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Girl Talk: Reflections On A Reckless Youth

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I had an abortion when I was 21. It was my senior year of college. I was living in NYC, working nights as an exotic dancer while interning during the day at a grassroots nonprofit for disadvantaged girls. I was cheating on my long distance boyfriend, we were having unprotected sex and I got pregnant. I was lying to everyone about everything. I was a total shit show: three perfect words to describe Cat Marnell, the xoJane editor who caught flack last week for a post she wrote about using Plan B as her primary form of birth control.

When I think back to the young woman I was then, I want to shake her. I want to shame her. I am angry at a woman who should’ve known better- who did know better, I find myself thinking even now — but who chose, instead, to know nothing. I was stupid and reckless and selfish, self absorbed and intent on my ways. The abortion wasn’t the worst of it, only a symptom of a greater sorrow. Simply put, I needed help.

The deejay called Flashdancers the “United Nations of Strip Clubs.” At the beginning of a shift, we did what was called the parade. Nearly a hundred girls from all over the world would walk across the stage as the deejay rattled off our names. Earlier that month, the events of September 11th had turned downtown Manhattan into “Ground Zero.” When that happened, I was bumped from a lesser club, NY Dolls, to Doll’s sister club in Times Square. The girls that worked at Flash were professionals. I was competing with women five inches taller. Ten pounds lighter. Working actresses. Models. Girls with advanced degrees. At Flash, I was constantly trying to convince myself I was beautiful enough to be working there. I made myself beautiful by believing it so.

If only I believe it hard enough, I told myself, others will also. Everyone, I told myself, is falling for my act.

The fact that I was stripping was not something my mom and I talked about. When I’d call home, my mom would talk about the terror alerts. She’d tell me to stay off the subway, one time suggesting I carry pepper spray to prevent being mugged. Living in New York, I never felt unsafe. Thanks to stripping I could pay my tuition. I could work an unpaid internship and live comfortably. Everything, I felt, was within reach and my life was perfect, I thought, so long as I kept it all within my control. I called Rick everyday before I left for work to ensure he wouldn’t call me later when I wasn’t there. When he did, I had my roommate cover for me. When my mom first found out I was stripping she was, in her words, “humiliated.” If Rick found out, I thought, he’d have no choice but to leave me. That left me no choice, I thought: he can never find out. 

I have a secret, I’d sometimes tell myself, like the people you see on TV— people on shows like “Jerry Springer,” “Ricky Lake.” I have a dirty little secret— a sexy double life— sexy and exciting, shocking but true.

***

Jay was a guy I’d met through my day job, an out of work musician who ran errands for my boss. The time I knew Jay, he was staying on a friend’s couch. My roommate didn’t much like Jay or the fact he came over in the middle of the night — high on coke— locked out of his friend’s house, ringing our bell with nowhere else to go. I let Jay in because I liked the company. I liked to smoke Jay’s cigarettes and I liked that Jay needed me, if only for a place to crash.

Jay’s not a bad guy, I’d sometimes think to myself. Even though he lacked steady employment and had no place to live and I didn’t particularly respect his music and I’d have died if anybody at my day job found out we were together, when it was just Jay and me I felt at ease. I felt more like myself—normal, safe—without even having to realize that I’d ever felt otherwise. I sometimes wondered what Jay thought of me—whether he liked me and wanted to be my boyfriend—until I’d remind myself that it didn’t really matter. I already had a boyfriend. Jay knows I’m in a relationship, I’d remind myself—he knows I’m practically married—and what he and I have is simply sex. We’re using each other, I’d think, and for that I thought that Jay was kind of a creep.

We didn’t use condoms. If you’d asked me then why I wasn’t on birth control I might’ve said didn’t know where to get it. I might’ve said the pill made me sick. I’d been on the pill, I might’ve explained, and when I missed one and doubled up the next day, it made me so nauseous I would sometimes throw up. I couldn’t remember to take a pill each day, and I didn’t like condoms. That’s what I might have said.

But it was more than that. In my mind, I shouldn’t have been having sex. Lying and cheating was wrong, I understood, and there was no way to make it right. Rick was my high school sweetheart, the first (and only, as far as he knew) man I’d ever had sex with. I wanted to believe that at the end of the semester, everything would go back to normal and that none of this would count. I would go back to Ohio, back to Rick, back to campus where I’d get credit for the internship and graduate that spring, the picture of my mother’s perfect daughter. Never mind that I was outgrowing my relationship and desperate to experience sexual freedom, I needed Rick. I needed to know that he loved me — that in his eyes at least, I was good.

My last month in New York City, I missed my period. The week that it was supposed to have come came and went and then another. Three weeks late, I took a pregnancy test in Jay’s friend’s filthy bathroom. I sat on the toilet, staring at the cruddy powder blue tile, waiting the agonizing minute. When the test came back negative, I felt an enormous sense of relief.

Two weeks later, back in Ohio, I still hadn’t gotten my period. Four weeks late, I couldn’t help but know the truth.

I remember the moment I called Jay long distance to tell him I was pregnant. He said something like, “If you decide to keep it I’ll be there for you and I’ll support you no matter what,” and I said something to the effect of, “Jesus Christ, Jay, you can’t even take care of yourself.” I was so angry, so determined to not be a child and to need no one, so afraid that if I did need someone there’d be nowhere to turn. My mom drove me to the appointment and I paid for it myself.

In the clinic waiting room, there was scrapbook in which patients were invited to write down their feelings and thoughts. I remember wanting to write something—to say something, anything. Where so many women who’d come before me had written of grief, I had nothing to say. So adept at not feeling my feelings, I could not go back to access them now, even when I wanted to. When it was all over, I could feel nothing but relief.

***

“Women are not perfect,” Jane Pratt wrote in Cat’s defense. “Even feminists live in the real world, and sometimes feel bad about our bodies or make irresponsible choices. We are products of the same society we may not always agree with. We don’t want to censor that ambivalence out of our writers’ lives or work.”

Today, I have no strong feelings about having had an abortion but, at the time, it seemed unconscionable. I thought my getting pregnant was a punishment — but for what, exactly, I didn’t know. I had received so many messages of shame for so much of my lifestyle, and though I knew they were not all to be believed, I had internalized them equally. Not knowing the risks, real from imagined, I had given up on keeping myself safe and sane. What Cat Marnell is “living as I write this,” I have lived through and learned from. What I know for sure today: I did my best, even when it was my worst. Today, I take responsibility for my choices. Certainly, abortion was not murder. It was absolutely the right decision for me at the time.

Defending Cat’s work as “riveting and raw and not at all derivative” denies what we all plainly see — the truth that Cat, herself, seems to be struggling to know. Editors have a responsibility to see that their content does more than drive clicks. This is a responsibility to the reader, and to the writer as well. I don’t claim to be perfect but I will say that I’m happy and entirely comfortable with the woman I am today, a peace of mind that seems to escape Cat for now, but I hope she will find someday.

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