Book reviews

Lisa De Niscia’s Momentary Mother (Whitepoint, 2011)

What a new euphemism for abortion and Hemingway have in common.

Lisa De Niscia’s 2011 novel Momentary Mother is a fine example of fiction describing the post-abortive mother.  Those who support abortion will not appreciate the main character, Lulu, who, as her name symbolizes, is a wonderful illustration of how Post-Abortion Syndrome radically affects mothers who choose to exercise their right to abort their unborn son or daughter.

If the language of the above paragraph is not only conflicted (combining both views of abortion, which is legal in the United States for any reason whatsoever) but also loaded with connotative terms which excite educated persons, then imagine how conflicted and loaded this novel is.  The title suggests a new euphemism that can be used by those who support abortion, a euphemism that joins “choice” as descriptors for something inherently negative.

The cleverness of this new euphemism cannot be exaggerated.  After all, designating a woman who has aborted as an “aborted mother” is passive—a passivity which is obvious when one considers that the past participle in the phrase suggests that abortion happened to her, was hoisted upon her unwillingly, a principle that certain feminists would find offensive, since they aim to encourage women and mothers to take control of their lives, even to the point of killing unborn persons.  Abortion, in their opinion, is supposed to be a primary means to achieve such autonomy.  Pro-life or life-affirming feminists, of course, argue that no female—either one merely denoted as “woman” or “mother”—has the right to control another person’s body.  Thus, the intellectual framework for this novel reflects one side of the continuing conflict in contemporary society over the most cherished belief of old-fashioned feminism (the stiflingly politically-correct and life-denying matriarchal kind).

That Lulu’s maternity can be designated not as an “aborted” one, but as “momentary” is significant in several respects, many of which are crucial, if not to the plot, then to understanding this character and, by extension, women in society like her.  “Momentary” suggests that Lulu’s pregnancy extended only for the briefest of time, mere seconds.  Think of it: if one has a muscle strain, one hopes that it will “go away” soon, after a couple of “moments” (seconds preferably, but minutes can be endured).  Pain lasting any longer would lead most people to highlight their doctors’ cell phone numbers, ready to hit the dial button if the minutes were to drag on and on and on.

Calling Lulu’s pregnancy momentary is the first suggestion that the pain of abortion is so severe that she cannot even intellectualize it as a period of time extending for months or years.  In fact, the first instance of “momentary” to describe her aborted pregnancy occurs on page 84, close to halfway through this 199 page novel—further evidence that abortion is so unspeakable that even a fictional character can’t utter the phrase so that the reader knows quickly why it is used.  How incredibly painful the abortion must have been to her.

Of course, as pro-life feminists know and as her character illustrates, the pain that Lulu endures from her abortion affects her whole life; more accurately, Lulu has let the psychological pain of her abortion control her life to the point of delusion (a degree which will be discussed in detail later).  Before discussing her delusion, however, one must understand Lulu’s history which enabled her to accede to an abortion.

Granted, some mothers who abort claim to be religious while others claim no religion and may even have slid into agnosticism or atheism if their families became stereotypical twentieth-century materialists.  This is not the place to argue the cognitive dissonance that occurs when religious mothers let social pressure persuade them into going against their religious principles affirming the sanctity of human life.  In Lulu’s case, however, the religious background must be excavated beneath layers of meaning lost beneath one adjective: “stereotypical.”  The narrator asserts that Lulu’s family was “stereotypically Italian” (11).  Since this is the only intimation of her family’s heritage, the reader must stereotypically presume that she may have been raised stereotypically Roman Catholic.  One wonders, then, what happened?  Why did she abandon her faith?  Why did her family seem to abandon its faith?  Even if they abandoned their faith, why did the family not retain its residual moral code of respect for human life like others who may have dropped their faith but kept the moral values that their faith taught?

These questions cannot be answered because there is no evidence in the text where the family discussed or demonstrated its faith.  Lulu’s stereotypical family consists of a father (the flattest character I have ever seen, perhaps deliberately made so to show that patriarchal authority has no role in this stereotypically Italian family), a younger daughter whose anorexia is supposed to be the catalyst for Lulu’s visit to her family, and a mother who counters the stereotype of the loving Italian mother in every way.  There is no opportunity to see to what degree Lulu abandoned the faith practiced by her family, a faith which would have protected her from abortion since it is essentially life-affirming (dissident theologians and cafeteria Catholics notwithstanding).  If the proposition that ideas have consequences is true, then this novel illustrates the severe veracity of that maxim vis-à-vis a family utterly bereft of faith.

Lulu’s lack of Christian, let alone Catholic Christian, faith leads her not only away from the safety of a religion which protects human life, but also towards a psychotic mixture of pagan devotion and deterministic Tarot readings.  The reader knows Lulu is psychotic because she frequently imagines seeing the High Priestess of her religion appear to her out of nowhere at various difficult moments.  As comforting as the appearance of the High Priestess may be to Lulu, the reader experiences a severe disjunction when the character first manifests herself so soon in the novel (on page three nonetheless); mulling over her Tarot cards, Lulu sees that of the High Priestess, who “waved to her.”  How interesting that Lulu’s delusional condition is easier to relate and to manifest in subsequent scenes than her abortion, eighty pages later.

Enough about abortion.  Well, can’t do that, since this novel ineluctably concerns its effects on a character, who is a hero at first (she wants to reconcile with her family, the cause of the initial division yet unknown), but quickly slides into a personality encumbered with psychotic delusion whose hamartia is her inability to realign (if not reform) her life on its track (whatever her career or function in life would have been) after having aborted her child.

The most touching points in the novel, which are also the most literary, involve a contemporary approach to the technique that Ernest Hemingway first used nearly ninety years ago: the linguistic transformation of an unborn child into the pronoun “it.”  Everybody knows Hemingway’s clever use of the pronoun in the short story masterpiece “Hills Like White Elephants” where Jig confronts the American man, the presumed father of her unborn child, by saying that “once they take it away, you never get it back.”  At this point in Hemingway’s narrative, it is obvious to the reader that Jig uses “it” not to refer to the abortion that the American man wants her to have, but to her unborn child.  (It’s juvenile, of course, to want to have every story end happy, but I hold with those who say that Jig will not abort her child, no matter how forcefully the American man claims that it is a simple operation “just to let air in.”)

How unfortunate not only that this novel can’t end happy for me, but that Lulu did not have Jig’s strength.  As a result, Lulu’s ruminations on a variety of topics morph into mental anguish over her unborn child virtually every moment (there’s that word again!) that the pronoun “it” is used.  The following passage exemplifies this Hemingway technique well:

Lulu tore open the plastic bag on the seat next to her and pulled out the dark blue blanket.  It was scratchy and prickly and smelled like chemicals, but she wrapped herself in it.  She wondered if this blanket was cleaned after every use or simply refolded and vacuum sealed.  She wondered how many people had used this blanket.  She wondered if she had ever used this blanket before.  She wondered how long this blanket would be used.  She wondered what the life expectancy of this blanket was, and then she wondered what her life would have been like if she’d had it.  Lulu wondered what would have happened if she hadn’t done anything, if she had simply left it alone, and she counted on her fingers beneath the blanket, twelve.  It would now be twelve years old.  (8-9)

The transition from rumination about a mere blanket given to her in flight to the aborted child occurs when she wonders “if she’d had it,” and the competent reader knows this, especially on reading the subsequent lines.  This technique is repeated often throughout the novel.

Another technique (more accurately, linguistic style) that De Niscia uses must be noted here.  Long sections of the novel are mere dialogue, which, by itself, could show an immature author at work.  (Narration can only go so far; some description and narratorial commentary are necessary.)  However, given that today’s readers are more inclined to know texting and web headlines as their first category of reading (who reads hardcopy newspapers any more?), this novel could succeed in meeting the reading expectation of texters.  Huge sections of the novel read like a text transcript (pages 101-111 especially), and this readability factor could make the novel not only popular with younger readers, but also adaptable as a drama.

De Niscia’s novel should be read not only for its literary, but also its didactic and therapeutic value: literary, for its clever use of Hemingway technique; didactic, for what the novel can teach us about families who have lost their faith and whose children suffer from such loss in the most personal areas of their lives; and therapeutic, since the character Lulu may help mothers who have aborted realize that they can survive after abortion and do not have to follow her psychotic example.

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