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Nightmare addiction: abortion

MATERNAL INSTINCT: Irene Vilar, with her daughters in their Denver home, wrote about her history of abortions to give young women
MATERNAL INSTINCT: Irene Vilar, with her daughters in their Denver home, wrote about her history of abortions to give young women "a model for thinking about their actions and their unconscious actions." (Barry Gutierrez For The Washington Post)

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Irene Vilar
Mother, Author
Friday, October 30, 2009; 2:00 PM

Irene Vilar, the subject of Washington Post staff writer Manuel Roig-Franzia's article titled 'An addiction that only motherhood could cure', was online Friday, Oct. 30, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss her story.

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Irene Vilar Web Site

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Irene Vilar: Hi. Irene Vilar here to discuss my story.Thank you for participating in this discussion.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi.

First I'd like to tell you that I admire your courage to even begin to speak about this. I do have a basic question -- isn't the procedure painful enough (either during or after) that it would make you not want to go through it? Or did it not make much difference?

Thank you!

Irene Vilar: Yes, the procedure is painful, but let's remember that we are talking here about a pathology, a neurosis, It was not a rational behavior, of course, when one is looking for a strategy of survival with very limited tools one uses what makes sense in a sick way. I wanted control over my body and the way I chose to have control could not have been more terrible. Getting pregnant brought a strange feeling: I could bring it on with nobody's permission and I could interrupt it with nobody's permission. Of course this did not mean that I wanted to do it again and again -- a druggie also wants to stop every time. I was a creature in suspended animation addicted to the high of agency in pregnancy and the shame of the down side, the inevitable termination built into the cycle in order to not lose my husband and also in order to be close to my mother, by identifying with the subjugated, powerless version of her. To truly understand fully how someone would go through such pain time after time one must read the story and also understand the self- mutilating and self defeating aspect of most addictions.

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Frederick, Md.: Seems to me that the men who impregnated her were just as deluded as she. Were they unaware of condoms, completely against them and willing to take chances on making or aborting babies?

She's simply an easier target than they appear to be at first blush.

Irene Vilar: All but three of the abortions occurred with my husband (12)-the last three with one partner after my divorce. My husband believed it was my responsibility to care fully for my fertility. He was opposed to using condoms. The second man wanted the children. It was my doing that I continued in a the cycle of habituation to the impossible motherhood I was pathologically fashioning.

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Pennsylvania: Hello Irene, my heart goes out to you, for the courage you possess that has allowed you to write what you have done and expose yourself--psychologically, spiritually, physically -- in such a difficult way. I just finished the article, and have been blown away. I had one abortion 17 years ago (I was 30), and just on this basis know the strength that is inside you to write this book. I look forward to reading it.

Irene Vilar: Your words are so full of compassion and empathy and tolerance... Thank you.

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Washington, D.C.: Interesting article and I am glad that you are well now and enjoying being a mother. I did not understand one thing from the article -- it mentioned that your cervix was healthy so you could have children. I wouldn't think your cervix would be as much of an issue as your uterus. Why the focus on the cervix?

washingtonpost.com: 'An addiction that only motherhood could cure' (Post, Oct. 30)

Irene Vilar: healthy meaning absence of scar tissue from all the procedures

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washingtonpost.com: Irene Vilar Web Site

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I don't know if you know the answer to this, yet is there a root cause of this pathology? What is the thought process or explanation for this pathological behavior?

Irene Vilar: Great question. This is what the book is about. In a nutshell:

I am a Puerto Rican brought up by a depressed mother whose own mother chose political struggle over mothering her. I am too the daughter of a woman who was sterilized despite herself as part of an American led experiment (developing as a result a valium addiction), who was betrayed by her husband and who had little opportunity to have access to education and who eventually committed suicide. When I graduated from high school at the age of fifteen I had one desire, to escape to America and be free to do exactly what I wanted. This meant for me that as a fifteen-year old freshman in college I did not have to submit to any rule or law when it came to my sexuality. I wanted control over my body and the way I chose to have control could not have been more terrible. I fell in love with my literature professor. He was a philosopher and self proclaimed feminist who wanted no children and thought that women should be sterile if they wanted a career and a true life of freedom. Call it an act of adolescent rebellion, the "reckless" desire to be fully a woman for a couple of days, whatever, but I "unconsciously" and systematically forgot to take my birth control pills and defied him. Thinking back through our mothers, as Virginia Wolff said, I know today that with each pregnancy I defied him as much as I defied the politics of sterilization that took my mother away from me. It was not a rational behavior, of course, when one is looking for a strategy of survival with very limited tools one uses what makes sense in a sick way. I wanted control over my body and the way I chose to have control could not have been more terrible. Getting pregnant brought a strange feeling: I could bring it on with nobody's permission and I could interrupt it with nobody's permission. Of course this did not mean that I wanted to do it again and again -- a druggie also wants to stop every time. I was a creature in suspended animation addicted to the high of agency in pregnancy and the shame of the down side, the inevitable termination built into the cycle in order to not lose him and also in order to be close to my mother, by identifying with the subjugated, powerless version of her. My blinding desire for control was at the core of my neurosis, very much like an anorexic.

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Richmond, Va.: How long did it take you to get from so (forgive me if I use the wrong word) sick, to so insightful now. You seem quite articulate in understanding yourself, how did you get here so quickly?

Irene Vilar: Psychotherapy, intense, three times per week for over two years, and writing this book, of course, throughout the process. Also, my husband who I married seven years ago, the father of our children, a most compassionate and tolerant man, non judgmental, the best of America is in him, a man who saw what I could become if I was given the chance...

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Columbus, Ohio: I'm sure you did the emotional math before deciding to publish, but how do you feel about the risk sharing your history -- sure to be a political lightening rod for some -- presents to your family and children? They will be exposed, if not now then later, to so much ugliness directed towards their mom.

I'm asking not so much because I think you should not have, but because as a parent, I often wonder about what risks remain ours to take. How did you decide?

Irene Vilar: Very important question. Yes, I gave much thought to my decision and I opted for publication because ultimately, this testimony is about healing and spiritual metamorphosis and that in overcoming a wounding neurosis one mends a torn self. As for family and children: I learned from my parents the grammar of mixed message, that feeding and caring and nurturing can go hand in hand with neglect and violence, that outpouring daily gestures of love can coexist with crushing depressive states, suicide attempts, addiction, abandonment. At the core of my childhood was parental love and lack of protection. Today, as a mother who has spent most of the last ten years trying to investigate my actions, I read books on psychology and infant development, searching for all the ways I can protect my girls from everything, including me. I'm haunted by visions of them at fifteen, alone in a foreign city feeling inadequate, unloved, staring at shop windows while sophisticated looking women pass by. I don't want my daughters to live the anguish of feeling trapped in the wrong body. I don't want them to ever succumb to the dismembered life of a false self. I don't want them ever to lie on a stretcher at an abortion clinic. Their fate depends, to a great deal, on me. Writing this story down, in part, is my own fantasy of shielding them from my history and offering the most authentic window into their mother heart. I hope that I'll be able to raise compassionate, loving children that will grow up into adults able to see in my testimony the redemptive power of self-examination and honesty.

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Fairfax, Va.: Did religion ever enter into the equation?

Irene Vilar: into what equation? please clarify, thanks!

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Atlanta, Ga.: Have there been any other documented cases of "abortion addiction"? Are there support groups? How did you beat your addiction exactly?

Irene Vilar: None that I have come across-I chose the sub title of abortion addiction because it felt a very authentic way of owning the story, of facing the most horrifying dimension of my testimony, and of taking on in a radical way my suspect morality. In a way perhaps the title reflects too my self punishing tendency going a bit too far in my wish to make amends..... Some unconscious guilt perhaps, as I look back, took over the reality of the most real situation of my pathology which was that I was addicted to a drama of pregnancy and abortion, pregnancy being the high, abortion the down side....How did I overcome? Therapy, therapy, and more therapy and writing this testimony down...

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I don't know how to say this without being rude . . . : But are you really stable enough to be a mom? I can see going through the abortion process maybe once or twice, but the utter self-absorption involved in doing it 15 times makes me wonder how you are going to handle motherhood.

And yes, I know you have a pathology, but a frequent co-occurring symptom of that is a complete inability to see the world through a lens of anything other than your own needs.

Irene Vilar: Thank you for opening your question so tactfully...I understand your question. It is a valid question. Do you think people that overcome neurotic ailments, an alcoholic, an anorexic, a depressed personality, cannot mother?

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Fairfax, Va.: Did you have any religious beliefs about whether abortion was wrong or right? Did a faith of any kind help you through this behavior or nag at you to not repeat it?

Irene Vilar: Good question. I grew up in a non-fundamentalist religious family, my grandfather was an Episcopalian priest and my two uncles (my father's two brothers) are also Episcopalian priests and so is my brother. We went to church every Sunday and heard my uncles preach a version of liberation theology that called for a militant commitment to extend our hand to the powerless and to cultivate compassion and tolerance over our own judgments. This religion, deeply moral and yet so open to other moral systems I consider to be the best in me and what ultimately helped me to commit to healing and break the cycle of self destruction. I always felt--when I was not so alienated that I did not allow myself to "see" or feel--that what I was doing was wrong, morally, ethically, existentially.

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Pennsylvania: Curious, being Catholic (yes? I think I read this in your article...) did you ever talk or confess to a priest about the abortions? If so, did doing so help in any way?

Irene Vilar: I committed to self-examination in therapy

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi, Irene. I just finished reading the Washington Post article about your terrible ordeal. I'm very sorry you went through such pain. It's beautiful to see you happy now and having control over the addiction. I wish you the best. Thank you very much for your courage. I admire you very, very much! Cheryl

Irene Vilar: God bless your compassion and gift to see in human frailty and pain lessons to be learned

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Arlington, Va.: Thank you so much for writing of your struggle. I look forward to your book. By having the courage to write this book, you might well help some other young woman.

As for being a mom, I think your little girls are very lucky to have you as their mother, because you will understand any pain/difficulty they might encounter so much more because you went through so much anguish yourself.

Take care!

Irene Vilar: Thank you for such validation...

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Maryland: Have you had a lot of other surgeries? Is your health good otherwise?

Sometimes I wonder if doctor-going and elective surgeries stand in for a need for someone to care for a person.

Irene Vilar: Yes, my health is good otherwise!

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Annapolis, Md.: Do you fear for your safety?

Irene Vilar: at times

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D.C. area: So do you consider yourself to be the mother of 17 children, only two of whom are alive?

Irene Vilar: No

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Arlington, Va.: So your husband stayed by you through 12 abortions? Did he not care about your psychological condition? Why did he continue to practice unprotected sex and thereby repeatedly put you through this time and again?

Irene Vilar: This is indeed HIS story and in my story I try hard to steer away from going into his subjectivity in order to force myself into greater self accountability, which was my main job in this exercise of self examination...But is obvious when you read the testimony that there is, on his part, insensitivity and a blinding narcissism.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I think your book will be of therapeutic value to more women than some of your readers here realize. I have two friends who had multiple abortions (some from affairs, and bad marriages). One to the point that she could not have children when she finally became happily married and wanted children. The audience is there -- they mostly suffer in guilt and silence.

Irene Vilar: I totally agree. Thank you for sharing. I don't think it is possible to identify with an extreme pathological case such as mine. But I broke the cycle and this I think is a sign of hope for people with neurosis of many sorts. Also, there are many women who have multiple abortions because they "forget" to take the pill or are simply "reckless" with their birth control. Personally I think some of them will acknowledge that they are not alone at forgetting to take the pill over and over again. I am a caricature of this situation. But so many women these days get pregnant because they forget their pill. Why? We know the consequences. We put it next to our toothbrush. We don't forget to brush our teeth. There is something unconscious in some women were they resist having their fertility taken away from them. They need the fantasy of potential motherhood. It makes them feel complete and excited but of course it is a fantasy not a reality. It is not a rational behavior, but I think I put my finger on something in this book. While I think my situation is extreme and my account a terrible story, I hope it will inspire these women to think about why they forget to take their contraceptives and realize that the fantasy of getting pregnant and the reassurance that one is fertile is not the same as having a baby.

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D.C. area: You say, "I always felt...that what I was doing was wrong, morally, ethically, existentially." In the article, it says you are pro-choice. How do you reconcile those positions?

Irene Vilar: I am referring to the self-destructive actions and the consequences, a major one being the abuse of my reproductive rights and my numbness to the reality of a fetus and the impossible motherhood I was fashioning in my pathology. People will politicize this story, no doubt. Some will see it as a pro-choice extreme. In fact it has nothing to do with pro choice. When one is looking for a strategy of survival one uses what makes sense in a sick way. Abortion happened to be the effect of my neurotic behavior. It was not what led me to do it.

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Washington, D.C.: First off, I think it takes a lot of guts to tell your story. But I have to wonder, what were the health-care providers/doctors opinions of your multiple abortions? Were they ever concerned? Did they ever try and offer you a different option of birth control or possible sterilization?

Irene Vilar: I often lied to the providers about the number of abortions and yes, they were concerned and always provided me with choice for counseling before the termination, literature and videos on the subject, which I always declined.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Irene,

I think I understand. I see parallels between bulimia/anorexia and the abortions -- both types of behavior are coping strategies to deal with being able to be in control of something (your body) when all else is out of control. I believe you when you write that you didn't enjoy the abortions, just as I didn't enjoy making myself vomit when I was anorexic.

I wish the best for you.

Irene Vilar: Reading your words, your frankness, and your generosity in sharing your story touches me deeply and makes me feel its all worth it, no matter the hatred...

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Follow-up: No, I don't believe that a person who is depressed, neurotic ,etc., is incapable of being a good parent. We all pass on to our children our valleys as well as our peaks.

My question, which I should [have] phrased more tactfully, is how able you are to deal with motherhood? The very question of motherhood seems that it would be absolutely fraught with emotional landmines. I wish you the best of luck -- injuries dealt in childhood, like your abandonment at a very early age, can have the greatest repercussions. I struggle with motherhood and have not gone through a fraction of what you have.

Irene Vilar: Yes, thank you...Well, therapy is a major homework in healing and I committed to this for years-Motherhood has been redemptive, humbling, and a daily source of the best kind of affirmation and self-validation. I read constantly about psychology and child development and also see a therapist once a month as an anchor.

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Arlington, Va.: I look forward to reading your book. Aside from a personal addiction story, I think this is an interesting starting-off point in discussing abortion. It seems that many who are vehemently pro-choice will recoil from your decisions... like maybe one or two abortions is okay but not more than three? I think it will forever remain a murky issue ethically even for those who are firmly in their camp.

Irene Vilar: My goal in writing this book and going public with my testimony was threefold: One was to understand and explain the complexities of my self destructive actions. Two was to find the connecting vessels between my personal pathology-the terrifying ways I related with my reproductive body-and my historical families ( be parents, culture, country). Three was to use my extreme, difficult to identify with addiction to the drama of pregnancy and abortion to open up the field of psychohistory inquiry for women and cultural studies and especially for exploring the possible resistance in some women to have their fecundity controlled, robbed from them so that perhaps some of the repeat abortions frequent mostly on women supposedly on birth control account for a "forgetting", a "recklessness" pointing to pregnancy fantasies--the fantasy of potential motherhood- that are in part a rebellion and a resistance. It is not a rational behavior. Abortion happens to be the target of my neurosis, or to be more precise the target of my pathological adolescent rebellious strategy. It is very tragic that my illness involves a fetus and this presses my condition against the polarized discussion on abortion in this country. But I wrote this book with a specific reader in mind and that is women and cultural studies. I am certain that eventually, once its frees itself from the tabloids, the testimony will find its right, fruitful place as an important document in cultural and post colonial studies.

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Irene Vilar: Thank you so much for your insightful questions. I would like to end by saying that we are all the products of our culture, our values , our upbringing. The way " we choose" our neurotic rebellion is certainly influenced by the history we discussed here today. I was unable to channel my rebellion against the forced sterilization that took my mother away from me and alienating motherhood through political pamphlets or taking to the streets. And of course I did not know "consciously" what I was doing. I was living in the moment. It is only in retrospect that I can link my addiction to abortion to my refusal to submit to my husband's belief that women should not have children. I recognize now that I projected on his views the ones pervasive in Puerto Rico - Women need to be contained in the home with multiple babies or should be made barren to control the growth of an undesirable population - My blinding desire for control was at the core of my neurosis. The feminist pamphlet " the personal is the political" has been preceded for centuries by women who used their own bodies as a form of resistance against the system. They were called hysterics.. and were often locked up. There is a huge feminist literature showing how hysteria is the god mother of feminist theory - The academic in me knew this and I think my book belongs to that literature as well .Yes, I believe my Puerto Rican experience informed the shape of my neurotic strategy, but I'm solely responsible for my actions and that's what this book is about, a search for understanding and self-accountability. I refuse to see myself as a victim; after all, this is why I chose this very destructive strategy. It gave me the illusion that I was in control, calling the shots (unconsciously of course).

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