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Seeing Each Other Across Our Many Divides
Jennifer Haigh’s latest novel offers varied perspectives on what “respect life” means that can’t be gained from the news, politics, or the pulpit
Where are the “respect life” voices when schoolchildren are gunned down in classrooms?
Yet another mass murder at an American school this week claimed innocent lives, nearly all of them very young and looking forward to their summer breaks.
What can we expect from our political system on the gun issue? If recent performance is any indication of future results, we all know to expect: a lot of finger-pointing and mutual recrimination, but ultimately inaction and dysfunction. Nearly ten years since the Sandy Hook mass shooting in Connecticut, there are 20 young people who should be in high school right now who haven’t been with us. Nothing has fundamentally changed.
But one issue that looks like it’s going to change: abortion. One in four women in America have an abortion in their lives. It’s a common enough event to affect large numbers of people on a personal level, but perhaps not common enough for the difficult choices surrounding it to inform a national debate that promotes compassion and a shared sense of the common good.
A draft Supreme Court ruling on abortion leaked earlier this month signaled that the court would likely overturn a half-century of law later this summer. It looks like this upcoming ruling will be a defining issue this summer and beyond.
The Supreme Court seems poised to disrupt a tenuous status quo that’s endured for decades. It’s likely to foment more extremism on an epic scale, with abortion opponents pressing for even tighter restrictions and those fighting for reproductive rights countering these measures with their own proposals. This battle will take place over many years, state-by-state and almost certainly in Congress.
One element that will probably be in short supply in these fights: the human element, with all of its full complexities and flaws. That’s ironic, because abortion is an issue often framed as respecting the rights and dignity of individuals, yet the political debates are often conducted without deep connection to the human element.
Created stories about ordinary people can offer deeper insights than the news
Mercy Street, a new novel by Jennifer Haigh, offers rich insights into the lives of people in today’s America that are often overlooked. An earlier novel Baker Towers (2005) gave a look into a dying Pennsylvania coal mining town in the decades after World War II and showed how large shifts in the economy impacted the lives of tightly-knit communities. Heat and Light (2016), Haigh’s more recent book, takes place in the same fictional Pennsylvania town as Baker Towers, but examines the contemporary impact of fracking and big business on small town America and its families.
Haigh’s novels focus on working class Americans, a segment of America that’s much talked-about in politics but often overlooked. As she explained in an interview earlier this year, “That’s not really in fashion in literary fiction today, I think simply because most writers of literary fiction don’t come from that kind of background.”
Pick up one of Haigh’s novels and she’ll transport you to a part of America that’s often overlooked not just in literature but also our broader culture, including politics, even though the working class vote is far larger than the college-educated vote.
A walk down Mercy Street
Mercy Street is a women’s health clinic just south of Boston Common and the novel opens on Ash Wednesday in the brutally cold winter of 2015 (another “monstah nor’eastah” snowstorm about to hit).
The main protagonist is Claudia, a counselor at the clinic for almost a decade who struggles with the day-to-day strains of giving women from many walks of life advice on a wide range of health issues – including whether to terminate a pregnancy before the 24-week cutoff date mandated by state law. Despite the contentious and highly-charged issues at stake in Mercy Street, Haigh presents her characters in their full complexity, with all of their merits and flaws, with little judgement.
Claudia grew up in poverty in rural Maine and lived in a trailer with a mother who welcomed a rotating cast of foster children into the small home just to make the money. She beat the odds and broke free from her humble roots to get a college degree in social work. After a stint writing for a New York magazine, a job she got through her ex-husband Phil’s family, she finds herself in Boston working at the clinic.
Now divorced, Claudia maintains a relationship with Phil and meets him for lunch regularly. At one of these lunches, Phil persuades her to take a break from the stresses and strains of her job, but he reassures her that he supports what she does. “Look,” Phil said, “I’m on your side. You know I have no problem with abortion, assuming there’s a good reason.”
“There’s always a reason,” she said. “Define good.” Claudia later underscores: “The point is, what’s a good reason? Who gets to decide?”
Instead of checking out and taking a breather, however, Claudia usually watches murder investigations on Dateline, a news show that focuses on true crime stories, which only adds to her insomnia. Her only escape is to smoke weed with her dealer, a hapless man named Timmy, a man who sees threats to his business on the horizon just as marijuana legalization seems more likely (a contrast to restrictive trends in abortion law).
Threats against the clinic and an effort to photograph women and others walking into appointments drive the novel’s central narrative. Claudia and her co-workers not only have to navigate a gauntlet of protestors outside, they also have to deal with other challenges like fake clinics giving disinformation to women. The physical threats include a suspicious package in a patient restroom three days after Christmas, prompting a mandatory threat response training led by an ex-Green Beret.
After counseling a pregnant homeless drug addict found unconscious in a gas station bathroom, Claudia thinks about the churchgoing faithful and priests gathered to protest outside and wonders if they’d have any interest in that woman if she weren’t pregnant:
“Preventing her abortion was all they cared about. The bleak struggle of her life – the stark daily realities that made motherhood impossible – didn’t trouble them at all.”
Later, Claudia reflects on a young girl found drowned by her mother’s boyfriend off Deer Island:
“Baby Doe had been a person, a little girl who felt love and joy, who delighted in her pink leggings and giggled when her toenails were painted and who, in the end, felt shock and fear and betrayal and pain. As a fetus she’d been protected by Massachusetts law, the twenty-four-week cutoff. As a person she was utterly dependent on a woman who couldn’t raise her and didn’t want to. Once she became an actual person, Baby Doe was on her own.”
Haigh layers in more complexity in her writing by telling more than just one side of the story. She delves into some of the people who are on the other side of the abortion debate and those character studies offer important insights into some of the social and cultural dynamics at play in America today.
The chief antagonist in this novel is Victor Prine, a military veteran and ex-truck driver who designed a website and hatched the scheme to post photos and videos of women going into health clinics from around the country.
Prine’s objections to abortion aren’t religious – they are motivated by shifting demographics America. Victor is obsessed with notions not far off from the “great replacement theory” that has captured much attention in recent weeks. While he has some more personal reasons for doing this “hall of shame” for abortion on the web, Victor is worried that blacks are having more children than whites.
“White people, if they knew this, bore the knowledge lightly. They stumbled through life like oversized children, spending and consuming and giggling at sitcoms, a tribe of obese dimwits in NFL-licensed sportswear. As far as Victor could tell, White people didn’t have a clue.”
With the ease of connectivity that the Internet provides, Victor is able to put out a call on the 8chan message board and quickly builds a network of volunteers across the country, including in Boston. His main accomplice in Boston is a religiously devout man named Anthony who lives on disability benefits after suffering injuries in a construction accident. Anthony signs up to take photos and videos of women going into Mercy Street.
In one of the many side plots Haigh weaves into the story, Anthony runs into his estranged father at a local pharmacy and expresses his dismay that the church where he goes to Mass is closing.
His father says, “It happens.” When asked to explain, he says “Jesus, Antny. I mean it happens for a reason. They are selling off the churches to settle the lawsuits. The kids who were abused.” This small vignette calls to mind a bigger story that Haigh plays out in part in her 2011 novel, Faith, the story of a Boston area priest accused of molesting a boy in his parish.
The backstories and side stories are threads that Haigh capably weaves with great insight and at times very good humor into the wider plot, which barrels towards a conclusion that doesn’t end up where most readers might expect it to go.
The urgency of good fiction during divided times
At a time when real news like the school shooting this week seems hard enough to take, what’s the value in a fictional tale by a talented writer like Jennifer Haigh?
Narratives like the one Haigh tells in Mercy Street open new possibilities to see and understand each other across divides in ways that political analysis and advocacy doesn’t. There’s something about the current media and political culture that is zero-sum, cutting off possibility of empathy, or understanding the views of another even if you don’t share them.
If you just skim the news headlines or flip back and forth between pundits – or worse, obsessively scroll through your own algorithmically-curated social media feeds – to reinforce your own views or fuel your indignation against another’s view, you may end up spending a good part of your life just skating along the surface.
The value of human life and support for the common good has plummeted in recent years – at home and around the world – and it could be that good fiction has the chance to open up windows to increasing a true “respect life” ethos that other forms cannot.
It’s one thing to learn that the number of refugees and displaced people in the world just hit a record high and surpassed 100 million this year. It’s another thing to read book like Omar El Akkad’s 2021 novel What Strange Paradise and how it gives human insights into how refugees are changed by their journey – and how the countries where they seek refuge are changing as well.
In an interview with Megan Walsh promoting Mercy Street on the New York Times Book Review podcast, Haigh is asked what she thinks fiction can illuminate and tell people about abortion that they wouldn’t get necessarily from just reading the headlines?
Haigh’s answer sums it up quite well:
“I think it’s a very good time for this book for many reasons – not least because we live in this polarized moment, particularly on this question of abortion, people are very firm in their convictions and don’t have a lot of time or curiosity about people who don’t think the way they do… This is a subject that most people don’t [think] very much about unless they have first-hand experience of it, and one thing this book can do is give people a look inside this world of the clinic and deepen their understanding of why people make this choice to have abortions.
“Unless you have personal experience of it, it’s likely you know very little about that. And I think if you are going to have ironclad opinions on something, you should know what you’re talking about. So even for somebody who is firmly opposed to abortion, this book will be an education, I promise. It will make you understand things that you didn’t understand before.
I don’t know if it’s going to change anybody’s mind about abortion. That certainly wasn’t my goal in the writing of the book. But I do really believe this:
That fiction, reading and writing fiction, is the best technology we have for getting inside another person’s mind and heart. You can’t do that in journalism, you can’t even do that in poetry, but you can do that in fiction. You can give the reader access to somebody else’s deepest thoughts. And I think in Mercy Street, regardless of your own personal convictions about abortion, it’s very illuminating to get inside of the mind of someone who thinks very differently about it.”
It's an important insight from the author about what her goals were in telling these stories, stories that are expertly woven together in a novel that has a lot to say about today’s America – not just about abortion, but other divisive topics including race, guns, drugs, and the media.
Haigh’s latest book offers important perspective on the diversity of people often overlooked in our national debates on these tough issues: the working class who built the country. Pick it up and have a read.