Memoir & Motherhood

In 2014’s Wild, Reese Witherspoon portrays Cheryl Strayed in the film adaptation of her award-winning memoir. (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

>>> CW: This post includes discussion of abortion. <<<


Listen to Mary Thompson’s segment on this week’s show, beginning at 28:00.

This week on our show, Mary Thompson, a professor of literature and women’s studies at James Madison University, dived into some of the ways memoir is used to explore the tricky subject of abortion.

In the early 20th century, representations of abortion in fiction abounded. One-act plays, silent films, and short stories written by men and women alike tackled the subject, but portrayals were neither positive nor realistic. Abortions were frequently lethal affairs in these stories, and the doctors and women involved often portrayed as “malevolent caricatures,” according to Karen Weingarten’s review of the literature of the period (link).

Weingarten also cites another example, the 1923 novel Janet March, that seems almost self-aware about this bias:

The wealthy and forward-thinking Janet has an abortion after a quick love affair that led to her first sexual experience. Conflicted about her decision to have an abortion, she longs for her experience to be represented within the novels she reads. She thinks, “why weren’t there things like [abortions] in novels — oh yes, there were dreadful things enough in novels, but they only happened to poor girls — ignorant and reckless girls–.” For Janet, finding her experience represented within the pages of novels would have legitimized her decision. Instead, she realizes that several of her friends are likely to have had abortions but refused to discuss their circumstances.

Today, Mary Thompson would have a lot to say to Janet March.

Thompson’s work explores the representation of motherhood and abortion in several sub-genres of memoir. In one, the mother/daughter memoir, authors explore the topic by reflecting on their mother’s decision to have a child.

The perspective, Thompson says, is a refreshing alternative to a dominant narrative that assumes having children as part of a fulfilled life.

“Often when we think about the issue of abortion, it’s always about the child that might have been,” says Thompson on this week’s show. “And we don’t often think about when women — happily, joyfully — have children. We lose the woman who might have been. Not to condemn motherhood choices and decisions, but to simply just recognize that another path was lost.”


Listen to Thompson describe the mother/daughter memoir. (34:00)


Digging deeper, Thompson discovered another subgenre, the “mommy memoir”, which evolved from the motherhood blogs of the past two decades. The open and confessional tone of personal blogs encouraged many writers to share their experiences with abortion that would otherwise have been stigmatized.

Thompson says this kind of literature, charting a path between abortion and motherhood, can reveal how the two experiences are not in opposition with each other.

“Women take the decision about unplanned pregnancies very seriously,” she says. “They [are] really thinking about where they wanted to be in their lives when they became mothers. So they [are] thinking like mothers already.”


Listen to Thompson on her experience working in women’s clinics. (39:00)


Looking for some clear answers to the questions you might have on abortion and women’s health? Gimlet podcast Science VS produced an excellent episode looking at the facts and fiction around abortion. Listen here.

Curious about some of the books Thompson mentioned in her interview this week? You can find buying links for all of them below — but don’t forget to check your local library!