Friday, November 25, 2011

Book Corner: Intimate Wars by Merle Hoffman

How does on go about reviewing a memoir? I feel as if I have to, in some sense, review Ms. Hoffman's life.

Merle Hoffman was one of the trailblazers of the pro-choice movement in the USA, a controversial feminist who opened one of the first ambulatory abortion centres in America, and who has lived a life of boldness, ambition and, dare I say it, ego. Many times throughout the book I wrinkled my nose in distaste at her decisions, and her attitudes, and then had to ask myself how much more “natural” I would have found them if she were a man. In that respect the book was very challenging for me, in a good way.

I knew pretty much nothing about Hoffman before I read the book, so it was all new to me. She writes well, and seems sincere and unapologetic about her life and her role in the struggle for abortion on demand. Where her writing is the most detailed and informative is near the middle of her life, when she describes the challenges of opening and running the clinic, being a public figure, and protecting herself and her staff from the violence of anti-choice activists. For those looking for insight on the “abortion wars” of the late 1970s and early 1980s, specifically in New York, this book comes highly recommended.

I found Hoffman’s focus to be a little off in terms of the flow of her book. She spent as much time detailing her decision to purchase and learn to use a gun as she does on her mother’s death. There is very little about her early life. Sometimes, her decisions seem to come out of nowhere, although I’m sure in reality they took a great deal of time and consideration. I would have liked to have known more about her ideology, how it changed and grew, what factors went into her decisions, than about the details of the decisions themselves. For example, Hoffman decided, as a 58-year-old widow, to adopt a three-year-old daughter from an orphanage in Russia. Her decision to do so, and all the subsequent stuff that happens – going to get her, introducing her to Hoffman’s mother, the reaction of Hoffman’s friends – occupy the last twelve pages of the book. It seems…disproportionate.

I liked reading about the abortion rights struggle and I think Hoffman’s story is informative and inspiring to some extent. However, I don’t know if it would create any kind of profound change or understand like, for example, Susan Wicklund’s This Common Secret. Hoffman comes across as absolute in her ideals and doesn’t make a lot of room in her book (or, perhaps, in her life) for explorations of her emotions, or the changing perceptions and lives of the people close to her. I had a hard time relating to Hoffman because I believe we have vastly different personalities; her affair with a married man bothered me not so much for the questionable morality of it than because of her complete lack of empathy for – in fact, outright dismissal of – the feelings of the man’s wife.

Perhaps the most maddening theme in the book is Hoffman’s constant mention of choices she makes that other feminists didn’t agree with or were shocked by, without exploring that conflict at all. I don’t feel she should have to justify each choice that is perceived “unfeminist”, but I would be interested to know how she fits her own outlook and life path into her identity as a feminist. I feel that in today’s young feminist movement she will be judged more harshly than she was during the second wave, for her unapologetic capitalism, her gun ownership, and especially her totally unexamined relationship to a man 28 years her senior, who acted not just as lover and husband but also mentor, financial backer, advisor and boss. There are many areas where Hoffman is vulnerable, and the book could have been richer and more challenging by examining these perceived deficiencies in her feminist persona.

Overall, however, I have to say I really enjoyed reading the book. I learned a lot of things I didn’t know about a period in history that had such a huge part in shaping the women’s movement today. I also enjoyed the challenge of reading about a person whose life and choices seem so alien to me. It was difficult but enriching. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for insight into the beginning of the abortion-on-demand movement in the USA, and/or hoping to read the story of an undeniably strong and fascinating woman.

For my interview with Merle Hoffman, keep an eye on Abortion Gang.

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