Irene Vilar: Haunted by Lolita Lebrón

This weekend, during a long train ride into Manhattan, I spoke at some length with Danny Barreto of Brooklyn College about a Puerto Rican author I had never read, Irene Vilar. A few things piqued my interest: one was the subject matter of Vilar’s work (serial abortions and other forms of self-destruction); another was the constant strain of suicide and addiction in her life; and perhaps the most important was that she writes autobiography rooted in a family tragedy that starts with her being the granddaughter of famous Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebrón. Lebrón, a heroine to the Puerto Ricna left, led the famous attack on the US House of Representatives in 1954 and was imprisoned for 25 years.

I have spent part of my weekend reading the powerful The Ladies’ Gallery (Other Press, 2009, the title refers to the gallery in Congress from which the 1954 attack was launched. Her second book, Impossible Motherhood: Confessions of an Abortion Addict, I did not pick up, as I don’t think I can bear reading it…it sounds too painful for words.

I’m posting here the information from Vilar’s website about her books, which might be of interest, especially for those interested in Lebrón and her family.

 The Ladies Gallery: A Memoir of Family Secrets

A shred of black lace. A broken hand mirror. A spidery strip of false eyelash. These are the fragments left to Irene Vilar, granddaughter of Lolita Lebron, the revered political activist for Puerto Rican indepen dence who in 1954 sprayed the U.S. House of Representatives with gunfire, wounding several congressmen, and later served twenty-seven years in prison. In The Ladies’ Gallery, Vilar revisits the legacy of her grandmother and that of her anguished mother, who leapt to her death from a speeding car when Vilar was eight.

Eleven years after her mother’s death, Vilar awakens in a psychiatric hospital after her own suicide attempt at the age of eighteen and begins to face the devastating inheritance of abandonment and suicide passed down from her grandmother and mother. The familial pattern of self-destruction flung open the doors to her national inheritance and the search for identity. Alternating between Vilar’s notes from the ward and the unraveling of her family’s secrets, this lyrical and powerful memoir of three generations of Puerto Rican women is urgent, impassioned, and unforgettable.

Excerpt from The Ladies Gallery

MARCH 1, 1954. In the afternoon, a young woman together with three men entered the House of Representatives of the United States of America and opened fire. Next day, the front page of the New York Times would show the same woman wrapped in the revolutionary flag of Puerto Rico, her left fist raised high. What the Times would not quote were her words, “I did not come here to kill. I came here to die.” An old battle cry of Puerto Rican nationalism. She would be sentenced to fifty-seven years in prison for assault and conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States.

MARCH 1, 1977. On the twenty-third anniversary of the attack on Congress, her daughter commits suicide in Puerto Rico. The mother is flown secretly to the island for a day to attend the funeral.

FEBRUARY 1, 1988. A gray winter day: the daughter’s daughter becomes a suicide patient at Hutchings Psychiatric Hospital, in Syracuse, New York. Repetition informs my life. A teacher of mine once told me not to fear repetition, “Just don’t be blacklisted by it.” Well, I am the product of repetitions. Of family secrets. Every family has its own; usually it is the untold family story a child is destined unwittingly to repress, or to repeat. We inherit these secrets the way we inherit shame, guilt, desire. And we repeat.

Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict

Irene Vilar was just a teenager, a pliant young college undergraduate in thrall to a fifty-year-old professor, when they embarked on a relationship that led to marriage—a union of impossible odds—and multiple abortions. Vilar knows that she is destined to be misunderstood, that many will see her nightmare as a story of abusing a right, of using abortion as a means of birth control. But it isn’t that. Her nightmare is part of an awful secret, and the real story is shrouded in shame, colonialism, self-mutilation, and a family legacy that features a heroic grandmother, a suicidal mother, and two heroin-addicted brothers. Hers is a story that touches on American exploitation and reproductive repression in Puerto Rico. It is a story that looks back on her traumatic childhood growing up in the shadow of her mother’s death and the footsteps of her famed grandmother, the political activist Lolita Lebrón. Vilar seamlessly weaves together past, present, and future, channeling a narrative that is at once dramatic and subtle.

Impossible Motherhood is a heartrending and ultimately triumphant testimonial of shame and servility as told by a writer looking back on her history of addiction. Abortion has never offered any honest person easy answers, and Vilar’s dark journey through self-inflicted wounds, compulsive patterns, and historical hauntings revisits the difficulties this country has with the subject and prompts an important, much-needed discussion—literary, political, social, and philosophical. Vilar’s is a powerful story of loss and mourning that bravely delves into selfhood, national identity, family responsibility, and finally motherhood itself.

For more on Vilar go to

Link of interest: Death Threats, Hate Mail for ‘Abortion Addict’ Author

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