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The Right To Live

Irene Vilar has survived personal trauma, family tragedies, and a shocking number of abortions to become a sought-after writer and scholar. But will her scandalous choices ever allow this devoted mother of two—or the rest of the world—to make peace with her past?

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This article was a finalist for the 2012 City and Regional Magazine Award in the personality profile category. 

Story hour is set to begin in the sunny children’s corner of the Boulder Public Library. About 15 kids, rosy-cheeked from the early March chill and bundled in miniature Crocs and North Face fleeces, cluster around a bright yellow rocking chair. Doting moms and dads sit cross-legged on the floor and stay within arm’s reach of their offspring to keep the squirminess at bay. As this morning’s reader settles into the rocker, a librarian invites them to give her a warm welcome. Irene Vilar, she says, is the accomplished author of a memoir entitled Impossible Motherhood. It sounds like just another parenting tome, and there’s little response. They might have reacted differently if the librarian had shown them the book’s cover, which features a simple outline of a woman’s hourglass figure and 15 tally marks, in red ink, over her womb. Or perhaps, if the librarian hadn’t omitted the book’s subtitle: Testimony of an Abortion Addict.

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•• Instead, polite applause fuels Vilar’s radiant smile. Clad in jeans and a flowing, black gypsy top with contrasting embroidery, the 40-year-old Puerto Rican–American embodies a gentle yet contradictory grace. Her sweeping brown hair frames features that are simultaneously delicate and sharp, and her dark, limpid eyes harbor both penetrating strength and fragile wistfulness. “We’re going to read from a book that will help us count to 10,” she says, holding up a picture book plastered with illustrations of waddling ducks. A boy reaches up to the page, which shows a duck that makes a sound when properly pressed. The toddler can’t quite figure it out, so Vilar gently takes his tiny fingers in her own and presses the page until the duck quacks, sending him into a peal of giggles as her eyes crinkle into an equally delighted smile. Echoed by a staggered chorus of singsongy voices, she switches between English and her native Spanish as she turns the pages. “Numero uno, dos, tres,” she continues with a patience honed by the motherhood she once thought might be impossible.

And yet, sprawled out on the carpet in front of her, Vilar’s two little girls bask in their mother’s soothing lilt. Loretta, five, and Lolita, three, are exquisite replications of Vilar, both with flowing dark hair and cocoa eyes that spark with curiosity, intelligence, and life. The girls are fluent in both languages, and though they’ve likely heard this story before, perhaps many times, they’re still enthralled by this woman who has very deliberately made them the center of her universe.

The 15 sets of tiny eyes and ears stay fixed on Vilar, and as her gaze flits between the pages and those innocent faces—with their freckled cheeks, tousled hair, and fidgeting vitality—a faint sadness for each of them lingers in her eyes. Perhaps it’s because 15 is the number of her own would-be children who never got the chance to have a story read to them. Perhaps it’s because 15 is the number of times, in about as many years, that Irene Vilar entered a clinic and asked a doctor to remove the baby growing inside her.

The debate about when a human comes into being was supposed to have ended in 1973. That’s the year Roe v. Wade, riding the momentum of the nascent women’s equality movement, established the right to choose—the legal, though still limited, freedom to have an abortion. Rather than resolving the discussion, however, the Supreme Court’s decision ignited passionate disputes and divided the country. Around 50 million abortions have been performed in the United States since the ruling. According to the Guttmacher Institute, originally founded as the research branch of Planned Parenthood, almost half of American pregnancies are unintended, and four in 10 of these accidental pregnancies end in abortion. About 22 percent of all U.S. pregnancies are aborted, and nearly half the women who abort have had at least one previous abortion.

The arguments are familiar. Pro-life advocates often believe terminating a pregnancy is murder. Pro-choice supporters counter that a woman should have autonomous control over her body—particularly her reproductive system. Those in the gray area cling to “only if” conditions of rape and incest and tiptoe around the unanswerable questions: When does a fertilized egg become a person? At what point can someone rationally be held responsible for denying life to another?

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In November, Coloradans voted down Amendment 62, the Colorado Personhood initiative, by a 70–30 margin. The measure would have extended constitutional rights “to every human being from the beginning of the biological development of that human being.” It was written to render abortion illegal in all circumstances. A nearly identical amendment garnered only 27 percent support in 2008, but the back-to-back landslide defeats don’t mean the issue is going away. The American electorate’s inability to reconcile its diametrically opposed views has already influenced the debate over health-care reform and stem-cell research. And although Amendment 62 didn’t make it into the Colorado constitution this time, similar measures have appeared on many other state ballots in the past year. Both sides have become so entrenched and intractable that even if the Supreme Court’s makeup changes enough to overturn Roe v. Wade, the battle over women’s reproductive rights may never end.

Irene Vilar, now 41, waded into this morass in 2009 with Impossible Motherhood (Other Press), her autobiographical attempt to provide an alternative to the hopelessly polarized abortion rhetoric. The memoir, a cathartic self-exposé of her disturbing marionettelike existence, chronicles how Vilar, beginning at age 17, underwent 15 abortions in 16 years. Vilar carefully chose the term “abortion addict” to complete the book’s subtitle. She knew it would incite controversy and backlash, and after the book’s release, headlines surged overseas. Foreign-language glossies put Vilar on their covers, and bloggers for obscure activist groups raged about the woman who had so blatantly taunted the world with her apparent disregard for life.

Although news outlets such as the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times wrote about Vilar after Impossible Motherhood’s release, her story received much more muted coverage in the United States than it did abroad. (Despite the lack of widespread domestic attention, Vilar still felt compelled to obtain unusually stringent—and ongoing—security measures for herself and her family.) TV shows including Good Morning America and the Tyra Show invited her to interview for possible appearances—and, according to Vilar, they all backed out once they realized she wouldn’t allow herself to be portrayed the way their audiences might expect. “America has digested it differently,” Vilar says. “The Tyra Show e-mailed me a script. I feel like they wanted me to play the victim. I said, ‘No way.’?”

Both camps in the abortion debate have tried to co-opt Vilar’s extreme history. One side argues that she’s the poster child for the pro-choice movement; the other reviles her as an egregious example of why a pro-life agenda is so critical. In the impassioned but academic tone she so often strikes, Vilar insists that she’s trying to move away from the pro-choice/pro-life pigeonholing in favor of a “more evolved” stance on abortion and women’s rights, which she’s dubbed “pro-voice.” In Impossible Motherhood, she refers to her decisions, collectively, as a pathology that she explores, intellectualizes—and sometimes rationalizes. “Because abortion has been so politicized and polarized, there’s no space to have a voice,” she says. “It’s no-man’s land. There’s legislation, a civil rights language, but when you don’t have a language, you act out. I’m writing for women’s studies, not abortionists. Through cycles of oppression, this is one woman’s testimony of how she broke free. My hope is that it’ll find its way to women who need to understand their own motives when they become destructive.”

Recognizing and avoiding self-destruction is a common theme in Vilar’s work. Impossible Motherhood, in fact, was her second memoir. Her first, The Ladies’ Gallery, explains the complex legacies Vilar inherited from her mother and grandmother. And after Impossible Motherhood was released, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to begin working on an autobiographical novel and a third memoir, The Middle of the Night—a reflection, ironically, on contemporary childrearing.

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In each book, Vilar surveys her life with a narrative style that often reads as if these extraordinary events happened to someone else. Her insightful, yet emotionally detached retelling describes the influences that have shaped her addiction and facilitated her recovery, and her words are alternately moving and blunt. If Impossible Motherhood was a forum for her to expunge the secrets she’d avoided revealing in her first memoir and to overcome her addictive cycle, The Middle of the Night is meant to reconcile her past shame with a healthy approach to her new identity as a nurturing parent. Whether her current publishing house will pick up the book’s option, however, is unclear. What is certain is that no matter how many ivory-tower, psycho-historical theories Vilar presents to justify her past decisions, and regardless of whether The Middle of the Night ever sees the light of day, Vilar knows she’ll never truly shed the scars of her past, and she has no desire to wedge herself into anyone’s black-and-white judgments of what her choices say about her character.

It became routine, almost ritualistic, the dance she did between rebellion and control. Time and again, from her late teens into her 30s, Vilar “forgot” to take her birth control pills. She welcomed the flushed feeling and physical changes of being pregnant, and she often waited until the last viable minute before calling the clinic. She browsed the infant sections at stores and kept her condition secret. She also disregarded the responsibilities of pregnancy, rarely turning down cocktails or wine, subconsciously (or perhaps consciously) knowing the decision she’d eventually make. Until then, she reveled in the thrill of feeling a life grow inside of her, of owning a fantasy that started with a missed monthly period and ended with a pair of cold stirrups and a hospital gown.

Vilar funded the procedures with her father’s irregular allowance checks or by borrowing from a friend. Although she would later recount the procedures almost casually, the emotional repercussions were such that she tried to kill herself three times by age 21; one attempt landed her in a psychiatric hospital for two months. The isolation gave her time to contemplate what had brought her to this harrowing place:

Puerto Rico, 1977. Eight-year-old Irene (pronounced “ee-REH-neh”) sat in the back seat of her family’s Mazda, returning from her brother’s wedding. In the driver’s seat, her father stared straight ahead. He’d been drinking a little too much, as always, and dancing a little too closely with some attractive young lady at the reception—merely the latest of his many paramours. Irene’s mother Gladys sat silently beside him, her shoulders slumped in a look of defeat all too familiar to the little girl. As they turned onto the expressway, Gladys suddenly shoved open the passenger door. Irene desperately lunged for her mother, but Gladys pulled her arm from her daughter’s fierce yet futile grip, ending more than 20 years of depression and Valium addiction on a slab of rushing pavement.

For more than a decade in mid-20th-century Puerto Rico, the U.S. government, under the stated goal of reducing poverty, tried to limit the number of children that women could bear. Physicians persuaded many Puerto Rican women of childbearing age to undergo “La Operación”—including Gladys when she was 33 years old—telling them that sterilization was the best method of birth control. By 1977, about 40 percent of Puerto Rican women—the highest proportion in the world—had been sterilized. There was little informed consent for these procedures, just an assumption that the women were too poor and uneducated to demand control of their own bodies.

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Growing up in this reproductively repressed society would later influence Vilar’s own compulsive efforts to seize the control her mother had been denied. After Gladys’ death, Vilar’s remaining female role model was even more complicated. Her grandmother, Lolita Lebron, was a Puerto Rican nationalist, revered hero, and gritty leader. As a young woman, Lebron had sold herself into sexual servitude to secure housing on a plantation for her impoverished family. The plantation’s owner fathered Gladys. When the baby was just eight months old, Lebron abandoned her daughter and moved to New York City to escape her captivity and to lead a more progressive life. She became a leader in Puerto Rico’s independence movement and was so ardently devoted that in 1954, she and three other armed activists stormed the U.S. Capitol and opened fire on 240 members of Congress, wounding five. Lebron served about half of a 57-year sentence in a West Virginia prison until President Jimmy Carter pardoned her in 1979—not long after Gladys had thrown herself from a moving car. The first time eight-year-old Irene met her grandmother was at her mother’s funeral.

Burdened by these twin influences, Vilar struggled to comprehend her obligations to herself, her family, and her homeland. After her mother’s death, her father’s alcoholism persisted while her two brothers crumbled into a pit of heroin addiction. Vilar was forced to all but raise herself. “Shame breeds shame,” Vilar says. “Shame was an inherited trait. The female role models in my life were shamed and ashamed, politically and sexually. [My grandmother’s] attack on Congress was her own cry for self-determination and breakage from colonial shame—yet both her abandonment and her political actions bred shame for my mother, who then had to grapple with feelings of unworthiness and political persecution on the island.”

Vilar found comfort, success, and ultimately escape in her studies. She began attending boarding school in New Hampshire when she was 10 and was admitted to Syracuse University at 15. It was there that she met Pedro Cuperman. Although he was 34 years her senior and had four ex-wives, the dashing Argentine professor of Latin American literature was alluring to the teenager who was battling her own emptiness and confusion. He enticed her with his bold intellectual ideals: Having children, he preached, destroys the relationship between a man and woman. Families are “nests of suffering” that create boredom and constraints which dull romantic desire. For their budding relationship to work, he said, they both had to be free: no children, no conforming to society’s roles, no depending on anyone or anything—or letting anyone be dependent on you. “It was so seductive and dangerous because it was disguised as feminism,” Vilar says. “I bought it. You can’t have choices when you’re engaged in a pathology.” (Cuperman, who still serves on the Syracuse faculty, did not return e-mails or phone calls seeking comment.) On their first night together, a tryst in a parked car under a frigid October sky in 1987, Vilar became pregnant. Three weeks later, at 17 years old, she felt the cold shock of the sterile metal table for the first time.

She later would derisively refer to him as “the Master,” but right then, Cuperman was the only thing that filled Vilar’s emotional void, and her existence revolved around keeping him. She stayed free of the “burden” of children. She dropped everything for months at a time between semesters to gallivant around the Bahamas on his sailboat, where he expected her to join him as long as he didn’t have to foot the bill for her travels, absentee rent, or any other expenses. That, he said, was a step backward; a true feminist shouldn’t want that kind of help.

After they’d been together for four years, the professor proposed. By then Vilar had terminated five pregnancies—having disclosed some, but not all, to Cuperman—and had tried to take her own life three times. “I know today my suicide attempts were due to my destructive efforts to banish the awareness of my impotence, my fear of the outside world, through a man who could not offer me the safety I had searched for all my life,” she writes in Impossible Motherhood. “I cloaked myself in the shadow of the power he represented, hoping to not look weak, worthless. But it did not protect my self-esteem or chase away the anxiety gnawing at me.” Over the next decade, she would have 10 more abortions, interspersed with four more suicide attempts—a bottle of Tylenol washed down with vodka, a knife to the wrist, the stove’s gas flame left burning in their small apartment. Once they were married, she could have pushed for children, but through it all, her husband expressed his pride in her for being better than all the other washed-up, family-obsessed women he’d been with. She was different, he told her—exceptional.

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Getting pregnant, Vilar came to understand, was the only way to defy him. She describes it as a high, the rush of knowing she had the ultimate power to produce life, to foster a bond that had evaporated after her mother died. But ultimately, it was all just a fantasy. The professor always won. The child was never born. “I had no control over my mother’s decision to abandon me,” she writes. “But I had control over my body. I could impregnate myself [sic] and abort; no one else could control my fate when I showed such strange ownership. Repeat abortions ‘remembered’ an element of the experience of death and abandonment. If my mother chose death over me, I chose to tell the story fifteen terrifying times.”

Throughout the ’90s, Vilar channeled her anguish and energy into her first book. She initially wrote what her husband told her to write—her personalized riffs on his intellectual theories and self-serving opinions. Eventually, the task of writing brought her solace, strength, and a waning tolerance for her husband’s narcissism. She began to recognize the frailty of his advancing age, and the revelation propelled her into a brief affair with another professor. When she told her husband about her 12th pregnancy, he offered her the one thing she’d yearned to hear for years: He finally was willing to start a family. It was an attempt to salvage their marriage, but his words rang hollow. She no longer cared what he wanted. Her 12th abortion became her last act of defiance.

The couple divorced in 1998 when Vilar was 29. For several years, Vilar meandered through life at Syracuse. She worked on a master of fine arts degree in nonfiction and re-established ties with her family, yet never quite became comfortable being alone. She met a man in the frozen meat section of the supermarket, quickly moved in with him, and soon aborted pregnancies 13, 14, and 15. This man actually wanted children, and each time she decided to abort he called her selfish. It was an upended version of the past 10 years. Her abortions had been driven by the professor’s wishes to remain childless. But these last three, she told herself, arose from her desire to defy expectations.

By 2003, Vilar had finally planned an escape from Syracuse to the solitude of coastal Maine, a perfect refuge for writing. Shortly before she left, she attended a writers’ workshop in Vermont. At a cafe one night, amid the lure of Latin music, she met another man, a writer and musician from Colorado. Six weeks later—having spent only 15 days in each other’s presence—the two married.

Vilar had told her new mate about her past. What would have been an insurmountable red flag for most was instead unifying—a challenge they could confront and leave behind. “In our seven years together, we’ve rarely squabbled and almost never fought,” Vilar’s husband says. “Each of us seems to want to understand where the other is coming from. Irene had a troubled past, and it worried me a little at first—not because I judged her for it, but because I’d been through a tough first marriage and didn’t want to repeat my mistakes.”

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She moved with him to Colorado, where she continued to work on her second book. She wrote of her former Master’s appeal, of lying on steely clinic tables, promising herself it would be the last time, and of the lies she told herself, her family, her doctors, and her lovers. The prose in Impossible Motherhood often reads as if Vilar can’t bear to dwell too deeply on her decisions; she describes her abortions and suicide attempts almost casually—sudden, off-handed mentions of swallowing a bottle of pills or a grim trip to Dr. “Y”. The scenes are abrupt and unapologetic, rendered in a voice that would later inflame readers and invite harsh criticism, some from people who wished her dead. The memoir was still a work in progress when Vilar became pregnant for the 16th and 17th times.

Piano notes tinkle through the cluttered rooms of Vilar’s Front Range home one morning this past spring. The Dutch colonial house, shaded by towering oak and apricot trees, sits on a manicured street, with a blue plastic swing hanging from a branch in the front yard and a red wagon resting haphazardly on the flagstone walkway. Inside, finger-painted masterpieces are taped to the walls, crayons roll across the floor, and stray Cheerios live between the cushions of the couch. Worn stuffed animals, dress-up tutus, and homemade projects are crammed into every corner, and breakfast dishes clutter the kitchen counter. Family photos from Puerto Rico hang framed on the wall, and more recent snapshots cover the fridge.

Lolita sings along to her fumbling piano scale with charming obliviousness while Loretta practices math problems. Both girls are dressed in brown and pink outfits and Crocs. Vilar homeschools her daughters, an exhausting routine that requires her to be a teacher, a mother, and an entertainer. It leaves little time for her work as an editor for Texas Tech University Press, so she squeezes it in after the girls’ bedtime.

In the sunny schoolroom-slash-playroom, concentration is dissipating. Loretta abandons her notebook to show off a Lego house while Lolita bounces happily on the piano bench, her music book forgotten. Vilar cajoles them into one more subtraction problem, one more piano scale, with tender encouragement that never seems to slip into irritation. Twenty minutes later, the girls are bundled in coats and hats. Vilar tows the red wagon, which carries Lolita, tucked under a blanket, her coloring book and dolly clutched close—a princess in her chariot. Loretta leads the way along the familiar route, and today they make a special stop for ice cream. Content with their treats and the board games and puzzles the ice cream parlor stocks for just this reason, the girls play quietly, giggling, enamored of the unfamiliar playthings and wholly absorbed in each other—a mother’s dream.

Addictions don’t die overnight. After Vilar got pregnant with Loretta, she agonized over whether she was finally ready, at long last, to become a mother. “I realized that for years,” she writes in Impossible Motherhood, “I had wrestled, without knowing, with whether a relationship should continue to develop between myself as mother, and a fetus as child, and between myself and my body, my history, and my future.” For months after getting pregnant, she stopped working on her book and endured haunting dreams and painful memories about her past decisions. She prayed, and she even confided to her husband that she wanted to abort yet again. He listened, and comforted her with the reassurance that she would be “a ferociously loving mother pouring all your boundless love where it will thrive for real.” A short time later, she resumed her work: “How can I give testimony to the horror I precipitated upon a girl fifteen different times?” she writes. “Yes, I am an abortion addict and I do not wish for a scapegoat. Everything can be explained, justified, our last century tells us. Everything may be [explained] except for the burden of life interrupted that shall die with me.” Upon finishing this passage, Vilar found that for the first time, she finally was able to visualize the face of her daughter.

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The family does, of course, have its moments. The days can get long, especially when Dad, a member of two Denver bands, is off touring. (Because of his public life, Vilar and her husband asked that his name not be used in this story.) When quarrels arise and feelings get hurt, Vilar ushers the girls to their child-size forum for conflict resolution—a tiny green table they’ve affectionately dubbed the Peace Table. Here, they talk out their frustrations, no judgments allowed. It’s a haven Vilar created as much for herself as for the girls, because it’s conflict that Vilar dreads the most.

She calls it “panic of growth,” the fear that change will end badly and bring loss—maybe even the loss of her daughters’ love. It’s irrational, yet unavoidable, given the trauma Vilar has experienced. She understands that her daughters need to challenge what they know, and right now, what they know is their mama. She realizes they’re sheltered, but it’s a shelter she lovingly and purposely built. Loretta was two when Lolita was born, yet Vilar didn’t stop breast-feeding the toddler after her baby sister arrived. She says nursing them together, facing one another and holding hands, helped establish a bond, a shared understanding that they’re loved and nourished equally by their mother.

On a recent summer night, long past the girls’ bedtime, a small circle of friends—writers, artists, poets, musicians—lounges in the patio chairs in Vilar’s backyard, sharing wine, cheese, and crackers. A guest notices the giant chalkboard on the side of the garage; it’s where they have lessons when the weather is nice. “How long will you continue homeschooling them?” someone asks. Vilar pauses. “Until it doesn’t work anymore,” she says finally.

Then she brightens. “The girls are best friends, though,” she gushes. “They just love each other so much.” All eyes in the small group are trained on her now as she continues animatedly. “It was so cute the other day, when they were just caressing each other and telling each other how much they love each other,” she says. “They were fantasizing about their afterlife—how they would be together forever and live in these beautiful castles together in their afterlife.” She stops, her eyes sparkling in the flickering candlelight. “That’s wonderful,” a guest finally says. “Really wonderful.”

After spending so many years as the marionette, Vilar has become the puppeteer, slowly figuring out how to control her own life—and the lives of her daughters, who frequently test their mother’s fear of conflict. For all her personal growth, Vilar is still tormented by the idea of setting normal parental boundaries—something as simple as denying Lolita that third cookie or reprimanding Loretta for wading too far into a stream. After such seemingly banal incidents, Vilar frequently locks herself in the bathroom to talk herself down. “My mother and father modeled that conflict never ends well,” she says. “When your mother and father are arguing, and your mother jumps out of a moving car….” Her voice rises a notch before she trails off and starts again. “With my daughters, I’ve had to really birth myself. I thought I did it through writing, but that was just the prologue. I have to fight the part of me that wants to immediately establish safety.” The notion seems contradictory, but in Vilar’s world, establishing safety means not only protecting her daughters, but also avoiding the conflict—and sometimes, the discipline—that comes with parenting.

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Her wariness is understandable. After the release of Impossible Motherhood, Vilar—and by extension, her family—became a target. One online commenter said Vilar should be shot 15 times, one bullet for each of the children she killed, and a hate group popped up on Facebook. Perhaps most chilling for Vilar were the accusations that she is unfit to be a mother, that her kids should be taken from her. “At times I thought it wasn’t worth it; there were a couple of months when I always had the doors locked,” Vilar says. “I wouldn’t leave the girls, even for a moment.”

Although the family was prepared to leave the country if the response to the book became too harsh, it never came to that. Even so, they decided to enroll in Colorado’s Address Confidentiality Program (ACP). The free, state-run program is designed primarily to protect victims of abuse, stalking, or sexual offenses. The program gives Vilar’s family a substitute address with accompanying mail-forwarding, to make their contact information unsearchable to the public. “Obviously, the publication of [Impossible Motherhood] roused fears we were not used to dealing with,” Vilar’s husband says. “But we handled them the same as we would handle any overwhelming period—by hunkering down together and doing the work necessary to get through it.” He notes how proud he is of his wife’s courage, despite the controversy the book created. “I was never opposed to her writing the book,” he says. “I believed she needed to write it, and that this was a book that truly needed to be out in the world.”

Vilar shopped Impossible Motherhood to 51 publishers before Judith Gurewich at the New York City–based Other Press bought its rights. “I’m a sociologist by training,” Gurewich says. “I thought it was an extraordinary situation. It was a curiosity.” Unfortunately, it earned more knee-jerk judgment than revenue; the book sold a miserable 4,000 copies in the United States. Gurewich made her money back by selling the foreign rights to Italy, France, Germany, and Australia. “People here are self-righteous,” Gurewich says. “The right and the left—neither one is particularly interested in reading; they’re just interested in debating. And I think people are much less squeamish in Europe than in the United States.”

Gurewich says she publishes books more for their human-interest potential than for their profitability. This hasn’t kept her from second-guessing Impossible Motherhood. She wonders if she should have considered a less provocative cover image or a less jarring subtitle. “She has absolutely no addiction to abortion,” Gurewich says, “but she felt incapable of relinquishing control. And I think she still does.” She’s unsure whether The Middle of the Night will show that Vilar has left her control issues behind. “I haven’t contracted her next book yet, but I certainly have an option,” Gurewich says. “I’ll be very curious if her relationship with authority has changed. I have no idea what the outcome of the book will be, and I’m reserving judgment.”

Impossible Motherhood hit the shelves with a glowing back-cover endorsement penned by Gloria Feldt, former president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a prominent activist for women’s rights, and a onetime teenage mother. Feldt has since taken a dim view of Vilar’s efforts to dodge the pro-choice label. “Guess what?” Feldt says, “[Abortion] is politicized. It’s better to grapple with the controversy head-on. Pro-voice, to me, is a cop-out.” And although Vilar calls herself a feminist, Feldt isn’t convinced. “I really think that’s her intent,” Feldt says. “Her story is one of personal growth, and that is a feminist story. But I don’t think it serves the larger movement. Feminism is about moving social justice for everyone.”

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Vilar says her confession is more about understanding, analyzing, and healing than taking a stance. “My whole impetus in writing was to own my story,” she says, “and to empower other people to own theirs.” She freely admits she may never fully recover from the trauma of her decisions. “I don’t strive for that,” she says. “I will always have an underlying, subterranean anxiety and fear that things will go wrong. But what I do have is an awareness of it.”

This heightened awareness comes from her personalized healing process. For three years, she saw a therapist three times a week, and she still checks in via phone during particularly trying moments. She turns to certain people who cross her path at serendipitous times—she calls them “angel beings”—such as her mother-in-law, Dorothy, who has mothered Vilar like her own mother never did. And Vilar believes in “Latina spirituality,” which she describes as “a faith inherent in yourself, no matter how bad you feel. I don’t have it yet. But I can smell it. It’s coming from my mothering.”

In fact, Vilar thinks of herself as a mother to three young girls: Lolita, Loretta, and “little Irenita,” the eight-year-old child who watched her mother kill herself, and who grew into the college student who chose abortion time and again to keep the Master. “With the language I have developed to understand my actions, I’m able to split myself off and feel remorse for the teenage girl I did this to,” Vilar says. “Now I’m able to mother her, with empathy toward the girl to whom I perpetuated all these horrors. Every day I have to talk to and soothe little Irenita. She was eight years old, sitting in the car when her mother got killed. But she won’t ever be given the keys to drive again.”

And what would happen if Lolita or Loretta came to her at 16 or 17 years old with the news that she was pregnant? A silence stretches before Vilar answers. “I’d try, as much as I can, to allow her the space she needs not to act out,” she says. “Hopefully, I would have raised the girls with enough compassion, empathy, and respect that they would make the most compassionate choice—for themselves.”

It’s a tranquil night in July, and Vilar is relaxing with a glass of red wine in her backyard. She’s reflecting on her recent trip to Louisville, Kentucky, where she addressed the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, including the governor of Puerto Rico, about mental health issues in the Latina community. She’d stood before the mostly male attendees and told the story of her dysfunctional family life, her mothering fantasies, her feelings of inadequacy, and her political ignorance. “With each pregnancy, I defied him as much as I defied the politics of sterilization that took my mother away from me,” she told the audience. “I wanted control over my body, and the way I chose to have control could not have been more terrible. By the time I lay in an abortion clinic waiting for the procedure to begin, I would feel nothing but disgust and shame. When I left the clinic, I felt a calm respite, surrender. I always said to myself then, ‘This has to end.’?” She told her story so movingly—exposing her rationalizations and explaining the powerless anguish so many Latina women have shared—that when she finally looked up at the audience, most of the men had tears running down their cheeks. It was, for Vilar, the ultimate pro-voice moment.

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The trip to Louisville had taken only a day; Vilar scheduled it so she could be back to tuck in her daughters that same night. It was her first time away from the girls, and she laughs now at how she panicked when her flight home was delayed, ruefully recounting the anxiety she now realizes was irrational. Then, softly, a noise escapes a bedroom window upstairs: the sound of crying. Vilar stops mid-sentence with a barely audible gasp. Without a word, she runs through the back door and up the stairs, all pretense of conversation abandoned. In seconds the crying stops. The next 20 minutes go by with only the sound of crickets chirping in the night air, her hosting duties on hold, as Irene Vilar soothes her little girl back to sleep.

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