Irene Vilar, a mother at last after 15 abortions

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 30, 2009

The two little impossibilities want Mami's attention.

Loretta, a self-assured and quietly focused 5-year-old, hides squiggly line drawings under the furniture at a relative's home in Alexandria. Lolita, a high-spirited 3-year-old, sways to Beethoven's "Für Elise."

Mami scoops up both daughters. They tumble into the soft embrace of the couch, all squeals and nuzzles and squirmy delight. The girls start wriggling loose, and Mami pulls them back. One more hug. For an instant, it's as if releasing them would somehow make them disappear, would confirm their utter impossibility.

That Irene Vilar embraces the role of motherhood is a grand incongruity, a mind-blower. She has just published a precariously nuanced, intellectually ambitious and unnervingly frank memoir titled "Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict." In the book, Vilar writes about a "shameful" period in her life -- before she became a mother -- when she says she underwent 15 abortions in 15 years. What she now sees as her "nightmare" began with a teenage affair with a Syracuse University professor who was 34 years her senior.

The almost unimaginable claim -- vetted by her publisher's attorneys, who say they have been able to confirm all but two procedures done in now-defunct clinics -- places Vilar at the outer extreme of the phenomenon of multiple abortions. It has also made her a sudden target of blogospheric vitriol and disapproval.

Yet, in Vilar's deft hands, her story of serial abortions mostly bypasses the volatile abortion rights standoff, instead plumbing her "self-mutilation," her "pregnancy fantasies" and multiple suicide attempts, her conflicts over submission and control, and, ultimately, her healing. She wants to steer readers to a subtler point: that abortion was, for her, an addiction, a warped and tragic vehicle to assert control over her life.

Years ago, she wrote that an 11-year period in which she had 12 abortions was "the happiest" time of her life. Looking back, she diagnoses the person she was as "a deluded creature in suspended animation."

Now she can impose a sort of logic on what happened. "When one is looking for a strategy of survival one uses what makes sense, with whatever limited tools one has, in a sick way," she says in an e-mail one evening after returning to her home in Colorado. "Abortion happens to be the target of my addiction, or to be more precise the target of my pathological adolescent rebellious strategy."

Vilar's sense of herself was once as conflicted as her native Puerto Rico's search for its place in the world, a quest intertwined with her family history. Lolita Lebron, who will turn 90 next month, is not only Vilar's larger-than-life grandmother but also an icon of nationalist pride in Puerto Rico. In an act that would be hard for any grandchild to reconcile, Lebron and two colleagues shot and wounded five congressmen during a quixotic attack inside the U.S. House chamber in 1954.

Lebron is wont to call the people of Puerto Rico her "children and grandchildren," but she can be a distant, estranged figure in her own family. She left Vilar's mother, only a child at the time, with relatives to pursue revolutionary dreams in the United States and seldom speaks with her granddaughter.

Like Lebron, a jarringly beautiful puertorriqueña with fiery eyes, Vilar turns heads wherever she goes. But when she settles into conversation, she beguiles with a blushing vulnerability. At lunch in downtown Washington one afternoon, the busboys halt and fumble when Vilar -- a willowy 40-year-old with dark brown eyes and a musical Puerto Rican accent -- slinks past. A sliver of midriff peeks above the waistline of a pair of snug slacks. She smiles coyly.

Between sips of a Montepulciano, Vilar says she knows that as she arrives in any town -- she visited Washington on her decidedly low-key book tour -- she is "fated to be misunderstood." Her book, she says, is an exercise in "self-accountability," a chronicle of what she calls a "shameful" period of "recklessness and stupidity" when she "abused her rights."

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