"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Abortion, abortion rights, Reproductive Rights, reproductive health, Emily Letts, Pro-choice, Women's Health, Mississippi, abortion stigma, reproductive justice, Birth Control, Editor's Picks, Life News, News, Politics News
When Emily Letts found out she was pregnant, the decision to have an abortion came easily. Like the hundreds of thousands of women in their 20s who have abortions each year, Letts did not feel ready to have or raise a child. It was really that simple. But unlike so many women in this country who have abortions each year, she didn’t have any fear or shame about her choice. Letts is a patient advocate at the clinic where she was going to have her abortion performed, and she knew each of the doctors, nurses and clinic employees who would be with her throughout the procedure.
And it was this unique perspective — having helped other women through the experience and having her friends and colleagues there to help her through her own — that inspired her to film the procedure and share it online. “I searched the Internet, and I couldn’t find a video of an actual surgical procedure in the clinic that focused on the woman’s experience,” she recently wrote of the decision to film her abortion. “We talk about abortion so much and yet no one really knows what it actually looks like. A first trimester abortion takes three to five minutes. It is safer than giving birth. … Yet women come into the clinic all the time terrified that they are going to be cut open, convinced that they won’t be able to have kids after the abortion. The misinformation is amazing.”
The video is short, a little more than three minutes. We see Letts — hair covered and wearing a surgical robe — on the table, we hear her doctor talking her through the abortion, we see a nurse holding her hand. She hums gently. The procedure ends. She says, “I feel good.” And that’s that. It’s a remarkably simple video, which is probably why it’s so powerful.
Letts — joined by Charlotte Taft, director of the Abortion Care Network (abbreviated as CT below, while Letts is EL) — talked to Salon about her decision to film her abortion, the stigma she was hoping to address by sharing her experience so publicly and why people on both sides of the abortion divide need to take a step back, shut up and really listen to women’s stories. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
The video is incredible. I won’t pretend to be objective here. I am so glad it exists. When did you decide that this was something you were going to do?
EL: So many of the decisions [women make about abortion] are influenced by the idea that they are not allowed to talk about it. The idea that their family would shame them. The idea that they will be made to feel totally and completely isolated even though they need help and support dealing with an unintended pregnancy. There is so much shame about just being pregnant in the first place.
So I had an opportunity with my own pregnancy — because I felt so comfortable with my decision, knew everyone in the clinic, felt safe and on my own turf — to share my story in a very visceral way that I think needed to be heard. And yeah, I do feel comfortable about my decision and I feel positive because I have so much love and support around me. It’s my home. It is my own workplace, where I go into that surgery five to eight times a day to support other women. So I just thought it was a perspective that needed to be heard as a way to encourage women to share their stories and break the stigma.
When I first saw the video, I was reminded of every woman in my life who made me feel like I had permission to make a choice or express an opinion that maybe felt a little scary at the time. Has anyone played that role for you?
Yes! Her name is Jen Groves. She is the light of my life. [Laughs]
I can’t even describe what she has given to me. She is completely audacious, fearless, sincere, warm, visionary. She just started at our clinic pretty recently — within the last year. I was here when she started and after one staff meeting I told her, “I’m going to need to be next to you all the time.” She’s the one who I came to and said, “I’m pregnant and I’m going to have an abortion, and I think I’m going to write a blog about it.” She’s the one who gave me permission, who planted the seed for filming my own experience. She’s the one who fought for me and allowed me in an emotional way to share my story in an intensely public way. She supported me every second of the way. She’s just amazing.
Have you heard from other women who have had abortions or opted to keep unplanned pregnancies? What are they saying? I know the blowback from anti-choice people has been ugly, but I imagine you’ve received a lot of really affirming responses, too.
That’s what I’ve been really intensely focusing on. I just had the most amazing conversation today with this woman. She ended up Facebook messaging me, and said, “You’re asking for stories and I would like to give you my story.” She said that she grew up pro-life and has since become pro-choice. But when she got pregnant two years ago and was faced with a really tough decision — she was struggling financially, very poor — she was scared about what to do. She said that the family of the man she was involved with really wanted her to terminate. They said the pregnancy was going to ruin his life.
They told her, “You are ruining his life and you are ruining your own.” She said she hated every single day of the pregnancy. Every single day was filled with doubt, terror, shame and all these different things. But when she laid her head on the pillow at night and she closed her eyes, there was a very small part of her that wanted to carry it. So she listened to that part of her and ended up giving birth. And she shared this so openly and so freely and so beautifully — that this experience was so scary, traumatic, filled with shame, but that she still felt she had a choice. What she said was — which I loved the most about the whole story — is that she now realizes to the heart what it means to have an unexpected pregnancy. Even while she’s holding the baby she knows she could have had an abortion and been OK if that had been the choice she made.
She is here to defend any woman with an unexpected pregnancy, helping her no matter what because she knows what it’s like to go through it and feel that shame and feel like you’re alone.
I think it is something that we’ve seen going on for decades now, just regular people trying to talk about these experiences — the full range of these experiences. And this is wildly important, actually. Because beyond just the legislative barriers — which are piling up and becoming more insidious and extreme — you have this stigma that keeps women fearful and ashamed. We have places like Mississippi where there’s only one clinic left to serve the entire state. And I’ve spoken to providers who work at that clinic, and they say that some women come in and tell them, “I genuinely didn’t think that abortion was legal in this state. I didn’t think this was possible for me.” Others tell them, “I felt so much shame, but I’m glad to be making this choice.” I wonder if either of you have encountered this in your own work — the way that misinformation and stigma are shaping women’s choices?
CT: I’ve been talking recently with Tammy Kromenaker, who runs the Red River Women’s Clinic in North Dakota, another state with only one clinic. And there’s been so much media about the effort in her state to eliminate the access to abortion that she has told me that many times women say, I didn’t really know it was still legal, I didn’t know if you would still be here. So, just think about how people get the news. They get little snippets of it, they hear the idea of it. So of course I think for many women they would get this idea that abortion was no longer available to them. And then in Texas, by September of this year, there’s likely to be six clinics left in that state. In 2011 there were 40 clinics. What that means is that in a state the size of France, there will be six places that a woman can obtain abortion services and most of those are located in just the big cities. So that means that many women are going to be looking at traveling for hours, staying overnight, finding childcare. For many women, I think this will be daunting and they may well go across the border, go to a flea market and buy some medicine that they hope will end their pregnancy. And that’s what we’re seeing all over the place. We’re already seeing that right now.
EL: Yeah, I think the stigma is the key part of that for a lot of my women in terms of just feeling, “Who can I talk to? Who will support me?” Especially women who — my clinic goes up to 24.6 weeks, and I believe I’m really the only clinic anywhere near where I’m located who does that — find out they are pregnant at 21 weeks … plenty of young women — young women like 15 years old only come into the clinic when they’re 21 weeks because they didn’t know they were pregnant the entire time. Like, they really had no idea because teenagers’ bodies react to pregnancy much, much differently than women in their 20s and older. And so, think about it: You’re 15 years old, you have sex maybe once, and you go [to the clinic], they tell you you’re pregnant. And then they tell you that you’re this far long.
And so many women think that after getting an abortion that they are not going to be able to have children anymore. Even though they think they’re giving up their body’s right and ability to have a child, they’re still willing to have an abortion because they know that they cannot have, carry and raise a child at that point in their life. And then as soon as they know the chance of infertility or this affecting future pregnancy are an under 1 percent chance — as soon as they have the right information — their eyes just brighten, they’re in complete disbelief, and they’re like, “Really?” It’s my favorite part of a counseling session, when I’m telling them real information.
I think that that is the key, right? That’s what both of you do in your daily work, and that’s what this video does on a massive scale. Really just saying that this information is powerful and the information should be out there. That these stories are powerful and these stories should be out there.
EL: I do think that one of the things about this video for me is that this is a call to action to share your stories — whether you’re pro-choice or pro-life. Share your stories of birth, adoption, abortion and get the information out there.
When I counsel women who have had abortions, it’s been so amazing hearing people’s stories afterward. And the thing really is that it’s always going to be about the woman who is going through it. About her perspective. Depending on how she grew up, depending on whatever, she might very well feel her six-week pregnancy is a baby. And she feels that loss, she feels a connection to a five-week pregnancy even though it doesn’t have a heartbeat. And I think part of this conversation needs to be the fact that we just need to listen to women. If a woman says that it’s her baby, let’s ask how does it feel? Where are you at, in a place that if you do feel so connected to it, why are you still making this decision? We need to hear that. Then we need to support her in coping afterward.
We can ask her, “Why are you making this decision? Can we support you in this decision?” Maybe she feels she should have an abortion because she can’t economically support a child. Then we need to hear her. We need to stop talking and start listening to these stories because then it’ll clearly highlight how we have failed women with a lot of things, like childcare, with supporting mothers, financially. If we put down our pitchforks and our pom-poms and let women’s stories rise to the top, we’ll see how we can support them, and I think you’ll definitely hear a lot of women with relief, a lot of women saying that’s the best decision that I made, but that maybe it was still very very hard afterward.
And I feel like, even with the response to my video, some people have tried to make it seem like I got pregnant just to have an abortion. Or that I don’t really feel positively about my choice, that I am secretly feeling a lot of guilt. And it’s just a clear example of people not listening. They are just not listening. I want to say, “Read my lips. This is how I feel, and it is my experience. And it is my own, and it’s not yours. And you are not everyone, and I am not you.” All of this stuff. I mean, really, it’s just called empathy!
We tend to have these narratives — even within the reproductive rights movement — of how we’re allowed to talk about abortion. We generally talk about the “good” abortions. The ones that are sufficiently early on, or the tragic circumstances where a parent finds herself terminating a wanted pregnancy because of a dangerous health complication. And it’s important to tell those stories because those stories are true, but there is a pretty broad range of experience that gets erased when this is how we talk about abortion. I think you’re right, really. Shutting up and listening to women who have had these experiences and made these choices is really the only way to get this conversation to a more nuanced and complicated place.
EL: Yeah, absolutely. I did this awesome interview with BBC Radio Service, and it was five women including myself, on international television, sharing our abortion stories, and how we felt about it. And three of the women talk about their regrets and how they’re pro-life now, and then me and another women were saying, “No, I feel OK about my abortion. I feel great, thanks.”
I actually called Charlotte beforehand because I was like, “Hey, I’m going to be speaking!” I mean, I can talk about regret, and I counsel women all the time, but Charlotte is kind of like a master, because she has this whole help line or thing where you can call and she’ll talk to you for an hour for a small fee, like a very very small fee, and having her talk to me about how women can feel a really intense emptiness and an intense sense of loss after it and it’s not about self-punishing, it’s about understanding where your pain lies. Because a lot of women want to point to abortion and say that’s where the pain came from, but what Charlotte really taught me was that the pain was there before the abortion. And so many people think it’s going to be a quick fix and it’s not. And then they carry that pain afterward, so not only are they not allowed to talk about this experience, and that they try to use abortion as a quick fix, they still can’t talk about their pain because now it’s so directly related to abortion. And so it’s just so important to not let these wounds fester. We can’t allow women to do that.
That’s why we have counselors like Charlotte. That’s why my clinic invests in having at least three counselors on each day, so we can take the time to talk to you about your decision. How are you coping, how do you feel afterward? It’s not just a medical procedure, it’s so much more than that, and a lot of these things are what I learned from Charlotte.
CT: Oh, thank you, Emily! And I just want to point out that the website for the Abortion Care Network has wonderful resources for any woman who is having a hard time after an abortion. And I think that we know that is a small percent of women, but it’s still an important number. If you have more than a million women who have an abortion every year, even a few percent … that’s a lot of women who need care. And as Emily just pointed out, if you can’t talk about it, then you can’t get care. And I think that that silence and stigma is a dangerous thing.
We don’t want ever to go back to a time when the emergency rooms were filled with women who had abortions that went septic or for some other reason put them in the emergency room. That’s something we don’t ever want to see again. But our silence, when we break that silence and the secrecy — and that’s just what Emily has done — I think that is what allows us to take care of ourselves, to stand up for ourselves and other women. More than 65 million women have had abortions. Imagine if all of them were able to stand for themselves, and say this was my choice, whether they were happy or not happy, if they could stand for themselves and other women? It’s so exciting that Emily has broken this secrecy and broken this silence. She is not some kind of pundit. She is a real human being, imperfect and great. And to me this is who needs to be out there, because none of us is perfect.
EL: Yeah, absolutely. It’s just empathy. I just keep saying it. It’s called empathy. You can relate, I know you can!
CT: It’s really also love. You’re saying empathy, that’s also what love is. I don’t think we’ve said this before, but I think our work is about love, it’s about supporting women in doing their best, and loving their friend and their families, through what sometimes is a really hard time. I don’t think we’ve often used that word connected to abortion services, because the anti-choice movement has so vilified us, but wouldn’t you say, Emily, that every single person in your clinic, that’s what they’re up to? Loving and caring about the women who come in?
EL: Absolutely! I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve teared up with a woman, and just wanted to embrace her, protect her and love her so much. I mean, women are my sisters. You all are my sisters. For me, that’s what it boils down to.
CT: And what that means in an ironic way is that for many women an abortion clinic, a good, solid independent clinic especially, the quality clinics, are like a sanctuary for women, they are a sanctuary from the judgment, from the hatred of women, from the mistrust of women. They’re a place … when you go in, somebody’s taking you seriously. Somebody wants to know your story. They care enough about you, not just to take your money today, they care about what happens in your life tomorrow and next year and the year after that. And to me this … identifying ourselves and saying, as independent abortion clinics: This is who we are. We are sanctuaries, we are care for women. We are love for women. We care about it so much, that we take it seriously, and we understand that having a baby is not just having a baby, it is bringing a new life into the world for which there is a huge responsibility. And women know that, and we support them in knowing that.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)