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NEPM brings you interviews with New England authors to add to your summer reading list.

Wendy Sibbison's novel follows an illegal abortion in 1963 — very much like her own

Greenfield, Massachusetts, writer Wendy Sibbison.
Karen Brown
Greenfield, Massachusetts, writer Wendy Sibbison.

Wendy Sibbison of Greenfield, Massachusetts, had an illegal abortion in 1963 when she was 16. Sibbison went on to have a long career as a lawyer. After she retired, she finished the novel that had been marinating in her mind for years.

"Helen In Trouble" is a based closely on the author's personal experience.

Sibbison said the story came out of a deep personal need to describe what women went through before abortion was legal.

Wendy Sibbison, author: I did not write it as a political tract. I didn't write it to influence anybody's mind about abortion. I wrote it because I needed to revisit that time, and I was really interested in learning to write fiction.

Karen Brown, NEPM: So given that a lot has happened politically, not just in the last 60 years, but in the last one year, does the book take on a different meaning for you, given the reversal of Roe v. Wade? Or do you still look at it the same way as you did when you started writing it?

Abortion rights have been very slim to none for many, many women in this country for decades. And I've been so aware of that. Poor women couldn't get abortions forever since the late 70s. And when it was time for Roe v. Wade to be overturned, you know, didn't we all see it coming? I've been ready.

That my book appears at this moment — when I started it, I already felt abortion rights were compromised, seriously compromised, and now they're gone.

So why fiction as opposed to a memoir? Do you have a sense that maybe fiction can tell this story in a different or more powerful way? 

A friend of mine suggested I write it in the first person after I was on draft No. 3 or 4, and I thought about it for a second. I just didn't want to. This was not a memoir. I wanted the freedom to revisit something that happened to me but revisit it with all the freedom I could muster to retell it in a way that was more satisfying to me, maybe more illuminating to the character at the time.

I noticed that the book did have a lot about Helen's parents — like, their interior thoughts and their ways of thinking, even before they knew that their daughter was about to have an abortion. Why was that important to include in the book? 

Because it was a family story. It was a story not just about Helen's abortion and her secret, but also about the impact of secrets on a family that wants to be close but has no tools to do it, really. So it turns out the mother has a very deep secret that she never talks about either, and that secret is disclosed.

And so, you know, in my mind, the fabric of the family becomes richer and stronger and more meaningful when they're not lying to each other all the time about something so important. That's the world I grew up in. Families just lied to each other about who they were.

You also included a lot of graphic details about the abortion — the seeking of an illegal abortion, and also just physically what happened to her. Why was that important to you? 

As I worked on the book, I understood one of my tasks was to embody the catastrophe of an unwanted pregnancy. To know what it was like from the first moment you start thinking, you know, you have an alien being growing inside you that you don't want, until the desperate attempts to get it out and end it. It's all physical and the body is influencing the mind in pretty desperate ways. So, yeah, I wanted to embody that catastrophe.

And not whitewash it, I presume.

Right. No. And I guess another intention was to, by making abortion real and physical in all its — well, in the case of illegal abortion, desperation, to also tell a story that is of a liberation. I intended this to be an emancipatory tale, where this young woman has a crisis and she sets out on a, you know, call it a heroic journey. And she struggles and endures great difficulty and comes out free.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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