In the wake of the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Lauren Elkin on Tracey Emin’s 1996 film How It Feels
‘Supreme Court Votes 5-4 To Throw Beer Bottle at Slut.’
– The Onion, 24 June 2022
In the weeks since the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, I’ve been watching Tracey Emin’s 1996 film How It Feels (available to watch here) in which she recounts, to camera, the harrowing experience of a botched abortion. When the film opens, we’re on the Euston Road, outside the church where her doctor was located. Emin, natty-disheveled in tinted glasses, blue-and-white striped shirt, and pin-striped suit jacket, perches on the front steps, and the camera draws slowly closer to her, head in hand. She smokes a cigarette. And then suddenly she’s talking, talking about how “mixed up” her thoughts and feelings are. I don’t know where to start, she says, but this is where it started, she tells us, in 1990. I do the maths – that would have been six years earlier. My own abortion was just over six years ago. It doesn’t feel like much time has passed.
Emin tells the story of how she went to see her doctor, who told her she was pregnant – a bit of a surprise, as he’d previously said he was “99.9 percent” sure she couldn’t conceive. Now that she was pregnant, he tried to sell her on it, telling her what a good mother she would make. She needed him to sign papers allowing her to terminate the pregnancy, it being a criminal offence to have an abortion in the UK – except under specific circumstances – without the written recommendation of two doctors. He refused.
“Did you think that was unfair?” asks an off-camera interlocutor. “It wasn’t that it was an unfair thing I suppose,” Emin answers, “he was doing what he believed in, but he shouldn’t have beliefs for me.”
“Was the doctor a man or a woman?”
“Does that make a difference?”
“I think it made a lot of difference,” Emin says. “He’s probably very well-off, very happily married, just had a young child himself, I don’t think he could ever understand what it would be like to have a life of poverty and a life like a destiny you’ve never chosen and everything you’d always fought against all your life.”
The doctor who initially refused to grant Emin’s abortion looked at her and saw only a potential mother – not a potential artist. He looked at her in rhetorical terms, or if you like in Christian terms, not in terms of what she herself wanted for her life. He could not apprehend her as a full human being, only as a womb-haver.
Emin is getting at what this whole debate is really about: it’s not fair that men who know nothing of our lives are deciding things on our behalf. Men, and handmaidens to the patriarchy like Amy Coney Barrett, making choices about what happens in the bodies of women and people who give birth. And the people who have supported the overturning of Roe v. Wade have done so in language that is fraught with the sentimentality of moral superiority, saying words like protecting the innocent and saving babies, when they weren’t talking about personal responsibility and how people should raise their daughters not to be sluts who need abortions, or how “some women” use abortions like birth control. Meanwhile in his concurring opinion, the conservative justice Clarence Thomas took aim at birth control (along with gay marriage and sodomy).
Looking back to when she got pregnant in 1990, Emin describes herself as a “total failure in life,” having to bear not only the feelings of guilt at aborting a baby she, on some level, wanted, because she couldn’t care for it. But she also, she says, “had to suffer this other blow, of being totally inadequate, never ever being good enough, that’s how I felt.” She’d had a measure of artistic success – she’d managed to get a first class degree and an MA from the Royal College of Art but was a few years off from starting to show with the YBAs, nine years off from her Turner Prize nomination, 17 years off from representing Britain at the Venice Biennale. It was not at all clear in 1990 that she would achieve the wild levels of success that followed. It seemed much more likely that she wouldn’t.
What’s interesting about this piece is its form. It seems, on its face, fairly conventional: another abortion story, the contours of which are increasingly familiar, as women feel emboldened to share their experiences in public of what was once a stigmatized act. Usually it is told by someone who – as Maggie Doherty writes in a recent essay for The Yale Review – can depict themselves as ‘virtuous and relatable,’ with ‘very important reasons for undergoing an abortion.’ In this sense the stories are rhetorically motivated, with a particular underlying agenda: to normalize abortion, of course, but also to justify it.
Where Emin departs from script is in her insistence on the affective component of the abortion – not just how it felt to have it, but how it feels to have had it. Not only what she felt at the time, but how it still feels, in an ongoing way.
The sentimental ‘pro-life’ framework seems like it is bound up in feelings, but it leaves no room for nuance, for ambivalence, for wanting it both ways.
Emin says the abortion was a mistake, and also the best thing she did in her whole life: “a contradiction,” she admits, “but it’s the truth as well.” Without the abortion, no Tracey Emin. Without contradiction, without two equally pressing truths, no art.
The theme of maternity and pregnancy loss continues right through Emin’s oeuvre – from 1998’s Homage to Edvard Munch and All My Dead Children to the late ‘00s collaboration with Louise Bourgeois Do Not Abandon Me to her recently-installed monumental piece for Museum Island in Oslo, The Mother (2022), which depicts a nine-metre-high naked woman kneeling, holding something we can’t quite make out. It seems telling that Emin has chosen to make this mother figure so overwhelming, and all-encompassing, but the small thing in her hands unseeable. Is she holding a baby, or nothing at all?
Towards the very end of the video Emin describes the abject despair she fell into after the abortion, giving up her work, turning away from friends, losing interest in just about everything.
But then she came to understand that “there was a greater idea of creativity, greater than anything I could make with just my mind or my hands”: something that was “the essence of creativity, that moment of conception, the whole being of everything”:
“[…] and I realized if I was gonna make art it couldn’t be about a fucking picture, it couldn’t be about something visual, it had to be about where it was really coming from, and because of the abortion and because of conceiving I had a greater understanding of where things really came from and where they actually ended up.”
How It Feels asks us to tolerate conflicting feelings, and teaches us to stay with the trouble, in Donna Haraway’s phrase, because there is no way out, even with the right to terminate a pregnancy. In this way Emin’s abortion piece (and, by extension, Emin’s abortion) enables her (and by extension us) to become a more ethical artist and human.