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?
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.
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.
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.”