The Power of the Female First-Person Confessional

What Women Really Think
Nov. 11 2013 4:57 PM

The Power of the Female First-Person Confessional

In New York Magazine this week, Meaghan Winter compiles the personal stories of 26 women who have undergone abortions from 1983 to this year. Some of their stories are funny: “The lady administering the pee test said, ‘Congratulations, you’re pregnant!’ and I thought, Congratulations, you’re an idiot!” Some are hopeful: “There was this lightbulb moment when I realized I had health insurance. I made an appointment at a hospital, and the whole thing cost about $30.” Some are enraging: “After the twenty-week ultrasound, a doctor came in and said our baby had a kidney disease and wouldn’t be able to breathe. … The public university where we teach offers insurance affiliated with a Catholic hospital. … The priests decided I had to deliver the baby.” And some are devastating in their simplicity. One woman’s story is just, “This guy forced himself on me. When the woman at the clinic went over my options, I bawled. Society is so focused on women being mothers. I felt selfish for not wanting to be a mom.”

Meanwhile, in this week’s New Yorker, Ariel Levy tells her own incredible story of a baby she badly wanted, but lost under horrifying circumstances, on a reporting trip to Mongolia.

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These stories are emotionally electric, politically relevant, and powerfully told. They’re also first-person confessionals about women’s reproductive issues—the type of taboo tales typically churned out in quick-fire online essays and given the as-told-to treatment in women’s magazines, where they are often embedded in the celebrity gossip cycle (“Losing a baby is one of those experiences too many women mourn in silence, says the reality star. Now Bethenny Frankel is sharing her own heartbreak—so all women can heal"). XoJane’s personal essay series, “It Happened to Me,” is so hungry for confessions (essayists are often unpaid for their work) that it sometimes presents women’s stories at their most myopic. Recent entries include “It happened to me: I had pinworms in my vagina” and “It happened to me: I’m single and alone (and writing about romantic travel).”

But when done right, the first-person confessional holds a raw power to air women’s experiences free from the mediation of traditional reporting, which can feel clunky, sentimental, and even offensive. After batting down clueless reporters for years, kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart told her whole story in a first-person memoir this year. And last month, after being discounted and bullied in her small town, Maryville rape victim Daisy Coleman made the unexpected choice to tell her story in a first-person xoJane It Happened to Me. As Emily Bazelon wrote of Coleman’s innovative media campaign, every time someone like her comes forward, “it makes it easier for other people to report rape and to talk about it,” and that's especially true when her story has the space to proliferate, in her own words, on the internet. Coleman’s essay was so compelling that it didn’t just help bolster her case—it was a testament to the form itself, and xoJane as a serious platform for publishing it.

And this week, the confessional form is benefitting from the investment in reporting, editing, and careful storytelling that flush legacy publications can pony up, no reality TV-tie ins necessary (publications, it should be noted, that many men read and take seriously). New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy can tell a story better than any writer working today. The fact that the New Yorker gave her the go-ahead to tell her own—to write about what it was like to deliver a 19-week baby alone on the floor in a hotel, and more importantly, what it was like to go on with her life after that—is good for all of us. 

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. Email her at amanda.hess@slate.com, or follow her on Twitter.