Friday, August 3, 2012


At a time when fundamentalists and the ultra-conservative, Republican Party in America are launching an assault on women's reproductive rights including abortion, listen to Joan Crawford describe to Jean Harlow the horror of an illegal, back-alley abortion. 

This text is taken from Donovan O'Malley's newly published (June 15, 2012)  WOMEN WHO LOVE & OTHER STORIES -- The last story, JOAN AND JEAN ON PAGO PAGO deals with a fictitious meeting of the classic film actors, Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow. In it, Crawford describes to Harlow what abortion was like -- when it was illegal in the USA -- and the ensuing horror and aftermath of a back-alley abortion.  In the story the elder Joan Crawford forces the younger Jean Harlow to act the part of the young, pregnant Joan Crawford also known as Billy Cassin:

"Ever seen an illegal abortionist's waiting room?" asked Joan... One thing they don't have at a back-alley abortionist's is magazines. One thing they do have is cockroaches. That's right, baby," grinned Joan-as-Billy as she saw the revulsion on Jean's face. "You're waitin' there in this back-alley butcher's waitin' room and a door opens and this young girl, she can't be no more than fourteen...this young girl comes out holdin' her belly and there's a slush of mascara and tears all over her empty little face and there's blood on her skirt and the skirt's back-to-front but she don't care about nothin'. As she staggers out she leaves a trail of tiny specks of blood that follow her out the door like the bread-crumbs that Hansel and Gretel, in that fairy tale, scattered to find their way back. But there ain't no way back for this bloody child who will die in the dark alley just outside. This child ain't no Gretel. And this ain't no Fairy Tale. Spread your legs, Harlow!"
     Jean gasped, hesitated.
     "Spread your legs, Billy Cassin!" commanded Joan.
     Jean obediently spread her legs.
     Joan became herself again -- the elegant gesture with her cigarette, the way she held her glass of vodka and crossed her still gorgeous legs -- it was all there, and she knew it. The pin-spot was again hers alone and she was perfect. That forty-foot movie screen contained no one but Joan Crawford as she whispered: "I lay there with my dress up to my chin. He looked down at me, grinned for a moment. I was glad it wasn't longer. He went to wash that child's blood from his hands and I thanked God for little favors -- he was at least washing his hands before he touched me. I looked around and I couldn't see the forest for the forceps...and the prongs and the knives and the little pincers and the big pincers and the scissors and the tiny, tiny, so very tiny hooked something-or-others that lay about that butcher's shop. LEGS WIDER, HARLOW!"
     Jean was terrified but complied.
     "Get ready!"
     Jean squinched her eyes in horror. Joan grabbed a wire coat-hanger from her steamer trunk and twisted it till it became a long tool with a small hook at one end. Jean was oblivious, lost in terrified imaginings...
..."This illegal back-alley abortionist, this spurious doctor," hissed Joan, "this butcher, gives you a slug of gin from a dirty glass, pours a little more, drinks it himself then soaks his bloody hanky in it, and rubs it on his long, hooked wire. This man, this cruel but necessary criminal, was our only resort when a woman was poor and abortion was against the law"…
…"Billy Cassin's belly got bigger and bigger when it shoulda got smaller and smaller. Bigger and bigger 'stead of smaller and smaller. She thought it was a inflammation or somethin'."
     "A inflammation?" asked Jean.
     "Uh-huh," mimed Joan-as-Billy. "Or somethin'. A lot of lonely bleedin' was on her agenda."
     "You bled a lot?"
     "That's what I said, ain't it?! Then one fine morning a few months later I wake up in this cheap hotel on a real bloody bed, see? With this little thing beside me. I ain't quite awake so I don't know what the hell it is. But it moves and it looks at me with big, cloudy eyes and do you know what I say?"
     Jean shook her head.
     "I say," announced Joan, "I say What the hell is this?! It is attached to an umbilical cord thingy that trails right up into my..."
     "Jeez! The abortion didn't..."
     Joan became Joan again, said "I lifted the bedclothes to get a better look. I was foolishly curious in those days. The little was...unformed, made tiny noises, tiny, jerky moans. I pulled it next to me and it snuffled and made the tiny noises again. I put what might have been, should have been, its mouth, on my nipple but it didn't suck. Its mouth wasn't, didn't seem to be, developed enough to suck. I hugged it for awhile. Till it stopped breathing and it turned blue and it felt cold. Then I cut it free with my manicure scissors and I put it in a paper bag and I threw it away. That's what millions of women did when abortion was illegal. I was lucky. Thousands of others died."
     Jean tore herself from Joan and leapt up with a hand over her mouth and rushed to the bathroom and vomited.

 © 20012 Donovan O'Malley

Illustration above by Donovan O'Malley

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