Irene Vilar’s story shocked a nation. Here she tells Caitriona Palmer what drove her to make such agonising choices and the emotional fall-out she has suffered
Some people are addicted to alcohol, others to drugs. But self-professed abortion-addict Irene Vilar derived her highs, and devastating lows, from beginning and ending pregnancies — 15 in all.
The mother-of-two has now published an extraordinary memoir, Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict, that recounts a painful period in her life when she “indulged in a fantasy of motherhood” and underwent 15 abortions in 16 years.
Now, in her first interview with a newspaper, Vilar — a 40-year-old literary agent with a sing-song Puerto Rican accent — spoke about the madness that led her to “forget” to take her birth control pills and repeatedly fall pregnant, only to end up in despair each time in an abortion clinic.
Twelve of the pregnancies were with a literature professor 34 years her senior, who Vilar began dating when she was 18 years old and married three years later. The last three were with a man she met soon after the break-up of her marriage. Her haunting memoir charts her abusive relationship with her husband, portrayed in the memoir as a narcissistic, manipulative control freak who repeatedly told Vilar that in order for their relationship to survive she must remain childless and “free”.
Coming from a troubled family that included a suicidal mother, an alcoholic father and two drug-addicted brothers, Vilar now understands that she too was an addict: that her predilection to fall pregnant multiple times — and her wrenching decision to terminate each baby — was a desperate attempt to establish control over her life.
But despite her moral angst and pain at the 15 “lives interrupted”, Vilar admits that she was unable to stop herself from conceiving, or aborting, her pregnancies.
“For the first 10 [abortions] with my husband, I was really a creature in suspended animation,” Vilar said in a telephone interview from her home in Colorado. “I would have moments of enlightenment but, because of where I was emotionally in my cycle of destruction, those moments of enlightenment could not take anchor.”
Vilar traces the origins of her addiction to her dysfunctional and tragic childhood in Puerto Rico where, as an eight-year-old, she watched her mother commit suicide by jumping out the passenger door of a moving car. Vilar, who tried desperately to stop her mother from jumping, was left holding a piece of black lace from her dress.
At the time of her death her mother was a shadow of her former self, depressed and addicted to valium following an unnecessary hysterectomy orchestrated by a grotesque US-sponsored birth control experiment that led to the sterilisation of more than 40% of women in Puerto Rico by 1977, according to Vilar.
Bereft and alone in the wake of her mother's death, the young Vilar was left to drift between the homes of sympathetic family and friends, a “damned guest child” eager to please and apologetic for her existence.
Dwarfed not only by the death of her mother but also by the shadow of her enigmatic grandmother, the Puerto Rican nationalist icon Lolita Lebrón who was jailed for trying to overthrow the US government in 1954, Vilar took refuge in school, excelling in her studies and becoming a straight-A student.
Vilar was so academically gifted that she graduated from high school three years early, leaving Puerto Rico when she was just 15 to enroll at Syracuse University in upstate New York.
It was there that she met her “master”, a strikingly handsome Latin American literature professor — four times divorced — who captivated Vilar with tales of his struggles against the dictatorship in his native Argentina and his disdain for the shackles of family which he called “nests of suffering”.
For a young teenager trying desperately to make sense of her tragic past, the professor's silver tongue was wildly seductive. “My fantasies with him began the moment I heard him speak,” says Vilar. “He was this defiant, rebellious, courageous man that was standing alone in the world. The only language I had until I met this man was one of shame and of silence,” she adds. “I bought his story. I married his language. It was just completely seductive for me at 16 years old. I felt that he personified freedom and truth and goodness.”
The choice was keeping my husband or the baby
In the first weeks of the new semester, Vilar went to see him after class. On the way she stopped at the toilets to unbutton her blouse — just so — and offer a hint of cleavage. The professor ran his eyes over her and called her a “seducer”.
Within a year and a half they were lovers. And at the age of 18, in a car on the shores of Skaneateles Lake in New York, Vilar became pregnant for the first time. Months later, helped by her best friend, she had her first abortion — a “quick fix” at a clinic in downtown Syracuse.
In pain following the abortion, Vilar limped to the professor's office. When he asked her why she was so pale, she lied and told him she had her period.
Later that day, despite her physical discomfort, they made love. Looking back, Vilar admits that this moment framed their relationship, epitomising her blinding obsession with the man — and the control he held over her.
“That I would immediately after abusing my body through a termination procedure... then go and allow myself to be penetrated and invaded by this man as well? It showed a complete lack of boundaries,” she says.
The moment would also set the stage for the nightmare about to unfold: the serial abortions, Vilar's repeated suicide attempts and her unfailing submission to her “master”.
The professor told Vilar that he preferred young women, “unformed” and “untouched”, and that his relationships never lasted more than five years because his companion's desire for a child always got in the way.
Within a month of her first abortion, Vilar was pregnant again. Veering wildly between the possibility of motherhood and the fear of losing her lover, she attempted suicide.
Committed to a mental institution, she watched helplessly as her pregnancy progressed into the second trimester. Her belly began to swell and she felt the baby kick. Finally, when she was nearly 18 weeks pregnant, she came clean. The professor's reaction was what she had most feared.
“If you are with me, you have to endure the burden of freedom, and [that] requires, in part, remaining childless... I will not be a victim of your displacement,” he told her, before walking out.
In a blind panic and desperate to keep her lover, Vilar swallowed a bottle of painkillers. She awoke groggy and in the throes of a miscarriage. At the hospital, the doctor who had performed the first abortion extracted the foetus and yelled at her for being so careless. Turning to the professor, he angrily demanded if he knew what a condom was.
But a shift in their relationship had occurred. Vilar admits that she felt more secure, a little more powerful. But as the see-saw relationship continued, this power would be short lived. “The pact was sealed,” she wrote. “I didn't know a thing except that I must do all that was needed for him to love me.”
Two years later, while she was nauseous with her sixth pregnancy, Vilar married her master at a simple ceremony in the Bahamas. Just before she took her vows, her father had to remove his own wedding band and lend it to the professor, who had not bothered to buy one.
At the time, Vilar was writing a memoir about her famous grandmother, the death of her mother and the suicidal tendencies and powerlessness born of a colonial past that haunted her family. But this first memoir omitted the other life and death struggle that Vilar was living — her self-mutilation tendencies in the form of her multiple abortions.
“I was ready to talk about that one way I was attacking my body in terms of suicide attempts, but I was not ready to talk about the other ways I was attacking my body and attacking the lives that I was carrying inside,” she says. “Years would have to go by before I could face that other way in which I was hurting myself.”
Looking back, she now understands that she could have turned to drugs, like both of her brothers; to alcohol, like her father; or to valium, like her mother. Instead, Vilar chose pregnancy and abortion as the desperate way to erase the emptiness that echoed inside her.
“Abortion happens to be the target of my addiction, or, to be more precise, the target of my adolescent rebellious strategy,” she explains.
Since her first pregnancy, Vilar had had, on average, an abortion every eight months. But engaged in the writing and promotion of her well-received first book, she was surprised to realise that she “remembered” to take her birth control pills.
She does not think that these symmetries were a coincidence. “There was an average of every eight to nine months and then suddenly there are two big moments — two big parentheses,” she says. “And then I realised that those where the moments of creativity and writing.”
In July 1993, Vilar fell pregnant for the eighth time, followed soon after by a ninth, 10th and an 11th. Looking back, she realises that she would experience a “high” while anticipating each pregnancy and real joy when each was confirmed.
Each time she would tell herself that this pregnancy would be different, that she would keep the baby and that her husband would accept her decision. She would perpetuate this “pregnancy fantasy” by sneaking into department stores to buy baby clothes and hoarding them at home.
“But then as the pregnancy advanced, the principle of the fact that my husband would leave me, that I would have to choose between motherhood and him, would begin the process of panic that would end up with me choosing him over the baby,” she says.
That's when Vilar would find herself alone once again in an abortion clinic. Zig-zagging between different clinics in different cities, she often lied about the number of abortions she'd had. Once the procedure was over she would be flooded with self-hatred, repulsion and shame.
Sitting on a toilet, pregnant for a 12th time, Vilar realised she had fallen out of love with her husband. Following a divorce, she moved in with a man she met in the frozen meat section of a supermarket. She then had abortions 13, 14 and 15.
Despite her 16 years of impossible trauma and the violence she rendered on her womb, Vilar is now the grateful mother of two little girls, Loretta (five) and Lolita (three) — her two little miracles — the joyful gifts of her second marriage to a writer she met in 2003.
Motherhood has been both Vilar's redemption and her sorrow. Up until the birth of her first child her life “was in many ways an exhausting effort at numbing and avoidance”.
When she held her first child, Loretta, the grief of her mother's death and the loss of those 15 terminations “finally found me”, she says. “Motherhood has been an experience of simultaneous grief and joy and, above all, the redemptive experience of finding a most sublime and authentic source of validation as a creative being,” she says.
Vilar has converted a large space in her home and filled it with Montessori supplies, where she happily home-schools her children. Several times during her interview, Vilar is politely interrupted by her cheery charges with enthusiastic requests to admire their art work.
She decided to write about her painful past so that other women — even her own daughters — could be empowered to think and act differently if they too faced her dilemma. She wants women to speak out about their bodies and experiences and hopes that no one will question her own daughters' rights to control their own destiny.
And she hopes that one day, when her children are old enough to come to terms with her troubled history, they'll view her story as an important cautionary tale.
“I search for all the ways I can protect my little girls from everything: shame, guilt, prejudice, even me,” she said. “I don't want my daughters to feel trapped in the wrong situation. And, of course, I don't want them ever to lie on a stretcher at an abortion clinic.”
In the wake of the book she has been amazed and humbled by the flood of mail she has received from women who have confessed their hidden history of repeat abortions. “I think I help them,” says Vilar, who claimed that about one-third of the 195,296 abortions in the UK in 2008 were repeats.
But her brutal honesty about her “shameful” past has also put her in the foreground of the contentious — and increasingly dangerous — debate about abortion in America.
Vilified by the pro-life lobby in America, Vilar now fears for her safety as she is lambasted with hateful and violent criticism on the internet for being a “baby killer”.
Her husband patiently trawls the internet for offensive websites, asking the site administrators to remove hateful comments. She has had to take her names off public records and refuses to give her exact location in Colorado.
But the criticism that rankles the most are those who condemn Vilar as a mother, saying she is unfit to be a parent and that her children should be taken from her. “It's been difficult as a mother more than anything else,” she says.
Vilar says that she tries not to dwell on the fate of the 15 foetuses she aborted; that she is engaged with her two little girls and “there is something healing in that”.
But lately — as she has fought the urge for another child against the busy demands of her two daughters — the past seems to have surfaced.
“In those moments, when I start to battle, I think a little bit about the horror of all those terminations,” she says.
But surrounded by the chaos and joy of life with a three- and five-year-old, and working on a new book about motherhood, Vilar realises that, despite the nearly impossible odds and the “horror” of her personal addiction, she is a survivor.
“I was resilient. I survived it,” she says. “That can become a sign of hope for people with so many forms of addiction — that, ultimately, personal redemption is possible, no matter where we are at.”
SO WHAT DO CAMPAIGNERS THINK?
Dr Audrey Simpson is director of the Family Planning Association, Belfast. She says:
“Irene Vilar is really the big exception to the norm. I would say that this woman came not just from a family of addicts, but from a very dysfunctional family. She obviously had psychological problems that were nothing to do with abortion.
Somebody who feels the need to get pregnant and repeatedly have abortions has mental health issues.
My concern is that the anti-choice lobby will pick on this case and say that because one woman is misusing the abortion procedure, it shouldn’t be available to anyone.
Yet that is disrespectful to all the women, including those where the pregnancy is much wanted, who feel the need to have a termination. That includes women who want a child but are told the foetus isn’t progressing properly and develop a so-called crisis pregnancy.
Women with a history of mental health problems, who may be on strong medication that could harm the baby, might have an abortion. Women who’ve completed their family and returned to the workplace and don’t want to return to parenting might terminate. Women who simply can’t afford another child; women whose physical health might be seriously affected, such as one woman with a sight impairment who was told she could go blind if she had another child and the 14-year-old girl who feels she is too young to be a mother — these are all women who legitimately opt for an abortion.”
Bernie Smyth is the founder of pro-life group, Precious Life. She says:
“It’s quite a tragedy if someone feels the only way out of a difficult situation is to abort their baby. I feel that as a woman and as a pro-life campaigner.
And it’s a definite tragedy if the woman feels she has no support to go through with the pregnancy.
That is a big concern abroad and here. The statistics in America indicate that a significant number of women, like Irene Vilar, are forced into having abortions because of circumstances. It’s a major problem here, too, in Northern Ireland, where women may feel they don’t have any other option.
You need more crisis pregnancy centres than abortion centres. I’m just back from Washington DC where I joined in the 400,000 strong pro-life march. They have more crisis centres there offering support, and that’s vital here.
Women deserve better and in a way, the situation Ms Vilar found herself in was exploitation. Abortion exploits women in the same way that men exploit women.
But it can be different. I’ve been working with a Latvian couple who came over here and found themselves in difficult circumstances.
The woman became pregnant, her partner had no work, and if we hadn’t stepped in and found them a home, employment and support, her only option might have been an abortion.
We have to eliminate the problems, not the life.”