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.

The Abortion by Richard Brautigan (1971)

Come for the whimsical love story about a San Francisco library, stay for the account of an abortion in Tijuana. This is Richard Brautigan, so everything has a touch of unreality, until we are sitting outside the operating room while the narrator’s girlfriend, Vida, has an abortion. Everything overheard (and imagined) is narrated precisely, ordinarily, including two more abortions while Vida is still unconscious. Brautigan’s narration of "the language and the silences of the abortion" is sensitive, tender even, but it is also very funny.

‘How do you feel?’ I said.
‘Just like I’ve had an abortion.’

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
abortive[.]

Motherhood by Sheila Heti (2018)

Another book that seemed impossible to start. Like Pester’s feeling of being "mid-verb", Heti describes pregnancy and abortion as an issue of grammatical tense:

"Someone was being grown and I prevented that life from being. Yet I think of it, strangely, as a present-tense issue: there’s someone I’m not letting be born, or a future-tense issue: there’s someone I won’t let be born."

It’s not difficult to understand why some people might disagree with the language used here, but this statement, however we want to express it, helped me to acknowledge something that up to that point I was too afraid to think about.

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.

  • Larger than an Orange

  • 'Raw, tender and urgent' Jessica Andrews, author of Saltwater

    'Irreducible. Once read, it will never be forgotten' Helen Mort, author of Division Street

    This is the story of an abortion.

    The days and hours before the first visit to the clinic and the weeks and months after.

    The pregnancy was a mistake and the narrator immediately arranges a termination. But a gulf yawns between politics and personal experience. The polarised public debate and the broader cultural silence did not prepare her for the physical event or the emotional aftermath. She finds herself compulsively telling people about the abortion (and counting those who know), struggling at work and researching the procedure. She feels alone in her pain and confusion.

    Part diary, part prose poem, part literary collage, Larger than an Orange is an uncompromising, intimate and original memoir. With raw precision and determined honesty, Lucy Burns carves out a new space for complexity, ambivalence and individual experience.

    'Lucy Burns' writing on choice and its aftermath is boldly innovative, achingly human, and powerfully vulnerable' Dr Elinor Cleghorn, author of Unwell Women

    'Rapturous, engrossing and beautifully impossible' Holly Pester, author of Comic Timing

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