By Jayden Presley
Let’s discuss abortion. Always a fabulous conversation starter, that one, a litmus test of sorts to find out who your true friends are. Both sides can agree with that, at least. I can see pro-choicers and pro-lifers now, crossing their arms and nodding righteously to that statement. Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, the decision is still fresh on the public’s mind. It is certainly still on my mind after reading Montevallo professor Dr. Ashley Wurzbacher’s novel “How to Care for a Human Girl.”
Wurzbacher teaches English and creative writing at the University of Montevallo. She has mentored me and many other students taking the creative writing minor, pushing us to shape our fiction writing to the best version it can possibly be. In my classes with her, she shared an excerpt from her then unpublished manuscript, and I am familiar with her battle over the final book cover. Through her experience, I had the privilege of seeing a fraction of the publishing process before “How to Care for a Human Girl” was released on Aug. 8. Boy, was this the perfect time for it to hit bookstores.
Let’s go back to 2016 and 2018, the timeframe of the story, set before Roe v. Wade’s overruling. Two sisters from rural Pennsylvania, Jada and Maddy Battle, find themselves facing a frightening situation at the same time: pregnancy. Jada is a 31-year-old psychology Ph.D student living in Pittsburgh with a shaky marriage, who quietly has an abortion without telling her husband. 19-year-old Maddy cares for birds at a wildlife rehabilitation center back home in Pennsylvania. The man who got her pregnant gives her $4,000 to have an abortion, but Maddy is unsure that she wants to. Though they are estranged, Maddy goes to her sister for support, and the two begin to rely on each other once more as they wade through guilt and past resentments.
Do not read this book if you are searching to reaffirm your political views. Wurzbacher does not ignore the societal, familial and political guilt that both sisters face as they navigate their circumstances. It is saturated in their lives at the moment of conception.
However, Wurzbacher does force the reader, as if jerking you by the chin and keeping your eyes upon it, to pay attention to the humanity of Jada and Maddy. They are people. They are women who face many, many people telling them what their choice should be.
I want to go back to the word guilt. Early in the novel from Maddy’s perspective, her character reflects, “Everybody always pretended they wouldn’t judge you, but they did so assuming you’d come around to their point of view, assuming you’d choose correctly.”
The story is a deep exploration of both Battle sisters’ torrid emotions of guilt and shame. Maddy feels it for being pregnant in the first place and having a desire to keep the child. Jada feels it for going through with the abortion and not telling her husband. While in Jada’s perspective, she comes to the conclusion that her husband will not understand why she did it. The novel reads, “If you spent five minutes inside my brain, she wanted to say – to him to then picketers, to the whole world, with their opinions – if you could crack the door to my head and hear all this noise, you’d shut up.”
The book has no stance on abortion. Instead, it tackles a truth even harder to grasp – a reminder that we do not know what we will do in a pregnancy situation until it happens to someone we care for. Or, until you are the one who is.
Many authors will use their characters as conduits in heavy-handed attempts to insert a stance on abortion. Wurzbacher makes a refreshing decision to place emphasis on the experience of two very different women who got pregnant under very different circumstances. The strong characterization of Jada and Maddy immerses the reader into their situations as if they are real people.
There were many moments I forgot about the politics. Jada’s acceptance of her childhood hometown and the successful person she is now is brilliantly juxtaposed with Maddy’s dissatisfaction with her hometown and desire to be more than she is. Though Jada chooses to have an abortion, I love the very real conflict she has within herself. She never imagined she would be placed in the situation to choose, thinking about how she “had held signs bearing the slogan before…and she realized that until now the ‘my’ in MY BODY, MY CHOICE had seemed not truly to apply to her but only to other women. She had thought that she could be smart enough, careful enough, impermeable enough not to need the rights she marched for.”
It is easy to sympathize with both sisters and their difficult situations. Their pregnancies only scratch the surface of their lives, whether it be strained relationships with men or navigating the grief of losing their mother. The sisters need each other more than ever and must reconcile, a crucial plot point that I hope readers never lose sight of.
One of the core themes of the story is the power our choices have over our lives. After facing a difficult decision, we often wonder what would have happened if we had chosen differently. “How to Care for a Human Girl” reminds us that, despite what anyone else says or thinks, we are the ones who must make peace with the choices we are privileged to make – and think about the choices we are not allowed to have.
Jayden Presley is the sports editor for The Alabamian. She is a sophomore mass communication major, concentrating in multimedia journalism, and also minors in creative writing. She enjoys writing in her spare time, drawing and playing video games.