The advice goes that you shouldn’t compose an email while angry, but what about a novel? Can good art emerge out of rage? I’d argue that the answer is yes, but that’s because I was a flaming nova of fury while writing my second book, The Unraveling of Mercy Louis. In an interview with the NEA Arts Magazine, Toni Morrison said, “Writing for me is thinking, and it’s also a way to position myself in the world, particularly when I don’t like what’s going on.” Maybe that’s why I sat down in early 2012 and started The Unraveling of Mercy Louis. I didn’t like what was going on in our country, not at all. And I wanted someone to hear me roar.
It was election season, which meant that Republicans were attacking reproductive rights with increased zeal. But suddenly, the politicians weren’t just injecting themselves into the private health decisions of American women. They were also weighing in on sexual violence, to horrifying effect. In Missouri, where I live, Todd Akin infamously coined the term “legitimate rape,” when he told a local TV station: “If it’s legitimate rape, the female body has way to try and shut the whole thing down.” The comments might have been laughable, the unhinged croakings of a drunken uncle at a reunion picnic, but Akin was running for the U.S. Senate, hoping to represent about three million Missouri women, and so his comments were deeply disturbing. Indiana’s Richard Mourdock soon blundered his way into the conversation, saying that even when a pregnancy resulted from rape, God intended it, and therefore, a woman should be forced to carry the baby to term.
At the time, I was pregnant with my first child, a planned pregnancy for which my husband and I were grateful. But the pregnancy evoked complicated feelings in me. I became hyperaware of the fact that suddenly, my body was not my own. Beyond the fact that people openly commented on and touched my body lay the fact that, if for some terrible reason I needed an abortion after twenty weeks, I would not be able to get one. The local Planned Parenthood clinic stopped doing the procedure at all that year. As my husband and I trekked to the doctor for our prenatal visits, I felt like Akin and Mourdock and Romney were there in the doctor’s office with me, micro-managing my pregnancy. I wondered how anyone—particularly any man—could have the gall to believe he should be a part of this intensely personal journey.
As the year wore on, the Steubenville and Maryville rape cases gained national attention. I cried tears of grief for those girls who lost their innocence so violently, and so publicly. And I cried tears of rage for how the respective communities responded to the crimes: by shaming the girls, excusing the boys, burning down houses, driving families out of town.
Throughout all of this, I wrote. Every day, heavy with the pregnancy, I sat down and wrote the story of the girls of Port Sabine, Texas—a community much like Steubenville, or Maryville, or Anywhereville, USA. In my story, I made the girls fierce—strong, smart and athletic—but I made the town a powerful oppressor, interfering in the natural development of its young women out of fear of their nascent sexuality. A fear that runs deep in this country, all the way back to Salem and the Colonies.
I wrote out of rage, and I wrote out of fear, hearing my teacher Elizabeth McCracken’s advice that “revenge is a fantastic reason to write” as I typed. “Don’t tread on me or the girls or women of this country, you Tea Party motherfuckers,” I would think as I wrote another scathing chapter. At times, I worried that my anger would somehow affect the baby growing inside me, so I did yoga and meditated, to try and counterbalance the high emotion that fueled the writing.
The morning of January 18th, 2013, I emailed a draft of the novel to my agent. Later that day, I gave birth to my son. It was a time of great happiness, and relief. I was glad to let go of my anger for a while, and embrace the special joy a wanted baby brings. But while I breastfed and snuggled my sweet infant, I found my thoughts wandering to the still burning world outside my door. And I thought about my characters, particularly the teenage mothers. Here I was, a thirty-two year old woman nurturing a son I wanted with all my heart, but still, it at times felt impossible. As I struggled with sleeplessness, difficulty nursing, and a body I no longer recognized, I understood viscerally the need for women to be able to make the decision to have babies on their own terms. Because it is the hardest thing we will ever do, and because it can be financially and emotionally devastating if you’re not in the right place in your life.
When my agent returned the draft to me with her comments, I was able to approach the manuscript with the cool detachment necessary to shape an angry screed into something more subtle, more artful—and hopefully more affecting. As we gear up for another election season (groan), I want to send a copy to Akin and Mourdock, Santorum and Cruz, Romney and Bush, and anyone else who has ever reduced women to second-class citizens by denying them domain over their bodies, not just to show them the devastating psychological effects that such a message has on young women, but to introduce them to some kick-ass female characters whose complex thoughts and desires might just shock the imbeciles into the realization that women are fully realized human beings, too.