Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Legacy of Secrecy and Shame

I promised to post some of my reflections about the interviews. I am discovering that the need to process this trip is overwhelming and all my impressions about what I have discovered thus far are really just impressions.

While I made the trip out to the CA to begin uncovering the story of Dr. Young, a country doctor who performed numerous abortions from 1938-1962, I unearthed a great deal about the mysterious dynamics of families. So far the legacy of Dr. Young has been secrecy and shame for his children, at least the ones I spoke too. They walled themselves from processing the gravity of what their father chose to do, and tried to build lives that were less radical. They are both hardworking dedicated parents, who have given much of themselves to care for their children and spouses.

While both Dr. Young's son and daughter knew that he had performed abortions, neither of them really grappled with the fact that a man dedicated to his community went to jail in for 25 months in order to protect the nurses that worked for him from ambitious DA's looking to make fame by convicting an abortionist. His father was charged with murder because a young woman died after recieving an abortion. However, what is clear from Dr. Young's writings is that he did not perform her abortion, but plead guilty--to the surprise of the D.A.s--in order to stop them from investigating into the activities of his nursing staff. He was eventually charged with providing abortions and involuntary manslaughter. When he got out of jail, he dedicated himself to clearing his name and regaining his license.

Buster, his son, only really knew the extent to which his Dad had been a pioneer for the inchoate pro-choice movement when a stranger called him to inform him that his father was being put in jail. He accepted his Dad's imprisonment reluctantly, and has probably never really talked to anyone about how this impacted his life.

When his father got out of jail, he never went to hear him speak at conferences promoting the repeal of abortion laws, nor did he participate in the kind of activism that consumed the last ten years of his father's life.

He has chosen to finally speak about what his father did because after years of not speaking about this to anyone, including his own son, he has realized that the only way to be faithful to his father's legacy is to share his prison notebooks, manuscript and any stories that he has. He is encouraging us to talk to more of his relatives, and gather whatever stories we can.

Interviewing children about the sort of people their parents are has turned out to be an incredibly complex endeavor. Buster, the youngest son of Dr. Young, is profoundly ambivalent about the kind of man his father was. On the one hand, he idolizes him, and on the other, he consciously distanced himself from him because he felt abandoned.

Dr. Young dedicated his life to tending to the spiritual and physical health of his community. He would work all hours of the days, and return home exhausted and depleted. When Buster was born, and his wife had fallen to rheumatoid arthritis, he was too overwhelmed to tend to him. He farmed him out to a nice couple in the country who gladly tended to Buster. In his gratitute, Dr. Young returned the favor by providing them free health care for the rest of their lives.

Buster lived a good life. He has a wonderful family. But, he moved as far away as he possibly could from his father. He inherited all of his father's writings, and from what I could gather from the interview, he never read these materials nor shared them with anyone.

His sister, Eula, absolutely abhors abortion. She is a fundamentalist Baptist, who thinks of abortion as murder and all women seeking abortions as deserving jail time. She finds young people crass and sexually deviant these days. She knew her father performed abortions, and yet she does admire what a good doctor he was and how profoundly he cared for his community. She also confessed that she has never told anyone what her father did. She has not read his writings, nor does she intend to, for she dislikes reading anything but the Bible.

I am left now with more questions and puzzles. I am in possession of the writings of an absolute pioneer. A man who went to jail for his convictions and staked his whole reputation on the belief that a woman has the right to decide when she is ready to be a mother.

Dr. Young mused regularly on where religious faith could meet scientific thinking. He read everything he could get his hands on, and tried to help his small community educate themselves to avoid poverty and desperation. He donated the public and school libraries and gave financial support to many town members who sought to attend school.

His children have inherited his overflowing kindness and hospitality, and yet they demur from publically tackling the kind of profound moral dilemmas that continue to face women who find themselves pregnant and unprepared for motherhood. Buster supports that his father did the right thing, but he also believes that abortion is a trauma and a sin that only the Lord can cure.

I intend to keep researching the story of Dr. Young, but I can't help but be in awe of the utter mystery of families. Do we ever really know our parents outside of the earliest images we form of them when we were tiny children? Can we ever see our parents through the eyes of others, who praise or condemn them? For Eula, Dr. Young's activities were a deep sin and perpetual source of embarrassment. She loved him and loves to speak about him, and yet I can see how she had to protect her childhood adoration of her father from the damning judgments that her Bapist community handed down on his activities. Certainly children never want to see their father through the eyes of a condemnatory community, particulary if it is their community.

Buster, on the other hand, did not find himself called to join his father's cause, because he was dedicating himself to provide for his family, specifically so his wife would not have to work. He felt a deep sense of familial duty that took precedence over the national cause his father played a significant part.

I wonder how Buster will transfrom as the process continues. I also wonder what will happen to me.