Monday, January 9, 2017

The Conservative Feminist, and Other Chimeras

Melissa Ohden, You Carried Me: a Daughter's Memoir

Young Melissa Ohden always knew she was adopted. But at age 14, she learned the truth: in 1977, before the battle lines hardened, she survived a botched saline-infusion abortion. The revelation cast a formerly bubbly youth into a spiral of grief from which she recovered only after long struggles and deep prayer. As she faced adulthood, education, marriage, and motherhood, her defining question became: How do I use this knowledge?

Ohden, now a full-time speaker for groups like Feminists For Life and the Susan B. Anthony List, regards herself a progressive on women's issues. She doesn't clarify why abortion access, which mainstream progressives consider core to feminism, is the opposite of what her peers claim. Which explains why I'm of two minds about this book. She hits the required inspirational high points, but makes little attempt to communicate across the aisle.

Half memoir, half manifesto, this book guides readers through her discovery of herself, and her decision to go public with her message. She never sought celebrity, but her combination of tragic background, personal eloquence, and drive, make her an ideal spokesperson for her brand of mixed feminism. It's hard for readers not to feel strongly for Ohden and her struggles, even if, like me, we disagree with her legislative agenda.

Ohden's  story really begins to move around page 70, when nearly a decade of labor bears fruit, and she receives her unexpurgated birth records.  Before this, her story involves lots of throat-clearing about her loving childhood, pain of discovering her history, and difficult reconciliation of the two. All this feels interesting, but doesn't get treated in much detail. Basically her entire life before 2007 feels like something she includes because she thinks she must.

Melissa Ohden
Two examples should suffice. First, after learning about her birth, she descends into self-abuse, including anorexia, underage drinking, and casual sex. This gets resolved in a chapter, giving her the Born-Again narrative Christian readers expect, then patly forgetting it. Later, in college, she writes, "I learned quickly that my story was one that could not be heard, and therefore must not be told." But she never says what that means; she assumes her audience understands.

I suspect Ohden doesn't really want to tell either of those stories, but realizes conservative Christian readers expect them. She doesn't invest the energy or detail she commences after page 70. That's when she begins the two-track narrative of how she meets the birth family she never knew, and how she became an in-demand speaker. Here, her story fills out with details, dialog, and scenes to move a heart of stone.

She also shares the stories of people she meets along the way. Fellow abortion survivors; mothers (and fathers) who lived to regret their abortions; pro-life leaders who have gambled their lives fighting what they consider moral violence. Just anecdotes, sure, but anecdotes that touch the heart of today's continuing culture wars. And her birth family. Sudden death prevents her meeting her father, but when Ohden meets her mother... wow.

Let me emphasize: I disagree with Ohden's issues position. Experience tells me that a leading cause for abortion is poverty, or other circumstances that make women feel they have no future; banning abortion only further circumscribes their options. Though I dislike the idea of abortion as birth control, I doubt how many women would consent to such an invasive, difficult procedure if they believed they had another choice.

As a contribution to the other side, Ohden's argument is a one-plank platform. She briefly acknowledges her beliefs about women's rights and the need for progressive reform, but doesn't give any details. Like her organizations, Ohden nods toward diverse issues, but spends her actual time rehearsing standard conservative Christian talking points. How can we reverse abortion trends without first giving women something to live for?

Nevertheless, Ohden presents an emotionally complex autobiography of the pro-life position. Readers who already agree with her platform will find plenty to cheer, and maybe provide some tools when discussing this issue in the future. As a memoir, it requires pushing through the obligatory Fundamentalist building blocks, but once Ohden starts telling her own story, it becomes worth reading.

Just realize, readers who don't already hold pro-life opinions probably won't change their minds during this book. I finished reading more aware of the other side's beliefs, more conscious of where we actually disagree, less like to believe caricatures of the pro-life position. I think we can argue better now. But deep down, I haven't changed my mind.

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