Writer Kassi Underwood’s debut memoir May Cause Love: An Unexpected Journey of Enlightenment After Abortion follows her on a road trip across the United States as she takes part in healing ceremonies after having an abortion at nineteen. Graceful in its example of how one can turn a painful experience into a moment of inclusive activism, the book is now inspiring a new grassroots movement around open conversations about abortion. Underwood took some time to talk to BUST about the experience of writing the book, the current political climate, and more.
Your memoir covers so many topics — social and moral expectations, obviously abortion, relationships — so seamlessly. Can you tell me a little about the journey that resulted in this book?
I started writing about the abortion right after it happened. When I was 19, before I walked into the abortion clinic, I said, “I’ll never tell anyone about this.” When I walked out, I said, “I’ll never stop talking about this.”
I remember the first time I told someone. She was a girl in my undergarment design course at the University of Vermont. We were in the basement, working at a sewing table. I was ranting about a Supreme Court justice, and I used it as transition to talk about abortion. It was a week after I’d had mine and I told her how much I cared about abortion remaining legal. She said, “My heart goes out to you, because I had one, too.” Then we walked around the table and hugged. After that, I just kept talking about it.
I got sober and graduated from college and moved to Austin, Texas. A day before the third anniversary of my abortion, a man put a bomb on the front steps of a clinic down the street; on the third anniversary, my ex-boyfriend called to say he was having a baby with a woman; and I was depressed in a 9 to 5 office job. All the emotions I’d been suppressing began to come up — I felt like I was losing my mind. But I thought, “I’m a feminist. I shouldn’t be having these feelings.” So I moved to New York City for grad school.
I took a class in Buddhism thinking maybe I could become “enlightened.” One day, I accidentally blurted out that I was writing about abortion. The professor asked if I’d heard of mizuko jizo, a Japanese abortion ritual. I got chills. I thought, “I’m going to do all the rituals.” I didn’t know for a fact that other rituals for abortion existed, but I knew I had to do them.
How did you choose which rituals you’d go through after the abortion?
I just did every ritual I could find. I asked Mother Google what rituals existed and mapped out a course. I was already so shaky and riddled with anxiety that it couldn’t get worse. To get to the other side, I knew I had to go through these rituals, no matter how crazy or painful they were.
I thought ritual would help me learn how to express the complexity of emotion and discombobulation I was experiencing. I needed to find a community where I could say that and they wouldn’t look at my like I had three heads.
How did meeting people with so many different backgrounds affect you as a person?
The first experience that comes to mind is the Roman Catholic retreat. I’m from Lexington, KY, a somewhat liberal place in thought and feeling. Half of my family is Republican, but they lead with love, not judgment. I hadn’t been exposed to hardcore pro-life Roman Catholics before. People who loved me told me not to go. I thought they’d watched too many movies. My mom just thought I was crazy. She texted me: “good luck with the guilt thing.”
During the retreat I grew angrier and angrier towards the people running it. I was sleep deprived and hungry. Then, these people were talking about the “evils of the abortion mills.” I went to my room and started to write about them. I wrote: “They are so judgmental.” I kept writing, “they they they.” Then, at some point, I crossed out “they,” and wrote “I.” I was judging them for judging me. After that, if I saw something supposedly awful in someone else, I would ask what it was that I didn’t like in myself. I choose to see the love in them, no matter what they’re showing me. I choose to see the love in myself.
Why is it important to you to give women an unbiased space to talk about their experiences? And how does the vocabulary play into that?
There are rules about how a person is supposed to talk about their experience with abortion, depending on their beliefs. If you’re pro-choice, you’re not supposed to say “baby” or talk about “healing.” If you’re pro-life, you’re not supposed to be grateful for an abortion.
It’s time to ditch the scripts. We’re encouraging people to mask their authentic selves to make other people comfortable. A woman who talks about healing after abortion is far too often met with skepticism and disapproval; this must end. Using whatever vocabulary feels true to us is a key part of authenticity.
It takes radical authenticity for a person to share honestly about abortion, and radical listening for someone to receive it openly. When I give someone else the power to control how I talk about my own experience, I give them the power to take away my rights.
When you wrote May Cause Love, things were very different politically. With our current administration in place, are you viewing your book’s place in the culture differently or in how you talk to people about it?
I feel so prepared for this administration after writing this book. The stakes seem higher now, but the facts are the same. The abortion war doesn’t work. The pro-choice/pro-life debate doesn’t work. If someone were going to win the war, they would have by now, but my inbox gets pinged by frantic, enraged emails from pro-choice organizations every day. The social and personal dynamics are much more complex than I could explain in a sound bite, but a start is to allow every woman who has had an abortion, whether she is pro-life, pro-choice, pro-voice, or nothing at all, to heal completely if she feels so inclined. Activists love to focus on destigmatizing abortion; we will get where we want to go faster if we support healing.
My publisher tweeted about my book, and some reproductive rights activists made comments that didn’t feel good to read. They said things like: “I don’t know anybody who had to do weird rituals” and that I was “preying on vulnerable women" because my story deals with healing. Women who seek healing after having an abortion are often rejected — rejected by women who support abortion rights. That’s just crazy. The pro-choice side says we shouldn’t feel anything, so they either don’t talk to anyone or go where their pain will be heard, to the pro-life side.
I noticed some mention of a movement forming around the publication of your book on social media. Can you tell me about that?
It’s amazing. Right now, a group of women who I’ve never met are building a grassroots community all across the country to spread the message of May Cause Love. It’s all about authentic conversations about abortion and the possibility of healing, transformation, and freedom. That political revolution begins with personal transformation. What’s particularly inspiring to me is that the vast majority of them have experienced abortion, but not all of them felt inclined to heal due to deep pain. What they do feel inclined to do is to stand guard for the women in search of healing, against anyone who questions their motives or tries to suppress their voices and experiences.
All along, since I was 19, I’ve had this vision that women would come together and create new spaces that aren’t dictated by political messaging. We wouldn’t focus on trying to “change culture” or to end stigma. The truth is, stigma has no power over us. Personal transformation begets social revolution, not the other way around. Abortion has been legal and illegal for thousands of years, and yet, abortions still happened. Women have always found a way to support one another. I think we will go beyond discussions of abortion and start to imagine a society based on the balance of masculine and feminine, where emotions can be fully expressed in all situations, not by pointing fingers but by taking responsibility. I think it all comes back to the individual. The key to revolutionary social activism is looking within.
top photo: Instagram/Kassi Underwood
More from BUST
Melynda Fuller is a New York-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, HelloGiggles, TimeOut New York, and Bookslut, among others. She is currently working on a collection of essays. You can find more of her published work at melyndafuller.com. Find her on Twitter: @MGrace_Fuller.