Interviewed by Valerie Waterhouse
Read Jennifer Bowering Delisle’s nonfiction piece, Abracadabra
Valerie: We get a lot of stories about female experience of infertility and miscarriage at FLM and have published several. Why are these difficult issues so little discussed? And why almost never from the male point of view?
Jennifer: This is a huge question and I’m sure great scholarly work has been done on it, so my response just scrapes the surface. But I think the answer to both questions is that western society is still tremendously pro-natalist, sexist, and heteronormative. There is a tremendous amount of pressure placed on women to reproduce, and every sidebar ad for a fertility quick fix—from books to vitamins to hypnosis—is not just selling us something, but sending the underlying message that infertility is in our power to control. And if we have the power to fix it, and can’t, then it must be our fault. This fosters guilt and shame, and shame perpetuates silence. And it’s a shame that is also gendered in powerfully damaging ways. There is still a relentless intertwining of female identity with motherhood and male identity with virility. So for many, infertility is experienced—even if only on a subconscious level—as a challenge to deeply internalized ideas about a key aspect of their identity. If parenthood is demeaned by patriarchal society as being the female sphere, then infertility is not something that men are encouraged to talk about, either—or to grieve.
Then there are our puritanical tendencies as a society. Talking about trying to conceive means talking about sex. Diagnosing and treating infertility involves very intimate procedures, including male masturbation and invasive probing of the female body. Miscarriage is a very visceral, gory experience. So I think people are going through the initial process of trying to conceive in private, because of social norms, and when it gets hard, or painful, or when there are losses, we maintain that privacy, either because we want to or because we feel obligated to. Nobody really wants to hear about it. Or they do because they are going through it too, but we don’t know it, because they also feel that pressure to be silent.
What sets your memoir apart is the interweaving of your own experience of infertility with the history of the word ‘Abracadbra’, an ancient incantation, once believed to reduce ‘whatever evil has befallen you’. What gave you the idea of linking the two together?
What I really wanted to explore was not just my experience of infertility but the toxic environment of the online infertility community I became involved with. The most striking thing when I first started participating in the forums was the use of abbreviations that were completely opaque and alienating to an outsider. Yet as markers of belonging they also had this incantatory power. The symbolism of magic spells evolved from there, and once I started exploring that theme the parallels accumulated. For a layperson, the medical jargon and processes of diagnosis and treatment also feel both alienating and magical—you have to put so much faith in things you don’t understand, while being inundated with pseudoscience and quackery on the internet. And desperation can lead to so much magical thinking.
The biological need to conceive makes us ‘naked as the animals we are, driven by our most primitive instincts’. And yet Abracadabra also explores how divorced we, in western society, have become from these instincts. It seems ironic that the greatest comfort initially comes from the virtual infertility community you mention above. Is there a wider point here about how westerners have lost sight of our bodies, our biology, of who and what we really are?
I think it’s actually the opposite. In becoming so focused on our bodies and the biological process of reproduction—which many of us experienced as surprisingly instinctive and primitive—we lost sight of the higher functions that we tend to call “human”—our intellect and ability to reason, as well as our ability to empathize, and form real emotional connections with other people who are suffering. The irony, for me, is that the amazing technology of the internet was actually promoting our “lizard brains” to take over. Yes, there is this infantilizing screen of “TMI” and “baby dust” and “bed dancing” instead of sex, but I don’t see that as a problem of disconnection from the body or biology, but rather a means of policing women’s agency over those bodies. Motherhood has always been and continues to be imagined and constructed as a way of oppressing women. Even if my desire for a child is a conscious life goal based on empowered decision-making, the institution of motherhood is one in which women’s behaviours are constantly surveilled, judged, and controlled.
Was it your disillusion with the online fertility community that inspired you to turn to ancient magic? And did it work?
What I hoped to convey was not a turning to ancient magic but instead a turning to art and a different kind of writing as a form of real connection. Part of why I wanted to write about this experience is to combat the silence. I have always turned to literature for comfort and guidance, so when I was going through infertility, I desperately wanted to read other people’s accounts—not self-help guides on how to conceive, but poetry or fiction or creative nonfiction that captured the experience. Maybe because publishing is still so male-dominated, I found very little work to meet that need.
I see parallels between the language of these online communities and the language of “ancient magic” in the false promise of healing. My turning back to the concept of the “spell” is an attempt at revision—rejecting the sleight of hand and snake oil in favour of the original meaning of spell as story. I think that it’s in telling our stories that we have the power to form real connections, and to heal—maybe not physically, but emotionally.