January 20th, 2008
One morning in January 1991, Susan Wicklund arrived at work wearing a heavy coat of makeup and a curly auburn wig pulled over her half-inch-long gray hair. It was a get-up worthy of a double agent, and it succeeded in helping Wicklund slip unnoticed across enemy lines, though not without feeling as if she’d stepped into a version of “The Twilight Zone.” “Why do I have to do this?” she scrawled in her journal afterward. “WHY?”
The price of concealment is the central theme of Wicklund’s memoir, “This Common Secret,” which offers a rare glimpse into the life of an abortion provider who, like her dwindling band of peers, learned to don an array of disguises over the course of her tumultuous and peripatetic career. Wicklund grew up in a small community in rural Wisconsin populated by gun owners and deer hunters. She went on to become a reproductive health specialist who helped staff abortion clinics in five states, mostly in the Midwest, places that, by the late 1980s, had become veritable combat zones.
Wicklund’s daughter, Sonja, who contributes an epilogue in which she recalls breaking down every time she learned that another abortion provider had been shot, saw her mother as a pillar of strength who never let the wrath of anti-abortion protesters faze her. As it turns out, the stoic demeanor was as deceptive as the wig. The unstinting pressure — “Wanted” signs bearing her photo posted up around town, throngs of demonstrators amassed outside the places where she worked — often drove Wicklund to tears. She took to carrying a loaded .38-caliber revolver. She watched what she said to strangers, sometimes even to relatives, refusing for years to tell her grandmother she performed abortions out of fear she’d disapprove. When Wicklund finally divulged the secret, her grandmother shared one of her own: at 16, her best friend had gotten pregnant, most likely following an act of incest. She’d tried to help her end the pregnancy with a sharp object, and watched her bleed to death.
“This Common Secret” does not attempt to offer a comprehensive account of the abortion conflict, much less an evenhanded one. Though Wicklund claims to respect those who harbor moral qualms about abortion, her book makes no effort to engage critics of Roe v. Wade. The narrative has a somewhat slapdash feel — a journal entry on one page, a flurry of statistics on the next — and, though recounted in the first person, lacks a distinctive voice, perhaps because the book was written with a co-author.
Yet in setting down her story, Wicklund has done something brave, not only by refusing to cower in the shadows but also by recounting experiences that don’t always fit the conventional pro-choice script. Before receiving her medical training, Wicklund had an abortion herself. She was asked no questions, offered no advice and left the clinic feeling violated. Years later, she terminated the pregnancy of a woman who’d been raped and wanted an abortion. Afterward, Wicklund examined the product of conception and discovered the pregnancy had occurred two weeks earlier, meaning it was not a consequence of the rape. Both she and the patient were horrified.
Opponents of abortion might view such episodes as proof that abortion is evil. For Wicklund, they are what drove and inspired her to help each woman she encountered make an informed, truly independent choice. At a clinic she ran in Montana, this meant placing the emphasis on counseling, which sometimes strengthened a patient’s resolve to terminate her pregnancy and other times led her to reconsider and bear the child instead. Wicklund may never convince the protesters who demonized her that women should be free to make such decisions on their own. But in sharing her secrets, she has shown why there is much honor in having spent a lifetime attempting to ensure they do.