Ritual Confessions

February 24, 2008

…and I barely knew my name (continued)

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 8:16 am

It’s been a while, but it has been driven home to me before: the idea that you think you know who you are until you go somewhere very different and live there long enough to lose the mooring of your former shores.

Not long after college, I lived on two different Indian reservations in South Dakota. (Native American was the phrase my collegiate peers had used when speaking of this demographic, and yet during the year I spent living with the Lakota tribe, I never once heard anyone refer to him- or herself as a Native American. They called themselves Indians, and so that is the word I tend to use as well.) That was the last time I listened to country music on a daily basis, because there was literally nothing else on the airwaves.

Anyway, throughout high school and college I’d been pro-choice. It’s easy to be pro-choice in the northeast, especially in New York City, especially in an academic setting. I’d never questioned my conviction and my stance had never wavered. Then I went to South Dakota.

Everyone, everyone there was pro-life. All the Indians I knew voted for George H.W. Bush during that year’s election, solely for that reason. There was one moment during my time there that made me reel in confusion over this issue, and I’ll recount it here:

My housemate, Dean, was a born-again Christian. He’d coached a young girl from the reservation in the Special Olympics and I met her the afternoon she’d won the fifty-yard dash. I was sitting on our front steps when Dean brought her by: a beautiful child with long black hair and a coat flung over her shoulders like a cape. As I admired her gold medal and we exchanged small talk, I couldn’t stop wondering: what in the world is her disability? She was clearly in possession of a fine intelligence. Her face bore none of the trademark features of fetal alcohol syndrome. Standing there, she appeared regal and confident and sharply self-possessed. I couldn’t very well ask, “What’s wrong with you?” But I also couldn’t put the question out of my mind. It took a good fifteen minutes to realize that she had no arms.

Later that evening, Dean and I were talking over dinner.

“I was so impressed by Leslie,” I told him, referring to the girl. “She really seems amazing.”

“She is amazing,” he said hotly. “She’s brave and beautiful and awe-inspiring and just the sweetest kid there is, and you would have snuffed her out like a cockroach without a second thought.”



  1. I’m not sure whether there’s more to this story, but in my mind, at least, being pro-choice is a far broader issue than making the decision to abort a child who is likely to have birth defects.

    To me, it’s more about the right of every child to come into a loving,stable environment where he or she is likely to be given the necessary things in order to thrive and have a chance at a fulfilling life.

    I suppose it’s arguable that any life is better than no life at all … but I know I’m not the only person who thinks that’s a specious argument. Looking at my cousin’s family in California, and the children there who were born addicted to drugs and who grew up to give birth to damaged children who cannot learn to read, who are so emotionally stunted and abused that they’ll never have a chance at normal lives, I can’t help thinking that the lucky kids in that family are the ones who were never born, the ones who were in fact aborted by my cousin rather than coming into that horrifying situation.

    I don’t necessarily think it’s right to “play God” by choosing to abort a child who is likely to be deformed or disabled, but I also don’t necessarily think it’s a good idea to give birth to children when there are inadequate resources of emotional responsibility available to them. I would hate to see a world in which a woman didn’t have the right to acknowledge and act upon her own lack of resources to be an appropriate parent. Yes, there’s adoption … but even a cursory study of the trauma babies endure when they can’t immediately bond with a primary caregiver would suggest that adoption isn’t necessarily the happy option it’s always presented to be.

    Comment by davidrochester — February 24, 2008 @ 8:35 am

  2. to acknowledge and act upon her own lack of resources to be an appropriate parent

    And by that, I mean to include everyone who may be involved … a woman who doesn’t have the involvement of her child’s father,or who does not have supportive family and friends, probably doesn’t have the resources she needs to be an appropriate parent, through no deliberate fault of her own.

    Comment by davidrochester — February 24, 2008 @ 8:38 am

  3. Just to clarify … I didn’t miss the point of the post, which is that environment and culture can impact identity. That in itself is an interesting concept to me, as it’s not something I usually experience … which may explain why I’ve always felt so completely out of place in any group of people I’ve been with. I even feel out of place in groups I’ve started, such as the writers’ group … in that group, as you know, my personal goals are completely at odds with those of the other members, and that’s unlikely to change. It’s wonderfully ironic to me that despite my sense of self being fragmented, I don’t tend to allow it to be influenced or colored by my circumstances. I think this may have a great deal to do with my general personality type, which in Myers-Briggs terms is a very strong J (preferring closure) rather than a P (preferring flexibility).

    Comment by davidrochester — February 24, 2008 @ 9:18 am

  4. I don’t think pro-choice means anyone would “snuff out” a child. It means that we prefer that each individual woman be given the opportunity to choose for herself and her child what is right.

    Dean was missing the point.

    One problem with “everyone” being pro-life or pro-choice or pro-anything is that it assumes that EVERYONE is and doesn’t allow for the lone person to express or exercise THEIR choice. I’m willing to bet that you would find many women in that same South Dakota community that were indeed pro-choice…IF they were not facing being shunned and outcast by their society for admitting to it.

    Comment by Corina — February 24, 2008 @ 10:00 pm

  5. I certainly remain pro-choice. I just meant to talk about how disconcerting it was to be absolutely surrounded by people with the opposite stance. Sometimes I find it incredible just to think that if I’d been raised in the deep south, I’d almost certainly have a southern accent. If I’d been raised in England, an English accent. I would sound completely different, present very differently, than I do now. Would I be the same person? Impossible to say.

    Comment by elissakaren — February 24, 2008 @ 10:06 pm

  6. Your friend Dean is lucky you’d never made the decision to have an abortion. I am very much a right to life person. That said, one must be very careful not to wound someone who has already made what must have been a difficult and sometime traumatic choice.

    I think much of what we are is decided by how we grow up, but it’s more complicated than that, because we all react differently to the things around us.

    Comment by Shawn W — February 25, 2008 @ 5:12 am

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