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?
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.”
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.