When French feminist Annie Ernaux was a 23-year-old student at Rouen University, she faced an unplanned and undesired pregnancy. It was 1963. Abortion in France was illegal but, as in the United States, there was a well-established network to help women who did not wish to carry their pregnancies to term.
Some of these practitioners were highly skilled. Others were not. Worse, their standards of hygiene ran the gamut from clinical to unsanitary. But Ernaux was desperate and after an ill-fated visit to her family physician, she felt she had no choice but to ask friends for the name of an underground provider.
Ernaux’s account of the era — a time rife with secrecy, shame and guilt about sexual exploration — is riveting, simultaneously sparely written and horrifying in the details it affords, giving readers a glimpse into the loneliness and terror that engulfed her. In this, it is both deeply personal and deeply universal.
She describes the abortion procedure in clear, emotionless language. Nonetheless, as Ernaux recounts traveling from Rouen to Paris to meet Madame P-R, the lack of information she received about what the termination would actually entail is shocking.
(Although the French edition of Happening was published in 2000, almost 40 years later, Ernaux identifies each character in the book using initials, presumably to protect their privacy.)
Madame P-R “inserted a probe into the opening of the womb using a speculum. All you had to do was wait until you miscarried,” Ernaux writes. “It seemed easy and straightforward.”
Sadly, like many well-laid plans, things did not go as expected. In fact, nothing happened. This meant that several days after seeing Madame P-R, Ernaux had to return to the abortionist’s apartment. A perfunctory pelvic exam was followed by the insertion of a new probe, and she was instructed to return to her dormitory and wait.
The next day, she writes, “Spasms of pain, which I had barely noticed at first, seared through me… The attacks became more and more frequent. Hours passed. Then, she continues, “I was seized with a violent urge to shit… I pushed with all my strength. It burst forth like a grenade, in a spray of water that splashed the floor. I saw a baby doll dangling from my loins at the end of a reddish cord. I couldn’t imagine ever having that inside me. I took it in one hand — it was strangely heavy.”
A friend, O, was with Ernaux throughout the delivery and she was charged with cutting the umbilical cord, which she did with a pair of unsterilized scissors. There was no time to think: Ernaux had begun hemorrhaging and within minutes she had to be rushed to a Rouen hospital.
Ernaux writes that she has never been able to forget the heinous contempt she was treated with by the doctors, nurses, and orderlies who staffed the facility.
Still, that’s the least of it.
Happening is a harrowing read about a time that should be confined to history. Indeed, the fact that stories like Ernaux’s are not relics of the past is chilling. As recent events have shown, many U.S. lawmakers — not all of them Republicans — support reversing Roe v. Wade. That makes this book an essential tool for reproductive-justice activists. It’s a reminder, should we need one, that legal abortion is an essential component of comprehensive, humane health care.
By Annie Ernaux, Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie
First English-language edition Seven Stories Press, 2019; First French edition, 2000