu, et al.). Although it is an interesting philosophical debate, the basis of the arguments, even Hayden’s willingness to admit he isn’t sure, undermines the political and legislative debates of the contemporary pro-choice movement in favor of the anti-abortion one. The question of when an embryo/baby obtains a soul is a religious query, and therefore should be separate from policies enacted by the a non-theocratic state. Connor’s “outside the mother” stance is also generally irrelevant, as even the fiercest pro-abortion argument obviously doesn’t support infanticide, despite what the propaganda on the other side claims.

By the end of the novel, the main antagonist, Roland, gets unwound; the doctors are required by law to keep the teen conscious during the entire process, so he gets a chapter of narration. It is unsurprisingly horrifying to read alongside Roland losing his organs and finally brain, with ellipsis standing in as his final thought. Since Schusterman, through the premise of the Bill of Life, equates this fictional procedure with medical abortion (specifically, in all likelihood, dilation and curettage), the authorial stance on the issue is cemented.

A final question to ask of YA dystopian texts is one that Schusterman does take in stride: what is the balance of pleasure and didacticism (Basu, et al.). The suspense surrounding Connor and Risa’s evasion of authorities; Lev’s developing anger at his situation which causes him to align himself with the Clappers, a terrorist organization; and a subplot regarding the power dynamics at The Graveyard all make for a pretty exciting teen drama. Add in the will-they-won’t-they romantic trope between Connor and Risa, and Schusterman has set himself up not only for a fun dystopian read, but a four-part series, complete with companion novels. Although Ned Vizzini of The New York Times claims that the novel doesn’t come down on one side, a deeper analysis reveals that while the ethical stance of the authorial positioning is at times somewhat gray, it more often seems to align itself with a conservative stance, even if it is one rife with logical fallacies. Teens have so little control over legislation, politics, and their changing hormonal bodies that loss of reproductive agency is an especially terrifying addition to the their list of worries, as Chelsea Philpot notes in her article, “The New Handmaids.” Schusterman’s novels were published when Roe, while contested, was at least the bare-bones minimum legal standing. What will become of the fictional landscape for young adult dystopias as we begin to live in one? In the next few years, we can hope YA fiction will confront our current situation with more vigor and intellectual honesty than Schusterman’s book does. We will need these stories.

Hilary Brewster is an Associate Professor of English and the Director of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Marshall University. Previous publications are with Palgrave Macmillan, Sense, Two Cities Review, Cargo Literary Magazine, Bookbird, and the 2022 Anthology of Appalachian Writers. Forthcoming publications include an article in The Journal of American Popular Culture.

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