I am, by nature, a people pleaser. I don’t like it when you don’t like me. It’s not uncommon for a youngest kid who grew up in an alcoholic home. I am one of those people who push past the 99 fawners to spend all evening in the corner with the one who has “some issues” with me. Over time, I tried to develop a thicker skin and let the opinions of others slide off me. It got a little better. A little.
So who would’ve thought that an abortion I had 30 years ago would be the key to my liberation?
Because I’m a recognizable name in the entertainment industry, in 2006 I was asked by MS Magazine to sign a published petition with the banner “We Had Abortions” at the top. This reprised a similar petition from 1972, pre-Roe vs. Wade, when it was, ya know, ILLEGAL. I had had an abortion back in 1985, when I was twenty-one years old. The decision had been a clear one for my boyfriend and me, and during the procedure itself I was respected and supported. Before 2006, I had never spoken publicly about it, not out of shame, but because it didn’t seem necessary. But now, with reproductive justice under siege, my conscience pricked at me to become involved in a deeper way. It was important to me that all women be afforded the same dignity of choice as I had been.
As in 1972, Gloria Steinem again signed the petition in 2006, along with about 400 other women, including me.
The Associated Press picked up the story and I gave a few interviews. They were respectful. I wasn’t asked to give any specifics of my story nor did I offer them. The point, I said then, was that there was a growing perception that abortion was illegal, and it wasn’t. I got a little pushback in the media, nothing much, but then again it was the pre-Twitter era. Even if there were folks railing against me (and I’m sure there were), I had no way of knowing it. I remained under the delusion that I was still Beloved By All, the people pleaser’s credo.
By the fall of 2015, the anti-choice activists had gained much ground, with TRAP laws, slashed funding for birth control and Planned Parenthood under fire. The generalized silence around abortion – which is the choice of 1 in 3 American women — was not working. Women needed to start telling the specifics of their stories to ensure safe abortion access. Until then, the abortion stories that had been collectively accepted (if any) were on the more tragic side: a bad amnio, a result of rape, an underage mother. Baby steps toward telling the broader swath of stories, which for some of us included relief and deep gratitude.
The Center for Reproductive Rights asked me to be part of their “Draw The Line” campaign where real women tell their actual abortion stories. I was filmed telling the story of my abortion alongside with many other women, recognizable and not.
Not long after, I appeared on Huffington Post Live to promote a project, and toward the end, the interviewer pulled up the MS Magazine from 2006. I was surprised (not sure what this had to do with the project I was there to promote..) but I calmly explained that we seem to have to (still) protect this constitutional right, now even more than in 2006. And then I specified the details of my story publicly for the first time. After the interview, I saw the panicked look on my handler’s face – a young and nervy type who worked for my longtime publicist back in LA. “Don’t worry,” I reassured him. “I didn’t just out myself – that happened a long time ago.” I flew home to LA.
Two days later, on Saturday October 3, I found myself alone with my fourteen-year-old and ten-year-old, doing the suburban weekend crawl – baseball practice, birthday party, riding lesson. All three of us were a mess. My husband Brad was working in Europe for 3 months, and I was flying solo. Bodhi and Charlotte melted down — they had had to keep up the brave face with two parents working, but now that I was home, they fell apart. Bodhi couldn’t find a sock. Charlotte didn’t want her riding lesson. They tag-teamed tantrums, old-school style, and I struggled not to lose my shit.
Without thinking, I habitually checked Twitter to momentarily detach from the tantrums and of course to see what was up with Kim Kardashian. My stomach turned:
It’s a real shame that your mother didn’t abort you so you’d know the feeling.
I put on Disney channel and reminded the kids to buckle up.
Harlet whore, bitch.
My heart pounded and my mouth went dry. Pinpricks in my scalp, breathing shallow. Fight or flight, reptilian brain.
That human in your womb was murdered. Who is defending the innocent baby?
My Twitter feed was a growing infection on a limb; I could not stop looking as the infection worsened at jaw-dropping speed.
Do Charlotte Tucker and Bodhi Russell know you killed their sibling?
Going the extra mile! Way to do research on middle names!
I wish your mother had taken it up the ass the night you were conceived.
Fucking cunt. Burn in hell.
Cognitively I knew better. I thought; these people are lunatics, they live to torture suckers like me and most importantly: GET OFF FUCKING TWITTER, AMY. But somehow, with that level and volume of hate being poured into my body, my body could not turn away. Like a teenage boy tweaking on Halo, my nervous system plugged into this sensory overload for all it was worth.
Outside my head, the California sun shone, my children melted down and I drove 70 mph on the 134. But inside my head I was being tried, Hester Prynne-style, right alongside Goody Proctor. For what, exactly? Pre-marital sex? Killing a fetus? Then I read:
She doesn’t even seem sorry. #shameless.
Ah. My greatest sin was having no shame?
At that moment I was genuinely terrified. With my husband in Europe and convinced one of those people was going to shoot me in my bed, the best thing I could do was retreat. Twitter lay dormant until I ventured cautiously out again, answering only answering like “what’s your favorite line of cosmetics?” and “Don’t you LIVE for Grey’s Anatomy?” The skirmish was over, but my body reverberated for weeks afterwards.
I was losing my brand as America’s sweetheart.
So why did I sign up for more? Why did I say yes when I was asked to be a part of an amicus brief to the Supreme Court case involving abortion access in Texas? Why didn’t this people pleaser run for the hills? Clearly, reproductive rights was an issue I felt passionately about, but I think it was more; I think some part of me wanted to lean into this deepest fear of being publicly hated.
I was asked to MC a rally on March 2nd, on the steps of the Supreme Court while oral arguments went on inside. On March 1st, I called my pastor, Ed Bacon. I was honestly afraid of getting close –physically close – to the violence that threatened me online. As Ed preaches the gospel of Dr. King, he was the man to give me advice.
We spoke on the phone, of course — pastoral care LA-style. Ed gave me some context and language – that my church had been prayerfully pro-choice since 1985 and some other things before our connection started to get spotty.
“One more thing,” Ed said, “[crackle crackle]
“What? I can’t hear you!”
“It’s important to [crackle crackle] and remember [crackle crackle]”
“Ed? Are you in a canyon? I can’t —“
“I said [crackle] love [crackle] everybody. LOVE EVERYBODY!” And the phone went dead.
Love everybody? Whaa? I was looking for strategies to fight, to convince, to be two steps ahead of my opponents. I was looking to protect myself from the batshit crazies who were threatening me with bodily harm.
But having no other good ideas, I tried Yoda’s advice.
I stood on the steps of our nation’s highest court and I tried to love the group holding those ghastly posters. I tried to love the folks chanting “murderer!” I loved the sole abortion provider in North Dakota, and I loved the college girl from NYU who called to an anti-choice activist, “Don’t worry! When your birth control fails, we have your back!” I tried to love the police keeping us safe; I tried to love all the busloads of passionate Americans involved in the sacred duty of showing up.
I tried to love everybody, and then suddenly I was loving everybody. And because of all this active loving stuff, I no longer felt like passive prey, waiting for the next attack. It’s like I could now sense that behind everybody and their opinions, all of us, myself included, were combo platters of frustration and jealousy and rage and hope. I felt – in my body – the truth that when folks preach hate, damnation and judgment they no doubt grew up with a whole lot of hate, damnation and judgment, and needed so much love to rectify that. They couldn’t hurt me anymore because their rage had nothing to do with me.
On the August steps of the Supreme Court, I not only grew a thicker skin but a softer heart.
The airplane wheels set down in LA the next day and I boldly switched on Twitter. This time, I was prepared and a wee bit curious. This time, as I read the inevitable Cunts, Whores and Burn in Hells, I pictured the actual humans who were writing this vitriol: in front of their laptops, tapping at phones. Sending out their cries into the anonymous void and hoping that I would read them and be wounded. I did read them, but I was not wounded. I was no longer frozen when someone hated me. My mouth was not dry. My heart did not pound.
If my worst fear was having people hate me, no better cure than an entire contingent who always will, violently, and there is no way for me to change that. They will hate me, and their children will hate me, and in their cosmology, they will cheer my descent to hell, where they will hate me more.
And now I was free.