Happening, by Annie Ernaux
A true account of Illegal abortion through the pen of a Nobel laureate
Memoirs with Melissa shares bimonthly reviews intended to expose readers to diverse authors and life experiences. To see more of what I’m reading, browse my virtual memoir shelf on Goodreads.
Ever since Annie Ernaux won the Nobel Prize in Literature last fall, I’ve been working my way through her collection of memoirs. Happening, the true story of the memoirist’s illegal abortion back in 1963, has been my favorite by far. She first wrote about it in a 1974 novel titled Cleaned Out, where the protagonist was a thinly veiled version of herself.
Decades later, when abortion was no longer illegal, she published Happening, the true account. Who knew that in 2022, the same year that Roe v. Wade was overturned, she would go on to become the seventeenth female winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature?
Reading the 95-page story of Ernaux’s unintended pregnancy and traumatic abortion is a master course in memoir. She draws on her diary from her 23-year-old self to establish the “what happened” of the story and excavates her memories to infuse the narrative with analysis and feeling. In the introductory scene, her present-day self waits in a medical office for HIV test results, a situation that mirrors the gravity of waiting to find out if she was pregnant back in her early twenties and serves as a springboard into her experience as a young adult.
…she proceeds in the best of ways when it comes to writing memoir—in a state of expectancy, not knowing where the narrative will take her.
Ernaux treats the book itself like a pregnancy, one that is spontaneously conceived and that she debates whether or not to see through. With the same determination that she used to end her real-life pregnancy, she decides early on to go through with writing her story. And she proceeds in the best of ways when it comes to writing memoir—in a state of expectancy, not knowing where the narrative will take her.
From knitting needles to blood and searing pain, Ernaux spares readers no detail. Her descriptions are contemplated and purposeful. She wants to confront people with reality and explains her reasoning on page 44:
I believe that any experience, whatever its nature, has the inalienable right to be chronicled. There is no such thing as a lesser truth. Moreover, if I failed to go through with this undertaking, I would be guilty of silencing the lives of women and condoning a world governed by male supremacy.
What’s chilling about Ernaux’s story is how frighteningly similar recent modern-day state legislation is to the antiquated French law that once made abortion illegal. The 1948 version of the law is printed in the book and includes punishment by fine and imprisonment for anyone performing or promoting abortion services.
Fear of consequences is what renders Ernaux helpless when she seeks support from doctors, pharmacists, and male friends. It’s also what lands her in the company of a woman who points her to a nurse’s small apartment and, later, at the side of a female friend. Regardless of her personal beliefs, this friend takes action to secure medical attention when Ernaux loses too much blood and fears for her life.
No matter how our laws around reproductive rights change, Ernaux has given the experience of abortion a permanent place in language. Happening is the book she needed back when she was 23, when medical journals and novels were devoid of such information and experience. Just as important, Ernaux’s work makes the case for shifting our attention away from judging the morality of abortion to judging the humanity of our laws.
Want This Memoir?
Consider purchasing from your local independent bookstore. If you have a library card, you may also have access to the audio version of this book on Hoopla or Libby.
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