Today, more women than ever are sharing publicly their personal stories with abortion. Some do it on a big stage, like Democratic Senator Jackie Speier, who shared hers on the floor of Congress, and Natalia Koss Vallejo, who told her story on MTV’s groundbreaking special “No Easy Decision.” Others share on smaller stages, like Lauren Gard, who told her story to a New York Times reporter, and Ronak Dave, who participated in a digital storytelling workshop and screening. But, as most women who have had abortions know, telling a story does not mean it will be heard. And sharing comes with a number of risks, as well as opportunities. So, what inspires someone take that risk? What does it feel like to share a personal abortion story in public? And what happens afterward?
The best way to understand abortion storysharing is to learn directly from the experts— the people who have shared their stories in public.
Recently, I had the chance to ask three expert storytellers— Natalia Koss Vallejo, Lauren Gard and Ronak Dave — about their experience of sharing their stories. In our interview, they explain what happened behind the scenes of their storysharing on TV, in newspapers, and through digital media, and how the experience compared with their expectations, and what it was like to have so many people hear their stories.
Aspen Baker: What motivated you to share your story publicly?
Natalia Koss Vallejo, who appeared on MTV’s “No Easy Decision”: Sharing my story with individuals has always been a worthwhile and rewarding experience, so taking it to a larger stage just made sense. I feel that a lot of people, especially men, have a genuine curiosity about abortion, but because very few women ever talk about it, most people are left filling the gaps in their knowledge with whatever extreme rhetoric that is out there. We can’t let incendiary billboards and screaming protestors be the only sources of information on abortion for the average person.
Ronak Dave, an Exhale volunteer, who participated in Exhale’s digital storytelling workshop with the Center for Digital Storytelling: I’ve heard a lot of stories on the talkline, and I personally resonate with our callers who talk about wanting to be heard, and to have the chance to own their own stories. I participated in the workshop because I felt it was a great opportunity to experiment with storytelling in a different form; and most importantly, I trusted Exhale to be thoughtful and conscientious about the process and to not exploit me or my story.
Lauren Gard, an Exhale volunteer, who told a New York Times reporter about her abortion: I’ve always been a pretty open person, and as a journalist with a focus on exploring social issues and mental health issues, I have often asked other people to open up to me about some rather personal experiences. After my abortion, I told close family and friends, and as time went on, other people in my life when it seemed relevant. When I learned that a New York Times reporter was seeking a counselor to interview and shadow for an article on Exhale, I stepped up because I feel passionate about the organization and I am happy to do anything I can to help spread the word about the services and community Exhale provides. I was also comfortable sharing my own experience with abortion, and felt that might be a good thing to have included in the article – that we at Exhale not only talk the talk, but walk the walk, so to speak. That not only do I encourage women who’ve had abortions to share their stories, but that I can do so as well.
Aspen: Tell me about the experience. Was it what you expected?
Lauren: As a former journalist, the interview was the first time I’d been on the other side of the fence, which was an interesting turn of events for me. Just like forging a connection with callers is important – whether with a shared laugh (and it’s surprising how often those laughs can come, given the subject matter we’re dealing with) or simply by providing a safe, respectful place for them to talk – so, too, is it important for interview subjects to connect with reporters and vice versa. I felt like the reporter and I had a good connection, and sharing my story and allowing her to sit in during a talkline call was fairly comfortable for me. A photographer was also present during the two- to three-hour block of time the reporter spent with me, and that was a bit uncomfortable for me, as I’d never been formally photographed before. One aspect of the photo shoot stands out: after shooting me on the couch, posed as though in the midst of a call, he noted that the lighting around my dining room table was quite lovely, and asked if I ever sat there to take some calls. While I could have moved over there for the sake of getting a “better” photo, I simply said, “Nope! I’m always on the couch!” So he stuck with shooting me there. I think it’s important to stay true to who you are and what you do when being interviewed and photographed – the point of the article is to reflect the truth, after all. Your truth.
Natalia: The experience of going on television didn’t go exactly how I expected it. The women from MTV that I spoke with in advance had made me feel really comfortable, and I really trusted that they had the intention of making a straightforward and honest show. I still do believe that many people in production were sincere. Unfortunately, when I got to New York to start filming, I was met with some of the same bigotry and lack of sensitivity that I have been trying to dismantle. Considering the sensitivity of the topic we were being interviewed about, I expected a little more transparency and support. We were not prepped or given any questions to look at in advance, we weren’t taught anything about appearing on camera, we didn’t even have water or breaks available when filming started. Some of the interview questions were downright offensive.
Aspen: What did you need to feel supported in sharing your story, and did you get it? If you had to do over again, what would you ask for or do differently? What would you need to feel supported?
Natalia: In the future, I would ask for full disclosure of all of the questions and conditions of the interview in advance. Also, knowing that it is within my rights to ask to pause and collect my thoughts, or to ask that something you said not be included in the final product would have been nice. I had to be very careful during filming to say everything exactly right and to remain composed because I didn’t think I could trust the network not to exploit my words if something I said came out wrong.
Lauren: I told my family about the interview prior to taking part in it, and their support was important to me, particularly that of my parents, as they weren’t initially supportive of my decision to have an abortion and it proved a difficult experience, relationship-wise, for us. After all, I knew there was a chance the fact that I’d had an abortion would be mentioned in the article, and that someone might see it and mention it to them. I felt fortunate that everyone I told about the interview was supportive of me and encouraged me to go for it. The growth I’ve seen in my parents, and in our relationship since I had my abortion, has been phenomenal. I feel blessed.
Aspen: How has the experience of talking about your personal abortion story in public had an impact on you? How about on your family and friends?
Natalia: Talking about my story in public has made me even more confident in the power of storytelling. I always knew, though I couldn’t quite articulate how, that when I told my story to someone else it had a strong effect. The most common reaction I have gotten from women who I’ve talked to openly about abortion is, “Oh my god, I had one too and before now I never felt that I could tell anyone!” When I tell my story it has a ripple effect, making it okay for other women to open up. Through the “16 & Loved” website, I can see that because of “No Easy Decision” that ripple effect took place on a really large scale. I feel like by talking so publicly, Katie, Markai, and I made a small dent in some of the shame and silence that so many women feel.
Lauren: It was a wonderful experience, one that made me feel strong and empowered. I posted a link on my Facebook page, and friends from all times in my life left supportive comments. I think my family was proud of me for going public – and I know they’re proud of the work I do with Exhale. I’ve had a couple friends tell me since then about their own abortions. I am glad I’m someone people feel comfortable opening up to. And although I was a little concerned that someone reading the article might come knocking on my door, anti-abortion literature in hand and vehement words in mouth, or send me a derogatory email (as my email address is quite easy to find online), nothing of the sort happened.
Ronak: It is really difficult knowing my story is being shown without me being present to provide the context. Having made such a short movie and chosen to speak about something so vulnerable in so many ways (both the relationship and the abortion), it easily can be interpreted differently out of context. Exhale has shared with me at different times feedback from these sessions, and the comments I receive from people are hard to read. Judgments or comments on my relationship are made, on the type of person I am, on the reasons I made my decisions. Part of the process for me was artistic, so I didn’t detail every element which led up to these really bold statements, such as “My abortion gave me life.” That also is hard for me to have others hear without me being present in some way to explain. I debated putting my name on the video, but ultimately decided that was also part of the process – having ownership over my story.
Thank you Natalia, Lauren, and Ronak for shedding light on your experiences with abortion storysharing.
Natalia, Lauren, and Ronak each have their own unique experience with abortion and their own unique experience of what it was like to talk about it. A sense of ownership and control over how a story is shared is critical. This is why Exhale, as a community of people with personal abortion experiences, advocates the following practices for abortion storysharing:
- Women who have had abortions must have the ability to control their own narratives in our public discourse; and that
- We must have authority and decision-making over when and how our stories are used by advocates.
If you want to share your story about a personal experience with abortion, or you are an advocate who wants to work with storytellers, we want to support you. In December, Exhale will be publishing the first two in a series of guides on Ethical Storysharing. Our guides are designed for women and advocates to make sure that every woman has the information, resources, and support she needs to share her story in ways that further her wellbeing, uphold her rights, and keep her in control of the use of her own narrative.
Exhale appreciates Natalia, Lauren, Ronak, and the many other women who have shared their experiences with abortion storysharing in public spaces.
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You may also be interested in Exhale’s April 29, 2011 interview with Nicole Miller, a young woman who appeared on MTV’s Canada abortion special “Impact:Abortion Stories,” which aired on April 10, 2011. You can read what this storytelling expert has to say about her motivations and experience with abortion storysharing and her advice for other young women on our blog, Exhale Is Pro-Voice.