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?
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.
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.
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.”