Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights by Katha Pollitt

An excerpt from Katha Pollitt’s new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights (Picador, October 14, 2014), reprinted with permission.




Available at Powell’s and other independent bookstores, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

Abortion. We need to talk about it. I know, sometimes it seems as if we talk of little else, so perhaps I should say we need to talk about it differently. Not as something we all agree is a bad thing about which we shake our heads sadly and then debate its precise degree of badness, preening ourselves on our judiciousness and moral seriousness as we argue about this or that restriction on this or that kind of woman. We need to talk about ending a pregnancy as a common, even normal, event in the reproductive lives of women—and not just modern American women either, but women throughout history and all over the world, from ancient Egypt to medieval Catholic Europe, from today’s sprawling cities to rural villages barely touched by modern ideas about women’s roles and rights. Abortion takes place in Canada and Greece and France, where it is legal, performed by medical professionals, and covered by national health insurance, and also in Kenya, Nicaragua, and the Philippines, where it is a crime and a woman who terminates a pregnancy takes her life in her hands. According to anthropologists, abortion is found in virtually every society, going back at least 4,000 years. American women had great numbers of abortions throughout our history, when it was legal and when it was not. Consider this: At the beginning of the nineteenth century effective birth control barely existed and in the 1870s it was criminalized— even mailing an informational pamphlet about contraceptive devices was against the law and remained so until 1936. Yet the average number of births per woman declined from around 7 in 1800 to around 3.5 in 1900 to just over 2 in 1930. How do you think that happened?

We need to see abortion as an urgent practical decision that is just as moral as the decision to have a child—indeed, sometimes more moral. Pro-choicers often say no one is “pro-abortion,” but what is so virtuous about adding another child to the ones you’re already overwhelmed by? Why do we make young women feel guilty for wanting to feel ready for motherhood before they have a baby? Isn’t it a good thing that women think carefully about what it means to bring a child into this world—what, for example, it means to the children she already has? We tend to think of abortion as anti-child and anti-motherhood. In media iconography, it’s the fetus versus the coat hanger: that is, abortion kills an “unborn baby,” but banning it makes women injure themselves. Actually, abortion is part of being a mother and of caring for children, because part of caring for children is knowing when it’s not a good idea to bring them into the world.We need to put abortion back into its context, which is the lives and bodies of women, but also the lives of men, and families, and the children those women already have or will have. Since nearly 1 in 5 American women end their childbearing years without having borne a child (compared with 1 in 10 in the 1970s), we need to acknowledge that motherhood is not for everyone; there are other ways of living a useful, happy life.

We need to talk about abortion in its full human setting: sex and sexuality, love, violence, privilege, class, race, school and work, men, the scarcity of excellent, respectful reproductive health care, and of realistic, accurate information about sex and reproduction. We need to talk about why there are so many unplanned and unwanted pregnancies—which means we need to talk about birth control, but also about so much more than that: about poverty and violence and family troubles, about sexual shyness and shame and ignorance and the lack of power so many women experience in bed and in their relationships with men. Why is it such a huge big deal to ask a man to wear a condom? Or for a man to do so without being asked? Why do so many women not realize they are pregnant until they are fifteen or twenty or even twenty-five weeks along, and what does that say about the extraordinary degree of vigilance we demand women exercise over their reproductive systems? And speaking of that vigilance, what about the fact that some 16 percent of women, according to a Brown University study, have experienced reproductive coercion in at least one relationship— a male partner who used threats or violence to control a woman’s contraception or pregnancy outcomes—with a remarkable 9 percent experiencing “birth control sabotage,” a male partner who disposed of her pills, poked holes in condoms, or prevented her from getting contraception. One-third of the women reporting reproductive coercion also reported partner abuse in the same relationship. Behind America’s high rate of unintended pregnancy—almost half of all pregnancies—and high rates of abortion lies a world of hurt.

ProBackcvrWe need to talk about the scarcity of resources for single mothers and even for two-parent families, and the extraordinary, contradictory demands we make upon young girls to be simultaneously sexually alluring and withholding: hot virgins. We need to talk about blood and mess and periods and pregnancy and childbirth and what women go through to bring new life into the world and whether deep in our hearts we believe that those bodies mean women were put on Earth to serve and sacrifice and suffer in a way that men are not. Because when we talk about abortion as a bad thing, and worry that there’s too much of it, sometimes we mean there’s too much unwanted pregnancy and that women and men need more and better sex education and birth control, and sometimes  we mean there’s too much poverty, especially for children and their mothers, but a lot of the time we mean a woman should have a good cry, and then do the right thing and have the baby. She can always put it up for adoption, can’t she, like Juno in the movie? And that is close to saying that a woman can have no needs, desires, purpose, or calling so compelling and so important that she should not set it aside in an instant, because of a stray sperm.

Abortion has been legal across the United States for more than four decades. More than a million abortions are performed every year—some 55 million since 1973, when Roe v. Wade became the law of the land. A few facts: By menopause, 3 in 10 American women will have terminated at least one pregnancy; about half of all US women who have an abortion have already had a prior abortion; excluding miscarriages, 21 percent of pregnancies end in abortion. Contrary to the popular stereotype of abortion-seeking women as promiscuous teenagers or child-hating professionals, around 6 in 10 women who have abortions are already mothers. And 7 in 10 are poor or low-income. Abortion, in other words, is part of the fabric of American life, and yet it is arguably more stigmatized than it was when Roe was decided. Of the seven Supreme Court justices who made up the majority in Roe, five were nominated by a Republican president. These men were hardly radicals: Potter Stewart, nominated by President Eisenhower, had dissented in the court’s 1965 landmark decision, Griswold v. Connecticut, which struck down that state’s ban on the sale or use of contraceptives even by married couples; in two separate decisions he upheld prayer and Bible readings in public schools. Warren Burger, Richard Nixon’s choice for Chief Justice, went on to rule in favor of laws criminalizing “sodomy” in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) on the grounds that historically homosexuality had been viewed as heinous and wrong. What made these staid, gray-haired gentlemen permit abortion virtually on demand in the first six months of pregnancy?

To understand that, we have to see what those men saw. In the law, they were witnessing a rapid evolution toward increased personal freedom, and in particular increased freedom for women: These were the years when feminism was a true grassroots movement, one that achieved remarkable success in a very short time, knocking down hundreds of laws and regulations, challenging centuries of tradition and custom, and expanding women’s rights and opportunities in almost every area of life. Ten million women were taking birth-control pills, and two-thirds of all Catholic women were using some form of contraception. Women were pouring into colleges and the workforce. The year before the Roe decision, the Senate had passed the Equal Rights Amendment and sent it to the states for ratification.

In tandem with these huge social shifts, elite views were changing on abortion. Doctors had helped criminalize abortions after the Civil War as part of their effort to professionalize medicine by marginalizing midwives and lay healers. Now significant numbers of them saw abortion bans as a constraint on their right to care for their patients: Barring malpractice, there was no other circumstance in which a doctor had to defend his professional decisions as a matter of law. There had always been a little wiggle room in state abortion laws, because doctors were still permitted to perform them for “therapeutic” reasons—to save a woman’s life, for example. But what did that mean, exactly? An amicus curiae brief in Roe from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and several other medical groups observed that “a woman suffering from heart disease, diabetes or cancer whose pregnancy worsens the underlying pathology may be denied a medically indicated therapeutic abortion under the statute because death is not certain.” Meanwhile, the definition of “therapeutic” was being quietly expanded—for women with money, connections, and luck. Certain psychiatrists were willing to bend the rules by certifying abortion-seeking patients as mentally ill or suicidal (of course, you had to pay them for this service, and know how to find them in the first place). Beginning in the late 1940s, hospitals in many states set up abortion committees to which a woman seeking to terminate her pregnancy could appeal. It was a humiliating process, which could involve multiple physical examinations and interrogations by unsympathetic doctors. For some women, the price of an abortion was sterilization. But it meant that some small fraction of middle-class white girls and women were able to obtain legal abortions, especially if they happened to be related to one of the doctors on the committee.

As a matter of public discussion, abortion was coming out of the shadows. In 1962, Sherri Chessen Finkbine was granted a legal abortion because she had taken Thalidomide, a sleeping medication her husband had brought back from a trip to Europe that, she belatedly discovered, had resulted in the births of thousands of babies with disastrous deformities. When the abortion was canceled after a newspaper article about her situation created an uproar, Finkbine publicly went to Sweden and terminated her pregnancy there. Her story was featured on the cover of Life magazine and helped break the silence around abortion. But it did more than that. It presented an abortion-seeking woman as sympathetic, rational, and capable. Finkbine was not a college student or low-income single mother to be either pitied as a victim or scorned as a slut. She was a white, middle-class married mother of four, well known as Miss Sherri on the local version of Romper Room, a popular children’s television show. In the early 1960s, epidemics of rubella, which is linked to birth defects, had the same effect: Americans had to listen to respectable white women unapologetically demanding the right to end their pregnancies. At the same time, Americans had to face the fact that illegal abortion was already common.

The more exceptions there were to the criminalization of abortion, the more glaringly unfair and hypocritical the whole system was seen to be. By the time Roe came to the court, well-off, savvy women could flock to New York or several other states where laws had been relaxed and get a safe, legal termination; poor women, trapped in states that banned abortion, bore the brunt of harm from illegal procedures. There was a racial angle, too: Not only did women of color, then as now, have far more abortions than whites in proportion to their numbers, they were much more likely to be injured or die in botched illegal procedures. According to the Centers for Disease Con- trol and Prevention, from 1972 to 1974, the mortality rate due to illegal abortion for nonwhite women was 12 times that for white women. The injustice of a patchwork system, in which a simple medical procedure could leave a woman dead or in- jured based purely on where it took place, was obvious.

Women were speaking up, too, about their abortions. In 1969 feminists invaded and disrupted the New York state legis- lature’s “expert hearing” on abortion (the experts consisted of fourteen men and a nun). Women talked about ending their pregnancies in public speak-outs. In 1972 the first issue of Ms. magazine carried a statement headlined “We Have Had Abor- tions” that was signed by more than fifty prominent women, including Gloria Steinem, Nora Ephron, Billie Jean King, Lee Grant, and Lillian Hellman. In Chicago, the Jane Collective began by connecting women with an illegal provider and ended up performing abortions themselves. And if you assume the churches were united against abortion, think again: Begin- ning in 1967, the Clergy Consultation Service founded by the Rev. Howard R. Moody, a Baptist, along with Lawrence Lader, Arlene Carmen, and others, helped thousands of women across the country find their way to safe illegal abortions. In the years leading up to Roe, legalization of abortion under at least some circumstances was endorsed by the Union for Reform Judaism, the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Asso- ciation of Evangelicals, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Episcopal Church, and other mainstream  denominations.

Because so much of this history has been forgotten—what, the Southern Baptists supported legalization?—we tend to see Roe as a bolt out of the blue. But to the Supreme Court—and to the public, a majority of which supported liberalization—the ruling ratified and expanded social changes that were already under way.  At the time, what its supporters saw as its chief effect was to transform an operation that was commonplace, criminal and sometimes extremely dangerous into an operation that was commonplace, legal, remarkably safe—and becoming ever safer: “Deaths from legal abortion declined fivefold between 1973 and 1985 (from 3.3 deaths to 0.4 deaths per 100,000 procedures),” reported the American Medical Association’s Council on Scientific Affairs, reflecting increased physician education and skills, improvements in medical technology, and, notably, the earlier termination of pregnancy. The mortality rate for childbirth from 1979 to 1985 was more than ten times higher than that from abortion in the same period.

Today the real-life harms Roe was intended to rectify have receded from memory. Few doctors remember the hospital wards filled with injured and infected women. The coat-hanger symbol seems as exotic as the rack and thumbscrew, a relic waved by gray-haired “radical feminists,” even as anti-abortion advocates use rare examples of injury and death to paint all abortions as unsafe. They seized on the horrifying case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who ran a filthy Philadelphia “clinic” where a teenage girl administered anesthesia, a patient died and others were injured, fetuses were aborted well into the third trimester, and the ones who survived had their spines “snipped.” You wouldn’t know from their reporting that what Gosnell was doing was completely against the law; he was found guilty of three acts of first-degree murder on May 13, 2013. Using deceptively edited secretly videoed encounters, abortion opponents tar all abortion clinics as inhumane “mills” staffed by callous, greedy people—transferring the century-old taint of the criminal “abortionist” to legitimate providers. Yet paradoxically, abortion opponents deny that when abortion was illegal it was both widespread and sometimes (though not always) dangerous. Look, they say, in 1960, Mary Steichen Calderone, medical director of Planned Parenthood, herself said there had been “only 260 deaths” in 1957. (They don’t mention that she also said it was likely that there were one million abortions a year—almost as many as today, in a much smaller population— and this was in the supposedly staid and moral 1950s, before the sexual revolution or the women’s movement.) Years ago I debated a leader of Massachusetts for Life who pooh-poohed the health risks of recriminalizing abortion: Thanks to suction machines and antibiotics (which illegal providers would all have access to) illegal procedures would be reasonably nonfatal. So there it is. Legal abortion: very dangerous. Illegal abortion: remarkably safe!

For many years after Roe, abortion opponents talked a lot about the need to overturn the decision, and worked hard to elect officials who would install anti-abortion justices on the Supreme Court. So far, they have not seen that dream realized. But they have been shockingly successful in making abortion hard to get in much of the nation. Between 2011 and 2013, states enacted 205 new restrictions—more than in the previous ten years: waiting periods, inaccurate scripts that doctors must read to patients (abortion causes breast cancer, mental illness, suicide), bans on state Medicaid payments, restrictions on insurance coverage, and parental notification and consent laws. In Ohio, lawmakers have taken money from TANF, the welfare program that supports poor families, and given it to so-called crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) whose mission is to discourage pregnant women from having abortions. (That’s right: Embryos and fetuses deserve government support, not the actual, living children they may become.) Twenty-seven states have passed laws forcing clinics into expensive and unnecessary renovations and burdening them with medical regula- tions intended to make them impossible to staff. Largely as a result, between 2011 and 2013 at least 73 clinics closed or stopped performing abortions. When these laws have been challenged in court, judges have set aside some of them, but not all. The result: In 2000, according to the Guttmacher Institute, around one-third of American women of reproductive age lived in states hostile to abortion rights, one-third lived in states that supported abortion rights, and one-third lived in states with a middle position. As of 2011, more than half of women lived in hostile states. Middle-ground states, such as North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin, have moved in an anti-choice direction. Only twenty-three states could be said to have a strong commitment to abortion rights. In 2013, only one state, California, made abortion easier to obtain.

What this means is that although abortion has been legal for four full decades, for many women in America it might as well not be. It is inaccessible—too far away, too expensive to pay for out of pocket, and too encumbered by restrictions and regulations and humiliations, many of which might not seem to be one of those “undue burdens” the Supreme Court has ruled are impermissible curbs on a woman’s ability to terminate a pregnancy, but which, taken together, do place abortion out of reach. It would be nice to believe that no woman is deterred from an act so crucial to her future by having to wait a mere twenty-four hours between state-mandated counseling and the actual procedure, but what if the waiting period means two long round trips from your rural home to a distant city while trying to juggle work and child care, and because the clinic has to fly in a doctor from out of state, the twenty-four hours actually means a week, and that puts the woman into the second trimester but the clinic only does abortions through twelve weeks? What about the teenage girls who must tell their parents in order to get an abortion and can’t bear to do so until it’s too late? (Thirty-eight states currently require parental involvement in a minor’s decision to have an abortion.) What about low-income women who live in one of the thirty-three states without Medicaid abortion coverage? What if, while she is putting together the $500 for a first-trimester abortion, a low-income woman goes over into the second trimester, and now the abortion costs $1,000? It is as if a woman has a right to vote, but the polling place is across the state and casting a ballot costs two weeks’ pay, and as if she has a right to be a Jew or a Muslim or a Buddhist, but her place of worship is a four-hour bus ride away, and before she can go to services she has to listen to a fundamentalist Christian sermon warning her that if she doesn’t accept Jesus as her personal savior she’s going straight to hell. We would never accept the kinds of restrictions on our other constitutional rights that we have allowed to hamper the right to end a pregnancy.

How has this happened?

One answer is that the Republican Party, home base of the organized anti-abortion-rights movement, has won a lot of elections. The midterm elections in 2010 were crucial: The GOP won the House of Representatives and, even more important, in twenty states it had “trifectas”—control of both statehouses and the governorship. By 2013 it had twenty-four. Democrats, by contrast had only fourteen. (It’s important to note that not all Democratic politicians are pro-choice, especially in red states. In 2014, Louisiana’s bill that requires doctors at abortion clinics to have hospital admitting privileges, a measure that could close three out of the state’s five clinics, was written by a Democrat, Katrina Jackson.)

But there’s a deeper, more troubling answer. The self- described pro-life movement may not represent a numerical majority—only 7 to 20 percent of Americans tell pollsters they want to ban abortion—but what it lacks in numbers it makes up for in intensity, dedication, cohesion, and savvy. It is the closest thing we have right now to a mass social movement. It works in multiple ways at once—through its own organizations, electoral politics, abstinence-only sex education in the public schools, the Catholic and fundamentalist/evangelical churches, public protests like the annual March for Life in Washington, DC, and “sidewalk counseling” in front of clinics. It reaches all the way from a terrorist fringe that it regularly disowns but that has very effectively discouraged doctors from performing abortions to popular radio and TV haranguers like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh to respectable journals like National Review and the Weekly Standard. Indeed, it is hard to think of American conservatism today without its opposition to abortion. You would never know that Ayn Rand and Barry Goldwater were pro-choice, and that in 1967, the governor of California, Ronald Reagan, signed what was then the most liberal abortion law in the nation. Some of this hostility to abortion is surely for political reasons: Right-wing Christians vote. But the fact that opposition to abortion is de rigueur even for mainstream Republicans like Mitt Romney shows the movement’s power.

The anti-abortion movement has made abortion a lot harder to get in many states, but even more important, it has reframed the issue. It has placed the zygote/embryo/fetus at the moral center, while relegating women and their rights to the periphery. Over time, it has altered the way we talk about abortion and the way many people feel about it, even if they remain pro-choice. It has made abortion seem risky, when in fact it is remarkably safe—twelve to fourteen times safer than the alter- native, which is continued pregnancy and childbirth. It has made people think the abortion of viable fetuses happens all the time when in fact it is illegal in most states except for serious medical reasons, and happens very rarely: According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 1.5 percent of abortions occur after twenty weeks’ gestation. (The Supreme Court has said twenty-four weeks is the threshold of viability.) It has made practices that are virtually unknown in the United States, like sex-selective abortions, seem routine and clinics like Dr. Gosnell’s seem typical.

Most of all, abortion opponents have made ending a pregnancy shameful, even for women who don’t believe a fertilized egg or a lentil-sized embryo is a child. It is hard now to believe, or even remember, that for a brief moment in the 1970s (let alone when abortion was an illegal but common practice), it was permissible not to consider your abortion a personal tragedy and failure. You were not automatically a callous, superficial person if you felt nothing but relief that you were no longer pregnant, and you were not a monster if you said so.

Nowadays, we take it for granted that having an abortion is a sorrowful, troubling, even traumatic experience, involving much ambivalence and emotional struggle, even though studies and surveys consistently tell us it usually is not. Even pro-choicers use negative language: Hillary Clinton called abortion “a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women.” True as far as it goes, but you’ll notice she didn’t add, “and for many others, a blessing and a lifesaver.” For decades, the Democratic Party mantra has been “safe, legal, and rare,” with the accent on the rare. Among hardcore opponents, the language is completely over the top: Abortion is a Holocaust, providers are Nazis, the womb is the most dangerous place on Earth for a child, the Democratic Party is the Party of Death.

As long as abortion has been legal, pro-choice activists have complained that abortion opponents have stolen the language of morality and used it to twist public opinion. Who can be against “life,” after all? Or responsibility, family, babies, motherhood? But it’s not just opponents who paint abortion as awful and tormented. Pro-choicers do so too.

We may roll our eyes when abortion opponents contrast the anguish of abortion with the joys of unwanted babies, and the selfishness of women who end their pregnancies with the nobility of women who keep theirs whatever the difficulty, but over time it seeps in. So defensive has the pro-choice community become since the 1970s, when activists proudly defended “abortion on demand and without apology,” that in 2013 Planned Parenthood announced that it was moving away from the term “pro-choice,” which was itself a bit of a euphemism: Choose what? In mass-media messaging you’re likely to hear about “defending Roe,” even though only 62 percent of Americans (and only 44 percent of those under thirty) know what Roe is. When abortion opponents at the Susan G. Komen Foundation canceled its grants in 2012, Planned Parenthood’s response emphasized that “More than 90 percent of Planned Parenthood health care is preventive, including lifesaving cancer screenings, birth control, prevention and treatment of STDs, breast health services, Pap tests, and sexual health education and information.” True, this cautious approach won the day—Komen was forced to restore the grants, and the anti-choice faction left the organization. But was there no room for Planned Parenthood to add, “Yes, we perform abortions, and we are proud to offer that service to women who make the decision not to bear a child at that time, because abortion is a normal part of health care”?

It’s not just our leaders and spokespeople at major organizations who unwittingly participate in what’s been rather uneuphoniously called the “awfulization” of abortion. Anywhere you look or listen, you find pro-choicers falling over themselves to use words like “thorny,” “vexed,” “complex,” and “difficult.” How often have you heard abortion described as “the hardest decision” or “the most painful choice” a woman ever makes, as if every single woman who gets pregnant by accident seriously considers having a baby, only a few weeks earlier the furthest thing from her mind and for very good reason? Or more accurately, as if every accidentally pregnant woman really should seriously consider having that baby—and if she doesn’t at least claim she thought long and hard about it and only reluctantly and sadly realized it was impossible, she’s a bad woman who thinks only of her own pleasure and convenience.


Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights is available at Powell’s and other independent bookstores,, and Barnes and Noble.


AbouKathaPollittt Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt, a feminist author and poet, writes the “Subject to Debate” column for The Nation. Her other books include Learning to Drive, The Mind-Body Problem poetry collection, Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time. She tweets at @kathapollitt and blogs at kathapollitt.blogspot.

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By Scott Gressitt

CleopatraShe strode out across the fair,
the sun fell fully on her face
and glinted off her jet-black hair.
She saw me and she slowed her pace.

She stared right at me, dark eyes wide
and turned the corners up so slight,
her lips were pink against her hide
her belly button neath clothes, tight.

Cleopatra came to mind,
the youthful queen, she had the gait.
Fortunate I was to find
this beauty, passion percolate.

She stood out gainst the sea of blonde
Laguna is so famous for.
Her cloak of darkness in the pond,
a lioness, and she could roar.

There was nothing in the world
could keep us from engaging full
and even with all sails unfurled
I could not fight against her pull.

We danced in concert neath the moon
her mouth so soft against my lips.
I held her, felt her start to swoon,
and press into me, heart and hips.

When the morning finally came,
she was at the coffee urn.
We talked in low tones in the shade.
The summer sun was out to burn.

Her life, so many miles a way,
so different from the one I live
but we connected every day
that time allowed, that fates would give.

We knew the expiration date
would come, and both of us would pause.
We never talked about that fate
or what would finally be the cause.

We relished all that God allowed
we both were grownups, acting well.
We never looked beneath the shroud
for fear of seeing into hell

The hell of absence, love on hold
to do our jobs, to raise our brood
to move apart, let passion cold,
and face the facts, we knew we would.

We hated for the end to come,
we loved both being in the play.
But logic shook the building some
and everything returned to clay.


About Scott Gressitt

ScottGressittMugAn amateur writer and rapscallion, I write of my past, a life laden with extraordinary events.

I have walked in places most of the population avoids.

Besides scars and bruises, I’ve collected experiences that frighten, delight and entertain.

I write with the intent to take you on a wild ride where all your senses are fully engaged.


Illustration: Cleopatra and Caesar by Jean-Leon-Gerome


CA Progressive Voter Guide Nov 2014

The November 2014 Progressive Voter Guide for California is provided by the Courage Campaign Issues Committee.


Mail your absentee ballot by Thursday 30 October—or sooner. Ballots received after Election Day, 04 November, will not be counted.



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Why didn’t I just leave?

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

This is a modified version of an essay originally published in October 2012 by San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, Ms. Magazine Blog and San Diego Free Press.

Please join the Week of Action with National Network to End Domestic Violence
Oct 20 through 24.



Picture a sere summer night in Phoenix, Arizona, circa 1982.1

I lay on a crinkly table in a cluttered ER, joking with the doc, bribing him with a promise of homemade shortbread if he could fix my face without leaving scars, looking anywhere but in his eyes, and I noticed a police officer nearby.

When I was all stitched and tidied up, I went to the cop and heard a quavering voice tell him that I wanted to press charges against my husband for assault.

The cop looked across the waiting room at him, sitting with his face buried behind his bloodied hands, his tiny mother, herself a victim, standing next to his chair, her arm around him while she stroked his head and kissed his fevered brow.

The cop looked back at me and said, “You don’t want to do that. You’ll just make him angry all over again, and it’ll be worse the next time.”

I did eventually leave my husband, taking my battered self and VW bus and just enough money for gas from Phoenix back to LA, where I lived in a friend’s basement until I recovered.

Flash forward a decade or so, to a visit to the east coast.

On the graceful terrace of a lovely home, a cocktail party was reaching into the night with storytelling. I was puttering in the kitchen, fixing myself a drink, when someone’s words wafted through the window. They sounded something like this:

“Yeah, he beat the hell out of her. We couldn’t figure out why she didn’t just leave him.”

Forsaking my Southern social graces, I stormed outside and lambasted the speaker—in front of everyone—for telling a story that was not hers to tell, for telling it with such a damnably ignorant conclusion. Unseemly of me, I know, and she responded with her own tantrum, stormed off, and didn’t speak to me for some time.

But the question lingered in the summer breeze, flirting with the fireflies—why didn’t I just leave him? It took me years to be able to answer it, and now I know why.

Because I did, because I did leave him. And I stood at the pay phone at the corner of our city block in the winter night, shivering in the t-shirt I had on when he picked me up from the bed and threw me to the sidewalk outside our front door, and I discovered that the police wouldn’t do anything because I wasn’t injured (that time) and I could always stay at a motel or with friends.

But I had no money and I had no friends—because he didn’t want me to have them.

Why didn’t I leave him?

Because I did. And I was wooed back into the relationship with the promise that he had been in counseling for six months and was no longer a batterer and would live only for my forgiveness.

Why didn’t I leave him?

Because I did. And, with battered psyche in tow, I was shamed back to him with the blame for making him beat me, for ruining his life, for getting blood on his mother’s car upholstery.

Why didn’t I leave him?

Because I did, I finally did. I left him when a skinny, exhausted mama in the ER, with a passel of runny-nosed kids, that woman who, through my battered but still-privileged lens appeared to need some help, that woman who wouldn’t stop staring at me as I talked to the cop, when she came over and said, “I know what’s going on. You don’t deserve it. Come home with me. You can sleep on the sofa.”

Instead of telling a woman in possession of nothing but a t-shirt to spend the night in a motel and call back when she’s really in trouble; instead of joking with a patient about injuries consistent with assault; instead of telling the complainant to be silent or she’ll make it worse the next time; instead of looking the other way; instead of blaming the victim; instead of accepting women’s excuses for black eyes and split lips, their lies about walking into doorways and tripping on coffee tables, their pleas that they must stay for the children; instead of all that, do this —

Say: Did somebody hurt you? You don’t deserve to be hit or kicked or strangled or thrown or belittled or terrorized. It is not your fault. It’s a crime. If somebody hurt you, let me help you. There are safe places to go and people who understand. Please let me help you.


Again, please join the Week of Action with National Network to End Domestic Violence, Oct 20 through 24.

For more information:

If you are a victim of violence, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline website or call 800-799-SAFE (7233).

National Resource Center on Domestic Violence

Same-sex relationship violence counseling in San Diego

If you want to help, visit your local domestic violence prevention agency or Futures Without Violence.

2014 Presidential Proclamation – National Domestic Violence Awareness Month

Intimate partner violence (IPV) statistics One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.

1 In 1982, there were few shelters for victims of intimate partner violence (IPV) and little training for police. Today, there are significantly more resources, but still many law enforcement officers—and family and friends, victims and abusers—fail to treat IPV as the crime it is, and still it can be fatally difficult to leave an abusive relationship.




By Conney D. Williams

“Where were you last night?” was what I asked that fool. I already knew where he had been. I was just waiting to see if he was going to break with tradition. Bet was my best friend, but he had trouble coexisting with honesty. I’d have to almost threaten to kill his mom for him to finally confess what I knew 90 percent of the time. [I think] it was because he was so predictable, even down to the type of condoms he used. Like the twisted foil wrapper on the floor behind the garbage pail in the kitchen.

He would do this twitching, stuttering thing. “Uh— uh— I was at home watching the Lakers’ game and helping Danny with his homework.

Danny was Bet’s seven-year-old son. He was afraid of Chuck E. Cheese, but loved going to the restaurant. Danny was the one thing Bet was really good at. That was because he knew how much Danny needed him, and there was nothing to be gained by manipulating his own flesh and blood. I had told him how proud I was of him for stepping up to the plate and handling his responsibility.

Tonight what I said was, “Man, you are as obvious as a Jennifer Lopez boyfriend. I done already peeped you out. You were out with Shai last night, weren’t you?”

He said, “Naw man, I— I told you I was watching the game.”

By now Bet was getting a little agitated. Hell, it was obvious he was hiding something. But why? I didn’t give a damn about him seeing Shai, even if I thought he was stupid for doing so. Bet was my boy, my best friend.

SagitarriusWe both had our distinctive styles. He was six-foot-two with copper skin and a short ’fro with soft curly locks. I was five-eleven and fair skinned, with shoulder-length dreadlocks. I worked out constantly while he was always starting and stopping work out programs. I went to poetry readings, and—shit!—he just liked to use the lines I wrote to get next to some redbone. Me, with my cross of cool and bohemian, and he, with his laid back smoothness. We were opposites outwardly, but we were brothers down deep. Two Sagittarians from opposite ends of the spectrum on approach, but man were we the same on outcome. When we hit the spots, it was on, all the way live.

As much as we had done together and as much as we had been through, I was still perplexed why he had such difficulty ’fessing up to me about what was really going on. Maybe he thought I was going to judge him or hold it against him. I don’t know what it is in us that make us fear being vulnerable to one another. It must be that appearance of weakness, scaring us like the boogieman hiding beneath our beds, which brings such dread to our souls.

Whatever the psychology, I didn’t think I was going to figure it tonight. Bet was taking Danny to his mom’s house to babysit him. The Night and his daughters were calling, and we had the requisite testosterone to answer the challenge. We rode away with some semi-misogynistic theme music syncopating deep bottom beats in the background, while jasmine air freshener and Calvin Klein cologne argued in the car’s interior. At that moment, I thought to myself, a real friend has your back, whether he confess all his faults or not.

As we pulled up to the Golden Tail, I asked that fool, “So … where were you last night?”


About Conney D. Williams

ConneyDWilliamsConney D. Williams is a Los Angeles based poet, actor and performance artist, originally from Shreveport, Louisiana, where he worked as a radio personality.

Conney’s first collection of poetry, Leaves of Spilled Spirit from an Untamed Poet, was published in 2002. His poetry has also been published in various journals and anthologies including Voices from Leimert Park; America: At the End of the Day; and The Drumming Between Us. His newest collection, Blues Red Soul Falsetto, was published in December 2012.

Conney has performed his poetry on television, radio, galleries, universities, grade schools, coffeehouses, and stages around Southern California and across the country, including the Black Arts Festival. He is a talented public speaker with more than thirty years of experience.

Read more about Conney at

Photo credit: Aria Nadii via a Creative Commons license

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Writers Read at Fallbrook Library Presents

Helen Pruden Kaufmann

Discussing her civil rights era memoir

White Gloves and Collards

White Gloves and Collards - Cover ArtPreceded by open mic for original poetry and prose

Date: Tuesday, October 14, from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
Location: Fallbrook Library, 124 S Mission, Fallbrook, 760-731-4650

Growing up in North Carolina along with the civil rights movement, Helen Pruden Kaufmann’s story is one of personal loss amid social revolution. She ultimately became the community liaison for a public school desegregation program in Massachusetts and has written for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford.

White Gloves and Collards will be available for sale and signing by the author.

For more information, contact K-B Gressitt at or 760-522-1064.

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By Penny Perry

HomelessDogMy neighbor and her granddaughter
with faces broad as cauliflowers
say, “Just care for the cats and plants.
We stopped feeding that pesky dog.
Animal control will pick him up.”
Their van, plump as a grape, glides off.

I tell my husband we could keep the dog.
He studies me. Illness has carved hollows
in my cheeks. I’m all long fingers and knees.
“You’re not well enough. We can’t interfere
with his owner’s plans.”

Carrying cat food, I hike up the hill.
The dog who used to rush at me,
all paws and moving tail,
a glad, subservient streak
of black ears and russet chest,
now stands still.
Ribs poke through his fur.
When I brush past him,
he wriggles his nose, then turns, as if
he didn’t smell biscuits in my pocket.

I slip in my neighbors’ house,
dish Fancy Feast in cats’ bowls.
Outside, I whistle and drop kibbles
like Gretel’s bread crumbs
in the dark grove
behind my neighbors’ house.
At first, the wolf-dog swallows
kibbles whole.
Then, like a restaurant critic,
he chews slowly.
His censored, half-throated cry
ends in a wail.
I rub his thin back. “Quiet. We can’t be heard.”
Wetting trees every twenty feet,
he follows me
and stops just sort of the clearing.

Back in sunlight, as if weary from exercise,
I brush hair off my forehead
and wave to my husband from the road.

About Penny Perry

PennyPerryKateHardingMugA three time Pushcart nominee, twice for poetry and once for fiction, my stories and poems have been widely published in literary magazines. Fiction Daily tagged my short story “Haunting the Alley,” published online in Literary Mama in August 2011.

My first collection of poetry, Santa Monica Disposal & Salvage, was published in 2012 by Garden Oak Press. The collection earned praise from Marge Piercy, Steve Kowit, Diane Wakoski, and Maria Gillan.

I was the fiction editor for Knot Literary Magazine, a Middle Eastern literary journal. I was a screenwriting fellow at the American Film Institute, and my movie A Berkeley Christmas aired on PBS. And, I’ve just completed a novel about a school shooting. I write under two names, Penny Perry and Kate Harding.

Photo credit: Rennett Stowe via a Creative Commons license.


Dear Matafele Peinem by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, Civil Society Representative from the Marshall Islands, spoke at the UN Climate Change Summit on 23 September 2014. She concluded her speech with a performance of her poem, “Dear Matafele Peinem.”


A Trip to the Laundromat

A short story by Dan McClenaghan

The clothes dryer crapped out, and since Ruth and Ellis couldn’t afford a new one—or the price of a repairman’s visit—they worked out a routine: Ruth would wash the clothes in the evening, and Ellis would take them to work the next morning and run them down to the laundromat located three blocks from the Loma Alta Café, where he worked as a grill cook.

dryerThis particular morning, it was a basket of whites. They’d been running low. Ellis’ underwear and socks were seeing a second day on his body, and he didn’t even have a clean white work shirt. He’d gone in wearing a plain t-shirt. But at ten-thirty, when there was a post breakfast/pre-lunch lull, he raced to the laundromat and pulled out the warm whites that he’d put in the dryer on his way into the café. He put on a warm work shirt and left the rest of the load in the basket that he put in the trunk of his car. What he didn’t know was that the dryer he’d chosen had contained, at the time of his loading, a lone red thong, a soft, thin-fabric whisper of an underthing that now clung to the back of his fresh shirt via a persistent charge of static electricity, and while Ellis worked the grill, his back faced the service window.

Johanna clipped a ticket on the order wheel, took a look at Ellis, and motioned her fellow waitress Mona over. “Look what old dumb ass is wearing.”

The girls knew right away what that twisted, crinkled little red slash was, and they knew where Ellis had picked it up. His laundry problems were public knowledge due to the necessity of his quick trips to the laundromat. Their reaction to the thong was to complain to him about customer overloads, to get him out of the kitchen when his grill work waned, so he could help with the refilling of coffees and the busing of tables in the dining room of the Loma Alta Café. Then they’d point out to their customers the thong that clung to his back, so everyone could have a good wink and snicker—until Evelyn Lamuraglia, a friend of Ruth and Ellis Leahy who had come in a for her regular mushroom and provolone cheese omelet—grabbed the old boy by the arm as he passed her with the coffee pot, spun him around and tore the thong free.

The air between the thong and the shirt back of Ellis Leahy sizzled. Visible sparks exploded as the flimsy garment rode the airborne electrical charge by hanging in a horizontal alignment, pointing right at Ellis, fluttering madly like a little flag caught in a stiff wind, as the sugar in the bowl on Evelyn’s table rose up and sailed like a flock of tiny white crystalline birds into a vortex in the airspace between shirt and thong. And from the bald head of big, fat Dan Lampro—the real-estate guy who had set himself up in front of a short stack and a couple of fried eggs on table 9—a light brown toupee sailed like a flying Pomeranian at the charged fabric of Ellis Leahy’s white shirt, just as Evelyn set the thong free. Thong and toupee met mid-air, and the faux hair became ensconced in the red triangle meant to cover, just barely, the mystery woman’s pudendum. The toupee, being bigger than the triangle, was visible around the red perimeter.

This all happened in the blink of an eye, before Ellis could turn to see about the commotion. When he did, he discovered what appeared to be a snapping, crackling, disembodied furry muff inside a tiny bikini bottom, on the attack, airborn, coming right at him. Visions of Stephen King novels and alien invasion movies flashed into Ellis Leahy’s mind, and he envisioned behind the red triangle sharp teeth, like a shark’s, surrounded by the otherwise invisible woman’s opulent pubic hair. He screamed and turned to run, but the toupee-thong combination hit him between the shoulder blades and stuck. He screamed louder, at a higher pitch, and banged his way through the swinging door into the kitchen, as Dan Lampro stabbed a fork into his pancakes and said to his waitress Johanna—crumpled to the floor, laughing—that he was going to need his hair back, and Ellis peeled out of his shirt and threw it to the ground and stomped it.


About Dan McClenaghan

DanMcClenaghanMugI write stuff.

I began with my Ruth and Ellis/Clete and Juanita stories in the early 1980s. At the beginning of the new millennium I started writing reviews of jazz CDs, first at American Reporter, and then (and now) at All About Jazz. I’ve tried my hand at novels, without success.

I’ve been published in a bunch of small presses, most notably the now defunct Wormwood Review. This was in the pre-computer age, when we whomped up our stories on typewriters, then rolled down to Kinkos to make copies, which we stuck in manila envelopes, along with a return envelope with return postage attached. Times have changed.

Aside from the writing, I am married to the lovely Denise. We have three wonderful children and five beautiful grandchildren; and I am a two-time winner—1970 and 1971—of the Oceanside Bodysurfing Contest. Kowabunga!

Photo credit: Damien du Toit via a Creative Commons license


It’s On Us

It’s on us—all of us—to stop sexual assault.

Learn what you can do and take the pledge to be part of the solution at It’s On Us, a national campaign to end sexual assault.

If you’ve experienced sexual assault, please visit for resources.


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Father’s Books

By Scott Gressitt


Father’s books and records stacked
upon the shelves he built of pine
reach all the way to his fine crown
that tops each column of his dreams.

A shaft of light about the width
of last night’s box of Jujubes
spans out across the oaken floor
that Mr. Jackson waxed last week.

The only black man in our town,
he walks in line, and bows his head,
“Good morning, Mister,” greeting you.
The Waxin’ Jacksons do their thing.

The light is bright, I pass my hand.
A dust ball, tiny, spinning by,
reminds me of the Milky Way
and planets that my father loves

Some nights he takes me in the yard,
we tilt our heads back, turn around.
OK son, there’s Orion’s Belt
and there, the North Star, number one.

He talks of how we are so small.
The universe, which is so vast,
is bigger than we can begin
to fathom from our point of view.

Mother walks into the room.
I look up from my reverie,
pull my hands out from the shaft
of light so bright I scarce can see.

My eyes adjust. Her cotton dress
is crisp with starch and crumbs of toast.
A wave of smell that she pushed in
breaks all around her, fills my nose.

There—bacon, whole wheat, scrambled eggs
I know each smell and something quirts
beneath my tongue and fills my mouth
so full of spit, I swallow hard.

This moment in the bright June day
is burned in me indelibly.
My mother, dead, still walks around
in many of the thoughts I have.

As I get up to break my fast
I see the Atlas of the World.
The biggest book that Father owns,
it stands alone beside Coltrane.


ScottGressittMugAn amateur writer and rapscallion, I write of my past, a life laden with extraordinary events.

I have walked in places most of the population avoids.

Besides scars and bruises, I’ve collected experiences that frighten, delight and entertain.

I write with the intent to take you on a wild ride where all your senses are fully engaged.


Milky Way photo credit: John Fowler via a Creative Commons license


BOOK REVIEW: Full Measure by T. Jefferson Parker

Reviewed by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

Join Parker at Writers Read at the Fallbrook Library, 124 S. Mission Road, on Tues, Sep 23, at 6 p.m., for an early launch of Full Measure. Parker will also be visiting the Encinitas Library at 12:15 p.m. on Sun, Oct 18.

Join Parker at Writers Read at Fallbrook Library, 124 S. Mission Road, on Tues, Sep 23, at 6 p.m., for an early launch of Full Measure.

T. Jefferson Parker, a New York Times bestselling author lauded for his vivid crime thrillers, has written what he calls his first literary novel, Full Measure (St. Martin’s Press, October 7, 2014). The novel is ostensibly the story of Patrick Norris, a young Marine returned from war in Afghanistan to face the struggle of transitioning to civilian life in his hometown, bucolic Fallbrook, Calif. Norris’ ranching parents and much of the community have just suffered devastating losses to a wildfire. Norris’ older bother Ted, a troubled ne’er-do-well, is entangled in a personal battle to gain recognition for doing something right in an unaccepting world. And the town is disturbed by the ramifications of the hit-and-run death of a 10-year-old Latino.

In keeping with Parker’s writing tradition, Full Measure is rich with mysteries: Will Patrick survive the emotional repercussions of war to find peace and love? Who started the wildfire? Will Patrick’s parents be able to salvage their burned avocado ranch? Who hit and killed the jaywalking child on Mission Road? What is the “big important thing” Ted is determined to accomplish?

But in contrast to Parker’s other books, Full Measure’s antagonists are not craven drug lords or sadistic henchmen fighting gory battles along the U.S.-Mexico border. They are the flaws, the contradictions, the hurdles that the characters confront internally. Even the return to Fallbrook of a racist activist is a relatively benign act, given meaning only when Ted engages him in his secret plan. These internal conflicts lend Full Measure abundant tension; the characters are true; the drama, compelling; the climax, shocking and poignant. But none of this is what the book is really about.


NYT bestselling author T. Jefferson Parker

At its heart, Full Measure is about the quest for identity, for self, the desire to be an integral part of something in the place one calls home. Patrick knew who he was and with whom he belonged while he was in Afghanistan, but without the focus of war and the camaraderie of warriors, he flounders from PTSD flashback to flashback, from memory to memory of killed brethren, from his desired future to his father’s expectations. Patrick finds himself lost in what had been the familiar territory of his childhood.

Similarly, his father is desperate to keep his ranch—his identity—alive, to maintain a legacy to be handed off to the next generation and the next.

And then there’s Ted. It is Ted who, despite his psychosis, comes closest to articulating the book’s heartbeat: “I felt damned my whole life. But now my big important thing is half accomplished. I’m almost done. I’ll be remembered for it. And it will make the world better.”

In the course of telling this family’s stories, Parker defines their world, the place they call home, with intimate kindness. Fallbrook is represented in the novel, for the most part, as it is today: a town where eccentrics stand out, unable to blend into an urban throng, where small businesses come and go with the seasons, where social connections are incestuous, where memories of the town’s evacuation during the 2007 wildfires remain fresh. The author peppers the text with mentions of well-known Fallbrook locations, in which the book’s action takes place, and local folks who keep the town on its toes. There’s Las Brisas and Rosa’s and Robertito’s, in perpetual competition for the best tacos. Joe’s Hardware and Happy Jug Liquor and “Vince Ross Village Square.” Café des Artistes and charming host Michael. Los Jilgueros Preserve and Café Primo and the Econo Suites. A local reporter from the “Village View.” That awful intersection on Mission that really needs a traffic light (and final got one after the novel’s completion). Even the Fallbrook Democratic Club receives a nod.

Parker has rendered this ranching and bedroom community with artful craft, incorporating its socio-economic disparity, its survival of the 30-year residency of an internationally notorious racist, and its proximity to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. Parker’s Fallbrook is, in his novel and in fact, a community to which wounded warriors struggle to return and thrive, amid diverse people who unite in the face of adversity, whether natural or manmade.

Full Measure is fiction with a true heart, one that beats of the search for self in a town that will be familiar to people across the nation. And there’s one more thing: Full Measure is surely a love letter—from Parker to Fallbrook and those who come home to it.

The public is invited to join T. Jefferson Parker at Writers Read at Fallbrook Library, 124 S. Mission Road, on Tuesday, September 23, at 6 p.m., for an early launch of Full Measure. The novel will be available for sale ($28.07, including tax) and signing. Parker will also be visiting Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in San Diego on Thursday, October 9 at 7p.m., and the Encinitas Library at 12:15 p.m. on Sunday, October 18.

Click here to read more about T. Jefferson Parker and Full Measure.

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Why I Think This World Should End by Prince Ea

Learn more about Richard Williams, stage name Prince Ea.

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