An Unexpected Journey After Abortion

March 17, 2017
HDS student Kassi Underwood
Author and HDS student Kassi Underwood / Photo: Silvia Mazzocchin

Kassi Underwood was broke, 19 years old, unwed, an addict, and in college a thousand miles from home when she became pregnant and had an abortion. In the several years that followed, coping with heartache and loss, she struggled with drugs and alcohol and rocky relationships.

In her new memoir, May Cause Love, Underwood, a student at Harvard Divinity School, describes creating a roadmap of transcendence through a cross-country spiritual journey that helped her heal and discover her authentic self.

HDS: In your book, you write about how the U.S. has very few models for grief and mourning. “We have no education in loss,” you write. Do you consider your book a model for confronting grief?

KU: I think a model for confronting grief could be—and probably is—its own book. So many of us know we’ve got to grieve, but we don’t know how. I didn’t know how. I didn’t even know I needed to grieve until a Buddhist abortion therapist named Ava Torre-Bueno told me. She told me every choice involves loss.

Grief is part of everyday life. If I’m looking at the dessert menu and choose the key lime pie over the chocolate cake, I’ve experienced a loss—a tiny loss. I got married a couple of years ago, and there was a loss involved with that choice. If we’ve chosen something, we’re supposed to be happy about that decision because choice is a function of power. But the reality is, we’ve killed off all other possibilities, so we have to grieve them.

Grief delivers us to the core of who we are; it’s up to us to share it. People can tell us they love us all day long, but we won’t believe them if we’re still hiding parts of ourselves. We’ve got to tell the whole truth in order to feel the love people are giving us. That’s why I called the book May Cause Love. It’s not just about abortion. It’s about all the rooms of healing and why it’s worth it to keep opening the doors.

In the book, I talk about an exercise Ava taught me: 30 seconds of grief per day. You just sit very still and focus on your heart and wherever you feel emotional pain—chest, solar plexus, gut, wherever. In meditation, we can stay up in our heads. In a grief practice, we focus on our physical bodies and feel pain without trying to stop it or fix it or intellectualize it. Grieving is a daily practice, like meditation and brushing our teeth. It’s healthy, and it’s essential.

HDS: You write that it can be difficult for other people to cope with another person's loss because it can bring out their own "ungrieved grief." How can we be better listeners or more present in dealing with grief around us?

KU: I recently gave a reading of my book in New York. Afterward, a young woman told me her mother had died. I told her I was sorry. She said, “You’re sorry I’m sad.” I said, “No, I’m sorry your mom died.” I could tell she was unsatisfied with my response, so I said, “What did you want me to say?” She said: “I want you to say, ‘That blows.’ ” So I said, pretty loudly, “That blows!” And she said it again, even louder. And then she told me all about her mom.

So we’re all figuring this out together. Just follow the griever’s lead.

Staying current on your own grief will help you to be present with someone who’s grieving. We spend eternities avoiding our emotions and holding back the tears we don’t even know we need to cry. It can be uncomfortable to see someone expressing what we’re suppressing, so the tendency is to try and cheer them up—in other words, we try to get them to stop grieving. We might assure them they’ll have another baby, or a better life without one, or they’ll get a new job or a new wife. If you feel uncomfortable, then perhaps you need to cry.

It’s OK to cry with someone who’s grieving. The point is to let them fully express themselves in that moment so that you can support them in completing that piece of grief. There’s usually nothing for you to do except to be there. Grief is like a bodily function. Let people finish.

HDS: Why do pro-choice groups see your story of pain and healing after your abortion as problematic for them?

KU: Pro-choice activists who’ve read my book have emailed me the nicest notes, so let’s start there. Generally speaking, though, people tend to judge books by their covers; and apparently, people have been really confused about mine. Several pro-choice activists told me they’d been worried that, in the last chapter, I’d end up protesting at an abortion clinic in a brand new chastity belt. (Spoiler alert: That doesn’t happen.) Some have confessed to scrolling through my Instagram account and Twitter feed to try and figure out which side I’m on.

There’s this pro-choice script that says: “After my abortion, I felt a great wave of relief. It was the right decision for me. The end.” I memorized the script soon after I terminated my pregnancy. I was so desperate to connect with women, and so confused about how to achieve connection, that I started reciting various versions of my story that would make people comfortable, but none was entirely true. I basically imprisoned myself in a script.

Three years later, I was living my feminist dream: sobriety, a salary, and a straight white male assistant. And my ex-boyfriend emailed me to say is new girlfriend was six months pregnant and they’d chosen the same name I’d suggested for the baby he and I didn’t have: Jade. I just fell apart. Suddenly, I had secret concerns about the “ball of cells” that could have been a baby and feared I’d go to hell, even though I didn’t believe in hell. This story did not fit any script.

Historically, pro-life groups have talked about abortion as an emotionally traumatizing event. As a result, pro-choice groups tend to downplay any emotions that could be construed as negative and any implications that someone needed long-term support around abortion. But I learned that both erasing and exploiting women’s emotions are ancient forms of patriarchal oppression.

Women have been told to suppress our emotions for ages, but one of our superpowers is expressing them. I don’t mean we should yell or be controlled by our emotions. I mean emotions are like arrows. We can follow them to wholeness, authenticity, intuition, community, and love. Once I figured this out, I realized that healing after abortion is an act of power.

Some women who’ve read May Cause Love want to explore these possibilities after their abortions and form a community around the book. We’re creating this community right now all across the country. Currently, we’re all women, but anyone who wants to join in should email us at maycauselove@gmail.com.

All that said, I’m finding out that this book isn’t just about abortion. I’m hearing from readers who found the book resonant with their own journeys through disordered eating, romantic dysfunction, and self-doubt. Pain is a latent source of power; all healing is the full expression of that power.

HDS student Kassi Underwood
HDS student Kassi Underwood's memoir "May Cause Love" was published February 14, 2017, by HarperOne. / Photo: Silvia Mazzocchin


HDS: You seem to be open to many types of spirituality, but yet you mention prayer quite often, and you specifically mention prayer to God. Who or what is God to you?

KU: Fraught as “God” may be, I use this word because people tend to have some context for it. I could have used any word—love, trust, universe, higher self, energy, him, her, they. I think it’s more like: Where is God to me? God is in and through everything—unless I’m in a bad mood.

HDS: What impact did it have on you to participate in healing rituals of different spiritual practices?

KU: In the study of religion, we often seek out distinctions among traditions, but I looked for the similarities. For years I’d been pretending to be strong, when in fact, I was suppressing thoughts and feelings around my abortion and I felt isolated and anxious. As lucid and focused as I tried to be during the rituals and spiritual practices, I was in such a freaked-out bewildered haze that I didn’t even know what I was trying to produce until I had produced it. I rode a train home after the last ritual feeling whole, alive, and free. Very shortly thereafter, I traveled the country to share my story with a crew of women who'd had abortions and finished writing my book.

HDS: How important has sobriety been in your journey of healing?

KU: We’re talking about a trajectory from sloppy drunk sleepovers with strangers to showing up in a Buddhist temple alone with a genuine desire to grow. Sobriety was key to healing.

It took two years of sobriety for me to stop cracking jokes about the things that made me sad. First I used alcohol to cover up pain. Then I used staunch pro-choice feminism. Privately, I was asking questions, like, “What if I didn’t have to end the pregnancy? What if I’ve done something terribly wrong?” I’d sneak into the bookstore to see if the abortion memoir I wanted to read was on the shelf, but I’d find nothing. So I got this addiction therapist named Larry. I’d hint to Larry that I was maybe having some feelings about my abortion, but I was full of anxiety: What did the need to heal say about me, about my abortion, about abortion? I didn’t want to find out.

So I got serious about sobriety and started a practice of prayer, meditation, and self-examination. I hoped that’d be enough, but it wasn’t. Then a guy from my sobriety meetings took me on a date to meditate with him at a Buddhist community called Shambhala. A few months later, I moved to New York for graduate school in writing. Partly to impress the aforementioned boyfriend and partly to make a move toward enlightenment, I enrolled in a course called “Tibetan Buddhist Auto/Biography,” taught by Sarah Jacoby. She told me about mizuko kuyo, a Japanese Buddhist ritual for people who’ve had an abortion. That’s when I decided to go out and learn about the spirituality of abortion through all the religious rituals and secular teachings I could afford.

HDS: Are you an activist?

KU: I wouldn’t label myself an activist. I believe more in revolution than in activism, but activism at its best is revolutionary. Revolution causes a complete turnover of the established order that makes way for a new possibility to emerge. We need a completely new way forward around abortion, based on nothing we have ever seen before.

So, I'm with the hundreds of millions of people on the planet who have experienced abortion. Every single one of us has a story to tell and the freedom to share it with somebody. We've got that freedom now. Women have been terminating their pregnancies for thousands of years; they’re on record since at least 2700 BCE. Only one organization that I’m aware of takes a public stand for all of us without taking a side in the debate: my friends at Exhale, who became a meaningful part of the story I tell in May Cause Love.

After reading my book, strangers who have never terminated a pregnancy—including men who (used to) publicly oppose abortion—have said things to me like, "I totally related to your story." I think that's incredible—it's a big deal to relate to an experience we used to judge. Not everyone needs to heal after an abortion, but nearly everyone in the world needs healing around something. And we all have some part of our lives that makes us wonder, "What would happen if everyone found out about that?" What I discovered is, when we are authentic, there are no sides. There’s no divide. Others’ needs become our own. There’s real love, which, I might argue, is the reason we’re all here.

HDS: Why did you write May Cause Love? Did you write it for yourself as part of your healing process, or did you write it for the person who experienced what you did and doesn’t know where to turn?

KU: I wrote May Cause Love because it’s the book I’d wanted to read. When I was 19 and pregnant, I went to the library because I just needed someone to level with me. I never thought I’d have an abortion—ending a pregnancy had been my greatest fear. You need more than a pamphlet in this situation. I wanted to read a memoir by a woman who’d felt similarly conflicted and would say something like, “This is going to suck a lot, in so many ways, but you’re going to heal and be better than you were before. Hang in there.” I wanted someone to tell me she’d walked through a dark tunnel of depression and chaos and her life still turned out.

All I found were two books of essays. In one book, every woman was relieved once she’d ended her pregnancy. In the other book, every woman regretted her abortion. It was maddening. Here I was, trying to make a serious irreversible decision, and I couldn’t find any information that seemed authentic, honest, and devoid of political motives.

I think we all want to learn how to live by watching somebody else fall down the way we fell down and watch them stand back up so we know it’s possible. I couldn’t find the woman I needed, so I had to become her. Everyone who has an abortion deserves to know that it’s absolutely possible to emerge with peace of mind and a thrilling life. I wrote this book for them.

HDS: What would success look like for you with this book? Is it selling a million copies? Is it hearing a kind word from someone who was helped by reading the book?

KU: I spent years being afraid to say what I’m saying now. I was afraid of being discredited or ignored because my story didn’t fit into a political narrative that’d make people comfortable. After my publisher shipped off review copies to magazines, I had one last shot to make minor edits. I cut 20 pages and wrote completely uncensored. That’s the finished version.

It’s freeing to tell the truth, even if people misunderstand, and even if it’s unpopular. That’s what makes it feel like a success. I hope someone who reads my book will know they don’t need to hide any part of their self, and even if they fear never feeling normal again, they will be okay.

HDS: How did you end up at Harvard Divinity School?

KU: I think God is in experiences of abortion, and I had a feeling that I was supposed to come here to prepare for the book to live in the world. I don’t know how else to describe it, but the feeling was so strong that sometimes I couldn’t sleep.

—by Jonathan Beasley

For more information, visit http://www.kassiunderwood.com/. May Cause Love: An Unexpected Journey of Enlightenment After Abortion is out now and available everywhere books and e-books are sold.