Picoult: Women need to speak up

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MANCHESTER — The question, posed by an audience member and presented to author Jodi Picoult by fellow author Chris Bohjalian, was simple enough: "What makes you hurt?"

"Right now, America," Picoult told the audience of about 230 people at Maple Street School on Wednesday night, at a fundraising event for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England presented by the Northshire Bookstore. Bohjalian moderated the event.

Even though she's a best-selling author, "every now and again, particularly right now, I am reminded that as a woman, I live in a patriarchy. And I am a second-class citizen. And it feels like a slap to the head," Picoult said.

"And it is for me not as bad as it would be for a woman of color or a trans woman, and I am very cognizant of that privilege. And yet, I cannot believe it's 2018 and that we're still doing this," she said. "Please vote."

The audience had come to hear Picoult talk about her latest book, "A Spark of Light," a novel taking up all sides of the abortion debate through the eyes of patients and staff at the only women's health clinic in Mississippi, and the gunman who has taken them hostage. The audience received signed copies of the book, her 25th, a week before its official release date.

As fate would have it, Picoult spoke the night before a woman who said she was sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh — widely seen as a likely deciding vote in overturning Roe v. Wade — testified before the U.S. Senate and a live television audience.

In her research for "A Spark of Light," Picoult reached out to a doctor who performs the procedure in Mississippi and Alabama, to people who are opposed to abortion, and to women who have had abortions. That research returned surprising results, she said.

Of 151 women who had abortions and talked with Picoult about the experience, only 25 wanted to be acknowledged in the book for their assistance, and most wanted to be identified by initials or a pseudonym, if at all.

What upset Picoult most about that, she said, is the "pervasive cycle of silence" around the subject.

"If we as women do not tell our stories, somebody else writes our narrative. And it's the narrative of blame, it is a narrative of shame. It is 'you should have known better, you should have planned better, it's your fault, you put yourself in this situation,' " Picoult said. "And that's why women don't talk about their abortions. And that's why women don't talk about sexual abuse. And the longer that we hide this stuff the easier it is for people to walk all over us. And I'm sick of it. I'm just sick of it," she said to applause.

Picoult said she would not expect someone to tell the story of why they had an abortion, " but if you have the courage to do it, now is the time. because if someone hears you, they might have the courage to say something, too."

Another of Picoult's findings was that the pro-life people she spoke with were not angry religious zealots. Rather, she said, they were "people who were very thoughtful and soft-spoken and kind and compassionate who deeply have a conviction that life begins at conception. And what they want people like you and me to know is they aren't anti-woman. They don't want to be seen as anti-woman. They just truly believe this is a baby and they don't know how else to process it. and that was eye-opening for me. "

She hopes the book will open up honest conversations about a difficult and divisive subject that might never lead to common ground, but will increase understanding on all sides of the debate.

"First of all, we should start with the premise that nobody wants to have an abortion," Picoult said. "With that premise, what's the easiest way to reduce the number of abortions? Don't get pregnant. So that begs the question why are the people who are most vocally pro-life also anti-contraception?

"When you start unpacking that all of the sudden the objections don't look so much about the pre-born. It looks like controlling women and sexuality. And we're not talking about that. So let's have that conversation," she said.

"The other thing we need to do is there are laws beyond Roe v. Wade that would actually, I would assume, reduce the number of women who get abortions by making them more economically able to take care of the children they might want to have," she said. "For example, let's talk about raising the minimum wage. Let's talk about universal health care, not just for maternity care but for the life of your child. Let's talk about free federally funded daycare. Let's talk about penalizing companies that don't advance women because they keep leaving the workforce to have those babies. "

Reach Journal editor Greg Sukiennik at gsukiennik@manchesterjournal.com or at 802-490-6000.



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