Scarlet Letter (My Abortion Story Made Into Poetry)
by Caroline Klidonas
Under the 17th-century Boston, summer sun, Hester Prynne was publicly humiliated for committing adultery and forced to wear a red “A” on her dress to remind her, and everyone who crossed her path, of her sin. I’m sure you were forced to read the novel in some English class along the way. And as we all know, Hester and her scarlet letter have become a mascot for shame — or more specifically, the shame that has been buried in the cells of every woman’s body, built up like plaque on the walls of our arteries. Hawthorne wrote, consciously or not, of the shadow side of our feminine legacy — the shame that has been inherited, absorbed and passed down in the bodies of women for centuries.
Brené Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
In the early spring of my 23rd year, I branded myself with the 2.0 version of the scarlet letter when I chose to have an abortion. I’ve been dealing with the projection of everyone else’s shame about the matter ever since.
Strange. Because shame doesn’t even come close to how I feel about my decision.
After I had an abortion, the most distinct feeling I remember was of gratitude. Down-on-my-knees, salt-on-my-cheeks kind of gratitude. The kind that only comes when you’ve had some sort of rebirth and finally land in a new evolution of yourself. I felt so deeply humbled and grateful that I lived in a place that allowed me to make the choice that I did. I felt free. In the next breath, I felt gutted by a deep sorrow for the millions of women around the world who did not have the same agency or privileges that I did — the ability to make my own choices regarding my body and access to sanitary conditions, medical care, a support system, and health insurance.
My abortion happened in my air-conditioned apartment. And though it felt like my pelvis was being slowly ripped from my torso for five hours, my experience was, altogether, quite cushy. My best friend was there to run out and buy more supplies. I had a medical number to call if my fever spiked too high and a packet of documents explaining what to expect.
And so, the morning after, an awareness of my privilege slapped me clean across the mouth. It leveled me. To this day, I have yet to experience a humility as profound as those few moments, kneeling beside my bed, still bleeding into my maxi pad.
But what I didn’t feel was unworthiness of love or belonging. What I never felt, not even for a single minute in the months (and now years) after, was shame. And so, I share my abortion story in the best way that I know how — through poetry — in my latest spoken word video appropriately titled “Scarlet Letter.” I share it as a roar, as a gentle invitation. I bleed this story from my very bones in the hopes that, somewhere, one more woman may be free enough to speak her story, too. To give her narrative wings, let it fly from her throat, carrying the legacy of shame and hiding with it, straight into the eye of the sun.
And I share it in the hopes of shifting the cultural consciousness around women in a time when our reproductive rights, bodily agency, and healthcare are at stake.
We are not your shame-bearers. We are not the sum of our choices and the moral code by which you have judged them. We have stories. We are branded only by the letters we choose. And behind those letters — if you have the courage and the decency to look — you will only ever see living, breathing, loving human beings staring right back at you.