Monday, May 22, 2017

Ask Me How I Got Here by Christine Heppermann

Adrienne (Addie) Solokowski  is a sophomore who attends Immaculate Heart Academy, an all girls Catholic high school in Minneapolis.

Addie and her best friend Claire are part of the school's cross- country team. Addie is a good runner, pushed by Coach and she helps Claire run better. The two girls often like to run early in the morning.

It's April and she is dating Craig, a junior from St. Luke's. Craig is cute but Addie considers him a bit of a jerk so she decides to become involved with his best friend, Nick at a party. Soon they are having sex. Addie is worried about telling Craig but it turns out that Craig has been involved with a girl named Iris.

Eventually Addie brings Nick back to her house . Her parents both like him. Before they go to her room her mother tells her
"If you're brave enough for mad passion
with your sweet innocent mother right downstairs,
go ahead."

Nick teaches bass at his uncle's music store and plays in a band called Side Effects. He wants Addie to write lyrics for his music.

By August, Addie realizes her period is late. Claire notices immediately that Addie doesn't' seem to be "giving one hundred percent" when they go out running. Claire has no idea that Addie is pregnant because Addie doesn't tell anyone. Eventually Addie tells Nick who is "supportive" and drives her to the local Planned Parenthood where the doctor tells Addie her options.

Addie returns home and struggles to tell her parents about her pregnancy.  Addie has to tell them because according to Minnesota law she requires parental consent to have an abortion. When she does tell her parents, her father hugs her and tells her it will work out while her mother goes downstairs and cries.  The next day Nick takes Addie to the clinic where she has her abortion. Addie misses the first cross-country practice of the season as she recovers from the abortion.

In September, Addie returns to school and begins competing with the cross-country team. However, she ends race after race, walking. As she struggles to come to terms with what happened over the summer, Addie is affected more than she realizes.


Ask Me How I Got Here is a novel-in-verse that attempts to explore the weighty issue of abortion from a young Catholic  woman's perspective. The novel is divided into six parts, April, May, June, August, September and October with the bulk of the story being told in the month of October. Unfortunately, Heppermann's use of free verse gives superficial treatment to the controversial issue of abortion and its aftermath. The poems are short, as is the novel. The result is that Hepperman's story is vague about many of the details and therefore disappoints those who would like a more rigorous treatment.

Addie's story is a common one but the free verse poems offer the reader only the bare bones of the story. Addie is a young girl who becomes pregnant and has an abortion at Planned Parenthood. After her abortion she begins acting out, dumping friends, dropping the sport she loves and lying to those who love her. Her poorly understood Catholic faith offers her no comfort. She then meets a former runner, Juliana and begins a lesbian relationship with this woman who herself is struggling. The message from Juliana is that shame from abortion comes from society and not from guilt over killing one's unborn child.

 It is troubling how Addie is abandoned by her very modern "Catholic" parents. Heppermann's portrayal of parents response to unplanned teen pregnancy is spot on, one of many typical parental reactions (some girls are forced to abort, other's thrown out of the house and other girls treated with concern and care as they carry their child to term). There is no discussion of a "baby" and as with Addie visiting the clinic, no mention of what alternatives are offered to her. Addie's parents seem distant in this life-changing event for their daughter. They hug her or disappear to cry and when the deed is done, mom is there with money for birth control pills (which she would likely be offered at Planned Parenthood after her abortion). Addie is taken to the clinic by her boyfriend and when she returns home after the abortion her mother makes a "couch nest" for her and goes off to work. But the effects of the abortion are soon felt. 

Ask Me How I Got Here does portray some of the emotional and psychological effects of abortion on women but instead of questioning WHY, instead it avoids the entire discussion and projects the blame for  Addie's feelings onto her Catholic faith. Almost immediately after her abortion Addie begins acting out. Although she attempts to act "normal" she finds herself constantly thinking about what has happened. Nick takes her to the movies but she notes that the buttered popcorn tastes like burnt sand and when she finally starts to relax, she attempts to placate her conscience by telling herself, "What's done is done, I can't change it now, so why let it ruin my afternoon?" At this point in the novel no one has made Addie feel judged or shamed. In fact her boyfriend Nick has gone out of his way to be kind. What Addie feels appears to come wholly from within herself.

In August cross-country season begins but Addie isn't much interested. Throughout September Addie finds herself walking to the finish line and not caring, even when Nick attempts to motivate her. In October Addie doesn't participate in spirit week, and drops out of cross-country lying to her parents, friends and Nick about attending practices. Addie repeatedly turns a picture of her taken before her abortion face down, causing her mother to wonder what's going on in the house. In a poem titled, "The Trinity, Explained" Addie suggests that everyone comes in pieces. She views herself as a bad person.
"I'm the daughter
who can't stop making bad choices;
the girlfriend
who won't answer her phone;
the ghost
who is anything
but holy,
no matter how hard she tries."

Addie finds it difficult to sleep, and eventually dumps her boyfriend. She becomes remarkably snarky to her friend Claire, attempting to push her away. Claire confronts Addie in the hall to tell her how upset she and Nick are:
" ' Nick cares about you. I do, too.
And we thought we knew
what you cared bout, but apparently
we have no idea.' "

Eventually Addie's parents learn she's been lying to them and a discussion with her parents leads her mother to dismiss Addie's father's concern about her having a physical injury. Her mother's response suggests that she recognizes Addie is struggling emotionally with the events of the summer (i.e. the abortion) but no help is offered by them. They just want her to be happy. However, no one talks about the "elephant in the room", Addie's abortion and what really happened.

Addie's struggles continue. In the poem WWMD (What Would Mary Do?) Addie tells herself Mary would try not to think about it, try not to think at all.  When she goes to meet Juliana their discussion about Addie's guilt over leaving the cross-country team leads Juliana to remark,
"You've got to separate yourself
from the story....
don't automatically assume
 that you're the one who fucked up." 
Addie begins to apply Juliana's advice to her own situation, assuming that her problems are due to other people, not her own actions.

Ask Me How I Got Here offers an unsavory portrayal of the Catholic faith by an author who herself is Catholic. Some poems border on sacrilegious. For example, in the poem titled "Sunday Morning",  Heppermann compares sex to receiving Holy Communion. Another poem, "The Advantages of Being Mary" complains that Mary did not have to worry about Joseph bringing "protection" nor about being condemned for getting pregnant. Almost everything Catholic is shamed and treated in a derogatory manner in this novel.

When making the decision to abort, Addie states that she hopes "that God has enough faith in me to let me make my own choices." However it doesn't appear that she considers what her faith might offer her in making a decision on what to do. She doesn't talk with a priest, she never seems to inform herself on why the church teaches what it does about abortion.  Instead Addie's poems focus on mocking the Catholic church and criticizing those against abortion. 

In the poem, "Going to Confession", Addie's view on the sacrament of Confession is focused on the negative and not as a sacrament of healing and guidance (the church has renamed this sacrament, the Sacrament of Reconciliation).
"Every month at all-school confession,
I rolled them through that narrow door
to show the priest how wicked I'd been."

Addie's views are no surprise considering her mother's heterodox view of Catholic teaching on sexuality. In the poem, "Cafeteria Catholic", Addie's mother tells her about the parish priest not allowing her the "choice" to wear a certain necklace during Mass when she was a kid, implying it was unreasonable (and sinful). This trivial event is compared to Addie's abortion when her mother equates the church's refusal to allow abortion as another unreasonable action. Addie's mother pontificates,
"The Catholic Church is run by men,'
she says as she digs out her wallet
to pay for my birth control pills. 'And men
make mistakes.'"

Not surprisingly, prolife characters are not portrayed in any realistic way. Instead they come across as stupid and boorish. For example,  the one prolife character in the novel, Allison Finley is portrayed as ignorant about basic reproductive science:
"Allison Finley goes off about
how she would never take birth control pills
because they kill egg cells, which is like
having an abortion every month."

Young prolife students are well informed and know that oral contraceptives do not kill "egg cells" - the proper term is ova - but that some oral contraceptives may cause very early abortions, which is what Allison is referring to. This is one of several reasons why the Catholic church does not support taking oral contraceptives. Allison is described in unsavory terms, as someone who can't think for herself.
" 'I'm doing Hope's Journey,'
Allison barks, and then waits,
like she's a trained seal, ..."

Addie mentions later on in a poem titled, "It Takes Me Back" how she met prolife picketers outside the abortion clinic and that murder was spelled with two "d's once again suggesting those who support the prolife side of this issue are ignorant.

After listing off a number of different nun's orders, Addie mentions how one of the nuns from the order that founded Immaculate Heart Academy, the Servants of Our Blessed Mother, made Liz Morley carry heavy textbooks upstairs when she was six months pregnant. Those nasty Catholic nuns!

In the poem "The Church Responds" Addie refuses to accept that the Catholic Church responds to those dealing with the aftermath of abortion with compassion. She cuts off Allison remarks about post-abortive healing and facing what as happened in the abortion. Allison mentions the various rituals women use to help them heal from their abortions such as writing a letter or holding a funeral. Addie does write a letter to her unborn baby in the poem, "Dear You" in which she expresses not her sorrow at the abortion but tells the child she would not force her/him to write a letter like this. Interestingly Addie's writes,
"Whatever you would have looked like,
whoever you might have been,
I have no way of knowing."
Addie doesn't know of course, because her child never had the opportunity to live her/his life.

There's not much to like in this novel for those Catholic teens who believe in their faith's teaching on abortion. The main character, Addie is a poorly catechized Catholic who simply parrots almost every secular/feminist objection against the Catholic church's stance on abortion/contraception while denigrating Mary and Joseph.The objections are superficial and immature and there is almost no critical thinking done by the main character or her parents. The issue of abortion deserves a more honest treatment in young adult literature, something this novel does not offer.

For those interested in learning about the historical perspective of the Catholic Church's teaching on abortion, these articles, Part I and Part II by Donald DeMarco, a professor of philosophy and a Catholic provide a detailed summary.

There are many wonderful orders of nuns who do excellent work teaching and performing works of charity. The evangelization begun by St. Pope John Paul II has begun to bear fruit in the many young women seeking to enter religious communities. These are a far cry from the nuns portrayed in this novel as they are happy, vibrant, caring young women. For example, the Dominican Sister of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist specialize in teaching young people and are comprised of young women called to this charism. The Sisters of Life, founded by the late His Eminence John Cardinal O'Connor is a contemplative/active community of nuns that also minister to women facing an unplanned pregnancy.

In response to the large number of women who have experienced abortion and suffer silently, the Catholic church has responded to offer post abortive healing. Project Rachel is one  post-abortive healing service.It is offered by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for those facing pregnancy loss, including the loss of a child through abortion.  Rachel's Vineyard is another service offering women and men a way out of despair, shame and guilt after an abortion. 

Book Details:

Ask Me How I Got Here by Christine Heppermann
New York: HarperCollins Childrens Books       2016
225 pp.

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