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."
"The ultimate goal," she says, "was to write a testimonial that was empowering to young women, by giving them a model for thinking about their actions and their unconscious actions." She talks softly in long, complex observations. One moment she is the self-assured intellectual, confident and matter-of-fact; the next, she is shy and blushing, lowering her eyes and searching for the right words.
Her book is less ideological than personal, and so original that she thinks her story might actually engage the two sides of the abortion debate that rarely agree on anything. "It could be a pro-choice extreme," she says. "It could be an argument for abortion foes."Teacher's pet
Vilar was 8 when she saw her mother, Gladys Mendez, die. They were coming home from a wedding when Mendez -- who, according to Vilar, was sexually abused as an adolescent -- went flying out of the door of their moving car. Police said it was an accident; Vilar says it was suicide, a claim that has caused a rift with her deeply religious grandmother, Lebron.
Vilar left the island at 15, a precocious overachiever, to attend Syracuse University. It was there that she met a Latin American literature professor, a man she would come to call her "master."
She was 16 and he was 50, Vilar writes, when she unbuttoned her blouse to reveal her cleavage before visiting him in his office.
"You are a seducer," Vilar remembers him saying. And he was right, but it would take him a while to know for sure.
A friend, she writes, warned her about the professor's reputation for womanizing, but "the more of a wolf he became, the more I wished I could be a lamb." A year and a half later -- in the fall of 1987, and a few months after she turned 18 -- they had sex for the first time, she says.
"I recruited him," Vilar says, when elaborating recently on her book. "I staged a drama and I chose him." And it was all technically acceptable in that era's university environment. A Syracuse spokeswoman says there was no "formal policy" regarding consensual student-teacher relationships until 1993.
Vilar decided not to reveal the professor's identity -- it's a memoir, she insists, not an indictment. But she does sprinkle the narrative with more than enough clues that it is easy to identify him as Pedro Cuperman, a longtime professor who still teaches at Syracuse. Cuperman, who married Vilar when she was 21 (they divorced in 1998), did not respond to a written interview request and hung up when contacted by phone.
Cuperman, a popular and well-known figure in the Syracuse arts community, runs a small gallery called Point of Contact that hosts well-attended book readings and art shows. Tula Goenka, a friend of Cuperman's and fellow Syracuse professor, calls him "extremely charming." She describes him as a "gentle soul," steeped in the ways of India's holy city Varanasi, where he once spent time. Now, Cuperman hangs out at a Starbucks across from campus, Goenka says, and always greets her by saying "namaste."
Cuperman appears "romantically wounded," Goenka says. She knows little about his relationship with Vilar, but says professors and students fall for each other at Syracuse "like at every university."
"The power dynamic of it is very skewed," she says. "I always think male teachers tend to get away with it more" than female teachers.
Robin Morgan, a feminist author who wrote the foreword to Vilar's book, says "consensuality is impossible in that situation because of the power imbalance."
Vilar draws a portrait of Cuperman as a handsome, manipulative, intellectually uncompromising, relentlessly controlling figure, who told her he preferred young women because they are "unformed" and "unwounded," as she recalls. He had already been divorced four times, and told Vilar that all "his love stories" -- his romantic relationships with women -- had been killed by his wives' and lovers' desire for children, according to her memoir. She is a vulnerable young woman, but she wants him to think of her as someone sturdy, someone of substance. She dreads being labeled a coward, and somehow he persuades her, by her account, that becoming a mother would be a cowardly act that would compromise her artistic bona fides.
In the memoir, the professor/paramour calls Vilar his "alma gemela," his soul mate, but he insists, "if you are with me, you have to endure the burden of freedom, and that requires, in part, remaining childless." Vilar is constantly afraid of losing him, entranced by "his freedom, intellect and guts," and immersed in his world of famed authors and artists.The leap into abortion
Not long after their first sexual encounter, Vilar becomes pregnant and schedules her first abortion. Over the next 15 years, she seesaws between taking birth-control pills and "forgetting" to take them. She returns time and again to abortion clinics despite the pleadings of doctors and friends. In a convoluted way, she feels a sense of control because she can start a pregnancy and she can end it.
She spends time briefly in a mental institution, and in one particularly furtive phase from January to August 1995, she has an affair, three car accidents, two boat collisions, two abortions and a suicide attempt.
During a trip to Puerto Rico, she has a moment of clarity, concluding that she is addicted to the cycle of pregnancy and abortion in the same way that two of her brothers are addicted to heroin and her mother was addicted to Valium. Sometimes she feels a "high" before becoming pregnant, "waiting for a missed period, my body basking in the promise of being in control." Sometimes the high comes during pregnancy -- she often would place baby clothes on layaway -- and other times when she leaves the abortion clinic, "feeling that once again, I had succeeded in a narrow escape."
Eventually, it is Cuperman -- her master -- whom she wants to escape. She makes him variously aware of her pregnancies and that she's ending them, but it's a topic they avoid. During particularly awful stretches of their 11 years together, she twice has an affair with another Syracuse professor whom she refers to by a pseudonym in her memoir. She describes a sexually rambunctious campus; the professor with whom she cheats is also involved with a graduate student.
In 1994, during their annual summer retreat on his boat, she notices Cuperman "becoming frail" at age 60 -- and their relationship was, too. Her intellect becomes her way out.
She begins to assert her own voice, selling a book about her family, "A Message From God in the Atomic Age" -- later reissued as "The Ladies Gallery: A Memoir of Family Secrets." She senses Cuperman, who edits a literary journal but who she says has struggled for years with his own novel, is jealous.
Her life, she writes, is a "pathetic drama." But the day is coming when her master can no longer control her.The tug of motherhood
A sense of finality comes to her when she is alone.
"I sat on the toilet, pregnant for the twelfth time and fallen out love," she writes.
By 1998, the marriage is over. Her next relationship is with a man she meets in the frozen-food section of a grocery store. She becomes pregnant three times before leaving him, and has abortions 13, 14 and 15.
Her addiction is at its most twisted and perverse: The man actually wants a child; he calls her "selfish and insensitive." She has "maternal desires," but she can't break out of the pathological quest for a high that comes with starting and ending pregnancies.
Finally, in 2003, Vilar begins to bring order to her life. She meets another writer at a conference in Vermont. Within months, they marry and settle in Colorado. He is a father of two, and he wants more children. Amazingly, despite the abuse Vilar says she has inflicted on her body, an exam shows that her cervix is healthy. She can conceive, and for the first time, she sees the pregnancy through. Loretta arrives six weeks early. Vilar writes that, to comprehend it all, she had to sit and rock the infant "until I understood she was born."
Her husband Dan -- he asked that his last name not be used because of concerns for their safety following publication of the controversial book -- was her sounding board as she polished her manuscript on a laptop, sitting cross-legged on the floor of a walk-in closet.
Vilar says she was rejected by 51 publishers over a 1 1/2 -year period before her manuscript was accepted by Judith Gurewich of Other Press, a small house in New York that has scored successes with the memoir "Hurry Down Sunshine" and the novel "Meritocracy: A Love Story." Gurewich, a trained psychoanalyst, says she was drawn to the manuscript by Vilar's courage and decided to publish it, even though she doubts it will be a big seller.
Vilar says she is donating one-fourth of her royalties to Sisterhood Is Global Institute, an international women's rights organization that counts Jane Fonda among its board members.
Vilar's husband says he's read some, but not all, of her book. "I wonder, if in part, I feel I can support her better in her new life if I don't get too mired in the details of her old one," he says via e-mail, in the first public comments he's made on his wife's story.Attacks in the blogs
Lately, he has tried to shield her from "violent, hateful and utterly un-Christian comments" on blogs, he says. On the Internet, she has been called a "monster," "scuzzy," a "skank." A poster at USbacklash.org wrote that she is "one of the sickest people who ever lived, including Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, or any other murderer I can think of! Too bad one of her suicide attempts didn't take. . . . We hope she keeps trying!"
At the same time, Vilar has not necessarily been heartily embraced by the abortion rights movement. "I can understand the nervousness of some feminists because they think it will be used against the pro-choice movement," says Morgan, the feminist author, who calls the book a "crucial" work for vulnerable young women.
Vilar will return to Colorado warily. She has removed her name from as many public records as possible, saying she is "worried about the kind of people who killed the doctor a few months ago," a reference to the May slaying of George Tiller, who performed abortions in Kansas. "You know -- the people who would call me a 'baby killer.' "
In her bathroom, Vilar keeps childhood photos of Loretta alongside ultrasound pictures of her 18 weeks before she was born. "The ultrasound images show clearly a miniature head tilted back, an arm raised up, with the hand pointing back toward the face," Vilar writes. "It would have been possible and permissible to end her life at this point."
As reflective as she is, Vilar says she doesn't dwell on what might have become of the fetuses she aborted or the lives each could have led. Only twice, she says, did the little possibilities inside her seem more tangible to her; those abortions took place 16 and 17 weeks after conception. "With one, I felt movement" inside her, she says matter-of-factly. "With the other, I almost died."
Indeed, Vilar says if abortion were illegal, she would probably be dead now, because she would have resorted to unsafe, unsanctioned abortionists or perished after a self-induced puncture. (Did she consider finding adoptive parents as a way out? "Many times," she says.)
She's unabashedly supportive of abortion rights, but says her addiction to the cycle of pregnancy and abortion meant that she wasn't really choosing to end her pregnancies. "In a pathology, you don't have choice," she says. "I come from a culture that cultivates mixed messages," she says, quiet for a moment on the couch in Alexandria. Then she softly starts to sing.
"Te amo muchisimo/Por tu bien te digo, 'Adiós.' " -- I love you very much. For your own good, I say goodbye.
"You see?" she says. "Mixed messages, even in our songs."
She says children are the great joys of her life now. She bought supplies for two full Montessori classrooms, and used them to convert a large portion of their house into learning spaces to home-school her daughters. "I just so much enjoy being with them," she says. "Very shortly, they'll be grown up."
Vilar says she is working on a book about motherhood, and she would like to have one more child. She feels the tug.