Abortion in Literature: Margaret Millar’s Do Evil in Return and Colette’s “Gribiche”

There are advantages to menopause.

We no longer bleed on our skirts, we secretly like the new crepey texture of our skin, and, finally, we are no longer defined by our sex.  And we are all waiting for the organic yam “lube” concocted by Frankie (Lily Tomlin) on Grace and Frankie.  (Alas, it seems to be fictional, but there are others.)

But as menopausal women become more powerful, menstruating women must still worry about the future of reproductive rights.  When even Planned Parenthood is under attack, we are all shocked.  It looks as if the pro-choice button will never go out of style.

Coincidentally, I recently read two fascinating works of fiction on the perils of illegal abortion, Margaret Millar’s suspense novel, Do Evil in Return,  and Colette’s  “Gribiche” from The Collected Stories of Colette.

Syndicate Books has recently reissued Margaret Millar’s classic crime fiction, and I am racing through  Collected Millar:  Dawn of Domestic Suspense. The addictive fourth novel in this volume, Do Evil in Return (1950), is an eerie exploration of the consequences of illegal abortion.

What happens when a young woman dies, not because she has an abortion but because she cannot find a doctor to perform one?

A wan young woman, Mrs. Violet O’Gorman,  shows up at Dr. Charotte Keating’s office.  Violet desperately wants an abortion: she was impregnated during a one-night stand, not by her husband.   Charlotte gently explains that she cannot perform an illegal  abortion.

This decision sets in motion an unstoppable Greek-style tragedy.  The Eumenides (the Furies) are milling and thronging.

In Millar’s taut, short novels, the dialogue is spare and snappy.  In addition to writing novels,  Millar wrote screenplays for Warner Brothers–and it shows.   This would make a brilliant noir film, but perhaps it is too radical these days.

The girl let out a cry of despair.  “I thought–I thought being you was a woman like me–being you…”
“I’m sorry,” Charlotte said again.
“What can I do?  What can I do with this–this thing growing inside me, growing and growing, and me with no money and no job and no husband.  Oh, God, I wish I was dead!”  She struck her thighs with both fists.  “I’ll kill myself!”

Charlotte is not heartless.  She believes she may have made a mistake in denying Violet the abortion, as she tells her married boyfriend Lewis Ballard (the two met because his “nervous” wife Gwen is Charlotte’s patient). But Lewis points out that Charlotte was not obligated to break the law to help a strange woman.

“You’ve had cases like this before.  Why does this one worry you?”
“Because of us, Lewis.  Don’t you see…?”
“If we go on together, if we become lovers, I might accidentally end up in the same boat she’s in.”

In a fit of conscience, Charlotte attempts to find Violet at her uncle’s rooming house in a  bad neighborhood.  Violet is out, and the visit ends in violence. Charlotte is attacked in front of her garage and robbed of her purse.

When Violet is found drowned, it looks like suicide.  Detective Easter does not buy it.  Easter likes Charlotte, but unfortunately she is linked to the death when a card with her name typed on it is found in Violet’s purse.

As Millar turns upside down our ideas of powerful and powerlessness–is the well-educated doctor the most powerful woman in the book, or not?– Charlotte investigates on her own.  She falls into a trap of blackmail, betrayal, and violence. No line is wasted, every word matters, and Charlotte is a champ.  But the noir tragedy that unfolds makes Aeschylus look like Aristophanes.

Colette’s short story “Gribiche” (1937), in The Collected Stories of Colette,  is lyrical, poignant, and heartbreaking. The narrator is Colette herself: her fictional counterpart is working as a music-hall artist in a revue, as Colette did after she left her husband Willi.

In the witty opening scene, she describes a typical night in “the women’s quarters” at the theater. The steps of the iron staircase clang like a xylophone, the fifty pairs of high heels are “clattering up and down like hail,” and the basement dressing rooms smell of powder, makeup, and different perfumes.

But that very night a young actress in a chorus of soldiers faints, falls down the stairs, and is bleeding heavily.   When Carmen, “a little green-eyed Basque,” says that things are going “pretty badly,” Colette asks what she means.

Carmen looked slightly embarrassed.
“Oh! Colettewilli, don’t be nasty, dear. Gribiche, of course. Not allowed to get up. Chemist, medicine, dressings, and all that…”
“Not to mention food,” added Lise Damoiseau….
“But where’s she been hurt, then?”
“It’s her..back,” said Lise.
“It’s her stomach,” said Carmen, at the same time.

And then Colette realizes Gribiche had an abortion.

The women at the theater are sympathetic, and every one of them believes in the right to abortion.  But this dark, un-preachy story realistically describes the danger of backstreet abortions.

Colette writes beautifully, and I highly recommend this story.

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Butter Sculpture & Margaret Millar’s Domestic Suspense

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Summer is vacation time.  Now if you can just agree on where to spend it…

Some hike the Appalachian Trail.  Others travel to Yosemite or Yellowstone, wanting to see the parks before they are fried by global warming.  Others go to cultural events, Shakespeare in the park (in whatever city), or a music festival. And still others go to Dollywood or Graceland.

I hope your vacation was better than ours.

We spent our (one-day) vacation in Clear Lake, where I was stricken by a piercing headache/migraine in a hot car en route to a Shakespeare Festival in Winona.  We never got to Winona, because we were too busy sightseeing in Clear Lake:  the convenience store where we bought Advil, the park where I lay on a picnic table, and the coffee shop, Coffee Cabin, where I attempted a caffeine cure.  Once home, I remembered that my parents met at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake.  Oh, my!  That marriage ended in divorce. But my mother and her best friend told me years later that they enjoyed the train trip.

Oh, well.  Missed the Surf Ballroom, but in August there is much, much more fun ahead.  The Iowa State Fair.

Why should the bookish go to the fair?   The fair is not just rides and fried food.   This year there will be a butter sculpture of Laura Ingalls Wilder beside the traditional sculpted butter cow.

And why is Laura sculpted in butter? you may ask.

It is her 150th birthday, and, since the Ingalls family moved frequently and lived all over the Midwest,  almost every Midwestern state claims her as its own.  She and her family  lived in Burr Oak, Iowa, for a few years, after a grasshopper plague drove them out of Minnesota.  And so she’s a butter sculpture.

Am I a great fan of Wilder? Well, no.   By the time I discovered her books I was nine or ten, and they  seemed too stylistically simple.  The only one I enjoyed was These Happy Golden Years, the story of Laura’s struggles to teach in a one-room school. I was interested because both of my grandmothers were one-room school teachers.  And they never talked about it.  Oral narrative isn’t big in Iowa.

All right, we will never go to the State Fair.  But we will watch the 1945 movie, State Fair, with Jeanne Crain and Dana Andrews.

And that’s the news in Iowa.


Syndicate Books is reissuing the classic crime fiction of the award-winning American-Canadian writer, Margaret Millar, who won the Edgar for her novel Beast in View in 1956. She was the wife of Kenneth Millar, who wrote the Lew Archer mysteries under the name Ross MacDonald.   I found this big pink volume in the mystery section, Collected Millar:  Dawn of Domestic Suspense, and couldn’t resist.

The first novel in the volume, Fire Will Freeze (1944), is a fast-paced locked-room mystery.  A group of people on a bus headed for a ski resort end up spending the night in a big, isolated house when the bus breaks down.  Bizarrely, people keep disappearing and dying. Could the killer be the mad woman whose keeper locks her in her bedroom?  And Miss Isabel Seton, a smart spinster in her thirties, is more observant than the others, but she is hardly a detective.  The plot thickens, and her intelligence works overtime.

A locked-room mystery is always fun.  But I really loved Experiment in Springtime (1947), one of the eeriest  psychological novels I’ve ever read.  It is not exactly a mystery, but as we get to know the personalities of the characters, their strengths and weaknesses, their instability and hysteria, we can tell that something is going to happen.  And the woman, Martha,  is at the center of a triangle.

Millar begins,

In April, Charles almost died.  His wife, Martha, nursed him assiduously and with a certain grim efficiency that Charles, in his moments of clarity, found amusing. Even on the point of death, he knew he bored her.

Charles is a rich 36-year-old businessman, and Martha  a beautiful, voluptuous young woman who married him for money.  Martha has accidentally poisoned him with aspirin, and Charles wonders if she did it on purpose.  He had a headache, and she didn’t know he was allergic to aspirin.  But Charles is so weak and sick that he  broods and becomes increasingly paranoid.  Even the doctor has some doubts, though he believes Charles has psychological problems. It is tough to feel sympathetic to Charles, who is quite misogynistic.   Finally, the doctor lends Charles a cottage by the lake. And Charles  won’t give Martha the address.

Margaret Millar

Martha is relieved that he’s gone.  She cannot bear sex with Charles.  Is she frigid?  That’s what we think at first.  She dresses in black tailored suits to mask her sexuality, and buys pretty things only for her mother and sister, who live with them in their big new house.  Martha loves to shop: it is her only solace for having married Charles.  The chauffeur drives her downtown, and we follow her through a giddy shopping trip, and see her delight as she accumulates bags of presents.  (Don’t all us shopaholics feel that way?)  Then on her way back to the car, she meets her handsome ex-boyfriend, Steve, just back from the war. It is awkward.  They used to be engaged, and Steve broke it off.   And we see a different side of Martha, an uncertain side.  And when Steve, a former reporter who is suffering from PTSD, moves from a sleazy hotel into the apartment above Martha’s garage, it’s only a matter of time before Martha undergoes a complete personality change and begins to wear colorful clothes.

So what will happen?

Not what you think, because I thought it too.  The ending is a complete surprise.

I can’t get enough of Margaret Millar.  When I finish this volume, with six novels, I may have to read the others.