Reading lists

Writing that changed the way I think about abortion

Lucy Burns, the author of Larger than an Orange, was too frightened to engage with books about pregnancy and abortion. Now, she shares a list of books that kept her company at a time of discomfort and confusion.

The book Larger Than An Orange stood upright on wooden surface against an orange background

After an abortion in 2017, I built up a secret collection of books about pregnancy and abortion. These books remained unread; I was too frightened to engage with them. This wasn’t because I regretted my decision to have an abortion, or because I thought these books might convince me otherwise, but because I believed that the way I felt after my abortion was so wrong and so bad that no one else could have possibly felt the same, let alone write it down and agree to publish it. I had decided to try to write about my abortion (first under the condition that no one would ever see it, then that it would be anonymous), and I convinced myself that reading these books would only throw me off course. I carried on writing.

One of the many, many good things about not being 2017 me is that I’m no longer occupied by whether my thoughts about abortion are bad or wrong. I’ve reached a place where I’m comfortable staying with the discomfort and the confusion. And (having finally started making my way through the unread books pile), I understand now that I’m obviously not the first person to have ambivalent feelings after an abortion. If I’d engaged with some of these books sooner, I could have saved myself a lot of handwringing.

The books I’ve chosen below are, I think, committed to the complexity, the confusion and the mess. I’m grateful to all of them for giving me the space (or maybe the permission) to continue to think about my abortion. I’m still working through the unread pile.

Happening by Annie Ernaux, translated by Tanya Leslie (2001)

It took me a long time to find the courage to read this. Eventually, I got drunk and read it in one sitting: crying, wincing, knowing my experience of a safe, legal abortion in 2017 was so different to Ernaux’s illegal abortion in 1963, but also feeling like she was describing exactly how I felt about my body after the abortion, about the decision to write about abortion, about the desire to return to an experience "in the hope that something might happen to me." The absolute clarity and force of Ernaux’s writing is terrifying. I’m still frightened to go back to parts of it.

Comic Timing by Holly Pester (2021)

Reading Pester’s 'Comic Timing' poem in 2018 felt like being let in on the most private, intimate, world-ending secret, and also like someone was shouting my most private, intimate, world-ending secret in my face.

I think I was mid-verb
like my friend I said to my head
I am mid-verb
maybe I have become the verb
I am not having
I am

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (2015)

The Argonauts isn’t really a book about abortion, but two sentences (and an abortion joke) completely changed how I expressed my feelings about abortion and what I thought it was possible to say. "Feminists may never make a bumper sticker that says IT’S A CHOICE AND A CHILD," Nelson writes, "but of course that’s what it is, and we know it." Nelson’s insistence that the decision to have an abortion be taken seriously, that the people who decide be taken seriously, was transformative. "We’re not idiots; we understand the stakes": I wish someone would have directed me to this passage a lot sooner.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more