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Mother Tongue: Notes for Mid-Birth and The Human Condition

By Katherine Beaman.

Karolina Zapal, Notes for Mid-Birth (Inside the Castle, 2019)

It is possible that an un-mother, whose body was still healing from a recent abortion, said to the un-father of her un-baby, “One weird thing about having an abortion is you’re both mother and destroyer at the same time, but also, you’re not either of those things, not really.”

It is possible, then, that the un-father turned to the un-mother and said, “Well, they’re personae. You know, masks.”

Such masks are not simply drawn from the air and put on for some party, but drawn out from the swirling tempest of latent ambiguity, and often paradox, that resides within, having been ingrained into our being by what we physically and socially inherit and intermingling with whatever thing is essential to us. Every day, each of us wears a number of such masks—our gender, our race, our nationality, our sexuality—in an attempt to communicate who we are to the world around us, and to ourselves in relation to that world. It is only through this communication, or attempt at communication, that we may reach the possibility of discovering who we are as human beings who think and speak and act. And yet, we always fall short of this aspiration. Identities form where what is felt privately undergoes a kind of reductive alchemy so that it may be understood socially. This is not to say that they are less real or true, or mere potentials, but that their potentiality lies in that they exist ahead of what we are able to communicate.

Take, for instance, when one attempts to define what “womanhood” is—every attempt at this based on objective qualities, be they anatomical, social, etc. collapses in on itself, as an exception can be found to each objective definition provided. One can identify potential symptoms of womanhood, or generalize the experience at risk of alienating many of its members, but at best, such objective qualities remain mere symptoms. If anything may be said of womanhood, it is that it is subjective, ambiguous, and eludes us with every attempt to make a unifying statement about what it is. If such objective qualities are symptoms, then perhaps the subjectivity behind them could be considered as a kind of disease—the origin story of Eve associates womanhood with the suffering of a labor which extends beyond the mere pangs of childbirth to the condition of internalized suffering. She suffers a pain which is, as with all pains, by nature private to her. It cannot ever be fully shared with any other; it can be alleviated through empathy with and trust in the validity of another’s experiences, but can never be entirely communicated nor overcome.

The tension between a private ambiguity and attempts made to bring an incommunicable, painful experience into the public realm to advocate for its relief can be seen (and to some, felt) acutely in the effort toward reproductive justice which rips from an individual the intensely private experience of pregnancy, and potentially grief, thrusting it into the scrutinizing eye of the public, often as a political bargaining tool. “Anything can be said about pregnancy since the only people who feel it only feel it,” writes Karolina Zapal in her book Notes for Mid-Birth.

Employing in tension poetry (the most private form of writing) and non-fiction (the most collective), Zapal sets out to explore the ambiguity within often-paradoxical spaces of personal and political activities, and propose how pathways may be carved toward bodily autonomy and political freedom. She draws upon the history of Poland’s harsh abortion laws and her own personal history with her body and identity as a Polish-American immigrant. For Zapal, the pursuit of reproductive justice is an endeavor which concerns more than the material conditions of bodily autonomy and survival—it is inextricable from a person’s ability to act as an equal participant in a political process. She quotes Kitty Holland in Repeal the 8th, writing, “Accessible abortion is essential if women are to achieve economic and political equality with men.”

Here, I think it’s important to define what is meant by “bodily autonomy” and “political freedom”. Zapal herself does not make a point to distinguish these terms within Notes from Mid-Birth, but it seems necessary to separate them in order to parse their interrelatedness. Zapal suggests that society may teach young girls to speak unapologetically by “teaching girls that they are autonomous human beings. That their thoughts, concerns, and ideas matter.” In making this statement, she seems to associate autonomy with “mattering”, something that results from the disclosure of thoughts and feelings to other beings through speech—therefore, mattering is a condition of plurality, the existence of other unique and unpredictable individuals. In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt takes umbrage with the conflation of autonomy or sovereignty with freedom when she writes, “If it were true that sovereignty and freedom are the same, then indeed no man could be free, because sovereignty, the ideal of uncompromising self-sufficiency and mastership, is contradictory to the very condition of plurality.” Whereas freedom exists in a space of engagement with other people whose actions are unpredictable and uncontrollable to the individual, the only thing any individual can potentially govern is their own body, which is ruled through exertion of bodily autonomy. However, we cannot ever attain complete control, even over our own bodies, as we are inevitably powerless in the face of illness, death and decay, and the necessity of ensuring our own survival. It is only through the limitations we face over our bodily autonomy—through having them, realizing them, and working together to overcome them—that we can realize any political freedom.

It is possible that an un-mother said to the un-father of her un-baby, “Maybe I denied the baby life only by denying it a proper death. Maybe it was the very opposite of killing.”

Simone de Beauvoir opens the first chapter of Ethics and Ambiguity with a quote from Montaigne: “The continuous work of our life is to build death.” She goes on to write, “Man knows and thinks this tragic ambivalence which the animal and the plant merely undergo… he escapes from his natural condition without, however, freeing himself from it.” It is integral to the pursuit of political freedom that we are able to discover and recognize the limits to which our bodily autonomy extends, whether imposed by the laws of nations or nature or by the societal structures and norms to which we have been conditioned. Arendt writes, “Man cannot be free if he does not know that he is subject to necessity, because his freedom is always won in his never wholly successful attempts to liberate himself from necessity.” In the process of attempting to overcome the limitations on our bodies which are outside of our control, we discover our humanity and attain freedom by using our speech and action to advocate for ourselves among other people and through the creation of work which extends beyond the limitations of our mortal bodies.

In reference to the frequent neglect of female pleasure in (hetero)sexuality, Zapal writes, “Some women learn how to die, and only then how to live.” Such an allegorical association between sexuality and death can be seen as an application of the idea that it is only through the realization of what we are powerless over that we can express our humanity—only through coming to terms with how her body has been neglected, is being neglected, can she advocate for herself and other neglected women. This quote from Notes for Mid-Birth calls to mind the poem “Emerald Ice” by Diane Wakoski where she asks: “What could matter if life / was really about sex / instead of learning / to die?” She concludes, “The one, / always elusive, never attainable, missing / as soon as you seem to have it. / The other / always waiting, unavoidable, something / no one escapes.” It is the very occurrence of our inescapable mortality that determines our pursuit of pleasure and release from a pain that slips beyond our grasp, taunting us with fleeting waves of relief.

Death, however, ultimately has to be faced and, to this end, Zapal describes the experience of “pre-mourning”, a grief which preempts the point of death, a process of coming to terms with that which cannot be overcome, both the unexpected and the inevitable. She recalls travelling to Europe, visiting the grave plots reserved for her aging grandparents, and her futile attempts to divorce the surreal inevitability of death from reality. Pre-mourning can also be a public act. “The protesters pre-mourn,” she writes, alluding to the common color worn during The Black Protest in Poland on the day when a bill proposing a total ban on abortion was debated in parliament, “The Black Protest is less a protest where people wear black and more an entity—blackness—that wafts into the tenant.” If political action is an act of claiming one’s freedom and humanity, it is also an act of pre-mourning that which cannot, or potentially will not, be overcome.

It is possible that an un-mother described the progressive dilation of her cervix during her induced miscarriage to the un-father of her un-baby, writing, “There was a weird eroticism to it—it was not just pain, it was the anti-pleasure, the inversion of orgasm. It was like getting turned inside out by the hand of God.”

The title of Zapal’s book comes from the term “mid-birth”, which refers to this process which “precedes the delivery of the placenta. It follows opening and precedes the final release,” the pre-mourning of birth, so similar to the agonizing anticipation of death. She may have thought to herself that anyone who deludes a woman into thinking that abortion is necessarily not traumatic in order to secure its legal justification is complicit in compromising the right for that woman to exert autonomy over her body as well, in inhibiting the availability of resources in which a woman can receive support for the grief and trauma which she already feels shame in expressing, if she even allows herself to acknowledge it. She may feel frustration because the very right to abortion is in jeopardy, and it is either nonchalantly acknowledged as a blip in sexuality or vindicated as murder, so she feels that she cannot express the torment she felt over whether or not to keep the baby, nor the grief she feels although (and because) she acted of her own volition. If anyone has argued that exerting bodily autonomy is fun, they are sorely mistaken.

Attempts to advocate for legislation to ensure the right to abortion on the utilitarian basis of the reduction of womanly suffering fail just as quickly as attempts to prohibit abortion on the basis of the protection of the unborn under the argument that it is to be considered “life”. As pain is an entirely private experience that cannot be communicated, it therefore cannot be known nor assessed in a quantifiable way. For every pathos-ridden story of a woman’s turmoil posted on Medium or yelled passionately through a megaphone at a march, there is a pro-lifer who counters, “Prove it.” As much as religious-types and science-types may try to arrive at definitions of what “human life” is and when it begins, their “objective” definitions, which are often constructed around what they want life to be, can only offer symptoms of an underlying essentialness which tumbles around the domain of philosophy, never arriving at a point of universal consensus. These attempts at claiming and demanding certainty fail not because they do not recognize the subjective, but rather, because they exploit it. An uncomfortable truth about abortion is that because its subjects are ambiguous, it is fair game to be utilized as a political rallying point. How convenient that a human body can be a means to a baby and an election, a soccer ball on both the material and political fields?

“A woman swallows the middle of birth only to spit out a grown woman’s body. How astonished the doctors are that pregnancy is about the mother,” writes Zapal. When concerns are directed toward the unborn child rather than the mother, the concern is with a product rather than its human creator, reducing the mother to a means to an end, a “breakable machine” of man who is deprived of her access to humanity, deprived of access to the opportunity to make unexpected and irreversible decisions. The graver loss here is not the woman’s autonomy over her body, for that is something which she will never entirely attain, but the denial of her ability to exercise freedom in determining the meaningfulness of life and her place within the world for herself, making decisions on the basis of what only she knows and feels, decisions that she may potentially regret but which are precious in that they are hers. It is the very humanness of trying, acting, and potentially failing that is at risk.


Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 2018 – original pub 1958)

If a person is unaware of the autonomy they do not have, if it is unfathomable that they could make decisions over their own body and future, and if cultural conditioning and legal restrictions on bodily autonomy have become so pervasive that they don’t even recognize their own subjugation, then that person cannot be free. This phenomenon exists within a self-perpetuating cycle of erasure from history—not being conditioned to expect to have access to the attainment of freedom of decision-making as a result of a historical, linguistic, and cultural normalization, this same person will remain excluded from the creation of history. They will be unable to free themselves now or in the future. As Arendt writes, “Action, in so far as it engages in founding and preserving political bodies, creates the condition for remembrance, that is, history.” For this reason, Zapal refrains, “She has survived where she has learned how to make history. Remembers the harshest abortion laws in your country.” It is through a memory of history that we can realize which rights we do not have access to, and which rights we stand to lose, thus ensuring that the prerequisite to freedom of realization of structures of limitation is not compromised—so that exploitation of ambiguity may be resisted.

It is possible that an un-mother, now a grown woman, wrote in an email to the un-father of her un-baby, “I think the lesson here for me is how to accept responsibility for the outcomes of my life. I do not exactly know what that looks like, other than to make a conscious decision.”

In her essay “The Laugh of the Medusa”, Helene Cixous calls upon women to attempt to seize the bodily autonomy they are denied and realize the power of their subjective experience by making themselves known on the individual and historical level. “By writing herself,” she writes, “woman will return to the body which has been confiscated from her… it will tear her away from the superegoized structure in which she has always occupied the place reserved for the guilty.” It is important to distinguish here that this act of subjective writing is a point of attaining freedom in and of itself and should not be equated with the dredging up of pain as a means toward some form of political, social, or financial capital. Describing what it means to write a history derived from subjectivity, Cixous writes, “Woman un-thinks the unifying, regulating history that homogenizes and channels forces, herding contradictions into a single battlefield. In woman, personal history blends together with the history of all women, as well as national and world history.” While a woman cannot create her own history, as no one is the author of their own life-story, where political advancements toward the rights to exercise bodily autonomy may fail, histories are created if spaces are opened for their sharing.

With a similar intent, Zapal extends her advocacy for a shift from the objective to the subjective communication when she issues a manifesto condemning what she terms “expology”, a rhetorical device used, in particular (though not exclusively) by women in the writing of non-fiction, to exert control over what cannot be known or anticipated by pre-emptively exposing holes in knowledge and the value of a work in an attempt to mask in rational explanation and due-diligence an apology for perceived and/or potential failure. Perhaps this behavior extends from an effort to compensate for the perceived lack of control to which women are subjected. Perhaps it derives from a fear of the potential violence of disagreement. Perhaps it is a result of societal pressures on women to attain perfection, to distance themselves from their humanity through alienation from sin, to get a do-over in the Garden and, this time, refuse to take a bite out of the fruit of failure. Perhaps these phenomena are one and the same. She provides the example of one such expology, which says of oral histories that they are “not the versions everyone knows as the truth”, thus implying “objective” truth holds legitimacy over the subjective, and alienating the potential value of subjective experience. Zapal contends that expologies destroy nuance, ambiguity, and speculation, and so deprive the reader of an openness to interpretation.

Zapal does not seek assimilation with that more masculine form of writing—bold conjecture under the delusion of objectivity and blindness to the unknowable—but rather, argues for a bold writing which recognizes the subjective unknowable but does not condemn itself as inferior because of it. As a remedy, Zapal not only invokes women, in the manner of Cixous, to write (fail) boldly and without apology but also invokes the responsibility of a reader and respondent to participate in two-way communication in three ways: by acknowledging the human incapacity for omniscience and so demonstrate trust in the intentions of the other; by accepting that the unexpected occurs and so demonstrate trust that the other makes assessments with the best resources available to them; and by allowing for newness and indescribability without leaping to ascribe utility and so demonstrate trust in the potential beauty and creative value of the other. All of this amounts to opening up a space for action, paradoxically introducing the idea of building comfort sufficient to permit the experience of the discomfort of trying and potentially failing.

That such shifts in communication and history are dependent on communication with others rather than individual decision-making is an important aspect of Arendt’s description of how freedom and history are conditional to plurality and cannot exist or be achieved on an individual basis. Likewise, the power required to create meaningful material change exists among individuals organized together, dependent upon both their ability to recognize where they lack bodily autonomy as well as their ability to overcome interpersonal estrangement. To this effect, it is necessary to acknowledge that the legal right to abortion does not ensure access to reproductive autonomy, but rather for individuals to truly be able to make such decisions for themselves, they must also have access to medical facilities and healthcare, as well as access to childcare and a living wage such that their ability to support a child has no bearing on their decision as to whether or not they want to have one. Furthermore, the concern of bodily autonomy does not begin or end with abortion, but extends into every space where a person is required to labor in order to ensure their survival.

The concern of freedom shall remain a concern so long as individuals are socially estranged from realizing the ways in which they are subject to limitations and kept from acting in conjunction and tension with other unique individuals with varying interests—separation into groups that share only the same interests eliminates their capacity for unifying and advocating for themselves and others in a meaningful way. This isolation extends from a narrative which dictates that people are fundamentally divided against each other as opposed to united by systems of exploitation. It is a history which boggles and confuses with endless distraction, alienating people from their ability to cognize a linear progression of events, and practically encouraging sentiments of powerlessness against greater forces. As long our histories are not ours, as long as they are written for us, as long as we do not see ourselves represented as having the ability to overcome structures of control, as long as we do not listen for the voices of those we do not hear and advocate for their amplification, then we will not be free.

Katherine Beaman is a writer and engineer who lives across the street from a Family Dollar in rural Texas. Her previous critical writing may be found at DIAGRAM, Asymptote, and Fashion Studies Journal.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 6th, 2020.