Our Own Messy, Imperfect Reactions and Feelings: Talking with Hannah Matthews
You may have heard the word ‘doula’ used in relation to childbirth, but ‘doula’ has a broader meaning. A doula is someone who provides expert guidance and support through challenging health-related experiences. Author and reproductive rights advocate Hannah Matthews has just released her book You or Someone You Love: Reflections from an Abortion Doula (Atria Books, 2023), an accessible guide to the emotional and physical realities of providing and supporting abortion care for our communities. Like the very best of doulas, this book goes beyond the provision of relevant information, and creates a sense of being held and seen and heard.
Matthews’ unique book is a hybrid text rendered in evocative, lyrical prose. Matthews has an engaging and relatable voice, an ear for musical language, and a care worker’s awareness of her readers’ needs.
I was lucky enough to speak with Maine-based Hannah via Zoom. I found her to be as warm and enthusiastic as she is on the page. We talked about the need to bring the reader close, the impact of care work on Matthews’ writing, tips for finding resonance in prose, and the healing power of helping others feel heard.
The Rumpus: How did you get involved in the field of reproductive care?
Hannah Matthews: As I aged into my own reproductive life, I became more aware of people in my life who had had abortions. I was asking questions of the people in my life who were trusting me with their stories about abortion. I was beginning to realize that abortion could mean forty-five thousand different things— not just emotionally or spiritually, not just the inner experience of it— but literally the medical and physical processes, the costs, its place in someone’s life or family. They’ve all been flattened or siloed into this monolith “abortion,” and people think they know what that word means when they hear it. They have a visual or an idea that is often wildly different than what the person is actually describing.
Rumpus: You had an abortion at the same time you were working on this book. How did that experience influence this project?
Matthews: I had my abortion January, 2022. I had a baby in January, 2021, and an abortion almost exactly a year later. I was working in my clinic, and doing freelance writing. It was a few months after I had signed my book contract. Originally, [You or Someone You Love] was not memoir. After I had my own abortion, which was actually a really complicated, painful experience for me, I took a long break from writing. I was grieving, and I couldn’t engage deeply with abortion stories other than those of the patients and people I was supporting. Then I sat down and just wrote the story [of my abortion] from beginning to end. At the time, I was still doing the interviews that I had already scheduled with people running abortion funds and doing doula work, and doctors, and nurses. I started to tell them my abortion story. It would just come up organically, and so it became part of the book. I didn’t want it to be at the center, but I wanted to be honest about where I was. I’m just here in the waiting room with you. I have my procedure at 10 o’clock, and you have yours at 10:30. I also wanted to normalize feeling bad about your abortion. I think there’s pressure to make our own abortions just wholly positive and simple and great.
Rumpus: The passages describing your own experience were effective in creating connection and safety. They also highlighted how much you have going on. How do you balance being a mother, a full-time reproductive care worker, abortion doula, and writer?
Matthews: Signing your first book contract the same year you have your first child is certainly… a choice. This is not the best book I could have written, but it’s the best book I could have written in eight-minute increments.
Rumpus: You write that you were sometimes conducting interviews in a supply closet on your break. How did you manage to combine all those stolen minutes into an actual book?
Matthews: I tweeted, “I’m going to write a book about pregnancy and abortion.”My wonderful agent, Jade Wong-Baxter, immediately reached out to say she’d love to hear more. Once that happened, it felt more comfortable for me. I thought, “Okay, this is another job that someone needs me to do and has hired me to do. I will do the best I can at it.”
Rumpus: Why did you find that so motivating?
Matthews: My identity is firmly rooted in care work, and a deep need to be useful to other people. As soon as someone else said to me, “I need you to write this book,” it freed me to write it.
Rumpus: You organized You or Someone You Love into sections and subsections with titles like, “Abortion is Survival,” and “Abortion is Hope,” and “Abortion is Indigenous.” Why did you choose this repetition for your section titles?
Matthews: That was really me trying to sneak the word “abortion” as many times as possible into print. To use the word, use the word, use the word. I wanted to pull people into a space where the word is just another word and it is being used, and that’s okay. You’re not whispering it. You’re not covering it up.
Rumpus: Did the structure arise from the raw material? Did you start with an outline?
Matthews: I moved a lot of things around. I went back and forth with my editor. I used Scrivener. I cut about twenty thousand words from the original book.
To me, the sections are all connected. It was a struggle to make one thing a subsection of another thing. I feel strongly that abortion is connected to motherhood and parenthood and birth, but someone who never wants to have children, and has had abortions specifically because they do not identify as a parent, might not want to read about that.
I wrote it [this way] thinking that people could skip sections or read it out of order. Readers don’t have to engage with everything. If they think, “Ugh, I don’t want to hear about motherhood,” they can skip those parts. Each reader can choose the sections that are most useful for them.
Rumpus: The endings to each section are so haunting. You end the “Abortion is Nature”section with “we cannot go to a place we cannot imagine.”At the end of “Abortion is Mine,” you write, “I see my breath in front of me, cloud after cloud of it, my lungs reminding me, again and again, that I’m alive, I’m upright, I’m moving forward.” How do you craft such resonant lines?
Matthews: Endings, for me as a reader, have always been crucial. I often remember them long after I remember plot points or other rhythms or language choices. I felt a real responsibility to readers to give satisfying endings. I’m working on a piece right now for the New York Times where I knew the last sentence before I knew the argument I was making.
Rumpus: Where did the last sentence come from?
Matthews: I was walking the dog and thinking about how to articulate the thing I wanted to write. I was really ruminating on that. I do a lot of worrying and ruminating and catastrophizing. And then the last sentence came to me as, ‘oh, this is an idea that makes me feel better.’ I thought, ‘if this series of words, if repeating them to myself like a mantra makes me feel better, then maybe it’s a good last sentence?’
A lot of my last lines are things I’ve told myself or things I’ve told people that I’ve supported through their abortions. If that is the only thing from a chapter that stays with someone, I want it to be something that might help them feel better.
Rumpus: You identify as white, and argue in the book that “talking about whiteness is essential for white care workers.”You’ve also said that writing can be a form of care work, so I’m interested in the role your own whiteness has played in this book.
Matthews: It’s important for me to remember where I came from. I was raised by white women and white feminists who were very wonderful, smart, and radical for the time, but I was raised to view abortion as a pretty one-dimensional, feminist, men-versus-women issue. There was not a lot of education around reproductive justice or where reproductive care intersects with racism.
At the clinic where I work, our patient intake form includes a checklist of questions, and we’ll ask, “What race do you identify as?” With white people there’s this— either feigned or real— confusion about why they would be asked that. I see it also with cis people when we ask, “What are your pronouns?” There’s an assumption of white being the default. We’re so unused to thinking of white spaces as racialized spaces, but an all-white room is a racialized room. White is a race. So, that’s something I really considered in the writing. I didn’t want to write “people of color” and then “everyone else.”meaning white, or to name someone’s race only when they were not white.
As a white journalist, when I am asking for someone’s labor or information, the people I am interviewing often have no reason to trust me. They might have even been harmed by white women trying to co-opt or align themselves with their work. It’s something I always need to stay aware of.
Rumpus: How did that impact your construction of the text?
Matthews: There were several times that I would be writing and have to think to myself, “Wait, who taught me this?” That question did not spring forth automatically from my little brain. Of course, I learned it by working with someone, or by reading someone else’s work. I had to remind myself to cite that person instead of just co-opting that idea. Part of white scholarship and white creation of things involves a real need to remember to be citing and acknowledging those that came before.
Rumpus: You quote James Baldwin, describing a spokesman as someone who “assumes that he is speaking for others” and himself, as a writer, “a witness to what I’ve seen and the possibilities that I think I see.”” How did you see yourself as you worked on this book?
Matthews: I just want to be a vessel, a microphone with a voice-changing filter so people are just free to talk. I want to be a prop in the corner. I don’t want to be directing someone’s story. Hopefully no one is reading a self-concept of expertise into my words about other people.
Rumpus: You could have written a book that was just transcribed interviews. How did you find your middle space between direct transcription and a book written entirely in your voice?
Matthews: I don’t know that I did strike the balance–I think I’ll always feel like there’s too much of me talking–but right now I want to lean into storytelling and my own vulnerability instead of straight reporting or political punditry. Because abortion is such a loaded topic, the way that one person talks about their abortion experience—the language and tone they use, the way they choose to tell their story—can have a major emotional impact on the listener or reader.
It’s important to be examining, not just, What are my thoughts and opinions about abortion? but What are my feelings and emotions, and why do I feel them? Why does it make me feel uncomfortable or ashamed to discuss this? Or, Why do I feel angry or afraid or uncomfortable when I hear someone express something that does not harm me? Describing my own reactions and feelings is a way I write in order to understand myself., It’s a way I write in order to help other people feel more comfortable with their own messy, imperfect reactions and feelings. I think that is what prevents me from just being the recording device. I was trying to—not that anyone’s in danger of thinking this!— but to show that I’m not some omniscient narrator. I’m not just some perfect Zen onlooker who’s going to describe to you in neutral objective intellectualism what’s happening. That’s never who I’m going to be.
Rumpus: Having you as a guide to navigating the feelings that came up around the stories in your book was valuable. There’s even a part where you tell the reader to take some deep breaths. In another voice, I think that would have seemed gimmicky, but you write with such sincerity, I appreciated the reminder.
Matthews: There’s been this big push toward kind of quippy, jokey, flippant abortion humor writing, which is great and often brilliant and funny. It doesn’t work for a lot of people who’ve had abortions. A lot of people need to not be dismissed in that way or have their pain or their very real guilt or ambivalence toward their own abortions made into a joke.
Rumpus: You include such rich depictions of care and support and community within the container of the abortion experience. I wonder how many of your readers will be like me, people who have had abortions in less-than-ideal situations, and feel envious of these conditions. What is your advice for those readers?
Matthews: I would say–as much as it feels safe or connective for you–to talk about it. You’d be shocked how many people will say, “Oh, I had a very similar experience”, or want to know more, how many people will see and hear what you’re saying, and help you carry that weight. You won’t be alone with the experience, and they won’t be alone with theirs.
If you’re able, naming the ways in which you were failed—the things your experience lacked—can be really, really powerful.
Rumpus: Do you think this is one of the important functions of your book? For people to be able to name the things their abortion experience lacked?
Matthews: Obviously, right now there’s this baseline of “Abortion needs to be legal and abortion needs to be available.” That’s number one. It needs to be accessible, to everyone, always, and for any reason. As with any facet of healthcare, it needs not to be traumatic or violent or unsupported. It needs to include the care we actually want. Helping other people have these abortion experiences—not just that they need, but what they dream of, even in difficult situations, even if they come with pain and sadness—has been like applying little band-aids to wounds I didn’t even know I had. Seeing that someone else has not had that same wound inflicted because of our intervention has been healing for my own wounds. Being able to help facilitate someone else being listened to is just the most healing experience there could be.
Rumpus: You self-identify as queer, and you draw on Nicole Manganelli to define queer as “Madly in love with the burning world.” How did you fall madly in love with the burning world?
Matthews: I’ve moved through times–days and months and years– when I did not want to be alive. I did not want to be part of the world. Only having felt that can I now feel the other side of the pendulum, the upswing. I have survived X and Y before—sexual violence, and so many other things—and so I know I can survive now. So I’m going to acknowledge that all of it is possible, like Wendell Berry said: “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts,” We are going to consider all the facts. I have no choice in my work, and my patients have no choice—these are not ignorable facts. People are sharing things with me that…how could you feel joy in the face of them? And we’re laughing together. We are experiencing joy in the face of these struggles as they are happening, not years later, not at a distance. I am very cynical in a lot of ways, and I am very tired, but every day I’m meeting someone who is suffering more deeply than I could ever imagine and simultaneously trusting me and sharing joy with me. That’s taught me how to remain in love with—and committed to—this particular burning world.
Author photo by Rachel Epperly