Friday, June 11, 2021

Addie Tsai, A Frank Abortion: a Fractured Narrative in Fifty Parts

This is an essay in a series of b-sides to The Texas Review All-Essay Issue. (More info at the end of this post.)


A Frank Abortion: A Fractured Narrative in Fifty Parts.

Addie Tsai


1. Some extracts.

Creativity will be defined principally by the word originality, and its negative expression will be narcissistic irresponsibility. —James Hillman, The Myth of Analysis

But, by the habitual slothfulness of rust intellects, or the depravity of the heart, lulled into hardness on the lascivious couch of pleasure, those heavenly beams are obscured, and man either appears as an hideous monster, a devouring beast, or a spiritless reptile, without dignity or humanity. —Mary Wollstonecraft, The Origin & Progress of the French Revolution

I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open…Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room. —Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

2. An introduction.

I was 18 when I first read Mary Shelley’s novel.

I was 25 when it first seemed that I would, with my lover, create a Frankenstein of my own.

Mary Shelley’s mother died when she was 4 days old, of a blood disease to the womb. Her father was a political figure, whose politics would lead her to her most complicated romance—Percy Shelley.

Percy had many lovers. Mary was already his lover when his wife drowned herself with child. There’s a story of a cousin of Mary’s who was another former lover of Percy, who checked herself into a hotel room, and swallowed a bottle of pills. It’s known that Percy talked Mary into a ménage a trois with Mary’s half-sister, that she too at some time became pregnant. 

Mary lost four children. It was out of her hands.

I’ve lost one. My own hand.


I was sick the day my Romantics professor talked about Frankenstein in class. I had to sit, uncomfortably so, in his small office in a stiff wooden chair as he gave me the lecture notes I missed. I probably hadn’t read the novel all the way through when he delivered the notes to me. 

My professor told me one thing about Frankenstein I’ve never forgotten, that sealed our courtship—that is to say, my courtship with Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein and Mary Wollstonecraft and Percy and monster and creature and narcissism and male hysteria and epistolary novel and Justine and Elizabeth and all the women die and Frankenstein takes on childbirth and and and—

He told me that Shelley refers to Frankenstein’s creation as the Creature until the world turns against him. It is only after the world rejects him that he is referred to as The Monster.

Courtship sealed.


I met D at a launch for Gulf Coast. I’d seen his work before, at an exhibit at the local contemporary arts museumI was 25, fresh out of graduate school, and I’d never before read anything that addressed my experience of hybridity so profoundly.

To be frank, D's work impressed me the least.

The launch was three years after I encountered his work for the first time. He asked if I’d like to work with him on a project on Don Quixote. We exchanged information.

He called three times. I didn’t answer the phone, I didn’t respond to his messages.

I met him again, at an art talk he gave when I happened to teach at his alma mater. He was working on a project exploring the Bush Administration through Moby-Dick.

Again, he called three times. It was only when he insisted he wasn’t a serial rapist that I called him back.


Why I first refused to see Frankenstein.

The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room… —Mary Shelley, Frankenstein


Why I first refused to see Frankenstein.

D's size—in prowess and energy and frame and height—towered over me. And his fame, most significant of all, was like a pond filled with caramel. I wanted his fame and his stature and his size and his maleness and his entitlement and his self-assuredness. At the same time that I desired all of these things that caused me to ask a mutual acquaintance and editor of the magazine to make our introduction, I was equally terrified and disgusted by the ego display I saw in him. I saw my father—a lion whose body’s voice, whose voice’s body, made clear he was on the scene regardless of action. If D looked my way too closely, would his penetrating dark eyes cause me to instantly crumple beneath my own, shadowy form?

To me it was inevitable, so when it came time to announce myself on the scene, I exited.


I am compelled to erase everything I’ve just written. 

And replace it with words that place you in a trance, and me. I could stack images and incantations around this narrative, I could re-write the entire piece in third person so that it would be some other fragile 25-year-old wounded child this happened to, a child born of and through narcissism, born of a father who performed and who silenced her with his hand and his body, a mother who did the same, a mother who stayed altered with marijuana and men and television and food and alcohol and spending and in a constant state of seduction, a child who lived a life of twin-hood that involved identical dresses hung in the father’s closet and singing songs like marionettes because the girls were directed to from somewhere high above them, songs whistled out of their twin mouths by a larger voice that loomed always around them. This child who lived in a life-size see-through aquarium with her twin, these twins that blinked their doll-eyes and smiled when prompted, but not too much, loved her some Frankensteins. Loved her some Frankensteins because that was all she’d known to love, as erudite and naïve a phrase as that can be, and because she’d assumed, been groomed to assume, that the only way she’d exist was through building her own shackles and building her own love to the Frankenstein she could handle the easiest. And this child, she just wasn’t sure this Frankenstein, this reaching middle aged conceptual painter from Louisiana who insisted his sister and mother never curse in his presence, who liked his ladies elegant and intellectual but knowing their place, who shared a bank account with his mother, a mother who never learned to drive because his terrorizing father scared the desire out of her, who drank in whiskey and cigars while he crooned to other ladies on the telephone while he painted in his studio while she this wounded child with the twine of narcissistic artists bound tightly around her who gave her painter lover everything he needed. She wrote statements on paintings he was making when he didn’t understand why he was making them, she posed in for portraits that needed a second figure, she brought her camera along when he didn’t have one to shoot with, she gave him every poem and story she’d ever written to do with what he liked, she let herself pose in a photo for a painting of the beautiful woman as monster called killer’s kiss flipping off the imagined painter wearing a geisha hairstyle with two chopsticks sticking out her blue stilettos naked form one hip cocked to the side next to a pregnant African figure a goddess of fertility while she was pregnant, a child who became pregnant because he’d convinced her as long as she was on her moon it was safe, who wanted to name their future kids Lucien or Jackson after his favorite painters, who told her you will be my wife I know this just hours before he found a reason to kick her out of his studio and ooze coldness through the phone line until he needed her again to take a bubble bath in a tub he set up on the second floor of his studio because he’s always wanted his woman to take a bath in his studio, who played the harmonica while she sang the only Bob Dylan song she could ever learn to love, this child who decided on Frankenstein for his project with her because she convinced him he should when he said he wanted to do a show on love, who had to tell him eight times about Frankenstein before he agreed. This child never stopped to wonder why she had such a strong intuition for this man this painter lover this older artist with this young ingénue to work on Frankenstein, who found out two days after this painter lover showed her the image of her he’d been working on, the image he said he’d give her time to be comfortable with— but he hadn’t planned on his woman his muse his partner his assistant his courtesan his future wife his collaborator his Pearl to stand in front of his image of her speechless because all she saw when she looked at a canvas larger than she’d ever seen was her sister, the face and soul she’d been running from always. She saw her twin’s face. Her painter lover was expecting adoration and a muse’s enthusiasm and light and so he kicked her out of his studio and out of his living space and out of his bathtub and out of his project and out of his cavernous womb


She went to breakfast with a friend desperately hoping that she was having cramps. It was her favorite breakfast, one she had every Friday, of breakfast tacos, potatoes, and organic coffee, at her favorite café, decorated in the colors of the Bay.


She couldn’t eat it. Because she was overtaken with nausea.


She walked into her local pharmacy, and bought two home pregnancy tests.


They went positive so fast she didn’t have time to think about it.


She wasn’t ready to admit defeat, or knowledge. Four years before, she’d been convinced she was pregnant with an ex-lover. If it had been accurate, the pregnancy would have been conceived on their anniversary, a rare case of intimacy at a strained place in their relationship. It felt so real to her, so inside her body, that she wrote about it:

13. Bellsong

The firefly rang against the glass.

She held her belly away from the world, but still, it vanished.
But still, it slithered out. The body, that dead lotus sinking in a jar.

Lights chasing their own concentric circles.

Her eyes churned at Mother’s kiss. The pirate-patch eye
she safety-pin pricked. Embarrassed print—hot-pink lips—
burn of wax in the light.

The bell brightens as it boomerangs.

She only hears in father speak. 吃饭了! How does your dinner bell sound?
Eat rice, she’ll answer, when words divorce each other. Come eat,
they’ll modernize,

In the wet grass, the jar beating. The firefly decoding.


The color flashed on the little screen so quick, like a match burned into the skin.


The girl didn’t have the kind of mother she could call for this.
The girl didn’t have the kind of father she could call for this.

The girl called the painter lover’s mother.


How are you feeling, Boo?

     Oh, I just have nausea, you know, a little—

That’s not what I mean. Emotionally, how are you doing emotionally?

     Oh. oh. I’m afraid of D. He’s not talking to me right now. I’m scared.

The next person calling your phone will be D. Don’t be scared. I’ll talk to him.


Well, Pearl, this is not good news. 

I will send you checks in the mail. We will no longer have a relationship. If you keep this child.

I want to have a child with you and all that, but when we’re ready.

Don’t think that you’ll automatically be a Mary Poppins.

How did this happen? (We called it into the Universe.) Why couldn’t we call a million dollars into the universe?

I’ve been through this more than once, more than twice, more than THREE times!

I don’t want people who know me to see me. I will drop you off and pick you up.


This 28-year-old girl didn’t have a mother. But she had a therapist. And her therapist was out of town when the girl discovered she was pregnant by home pregnancy test and after she went to the doctor with her painter lover and the woman took her urine sample around the corner and sped right back around and said oh yes you are pregnant your hormone levels are so strong I barely had to leave it in at all and the Jewish gynecologist the girl had been seeing since she worked out of a quaint bungalow and used folding screens and heat lamps and who said to her while the girl sobbed into her hands unavoidably I guess this isn’t someone you were planning to walk down the aisle with. And the gynecologist told her that her due date was in February, that she would need to take prenatal vitamins, that she would need a new doctor. And then she looked at the girl out of the side of her eyes and told her, there is adoption. And, there are, other options. 

The girl never saw that gynecologist again.


Her therapist was out of town when she learned she was pregnant.
Your mother abandoned you. I’m your mother, and she abandoned you.


Mary Shelley’s mother died of a blood disease to the womb shortly after Mary was born.


The Creature was abandoned by his mother, Victor Frankenstein, at first sight of his birth.


There is no consistent pattern to my mother’s abandonment. Except that she abandons.


My D—although he was never mine, only that I was his—abandoned me twice. He abandoned me when I couldn’t adore the image he made of me, and he abandoned me when he learned I was pregnant.


Less than two weeks after my abortion and the end of our relationship, which occurred on the same day, D called to announce that the painting he’d made of me would be exhibited in a show at one of the most significant independent collections in the country, the most prominent museum in the city. 


D owed me money. He returned only the portions that had no association with my abortion. As for the abortion, he never paid a dime. The rest of the money he noted as being for: ART.


When I want to remember a time in which I felt truly loved, a time in which another soul held my fragile girl child soul the day before I terminated my pregnancy, I think of my therapist. Her eyes quivering before they expressed compassion. I went to Group Therapy, but I was scared to fall apart. I decided I just wanted to be around them, for support, even if I stayed silent. But, my therapist-mama, she knew. As the conversation went down a certain stream, I couldn’t help my stream from mixing into the other stream, and I fidgeted in my painter-lover’s oversized shirt he made me wear to conceal myself, especially when he learned that both his sister and his mother suspected we were pregnant before we knew because of how my belly looked in the light in my A-line dress at Sunday brunch. I stared out the two large windows on my left, I watched the birds, afraid they would hit the window again because the panes of glass were so clear as to appear like air, and I stared at the highlights in my therapist’s hair, and I looked at the clock to see how much longer I would need to barricade myself from crumbling, and then I saw her, I saw my therapist-mama, I saw her eyes holding it in for me. I don’t remember whose explosion happened first. Only that they did. That she cried for me, and then we cried together, and then everyone else did. A sign of tenderness I’d never witnessed before.


That’s what a mother who can truly see you must look like.


After my therapist offered to take me to the clinic for my abortion, I blackmailed D into coming with me. I told him there were others who could take me, if he couldn’t. First, he tried to get his mother to take me. Then, they both took me. D and I didn’t speak. I passed information to his mother who then passed it to her son.


His mother cried. Told me that I let D bully me into an abortion. That her son would never recover.


They took my ultrasound. It was sticky and wet and cold and exactly like all those other movies where a happily married couple goes into a doctor’s office to check on their baby.


They gave me a piece of paper on a clipboard. I had to answer some questions. There’s only one I remember:

If you are having twins, would you like to know?


Did I forget to tell you what it’s like to be pregnant at six weeks when you have to make this kind of decision right fucking now? Your stomach is squeezing itself into a ball that takes in no wind like an air-tight jar to store things that won’t mold and your head is light and airy and spinning and you have to make this decision that you will never be able to return to the same again and your heart is breaking from the fluttering inside that could be a life one day and your heart is breaking from the utter monster of a person you shared your body with so that this new one could insert itself into yours without asking and everything inside that new body you’re in and the one that is forming inside the one you’re in is saying relax everything is fine it’ll all work out but the world outside the one that is saying relax everything is fine it’ll all work out is telling you that if you have this child if you give birth to what’s been created here with that person in this moment with your body which once was so painfully unconscious of the monster forming between this pairing you will be giving birth to the child that was you because the man that is next to you has suddenly unearthed a rage like thunder and water rocks and the piercing snapping of aged trees. 


So, did I answer yes or no when the paper asked me if I wanted to know if I was having twins?

I answered yes.


I did some research before the day of my abortion, and I learned at eight weeks, the fetus grows hands and feet.

I decided that, if I was eight weeks, I would keep it.


My therapist-mama and I were convinced I was farther along than six weeks. Because I was nauseous and had gained so much weight and I was dizzy and I couldn’t eat a thing and my breasts hurt so bad and I was so tired.


They never told me I was having twins.
The ultrasound confirmed I was six weeks.


After the abortion, I went to D's mother’s house to recover. Because I had nowhere else to go. D dropped us off, and took my car back to his studio. He called me with his every impulse. He’d started working again, he needed his Pearl, he knew we would have to work through this, he’d done it before, but we could do it. He had some ideas for another painting, he wanted to hear me talk about them. 

Why did he love me? Because I was something he could use.


I knew it was over. But, I wanted to get through the abortion first.


I had told one friend, a beautiful Italian actor and theorist who’d gotten me through two breakups with other narcissistically-wounded artists, who’d nurtured me through my parent struggles before I found therapist-mama. She called long distance from Italy to check on me. I was giggling, telling her it hadn’t hit me yet, I must still be sedated. 

D called while I was on the phone, his mother answered: I don’t know Dave, she’s giggling on the phone with a girlfriend.

Put her on the phone. NOW.

You don’t think I’m suffering from this, too?
You’re not staying at Mama’s house. Get your stuff.


It was hours after the doctor who spoke to me for three minutes about Frankenstein had taken some object I never saw and vacuumed out my pregnancy with his hand. Hours after I’d been led to a back room with a bed and a curtain to sleep. Hours after the first abortion I’d ever have. 

But, like the painting, I’d failed him by not adoring him, by not consoling him, by not letting him into my own experience of emptying out my own womb.


He came to the door in a mad frenzy. So did I. I demanded my keys. 

I said, for the first time in my life, to all the men I’d ever chained myself to, men that started with my father: 

I will never speak to you again.


There are no images I can build around this memory.

My entire body trembled with rage and fear and sadness and heartbreak and conviction until my breath exploded into a white ball in front of me. It was as though I were still pregnant, as though a child still held my white ball breath in its shallow shell, and I had to protect it.

I had to protect me. I had learned what it meant. And from who.


Two days after I learned that he planned to show the painting of me in a museum, I decided to write a piece about what it meant to be a muse and a partner and a collaborator. I felt so frail. I had no other means to fight. 

But. I could write.

I wrote ten pages about our meeting and our Frankenstein and our paintings and the painting of me and narcissism and what it means to be a partner in creation and in courtship. 

I’d send it to an online resource for art in the city, a resource D had been interviewed in. I wouldn’t mention the abortion—too fresh—but everything else. If the painting had to go in the show, at least she could control her own representation of her own self in the matter, that she wasn’t some Frankenstein’s monster, that she had her own narrative to tell.


I typed ten pages straight. I put my hands down.

The phone rang. D's message: he decided not to put the painting in the show.


I took baths and sobbed into my belly and took self-portraits and read a book my therapist-mama gave me called The Sacrament of Abortion, that says abortion is a heartbreak abortion is a sacrifice abortion represents an impossible love forcing an unwanted pregnancy on a woman is one of the deepest wounds to the spirit that can be inflicted on a human being forcing a child to live in a body that is hostile to it must be denounced as cruel. I read about narcissism and hysteria from another book my therapist mama lent me called The Myth of Analysis, by a Jungian analyst named James Hillman. In it, a narrative about someone named Juniper. It felt right so I wrote letters and poems and flickr posts to my aborted pregnancy, my Juniper. I named her so that I could grieve her, so that I could honor her as the death of my life as a narcissistic support and so that I could honor my re-birth. With Juniper’s end, I became someone else. I ended my archetypal life as a courtesan and a creature, I ended that story my body was born with: that I would be abandoned by a mother and chained in performance to a father.



Post on Flickr, June 17, 2008

47. Letter to my Aborted Child, written August 2, 2008

Finally it seems as if I have a true shadow self, another entity outside me that acts as a mirror, echoing me like a dark cloud rises over a pond. It is the self of my aborted child, my soulmate, my doppelganger, my Juniper. Because you never came, because the doorstep of the chalkboard drawing in which you first appeared was taken out from beneath you, because there was no choice—You who are a shadow have never left. That shadow is unfed, goes on unfed, until that moment where I can carry you across the river of Hades into the living world, where you can finally have a body outside my own. Believe me, that other timeline haunts me still. But please, my love, don’t take that the wrong way. One day you will see, there are good hauntings we face, ghosts that remind us of the fate we deserve, the life beyond the dweller of the tormented cage. You are all that I fight for—I wear boxing gloves daily, I ready my fists to assemble an environment that will instill the perfect womb, I purge the poisons from the water I drink, this moment, so that when a day comes, I will be prepared to bathe us both in a new, untainted stream. I close my eyes, and I see this white ribbon wrapped round. But trust me, it is not what you think. The ribbon enfolds me in a daily reminder of the choice I made—my losing you would mean nothing if not for the unwritten life that ribbon represents, the invisible circling me with its inevitable truth.

48. Depart, depart, and leave me in darkness (also known as: This deadly weight yet hanging round my neck)—, written September 27, 2009

(In order to reclaim the self, there is much to be sacrificed.) Three months before my twenty-ninth birthday, I was responsible for burying a birth. For terminating a creation that didn’t ask to be born. With that birth, I buried many things. In order to reclaim the self, all that must be sacrificed. The fetus was covered with so much infection that it was barely recognizable—just a green swollen shell of puss without the wound to go with it. Or perhaps the fetus carried with it many wounds, most of which it had nothing to do with. It was unfair to inject the wounds of all my lovers and fathers into such a compromised substance. But, what pregnancy is fair? The self, reclaimed, is the product of such sacrifice. Even now, when I close my eyes, I see it lying on the ground in a cloud, shrouded by ghosts of men that still pace the earth to haunt me with their psychotic desires. In order to reclaim the self, the unborn fetus, like a lamb, becomes the ultimate sacrifice.

My father told my sister a story. It goes that my mother had an abortion without my father’s prior knowledge. (When the self is not recognized, it doesn’t matter the sacrifice.) My mother had our family doctor abort the fetus, became incensed when the doctor was less than thrilled with the complications of this situation. What does a sacrifice matter when the self does not exist? “Don’t tell him,” threatened my mother, assuming our doctor, who delivered their twin babies, would understand. No self, no sacrifice, no matter to claim. My father, as he tells the story, knows better. Can tell something is wrong with his wife. It’s an abortion after all. It’s an abortion in the 80s after all. No pill, no clotted mess to flush and be done with. In order to reclaim the self, the self has to matter to the subject, otherwise the sacrifice is in vain. Perhaps my mother wished abortions had been more advanced, that she could have washed her hands of some unknown species away, and with them, her sins, her Italian lover who always hated kids anyway. What is matter to the earth without a self to inhabit it? Of what consequence is a sacrifice to ether? The story goes that my mother, on being questioned by my father, blurts out, like a child, a child, a child, “I had an abortion, okay?! And the doctor has been cold to me ever since.”


One year after the abortion, he sent me an email with an image of a painting called Frank, a rip-off of Louise Bourgeois’s Nature Study. The painting also includes a young girl’s crying eyes streaking mascara, and just above them, a dead-end sign in the snow. The amoebic sculpture, like Bourgeois’s, is golden and D's interpretation holds a shovel in one of its gooey holes, a face on the backside of it. She’s one of my favorite artists for her psychological work through gender. He must know this.

Four years after, D showed a series of paintings, including the initial painting of our ending, but also one involving a trampled bridal bouquet, the same African goddess of fertility holding a shotgun in her arm, called Puzzle for Pregnant Girls. 


The last email D sent me: 

still working on the paintings

please forgive me


Addie Tsai (she/they) is a queer nonbinary artist and writer of color, and teaches courses in literature, creative writing, dance, and humanities at Houston Community College. She also teaches in Goddard College's MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts and Regis University's Mile High MFA in Creative Writing. They collaborated with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater on Victor Frankenstein and Camille Claudel, among others. Addie holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and a PhD in Dance from Texas Woman’s University. She is the author of the queer Asian young adult novel Dear Twin, which made the 2021 Rainbow Book List, and received press in Autostraddle, Bustle, Barnes & Noble Teen Blog, the Montreal Review of Books, Lambda Literary Review, OutSmart Magazine, Shondaland, and others. Addie's writing has been published in Foglifter, VIDA Lit, the Texas Review, Banango Street, The Offing, Room Magazine, The Collagist, The Feminist Wire, Nat. Brut., and elsewhere. They are the Fiction Co-Editor at Anomaly, Staff Writer at Spectrum South, and Founding Editor & Editor in Chief at just femme & dandy.


I have always loved the B-side of records or cassettes, being let in on the secret/unreleased or more unexpected strangeness that awaited from artists. The B-side, in its essence, offers a singular delight in a promise that you, the audience, will not (or may not) be able to recreate the experience the B-side offers anywhere else. It says welcome, stay here a while, and put it on repeat. 

In the spirit of the B-side, The Texas Review asked contributors of the All-Essay Issue (Vol. 40, #3/#4, 2020) to contribute essays to a B-side compilation. We want to offer, here, a moment of singular delight as accompanied unexpected strangeness or echo location or dancing and braided conversation in conjunction to the contributors’ essays featured in the All-Essay Issue. 

Please enjoy the following B-sides by: Mary-Kim Arnold; Piper J. Daniels and Nicole McCarthy; Lily Hoang; Vincent James; Michael Martone; Ander Monson; Katrina Otuonye; Danielle Pafunda; Monica Prince; Addie Tsai; Julie Marie Wade; and Nicole Walker. 

Thank you (and genuflection) to all of the contributors featured in our pages: Danielle Pafunda; Sejal Shah; Addie Tsai; Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint; Temim Fruchter; Raquel Gutiérrez, Muriel Leung; Monica Prince; Ander Monson; Janice Lee; Piper J. Daniels; Camellia-Berry Grass; Wendy C. Ortiz; SJ Sindu; Dinty W. Moore; Michael Martone; Lily Hoang; Nicole Walker; Mary-Kim Arnold; Katrina Otuonye; Vincent James; Julie Marie Wade; Caroline Crew; Diana Khoi Nguyen.

Thank you to Ander Monson for giving us the space of Essay Daily, and as ever thank you to Nick Lantz, Editor of The Texas Review. 

Welcome, stay here a while, and put it on repeat. 

Katie Jean Shinkle, Guest Editor, The Texas Review

If you would like to order a copy of the All-Essay Issue:

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