The raw autobiography of Jane Roe

June 26, 1994|By Fawn Vrazo | Fawn Vrazo,Knight-Ridder News Service

Jane Roe. The name has a permanent spot in our national consciousness. Yet how much do we really know about the woman behind the most pivotal abortion case of all time?

She was pregnant and didn't want the baby -- that was always clear. In scattered stories and a 1989 movie starring Holly Hunter, we learned more: that Roe, whose real name is Norma McCorvey, was a drifter and bad mother; that she lied and said she was raped in hopes that Texas law allowed abortions for rape victims (it did not).

Through chance, Ms. McCorvey linked up with two female lawyers itching to overturn Texas' and America's anti-abortion laws. Her plea went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and we all know the rest. In 1973, years after Ms. McCorvey gave birth and put her baby (her third) up for adoption, the high court made abortion legal in a case called "Roe v. Wade." She would be deified or vilified as the woman who helped that happen.

Now Ms. McCorvey has written an autobiography that strips off all the layers and relates the full story of her life. The tale is a compelling one, so raw that it makes us wince at times, and McCorvey hides nothing: Her lesbianism, her drug use, the psychological beatings from her mother and the physical beatings handed out by an abusive husband. She portrays herself as immensely proud of her role in the abortion battle and yet she frequently is filled with self-loathing over the many mistakes she has made, including abandoning the one child whom she did not place for adoption.

It's quite a yarn, and it could stand up on its own with only a nominal nod to Ms. McCorvey's connection to "Roe."

But the abortion issue, ironically, is "I Am Roe's" undoing. Ms. McCorvey and her co-author, journalist Andy Meisler, make the critical mistake of interspersing juicy chapters about her life with dry chapters about the history of the abortion fight.

The result is an unbearably clumsy and schizophrenic tone. At the end of one chapter, Ms. McCorvey writes about how a nun seduced her at a reform school, and about how she got kicked out for telling another nun exactly what she could do with a shirt that Ms. McCorvey was told to iron again.

At the beginning of the next chapter, her "voice" turns all educated and erudite as she describes the beginnings of the abortion-rights movement. We're hard-pressed to imagine a hard-scrabble woman such as Ms. McCorvey saying or writing: "Despite their illegality, birth-control methods became widely available -- to all those wealthy and educated enough to have access to them and understand their use."

Not that there is any reason to doubt her intellect or familiarity with the abortion issue. But the political stuff could have been woven more smoothly into her own story or saved for another book.

Still, especially if one sticks to just the chapters about her life, "I Am Roe" is fascinating reading.

We learn that Ms. McCorvey herself might have been just another abortion statistic if her own mother hadn't waited too long to try to end the pregnancy. Her mother gave birth to her, but hated her: "She called me stupid, and an idiot, and when she was angry, which was just about every time she saw me, she smacked me so hard my head hurt. I could never figure out why she disliked me so."

After learning of her daughter's lesbianism, she took away Ms. McCorvey's infant daughter, Melissa. In the book's most wrenching anecdote, Ms. McCorvey returns from a weekend trip, looks in her daughter's crib, and finds that her baby has been replaced by a plastic doll. Her mother tricked her into giving up her daughter, but Ms. McCorvey makes no excuses about how she let it happen: "Wherever my past and present had taken me, I should not have abandoned her."

Assured of a pedestal by the abortion-rights movement, Ms. McCorvey nonetheless has the grace not to portray herself as a heroine but as a human being with as many regrets as triumphs. That honesty is the best thing about "I Am Roe."

Title: "I Am Roe: My Life, Roe v. Wade, and Freedom of Choice"

Author: Norma McCorvey with Andy Meisler

Publisher: HarperCollins

Length, price: 216 pages, $23

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