Now in retirement, I am anticipating a quiet afternoon in my art studio when I check mail in my rural box. Roosters are crowing. I hear clanking sounds of tractors discing and smell the musty soil being turned. I sort through the junk mail when my eye lands on a hand addressed letter. I tear it open to find the shocking words:
I think you might be my grandmother.
My body goes rigid as the thought of reliving a shattering period of my past sends waves of shock reverberating through my body. All those feelings of shame long buried were about to boil up again. If I answered the letter, all would be revealed.
Would I dare? Did I want to go down that path and relive the scenes of a rape and resulting pregnancy, opening the scars of a long buried episode that began on a college campus in 1962? Would this young writer, my granddaughter, be able to comprehend how the moral arbiters of society held us in their grip?
Sexual harassment, rape and intimidation have shadowed and haunted women through the ages. Where were their stories? Buried, like mine, in shame, layered under decades of angst. In my day single women with unintended pregnancies were forced into hiding. From the end of WWII until the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973, unmarried pregnant women and their families faced shame and insufferable choices.
The alternatives were dismal. One solution was to visit abortionists, in many cases unqualified, who, to protect their own identities, blindfolded women during the procedure. In 1962, sixteen hundred women, forced into illegal terminations, were admitted to Harlem Hospital Center in New York City due to botched or incomplete abortions. Society had women, especially poor women, in a vice.
Others had no choice but to carry a child to term. They quietly disappeared, spirited away while the stigma of “illegitimacy” hung over them. Shrouded in secrecy, with their identities erased, they were groomed to hand over their babies for adoption and return to society as though nothing had happened. It was known as the Baby Scoop Era when the dominant view was that unmarried women were unfit mothers and needed to acknowledge their guilt and shame and give up their babies for adoption. From 1945 to 1973 it is estimated that four million parents in the United States had children placed for adoption. Four million sad stories like mine went undocumented.
The Unraveling – The Price of Silence, my memoir, puts a spotlight on what it was like to have to weather the paralyzing trauma of rape and then go through the devastating severance of handing a child over to adoption. No one can imagine the gravity and deep sadness of that moment you give away your own child. It caused a quake deep in my soul. Is this what our legislators wish to return to when they not only write restrictive abortion laws, but also deny women health coverage for contraception under the guise of “freedom of religion”?
Feel what it was like to struggle through those times before Roe as I dredge up shattering memories that haunted me for 52 years. I fiercely fought for the dignity that was swiftly erased one night on a college campus. I had to jump hurdles to re-define myself, bury the past and muster the grit to have a successful career beginning as Food Editor of a leading restaurant magazine at age 23.
The scars from my early life remained and memories lingered until that letter arrived in my mailbox. What would I respond? How could I adequately explain an era long forgotten? That granddaughter had not lived through those restrictive times of shame and humiliation. I unraveled my story for her and all young women so they can feel what it was like when women’s reproductive rights were emphatically denied. It is a struggle we are facing yet again. And yet, there was one champion in our corner, a little known lawyer at the time, and she had this to say:
The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. When the government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Keller’s memoir, The Unraveling, is available in paperback, hardback, and electronically from popular outlets such as Amazon and Powell’s. The book’s cover art, reproduced above, is her original work.