Friday, December 16, 2011

In Trouble. A Novel by Ellen Levine

In Trouble is a short novel that attempts to document what it was like in the 1950's for young women experiencing a crisis pregnancy, hence the title "in trouble". The novel tells the story of two girls, Jaime Morse and her best friend Elaine over the span of four months, from March to June of 1956. The author sets her novel in the McCarthy era, when Cold War America was on the hunt for any type of communistic infiltration of society. Attitudes towards people who were different were unaccommodating and the strict social norms of that period were not to be broken, for any reason.

Told in Jaime's voice, the novel opens with Jaime talking to Elaine who wants her to help set up a weekend away with her college boyfriend, Neil. Elaine wants to stay with Neil who has been pressuring her to have sex, saying that he has told her "it's a sign I don't love him if I won't". Jaime agrees to help her friend although she doesn't feel this is the right thing for her friend to do.

Eventually Elaine confides to Jaime that she is pregnant. When Jaime offers to get her aunt to "help" her, Elaine tells Jaime that as a Catholic she cannot have an abortion.

Jamie who is in high school also hints that something terrible that has happened to her.
Now when something happens -- I will not think about It. I will not remember It. I will NOT -- I cannot tell anybody, not Elaine, not Georgina, who's my closest friend now that Elaine is gone.
Not anybody.
Not ever.

Although Jaime won't tell anyone and she doesn't want to think about what happened, the reader soon learns that she went to visit her cousin Lois in Greenwich Village and was date-raped by her cousin's friend.

All of this is set against the backdrop of Jaime's father returning home after being imprisoned for just under 11 months for being a member of the Communist party years ago. As well the author sets the tone of what it's like to be pregnant and unmarried in 1956. Girls who are "in trouble" are suddenly sent away when their "time comes". There are the requisite discussion about sex education, condoms and abortion circa 1956.

Soon Elaine's parents learn of her situation and she is taken to Catholic Services where she signs away her baby to be adopted. In 1956, as a single mother, she doesn't have the option of keeping her baby. Elaine loves Neil, who now won't have anything to do with her but who pressured her into sex in the first place. She wants his baby, but she isn't being allowed really to have any say in what will happen to her or her baby. Elaine's parents haven't been much help to her either - telling her that she's ruined their life!

Eventually, Jamie is able to tell Paul, a boy from the school newspaper when they are on a date, what has happened to her. The panic that she feels when she first suspects she might be pregnant is truly heartrending. She can't believe what is happening to her and Levine creates a great deal of empathy for Jamie in her descriptions of how she feels and the terror and helplessness Jamie experiences over becoming pregnant.

Elaine has her baby at a Catholic orphanage but it is taken away from her and she is understandably traumatized. Levine also effectively portrays the loss and the terrible pain Elaine feels in giving up her baby which she truly loves and wants. "They took away my beautiful baby." she tells Jamie.

There are several things I found problematic about this novel. As the representative Catholic character in the novel, Elaine is portrayed as stupid, unrealistic, ignorant and naive. She believes to the very end that her lover, Neil, will come get her at the maternity home and marry her. Although Jamie views Elaine as having been "forced" to have her baby, Elaine tells Jamie that she loves her baby and she loves Neil. Her false hope contrasts with Jamie's realistic view of her predicament.

In comparison, Jamie, who decides upon abortion is portrayed as intelligent, realistic and in some ways very savvy. She knows how to get the information she needs to make the "choice" that will free her from the burden of her unwanted pregnancy.

But Jaime rationalizes her abortion choice primarily by denying the humanity of her unborn child.

She tells Elaine that her unborn child is a "prebaby".
"Elaine, hello. You don't have a baby. You've got a pre-baby in you. Not a baby."
To which Elaine responds,
"A baby, Jamie, it's a baby and it's mine."

Later on she tells her parents:
"I love you both," I said, and I meant it. "But I can't. I don't know all of the why. It's not just going to college." I touched my belly. "This is not a baby yet, and I can't let it be one. I mean, how could I have a baby and not take care of it?"

In Trouble contains a few bits of abortion rights rhetoric. For example, when Jaime tells her mother what's going on with her friend and that she is being forced to give up her baby for adoption, her mother admits it's a terrible choice. But Uncle Maury has the following response:

"The only terrible thing," Uncle Maury said, "is when someone brings an unwanted child into the world."

Of course, Uncle Maury is referring to the oft-repeated feminist mantra that "every child a wanted child", implying of course that wantedness confers humanity and makes a pregnancy, a baby. Abortion of course, will rid the world of unwanted children.

I also noticed that the choice of adoption is portrayed as very traumatic one, while the choice of abortion appears to have little negative outcome. We are told how Elaine feels after the adoption - a choice she didn't want or really make. But in contrast, we are not presented with the effects of abortion on Jamie, because the novel ends at this point. However, a point is made that the abortion allows Jamie to regain her life and that it is a good choice because it was the choice she wanted.

In Trouble is a good starting point for a discussion about abortion, premarital sex, teen sex, rape, adoption and single parenting. It is also useful in providing a starting point for a discussion on how society has changed in its views of single mothers, premarital sex and rape. I found it interesting that not one adult in the story reported the rape of their cousin/daughter. Lois simply sends her young male friend packing and Jamie's parents never really address their daughter's rape at all. Single mothers were strongly discouraged from keeping their babies mainly because at that time there was still great shame in having a baby outside of marriage and because there were few support systems in place for single mothers.

In Trouble attempts to demonstrate to teens what it was like to have an unplanned pregnancy when abortion was illegal in the United States. It is based on the author's interviews with many women who experienced just such a situation in the 1950s. There is no doubt that society did not offer much in the way of emotional and physical support to these women, often treating them with contempt while the men who pressured women to have sex or who raped women suffered few if any consequences. And certainly the type of help that was offered to women in 1956, often being sent away to have their babies in secret while society gossiped and judged did great harm. But that has all changed today.

Levine states in her author's note that women now have choices and in particular the choice to abort and that they would do well to remember what it was like in the days of coat hanger and back alley abortions. It is my opinion that abortion is not a reasonable choice to offer a woman in a situation that is both complex and intensely emotionally charged. The situation today for women with an unplanned pregnancy is much better - more options such as single parenting, and adoption along with a huge change in societal expectations and morality.

Book Details:
In Trouble by Ellen Levine
Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Lab Lerner Publishing Group 2011
200 pp.

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