THE SUBJECT of this story is nothing less than life and death, and depending on who you ask, the cosmic battle waged for souls by Satan.
It began in January 2005, with Mary Higdon, a senior at Louisiana State University, sitting in a field of burned and broken crosses in Baton Rouge, keeping watch.
In April, it took an unexpected turn in my bathroom in South Bend, Indiana, where, on my lunch break, I sat on the toilet and stared at the stick in my right hand, looking for the crossbar that would make the sign a conclusive plus. I squinted my eyes and held the thing closer to the light, seeing only a faint, blue vertical line, and so, at first, disbelieving.
When Mary Higdon first saw her crosses burned and broken, strewn in the still-dewy grass, some dappled with red paint, some spelling out a message—choice—she thought first of nails: Thousands of nails, sticking pointy-side up in the lush grass of the parade ground, where students play Frisbee barefoot and sprawl for naps. The vandals wouldn’t have known to carefully extract them as they tore each cross from the ground. Which led to her second thought: Facilities Services is going to have me for lunch.
Mary is the president of the pro-life student group at LSU, which has planted four thousand crosses on the LSU campus every year for at least ten years on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. It’s a common form of protest, but at LSU, my alma mater, it has always seemed more dramatic. Maybe because the protest is so vast and unavoidable—the crosses are not tucked away discreetly near the campus churches; they are displayed on a dramatic stretch of open green right in the heart of the campus, across from the trademark campanile and the student union and a skinny strip of concrete called Free Speech Alley, where fundamentalist preachers shriek at the damned.
It has been seven years since I graduated from LSU. As a student there, I was not really a practicing Catholic, though I might have described myself as such and even sometimes found myself in the Christ the King Catholic Student Center for mass. At the time, my religion was still something I took for granted, never having lived anywhere but southeastern Louisiana, where it seems that everyone is a Christian—just depends on which brand. LSU, though it is the flagship state school, is hardly secular academia. With thriving Catholic, Baptist, and nondenominational Christian populations, “it’s like the Reformation is still happening here,” a political science professor once told me. But I’d been away long enough that such a bold display of faith as Mary Higdon’s captivated me.
Every so often, I clicked on the link to her photo on the web, and there she’d be, sitting quietly in her scarf, hat, and gloves, her lunch spread out on the ground around her. Keeping watch, her eyes on the crosses.
I called her in February to see if she’d mind if I came to see her. I explained that I often write about religion, and that I wanted to do a story about what it was like to be a pro-life Christian on a secular college campus. This was basically true, but it was a sanitized version of a question I’d had since I started taking the religion of my childhood seriously: Nothing gets a devout, conservative Catholic more charged up than an unborn child—Why?
I asked if the club had any plans for future protests. They did. They were hoping to host the Genocide Awareness Project, a collection of those photomurals of dismembered, aborted fetuses you see plastered on eighteen-wheelers and billboards or trailing behind blimps. Perfect, I thought. I bought a plane ticket, then called my dad and told him I would be home for a few days in April.
Weeks passed. Lent came and went. Terri Schiavo died, and then the pope. I interviewed pro-life students from all over by phone. The issue was timely. I got some editors interested in my angle.
Two days before the trip, I got sick at work. I blamed the spicy Thai food and beer I’d had the night before—a publisher had accepted my husband’s book, and we went out to celebrate. A coworker raised an eyebrow when I said I was going home to lie down. I’m not pregnant, I told her. She smiled. She has six kids. Seriously, I said. There’s no way. We weren’t even trying. Another lie.
The truth: We weren’t not trying. Since our marriage in October we had been, as we’d vowed to be at the altar of Saint Rose Catholic Church, “open to children.” We’d requested information about natural family planning, and were convinced by the arguments in favor, but we hadn’t yet figured out how to implement it. The truth: I wanted to get pregnant. But I was too scared to actively pursue something so dangerously life-changing.
I bought a test at the Osco on Ironwood and State Road 23. Later that night, I bought two more at the Walgreen’s on Mishawaka Avenue. I gave up on the plus sign and bought the kind that says “pregnant” or “not pregnant.” But even when the answer stared back at me perfunctorily, authoritatively, it was too hard to believe. Really? Just like that?
I walked out of the bathroom and handed the stick to Dave. He smiled, I think, and then we just stood there, speechless, stunned, and kind of embarrassed. After a while, we lay in bed, side by side. Dave slept with a hand on my belly and I did the math in the dark.
First I calculated that I was somewhere between six and eight weeks. Then I calculated the number of beers I’d had during that time. I’d been pregnant during Holy Week, when I’d almost passed out at Holy Thursday mass, and when, at the Easter Vigil, the incense I usually love turned my stomach as I placed a hand on Amy’s shoulder and she became a Catholic. We were both so excited that we drank too much after.
I said a Hail Mary. The rosary—which I’d never fully embraced, as the child of an intensely Mary-phobic born-again—suddenly seemed a great comfort. As I lay there in the dark, I joined my mysteries to the Blessed Mother’s. Now that I’d seen that crossbar, she no longer seemed like a pious doll adored by old Italian mamas; she was a pregnant woman, like me. Did her stomach burn like mine? Was she as desperate for another woman’s company after taking such news into her heart?
I had expected joy. Instead, I felt only apprehension and indigestion—that burning in my guts now a constant reminder of something growing, something powerful beyond my control. I rolled over in bed and watched Dave’s profile in the near dark. I didn’t want to go to Louisiana anymore. Especially not Baton Rouge. Baton Rouge was the land of ex-boyfriends, failed cohabitations, and other things dismissed and tucked back in my conscience when I realized my mistake, or discomfort, or boredom.
But in the morning, I flew from Chicago to Dallas/Fort Worth, took a tram and a shuttle to a satellite gate, then boarded a tin can to Baton Rouge with motion sickness bands on both wrists and a rosary wrapped around my fist. Again, I prayed the Joyful Mysteries. I imagined Mary’s Bible dropping to the floor as Gabriel approached, holding the stick that said “pregnant.”
It wasn’t until we bounced over the Mississippi River that I remembered to think of Mary Higdon instead. Why had this trip once seemed so important?
I thought of Mary sitting on the roof of her car, parked near the parade ground, a rosary wrapped around her own fist. She told me she would have stayed out there all night, watching what was left of the crosses, praying quietly, but the cops chased her off at ten pm. When she came back in the morning, more damage had been done.
I watched out of the window as the state capitol appeared and then drew close, until I could see the leaves of its lush green gardens, and further south, the red-tiled rooftops of LSU. It seemed longer than four years since I’d left my house on Eugene Street, where I’d lived for a year with a man who was not my husband. And before that, a house on Jefferson Boulevard with another boy, who smelled of oil paints. And even before that, a house on Edward Avenue, with the one I was so sure I’d marry. I had a ring and everything. But like every other time before Dave, I jumped ship, convinced that something—everything—wasn’t right.
How long ago it all seemed, and yet, still so familiar: A life lived only for me—lonely at times, but with the promise of pure possibility. All paths available. If I chose wrong, I could back up, take a new one, start over.
I emerged from the tin can and stepped into the wet warmth of home, the air oxygen-rich, scented with pine.
Mary Higdon was waiting for me at Highland Coffees, across Chimes Street from the LSU campus. In another life, I’d stopped there every morning for café au lait. I’d chosen this place for just that purpose, but now, I realize, I’d better not have any coffee.
I know her right away. She is not an imposing figure. In fact, she is not quite five feet tall. I’m surprised that she has a nose ring, a tiny stud in her left nostril. She is with Tobias Danna, a columnist for the student newspaper. At twenty-eight, he is older than the average college student, and he carries himself with the manner of someone who thinks he’s doing important work. He converted to Catholicism, but his demeanor gives away his Southern Baptist upbringing. He was trained to be a preacher at Gulf States Bible College, the same as my dad.
Toby is the reason I am here, really. He made sure that picture of Mary in the student newspaper was linked to Catholic blogs, where I first read about what happened. He engineered the national press coverage of the protest’s destruction and got Mary interviews on talk radio shows. He made sure we all knew that the campus police had seen the vandals in action but had done nothing. He didn’t object when people started using the term “hate crime.”
We drive in my rental car, taking Highland Road through campus to a subdivision just outside the gates. I realize my hand-held recorder is dead, and yet I don’t curse myself as I normally would for not checking it sooner. In fact, I am only half listening as my sources talk. I’m too enthralled by thousands of shades of green—saturating the landscape, bleeding into everything like watercolors. I haven’t seen green in nine months—northern Indiana has been gray and white for so long, I’d nearly forgotten the color existed in nature.
Toby points me down shady, oak-lined streets to someone’s grandmother’s house, a backyard with picnic benches piled with newspaper and the steaming red bodies of crawfish, dotted with potatoes and golden ears of corn—a sight that should be comforting. A snapshot surfaces from memory—I’m six years old, smiling with pride next to a tower of crawfish shells, their fatty innards streaked across my T-shirt. My stomach lurches. I realize I’m still wearing the motion sickness bands. I pull them off and ditch them in my tote bag.
“Watch out for the caterpillars,” Mary says as she picks the first one off my arm. There are two more on my denim jacket. Caterpillars are determined, sticky and tenacious. You can’t just flick them off; you have to grab them whole hog, rip and throw. Within moments, we’re infested. While we talk, we point them out to each other, and then give up pointing and just lean over and pull them right out of each other’s hair.
Even besides the caterpillars, everyone seems slightly uncomfortable. They aren’t quite sure why I’m here, and at this point, neither am I. Nothing seems more important than what’s happening inside me. Everywhere I look I see green, life, plus signs.
Mary is quiet, cautious. She wants to make sure that I talk to her friends. She is careful to emphasize that the story is really about the group, not about her. She reminds me to talk to “Mr. Richard,” someone she’d mentioned when I’d called her in February. He’s the one who supplied the crosses. He was the real force behind the protest, she says, and behind nearly every pro-life protest that’s happened in Baton Rouge for the last twenty-five years. From what I could tell from my research, the guy is a notorious radical. He’s the real deal, Toby says. His prayers close abortion clinics.
Despite her reluctance, I do manage to get Mary to tell me a little of her own story. She is one of six kids; her parents are devout Catholics and pro-life activists; her mom was adopted. In one of her earliest memories, she is picketing outside of a doctor’s house with her mother, who is carrying a sign that says: As a former fetus, I oppose abortion. She remembers it was raining, and they didn’t have an umbrella. A woman drove by and screamed from her car, “Why are you putting your children through this?” and Mary’s mom screamed back, “Because I love them!” Mary doesn’t condone reactionary protest, though. She doesn’t like screaming. She prefers watchfulness, singing, praying the rosary.
I take notes while they talk about how the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae changed their lives. I eat some saltines with cocktail sauce and half of a spicy potato, but I can’t bring myself to tear the tail from a crawfish, peel back its segmented carcass, and dig out the tiny strip of red and white striped meat inside. When I look at the pile of shells, the plus sign flashes in my brain and my stomach burns.
When Toby goes to the bathroom, I tell Mary I’m pregnant. For the first time, her face brightens into a real smile.
“Can I tell the others?” she asks.
On the way back to campus, Toby says he hopes I will not become one of those women who only write about their children.
Somewhere on I-12 between Baton Rouge and Slidell, a stowaway caterpillar crawls out of my shirt sleeve. I notice I have crawfish guts on my pink skirt, even though I didn’t eat any crawfish. They have a way of exploding when you pull off the tail. The burning feeling is still there. I dig some saltines out of the bottom of my tote bag. They’ve been pulverized in transit, so I have to shake them from the package into my mouth. Crumbs go everywhere.
My rosary hangs from the rearview mirror, but I don’t pray. After listening to Mary and Toby and their friends, I feel like a fraud. When I was at LSU, I spent my time where I thought everyone else did—in bars. Now, I like to think of myself as slouching toward orthodoxy, inspired by the beauty of liturgy and sacraments to wrestle with the teachings of the church, rather than dismiss them. But I hadn’t even heard of Humanae Vitae until last year, when I started trying to teach myself everything I’d never learned, despite nine years in Catholic school. The swinging rosary now seems like mere decoration, like the kitschy Infant of Prague back in my office in Indiana. When you plug him in, he lights up.
Conservative Catholics usually have strong Marian devotions, and I’m beginning to think it’s no coincidence that they’re also the most zealous pro-lifers. The rosary’s Joyful Mysteries are meditations on the conception and nativity of Christ, or put another way, on the Blessed Mother’s pregnancy and labor—the possibilities of the human womb. When the angel approaches with the news, the Virgin says a holy yes to God’s call, despite her doubt, and accepts her role in salvation history. This makes her the first disciple, the model of faith. It follows that abortion could be seen as the ultimate rejection of faith, an affirmation of the self as the alpha and the omega. The unholy no, said right to God’s face.
Instead of praying, I wonder how many times I have driven this stretch of interstate, marking progress with the familiar names of towns along the way—Walker, Baptist, Hammond, Covington, Abita Springs, Lacombe, and then, finally, home: Slidell. The towns are the same. The greens are the same. The piney smell of the air. Nothing has changed, and yet everything has changed. I’m married to a Yankee. I’m pregnant.
“I’m pregnant,” I announce, smiling, in my dad’s kitchen. My stepmother starts to cry. I act excited, but it is only acting. I am oddly disconnected from the scene as it unfolds. I am watching it from outside, feeling hollow but not alone, like George Bailey with his angel. I watch me eat barbecued shrimp and French bread with my dad and his wife, my half brother, my sister and her husband, my two nephews, my niece. I watch me smile and talk about names for boys and girls.
But soon—too soon, I think—the conversation turns elsewhere, attention refocuses. My brother wants to show me his scrapbooks. My stepmother is clearing the dishes. The flare of excitement burns out as quickly as it sparked. Life goes on, though my state is unchanged. I’m still sitting there, nauseated.
Pregnancy has spun a web around me so that everything, everyone, seems distant. When it is mercifully time for bed, I sleep on the pullout sofa in the living room, listening in the dark to the deafening chorus of crickets outside. I am lonely, or rather, alone with it, this heartbeat, those little buds that will become arms and legs, but not without burning a hole in my guts first. I remind myself that it is human, just not quite looking the part.
According to the church, it even has a soul. Maybe that’s just a bud, too. Or are souls plucked whole from the heavens? Is that why the presence is so strong, already, even though the body is so small? Is there a whole other soul inside of me?
The sun rises but I hide under the covers, pretending to sleep as the house stirs to life.
It is Sunday, and our family heads to our respective churches. My dad repented of his Catholicism ages ago, and he and my stepmother and half brother go to New Jerusalem, a fringe-church fiasco on the northern edge of town.
My sister Jen and I go to mass at Our Lady of Lourdes, the parish where we grew up. I look for old boyfriends in the pews; I can’t help myself. I notice that Jen, who has not been to a Catholic church in at least ten years not counting my wedding, knows the hymns better than I do. I’m feeling shaky, but nausea is becoming familiar.
In the pew ahead of me, there is a family of four: a mom, a dad, and two daughters—the way our family once was, before our mother died. But one of their little girls is blind.
My throat constricts as I watch her mother gently guide her skinny colt’s legs to the kneeler. Such tenderness. And what’s more—such faith! To guide your blind child to kneel before the Lord. My eyes fill. What if I’m not capable of this kind of love?
At communion, the wine tastes like salad dressing, and it turns my stomach. I remember something Toby said yesterday about how receiving communion can make you sick if you are in a state of sin, and how at the time, I’d inwardly rolled my eyes. I scramble for a piece of gum in my bag.
The next morning, I say goodbye to my family and head to Baton Rouge on the back road, Highway 190, rather than the interstate. That way, I can stop at the cemetery to sit pregnant before my mother’s grave. It seems like something I should do.
The flowers I put there on my last visit are gone. But if I’m going to make it to LSU by eleven am, I don’t have time to replace them. So the urn stays empty, except for the white satin bow I tied around it last May. A spider built his web over the letters of her name. Don’t they clean these things? Or is that my job too?
I sat there, silent, and waited. Out in the yard, someone started a mower, and a streak of bright grass green raced across the granite of the mausoleum—a gecko, with that red balloon under his jaw. He halted in the lower right-hand corner of her drawer and just sat there, panting, looking new and strong. Lean, muscular, indestructible. I hate geckos.
Never before had the cemetery felt so pointless. I usually feel something when I go there, even if it is just a bland melancholy, but now, with my own child growing in my belly, when the moment should have been full of meaning—nothing. Absence. Dust. Void. And new life running it over in a bright green streak. I said a Hail Mary, then fell silent again.
So this is the way it works, I thought, surprised by my anger: Life marches on, relentlessly, burning through families and seasons and years, creating, dying, creating again. My mother’s birth, my birth, my mother’s death, and now, something growing inside of me that I can’t stop. I read somewhere—the catechism?—that Catholics believe women are closer to God because we can create life. I wonder if God ever felt so terrified of his own power, so afraid of what he’d made.
This body is no longer my own. But was it ever? I examine my hand on the stone bench. I’m still unused to the wedding band on my finger. I’m a grown woman. I have a husband. A job. Health insurance. And faith, or so I thought. Yet for the first time, I understand why women want the right to choose. It’s all so infuriating. It is scarily animal.
My body was made for just this, for living, for giving life, and dying. Like my mother before me. Like her mother before her.
It’s the soul that should concern me. Else the gecko wins, traipsing over graves without remorse. Relentlessly, dumbly living. And this pathetic stone monument? It’s nothing more than a playground.
Damn that gecko.
“There is no reason to live but to live for Christ,” freshman Nicole Augustin tells me. She says this as a matter of fact.
I crossed the parade ground as the bells in the campanile struck noon. I was late. The day was cooler than normal for April in Baton Rouge. Clouds were rolling in, and the grass was still dewy and wet. I wondered if they ever got all the nails up.
In Free Speech Alley, the Students for Life had already set up their table and posters and were passing out flyers to passers by, everything decorated with fifties-retro clip art and cutesy fonts:
Abortion: Question It.
Look around you; half of your generation is gone forever.
A baby has its own set of rights.
Toby is here, wearing a gold shirt and a purple tie—school colors—pacing and sweating. He’s nervous because tonight he’ll be introducing Carla Roberts, senate attorney for James Cain; she’s giving a talk about how to lobby for pro-life legislation.
I am sweating too, even though it’s cool, and my stomach is spitting embers as I talk to Nicole, an eloquent freshman, secretary of Students for Life. Every so often, she jumps up to press a flyer into the hand of a student, saying, “Hey, you want to save lives?” Lots of people, most of them, in fact, say no.
When newspapers reported the vandalism of the crosses, most mentioned Students for Life and identified Mary as the group’s president. But at the time, Mary was technically the only member. Mr. Richard had asked her to get the necessary permissions to plant the crosses on the parade ground. The ironic fruit of their destruction was that it caught the attention of the other Catholics on campus and invigorated the dormant club.
“I don’t think it was a hate crime,” says Mary. Nicole agrees. “The vandalism of the crosses, more than anything, was a call to us,” she says.
There are pro-life student groups at college campuses across the country, even at places you might not expect, like Wellesley, Harvard, and MIT. But I talked to students from all three of those schools, and even the Catholics didn’t talk about living their lives for Christ or responding to divine calls to defend the unborn. They certainly don’t mention, as Nicole later will, imagining the Blessed Mother wrapping her arms around the wombs of pregnant women considering abortions. Instead, they seemed to take pride in their groups’ secular nature. They protest not with crosses, but with white flags. They would never rely on faith-based arguments. They use science, philosophy, ethics.
So do the Students for Life. “But the basis for us is prayer,” says Nicole.
Though a couple of them are Christians of other denominations, the Students for Life are overwhelmingly Catholic. Some are converts; others are reverts. Many are members of a lay apostolate called Regnum Christi. They all share a mystical view of the world and a rock-solid conviction that supernatural forces of good and evil are waging a cosmic battle behind the doors of women’s clinics in Baton Rouge, and that their prayers can make a difference. Still, most of them are new to pro-life activism.
It dawns on me that this week—which they are calling “Dignity of Life Awareness Week” or something like that—has been planned just for me. They’ve created a whole agenda of events for me to witness and write about.
At two pm, I walk to Chimes Street to meet Amber, my oldest friend and former college roommate, for lunch at the Chimes, our former favorite bar. Again, this seemed like way more fun before the plus sign. I’m early; the waitress seats me in a booth and I order a Diet Coke instead of a beer. I drink half of it before I remember the ban on caffeine. Then I drink the other half and accept the refill.
Amber is a self-described bleeding-heart liberal. In a word, pro-choice. “Dude, you’re not becoming some kind of fanatic, are you?” she asks, moving her sunglasses to the top of her head as she sits. I’m not sure what I’m becoming.
She’s worried that the baby will change our friendship. I try to comfort her, reassuring her that we will always be friends, that a baby won’t change me. But we both know there’s no way to tell how much I will change. I’ve already changed. I’m changing before her eyes, right here in this restaurant, my uterus expanding to the size of a grapefruit, my burning innards busily knitting blood and tissue into a placenta.
At three pm I meet the Students for Life at the former Delta Women’s Clinic on Bennington Avenue, where doctors performed more than thirty thousand abortions before—according to local pro-life lore—God and Our Lady of Guadalupe intervened. The story goes that one night back in 1986, as Mr. Richard was adoring the Eucharist, the Lord told him that if he consecrated the Delta Women’s Clinic to Our Lady of Guadalupe, it would close, and one day reopen as a memorial to the unborn.
When my foot crosses the threshold of the American Holocaust Memorial, it lands with a smack on an enormous banner of a partially dismembered fetus, shiny with blood, stretched out across the floor of the waiting room.
My mouth fills with sour bile as I quickly jerk my eyes to the ceiling. Too late—I’ve already seen it; the image is tiling across my brain like a Warhol silkscreen. I can’t imagine the look on my face, but it is such that Mary notices. She looks sympathetic, maybe even apologetic. Mr. Richard is already unloading statistics on the group. If he notices my discomfort, he doesn’t let on. Anyway, he designed the place to evoke precisely this reaction. Everywhere I turn, there is a picture of a dead fetus, or a dismembered baby, or a bloody crucifix. I’ve never seen such ugly crucifixes—the body of Christ so black and blue, so hard to look at.
Trying to block the gore out of my peripheral vision, I look hard at Mr. Richard while he talks. He’s wearing high-water pants, white ankle socks and black dress shoes, a giant crucifix, a few holy medals, and a brown Our Lady of Mount Carmel scapular. He has a square, cartoonish jaw and a constant, inappropriate smile.
As he leads the tour of the facility, I lag behind, digging frantically in my tote for a stick of peppermint gum, swallowing hard, trying to take deep breaths. Catholic high-schoolers come here on field trips, I read in the brochure. So what is my problem?
“Has this place been blessed?” I ask.
“And exorcised,” smiles Mr. Richard. “The first time a priest raised the consecrated host here, the whole building shook.”
He leads the Students for Life into a room, where they encircle an old gynecological examination table equipped with suction tubes and forceps and scissors. The rooms where the abortions were performed have been “preserved,” he says, so the public can view first hand “the blood of the innocent babies still on the walls, floors, and instruments of disposal.” The dingy walls are decorated with posters of tiny, bloody body parts in trash cans. Mr. Richard points to some spotty, rust-colored stains in the open cabinets under the sink. “When they finished the abortion, they’d run the fetus through the garbage disposal,” he says.
My ears and throat seem to fill with cotton batting. The pregnancy web returns and thickens. I’m watching from outside again, with my angel close by. I decide to abandon the tour with the hope of finding an emergency exit, breathing deeply—what is that smell?—and trying to remain calm. But I find myself in another windowless hallway, a room with twelve portraits of Mr. Richard’s family. In each, a new child appears. Another room is filled with stuffed animals, pink and blue infant layettes, and Pampers. But no exit. The place is a labyrinth. I can’t tell which end is up, or which is more sick-making—the museum, its historical purpose, or its creator.
Turning on my heel, I run smack into Toby, and mumble something about needing some air. After several more wrong turns, he manages to lead me back to the lobby, the offending poster sprawled across the floor.
I pace in the parking lot, insisting that Toby go back inside so he can tell me when the tour is over. I am angry with him, though I don’t know exactly why. Through the window, I watch the students return to the lobby. Mr. Richard cues up the video that concludes the tour—footage from an actual abortion. A snuff film, I think. Or no better, anyway. I want to cover their eyes. The man is clearly a lunatic.
“They’re done,” Toby says, poking his head out of the door. I return to the lobby but keep my eyes focused on my notebook as Mr. Richard rattles off all the names of vaccines made from aborted fetuses and how you really shouldn’t be an organ donor, because if you are in an accident, doctors will harvest your organs instead of saving your life. Any questions?
Mary is quiet and expressionless, perched on the arm of one of the sofas. She’s heard it all before. But Nicole looks uneasy. “Um, even with my strong Catholic upbringing, this is a little hard for me to swallow,” she says. Good, sensible Nicole, I think.
“I know it’s hard to believe,” Mr. Richard responds, “but these people don’t believe that we are created in the image and likeness of God. They think human beings are brute beasts to be created, used, and disposed of.”
Brute beasts. Later that night, as I lie on top of the covers of my double bed in the Courtyard Marriott with a cold washcloth over my eyes and a hand on my burning stomach, the words echo in my head. On the bed next to me, Amber is flipping the pages of a fashion magazine and popping her gum. She has turned off the air conditioning, and the muggy April air has taken over our room, heightening the tension between us. But I don’t have the energy to complain. I know she is frustrated by my moodiness, my distraction, my lack of interest in our usual rituals—shopping (What’s the point? It won’t fit in a few weeks), eating (can’t even choke down a saltine), drinking (obvious reasons), and drive-bys of old boyfriends’ houses (too carsick). All I want is to be somewhere cool and dark and quiet.
The Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel have retreated. Instead, I am thinking of my neighbors’ golden cocker spaniel, Mandy. When she had puppies, she hid in a dark corner of their shed and birthed her litter alone on the concrete.
I am thinking of how Mr. Richard smiled at me happily as I was leaving his museum.
“Morning sickness, huh?” he said. “Just remember, the worse you feel, the better it is for your baby.”
Before seven am the next day, I am sitting in a parking lot across the street from the Acadian Women’s Clinic, timidly eating a strawberry Yoplait I took from the continental breakfast bar at the hotel. My stomach feels like a kiln, and the cool yogurt brings some relief. I hope I won’t regret it later.
Mr. Richard said that the Delta Clinic closed when the number of rosaries prayed exceeded the number of abortions performed within. So the students are coming here a few days a week to pray before class. But they aren’t here yet. There’s only an old man standing near a tree at the edge of the parking lot. At first I don’t notice the small bottle of holy water leaning against the tree’s trunk, or the rosary dangling from his wrist. In his white cap, jeans, and windbreaker, he looks like someone’s grandpa, not an activist.
A Student for Life pulls her car in next to mine and waves. I take a deep breath and open the car door. This will be my first protest. I brought a disposable camera.
The clinic is a squat, brick building several blocks north of Government Street, in a low-income neighborhood LSU students are often warned to avoid. The first car to pull into the lot is an Infiniti I30. A small-framed black woman wearing big hoop earrings emerges, and the old man jumps into action.
“Please don’t have an abortion!” he calls out.
She ignores him and crosses the parking lot to the clinic’s door. It’s still locked.
“There are people here praying for you who will pay all your expenses,” he adds. He has a sweet Baton Rouge drawl, the kind that makes the word government come out guv’ment.
She peers through the clinic’s glass door with her hands framing her face. The scene is so awkward; I feel desperate for someone to let her in. The burning in my womb has allied me with pregnant women everywhere. It might be the only thing I had in common with this woman peering through the door, but it seemed like enough.
He pleads: “You will think of this baby day and night! It will haunt you forever. You don’t have to go through that!”
She tries the door again, then gives up and goes back to her car. She never looks in our direction.
Mr. Richard approaches. He’s holding one of his big bloody crucifixes in one hand and a statue of the Blessed Mother in the other. He’s smiling inappropriately and wearing one of those Aussie outback-style hats with the cord pulled tight under his square jaw. I imagine him wandering in the wilderness, smiling and eating locusts.
A black Ford van pulls into the parking lot; the license plate says blessed. The young black woman who gets out of the passenger side is pregnant—very pregnant.
“God has plans for that child!” cries the old man. He isn’t quite shouting; it’s more of a wail. “Your baby is made by God to be loved, not to take its life!”
Another van pulls in, this one with a Christian bumper sticker. A fat black woman gets out and stares us down.
“Why y’all doin’ that?” she shouts, hands on her hips.
“They killin’ babies in there,” says Mr. Richard. Matter of fact. But still smiling.
The woman shakes her head and gets back in her van, starts the ignition, and drives away.
I feel foolish. By now, Mary, Toby, and Nicole have arrived. Mr. Richard has propped a few signs against the trees:
Abortion Is Murder!
Let Your Baby Live!
Mary starts the first decade of the rosary, and the others join her in quiet prayer. Passing cars slow down, and drivers stare. The students kneel in the grass next to the parking lot. I hang back with my notebook and take a couple of pictures. I want the space between us.
“Did anybody bring holy water?” asks Mr. Richard. The students shake their heads.
“You’ve got to bring holy water,” he says, obviously frustrated. The old man offers his bottle. “We need to do an exorcism, and ask Mary to put her mantle on us and provide all the babies who have died here as our guardian angels.” He takes the holy water and runs a spastic lap around the building, splashing and blessing. I think I see Toby stifle a laugh. Someone else murmurs, “He’s going to get arrested.” Protestors aren’t supposed to cross the property line.
But nobody will be arrested today. Except for the few women who enter the clinic and the few cars that slow to take in Mr. Richard’s signs, the protest appears to go unnoticed. The students finish praying the rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, stand, and wipe the grass from their knees.
“What you saw there was a mini-exorcism,” says Mr. Richard, panting from his efforts. “These people are possessed by Satan. They need deliverance.”
He is invigorated by this work but seems exasperated by the students—they brought only their rosaries, no signs or holy water. None of them called out to the women as they entered the clinic.
“When you believe you’re fighting demons and not just human perversity, you’ll know what you’re up against,” he says, his tone indicating that they have a long way to go as pro-life activists.
While he talks, he holds his statue of Mary in one hand and the bloody crucifix in the other. He never stops smiling that beatific smile.
“You can’t be too radical,” he tells me after the students have left for class. He is currently unemployed; he quit his job in a Catholic hospital because he says the doctors there support euthanasia. His home is in Arkansas, though he spends a lot of time traveling in his beat-up station wagon. Last year, he and his wife drove 720 miles to Saint Louis, Missouri, so their twelfth child could be delivered by a doctor they were sure was pro-life.
“Mary is doing good with the Students for Life,” he assures me. “She may not have known that this would be war, but she’s doing good.”
I take his picture with the old man: The smiling prophet and his disciple, posing with the Virgin and the crucified Christ. Then, with a wave of the hand holding the cross, he’s gone.
The old man’s name is Chris. At Mr. Richard’s urging, he’s been praying here every day for six years—sick or healthy, rain or shine. He advertises the protests in all the local Catholic magazines and newspapers, but usually he’s alone, standing by the tree with his rosary and holy water.
“Sometimes, I’ll go for long stretches, and I get despondent,” he says. “The devil gets after me to quit. I go weeks without someone turning back. Maybe one out of a hundred women changes her mind.”
On cold or rainy days, the ladies in the lawyer’s office next door bring him hot chocolate.
“The devil has such a hold on this place,” he says. “Sometimes I worry that there’s not enough people to break it.”
He was grateful to see the students this morning. “Usually, if I’m not here, nobody’s here,” he says.
It’s time for lunch on my last day in Baton Rouge. The burning in my stomach intensifies with hunger, and my mood is foul.
For our last meal together, Amber and I eat pizza, and she does most of the talking. Then she insists on stopping at Barnes and Noble so she can buy me a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. “The bible,” she says. It’s a peace offering, I realize, a gesture of congratulations and good will that I hungrily accept.
In the bookstore, we see a friend from high school, Cheryl—the first person I knew who had a pro-choice bumper sticker. I remember how progressive it made her seem back then. Now, she has a baby girl named Sydney who looks like a cartoon—blue eyes like saucers and an electric shock of black hair standing on end like Robert Smith’s from The Cure. Cheryl always loved Robert Smith.
We sit in the children’s section and watch Cheryl bounce Sydney on her knee, handling her little wet-noodle frame with the intuitive deftness that only mothers seem to manage. She’s still Cheryl, cursing a blue streak and playing tough, but she seems proud and content despite herself. Amber has arranged this meeting. She wanted me to see it can be done.
“Were you happy when you found out you were pregnant?” I ask Cheryl.
“God, no,” she says. “I think my first words were ‘holy hell.’”
As I drive back to campus, I think of a painting I once saw of the Blessed Mother holding the infant Jesus as angels approach bearing the instruments of his death—nails, a crown of thorns. Her body is turned toward her baby’s in an attempt to shield him from what is to come. It’s an instinctive act, like a bear defending her cubs.
In fact, now that I think about it, lots of painters have given us Marian eyes full of suspicion and fear, one arm clutching her child to her body, even as he reaches out to us in blessing. Often, she seems near to taking him and running. And this is when she seems most exquisitely human. Not because she is nearly overtaken by the animal instinct to protect what’s hers, but because she suppresses that desire, and instead, chooses to accept God’s will for her and for her baby, whatever it may be. That’s why she’s the model, I think. She sacrifices the desires of her heart. She submits to the divine plan.
Mr. Richard told me this morning that his wife says every time she gets pregnant, she dies a little, and God lives a little more. He was smiling when he said it, of course.
I think of Mary Higdon sitting with her crosses—that silent example of faith that brought me all the way here from Indiana. Their messages are the same: Abortion is a sign of faithlessness in God’s designs and an assertion that we, not he, have the power over our bodies. We, not he, are the source of life. Only, Mr. Richard is much harder to ignore than Mary Higdon, and even easier to dismiss.
But back in Free Speech Alley for the last time before I head to the airport, I notice that the Students for Life seem more aggressive. One of them is standing on a bench and calling out the facts from their flyers in a loud monotone. I’m not the only one who is cringing. The protest is in disarray, the faces of passers by clouded with scorn. Nicole looks embarrassed.
“I think this is creepy and ostentatious,” she says, loud enough so Mary can hear. She is visibly irritated.
To my horror, I see a familiar face approaching—a friend from college who is now in graduate school at LSU. He looks around with his eyebrows raised, as if to say, “What the hell are you doing here?”
I try to have a conversation with him as if I’m not standing in the middle of a pro-life protest gone hopelessly awry. He introduces me to his new wife. We’re all grown up, and yet I feel like I’m in a scene from an after-school special, the one where the girl cuts up her dorky friends to her cool friends so she can save face. “Don’t worry, I’m not really one of them,” I want to say. “I’m just writing about them. See? Here’s my notebook.” But I can’t bring myself to deny the Students for Life outright.
I tell college-friend I’m pregnant. His wife says she doesn’t want children. This disclosure irritates me, inexplicably. Lots of my friends say they don’t want children. But hearing this now, from a stranger, I feel insulted, sized up, judged. There is a flashing neon arrow pointing at my stomach. All I want is to get away. So I make my excuses and say my goodbyes. I’ve got a plane to catch. Nice meeting you.
At the Baton Rouge airport, I sit waiting for the first of my three planes, feeling sore, achy, unwittingly viral. I don’t know it yet, but when I kissed my oldest nephew goodbye, something called fifth disease passed from his lips to mine. It’s the human strain of parvovirus, which afflicts household dogs and cats. This is a common childhood ailment, like chicken pox but less severe. But I never had it, so I’m not immune. It’s harmless, really. Just fever and aches and pains for a week or two. Unless you’re pregnant. Then it can cause a miscarriage in the first trimester.
Mary, Toby, Nicole, and some of the other Students for Life come to see me off. They approach bearing my first baby gifts: a tiny LSU hat and T-shirt magic-markered with their slogan: Go Life! For the first time, I feel a surge of maternal pride. They think what I am doing is holy—the ultimate vocation. But I sense they have also come, at least in part, to do some damage control. Mary regretted the way the protest went today, and she and Nicole want me to know they have made peace. Most of all, they ask me to be kind regarding Mr. Richard, whom they feel inclined to protect.
“Mr. Richard has a very special mission,” says Nicole diplomatically, “but you’re not going to reach everyone that way.”
But my ears are full of cotton again. I go deaf as my third failed cohabitation emerges from my conscience and materializes behind them, messenger bag slung across his shoulders, just as he wore it in college. His blond hair is cut short now, his jaw clean-shaven. I’m close enough that I could reach out and touch the solid mass of his body, see the ragged fingernails, hear the still familiar click of a Zippo lighter nervously snapping open, then shut, open, shut. Certainly close enough that I could call out and be heard. But I don’t. I am mid-sip on another forbidden Coke, surrounded by devout Catholics, pregnant with my beloved Yankee husband’s baby—George Bailey again, watching scenes from another life. In it, I am the sole architect of my pleasure and happiness, and yet both persistently, maddeningly elude me.
He walks on, unaware, and I am only too happy to see him go.
“Miracles happen,” Nicole says, and the world resumes forward motion. Then she reconsiders her platitude, and smiles. “And even if they don’t, who cares? The miracle of you being born is enough.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.