I was 13 years old when, according to most everyone here in the Deep South, I became a slut and a killer.
My troubles started when I was born a female, but the inequities of our gender are self-evident. So I’ll jump ahead to the 1970s, when I failed in spectacular fashion at the game of life. This game, a sport in which all of the rules have been written by human and heavenly men, is rigged against us. The object for males is conquest — to have sex early, often and by any means possible. The males almost always win, and they have nothing to lose. The object for females is purity. They must refuse all male advances — be they gentlemanly, aggressive or violent — until marriage. The females rarely win, and they have absolutely everything to lose, from their self-respect, to their reputations, to their promising futures.
My first fail was as a freshman in high school. I was uneducated about sex and worn down by a boyfriend who was a senior. The physical pain of it was horrifying. One day I woke up with an illness so odd that I told everyone about it, including the principal. I can see myself approaching his barrel chest in the hall, the gray lockers aligned around us like uniformed witnesses. As we passed each other, he asked how I was doing. I babbled on and on: It’s so strange. I throw up in the morning, but I feel fine after I eat. Isn’t that so weird?
The second fail was with an aspiring pilot who treated me terribly. I was prepared to marry him and become a mother, but he dropped me off at the clinic instead. I was filled with a primal sense of relief as I awaited his return to drive me home. Time passed. The lobby emptied, the phones hushed, and the receptionist tidied the coffee table magazines. The clinic was closing, she said. Are you sure you have a ride? I had only one certainty. I was profoundly and terrifyingly alone, regardless.
All these years later, my heart aches for the frightened young woman I was then, still living at home, panicked that her parents would learn the truth. I can see her as day after day she enters her bedroom closet. She closes the door quietly and sinks to the floor, writhing and sobbing under the hems of her dresses, her face in a pillow to mute the anguish. I watch her riding the city bus, turning her face to the window, discreetly blotting tears with a tissue in her fist. Here she is in the library, taking the elevator to a sparsely visited floor, meandering through the stacks to a secluded study carol. She sits for hours before an open book feigning to read, catching tears in Kleenex.
I could not go on, yet I carried on. The months collected into years, and the years gathered into decades. I finished college, worked as a journalist, married, raised two children, volunteered in my community, became an educator in the public schools. Yet all was not as bright and shiny as it seemed.
A steady stream of stigma has been pouring into my world, polluting it with cruel messages of shame and fear. It has been piped into every nook and cranny of my day to day life through all manner of media — radios and televisions, magazines and newspapers, billboards and bumper stickers. The flow of shame is especially heavy during elections cycles, when conservative candidates rally their Christian base around the female reproductive system.
Most of the stigma I experience originates with religious institutions and pious individuals who deliberately engineer it, hoping disgrace and fear will stop girls and women from using safe, legal reproductive healthcare. This calculated intimidation forces compassionate people into terrified silence, allowing the menace of stigma to thrive. In the public schools, we call this bullying. The steady drone of overt social shame is so ubiquitous it’s become mere background noise to people who never have and never will experience a reproductive crisis. But, the hectoring messages come to me as if through a bullhorn pressed to my ear. No place is safe, and no time of day is exempt from the self-righteous voice of shame.
I’m riding bikes with a colleague on a spring weekend. We’re pedaling through sun-dappled neighborhoods, chatting about work and motherhood, when she brings up her minister and his spirited evangelism on the evils of ending pregnancies.
I’m at a dinner party, where a young man rakes a cracker through the spinach dip while recalling his stellar performance in a college debate class. The topic was about women ending unintended pregnancies. As a Christian I’m passionately against it, he says, so it was very easy to ague my case.
Every caring relationship I ever formed felt imperiled by a menacing conviction: If they really knew me, they would despise me. My husband would seek a divorce. The neighbors would turn their backs. My colleagues would walk a wide berth. The parents of the boys and girls I nurture in my classroom would yank their children from my hugs.
At times the messages of shame and fear trigger physical reactions. My heart might suddenly race, or quiver in my chest, or sink to my feet, or leap to my throat. Sometimes I have the sensation of straining to breathe. It’s like walking around with my mind in an invisible cloud of toxic gas. Even the word abortion sparks involuntary physical reflexes. Its vowels and consonants have melded over time into a weapon studded with spikes and blades, like one of Q's inventions in a James Bond film. I flee from the word, as if I am a fugitive from the law and it is a police siren.
Throughout my life I have dabbled in various coping strategies. I wrote down thoughts and feelings. I drank too heavily and too often. I devoured self-help books. I walked and biked for miles to work out the distress. I mentored adolescent girls. I built a mental wall of numbness around my inner world, like a Plexiglas tunnel in a tourist aquarium. On all sides I see the sharks and piranhas circle, yet I smile cheerfully through my day to day life.
Another strategy was to build up my Christian faith, so I immersed myself in church life. I became a lay minister, taught vacation Bible school, cooked food for the needy, attended worship services twice weekly. Most important of all, I spent a year reading the Bible from beginning to end. After that, I wanted to tell the good news to everyone, like this:
This scenario is a fantasy, of course. I would not try to argue people out of their religious beliefs. But, reading the Bible — thinking critically about its content, its origins, and its use through antiquity to manipulate and condition human behavior — empowered me to stand up for myself in my mind. Imaginings like this, in which I face my attackers, have helped arrest my habit of beating myself up.
Another miracle graced my life in church. I met a new friend — a minister’s daughter 10 years my senior. One summer day we went for a fateful walk. Down a red clay road we traveled, our voices mingling with the trilling of sparrows on fence posts. It seemed like a simple summer stroll, until she made a startling confession. She had become pregnant in her teens. Her parents had sent her away to live out her pregnancy, and then arranged an adoption. Years later she tried in vain to find the child.
Here was a woman who understood an accidental pregnancy, who knew the anguish of shame rooted in religion. My heart began to thrash against my ribs as my forbidden truth, caged in my mind for so long, came winging out of my mouth. I felt insanely terrified, as if I had pulled the pin from a grenade that I could not toss. I waited for an explosion, for the earth to swallow me. But, the cicadas continued to hum and the butterflies kept up their airborne ballet. We walked on, sharing everything, without the need to justify or rationalize anything. At 40 years of age, I experienced blessed love, compassion and understanding for the very first time. This love gave me the courage to slowly venture out of my inner prison.
Two years later I told my husband. He did not flee in disgust. He listened, learned, and held me in his arms, and became my greatest supporter on my journey to "come out" and to advocate for reproductive health and rights.
Eight months ago, I shared my history with my grown sons — the children whose lives are owed to the precise unfolding of my youth. If I had become a mother in my teens, these young men would not be here, serving in medical and transportation careers, preparing to raise families of their own.
This is how I can believe that God is love, and that love is kind. My husband, children, and close friends still love me. They do not believe I am a slut and killer. They do not believe I need forgiveness for being human. The worst fears contrived by all the religious heckling in my life did not materialize.
As I make these final keystrokes, I confess that I am still scared. But, I am resolved. I will not allow shame and fear to rule my life anymore. In my mind I already am saying farewell to people I expect will shun me. I forgive them.
No longer will I be complicit in the silence that allows stigma to flourish. I will stand up straight and speak out with dignity because nothing matters more to me now than the future for the little girls I see each day.
They approach me in the classroom bearing construction paper bouquets of daisies and tulips, sketched in bright crayon under skies of rainbows and butterflies. As they leave my hugs and return to their desks, their pony tails swaying, their light-up sneakers sparkling, the prayers of my heart follow them:
May they never be taught to see themselves as deflowered. May they never be taught to believe they are killers. May they live in a compassionate world that grants them the divine human right of complete reproductive justice.