Are We Bringing Back Shame?

Larissa Lindsay, Rice MLS ’09

My biological mother died a year ago. I knew her since I was 14 years old. It was an unusual, complicated relationship, not easily defined. She introduced me as a friend’s daughter visiting from Houston, a friend from Houston, a work colleague, a friend of a work colleague, or just a friend. She was a well-known, deeply loved person in her community. Responsible, dependable, never had an enemy, a leader, always doing things for children. 

She never acknowledged me as her daughter, to anyone. Ever.

Her surviving family all know who I am thanks to my beloved bio-brother. They reached out to me saying I was to attend her funeral, sitting with the family. Very different from when my bio-brother died in a car wreck in the late 70s. My bio-mother called to say he died in an accident, but I could not come to the funeral because people would ask who I was. 

Because the story told about my conception was that my bio-mom was raped by a naval midshipman, I was also identified or equaled to being a rapist’s child, Demon seed, Satan’s offspring, Dinah’s subhuman, along with other biblical references. I also read about some who believe in a so-called “rape gene” that looked at how men of multiple generations are incarcerated for rape and how some believe they, or their children, should not procreate out of fear of spreading that gene. This messed with my head, and deepened my belief that if you are pregnant from rape, you really need to have abortion available, because the whole remote, unfounded possibility of a rape gene thing is difficult to process.

Eve covers herself and lowers her head in shame in Auguste Rodin’s Eve after the Fall.

You may think, how can she be adopted and work at Planned Parenthood? Knowing or hearing the trauma of someone who is pregnant and desperately doesn’t want to be, is exactly why I believe abortion should be legal, and contraception readily available (along with real support for children).  Yes, my bio-mom could have chosen abortion, and yes, I am ok with that. A woman who desperately is not wanting to be pregnant is just as strong in her beliefs as the woman who desperately wants to be pregnant – but isn’t. 

There were other influencing factors in my life leading to support for abortion. During my elementary school years, we had children from Burnett Bayland live with us (my adoptive parents referred to them as The Orphan Kids, but I later learned they were abused by their parents and were being taken away). I can remember three siblings that would be in and out of foster care, and would leave our house with clothes, toys, and a suitcase, and come back months later with a few items of dirty clothing in a paper bag. We would see this with other kids as well, over and over. My mother would be heartbroken. She wanted me to understand what these children were going through, without being traumatized. And then they stopped coming, and I was traumatized. Decades later I tried to find them with no luck. Their stories weigh on me. 

My father died in 1970, and my mother reached out to Homes of St. Mark to have unmarried pregnant women live with us while they were waiting to give birth, before giving the baby up for adoption. I still remember the girls and watching coordination of their classes, doctor appointments, etc. Often, just a few years separated us in age. I would hear their stories, their pain of being separated from family, partners, and friends in another city. Of how difficult it was to give their baby up for adoption, but they felt they had no options.  I also heard their appreciation that we didn’t judge them or think they were bad people. By age 15, I knew a whole lot about labor and delivery, that people get in difficult situations, and that judging or persecuting doesn’t fix it. 

When I met my bio-mom, she said not a day went by that she didn’t think about me and wonder what my life was like.

My bio-mom had told me she didn’t have any choices with me, she couldn’t raise a child alone, abortion was illegal, and she was afraid of being scorned by her family, church, and friends. A few years ago, I discovered (thank you, Ancestry DNA) that she had lied about being raped, as I discovered who my father is (and other siblings). Apparently, acknowledging that she was sexually active outside of marriage led to the rape lie. She was afraid of being looked down upon – yes, different generation, but it never went away. This supposed disgrace continued to control her, over 60 years later. To live such a drastic lie, which had affected so many aspects of her life, and mine, only encourages my work for reproductive justice. We need to reach a time when sex (CIS or LGBTQI) does not equal shame, love is love, and there is no shame in abortion.

In her later years, extreme religious beliefs and radical conservatism became everything in her life, even if it meant disparaging on social media and elsewhere her gay son (happily married), lesbian granddaughter (also happily married), and reproductive rights. 

In her later years, she actively participated in a death row ministry at TDCJ. From her gospel quoting about this, a heinous crime could be totally ignored if you became a good person in prison. She and others routinely drove to visit death row inmates, and she told me they often stopped in Houston for dinner on their way back. I offered to meet them wherever they stopped, but it was never a good time for her. She might have to explain her self-derived shame of who I am. Because of this, I thought a lot about what they were doing and why they were doing it. I came to the belief she was trying to bring redemption to the incarcerated, just as she was trying to find her own. Still living in her own “indignity”, for no reason, and without success. 

Will pregnant people in Texas now go back to this fear? Times ARE different, but emotions, stories and outcomes can be the same as they were 60 years ago.