The Belly of the Whale: Abortion and the Hero’s Journey

By Kathleen Robinson
November 26, 2013

Editor's note: This is the first part of a two-part essay. The second can be read here.

The cover of the book is a glossy, black expanse. A void. A nude woman is suspended in the center, curled into herself like a fetus, encased in a giant water drop. Her womb just touches a pool below, and sends out blue ripples.

Really, it’s a bit cheesy. When I first picked it up, I thought of Steven Martin’s Bowfinger, in which Z-list producers scramble to make a film called Chubby Rain—“Because when the aliens come down to earth, they come inside raindrops, making the rain chubby. Chubby Rain!” the screenwriter Afrim informs us. Well, people don’t come in raindrops. They come inside other people. So what is a grown woman doing inside a droplet, which, I suspected—both from her demeanor and the book title—to be a tear?

Aliens aside, the image resonates. The need for re-birth is universal. Water purifies and heals. If only the formula for being made whole was as simple as water! The womb of a warm bath may bring physical and psychological refreshment, but it doesn’t mend the deep spiritual and relational wounds with which we are afflicted. Moreover, the woman in the picture isn’t relaxed in some salted jet-tub sipping wine. She is alone in a void. Her one companion is darkness. And perhaps, the fruit of her suffering—her tears, which both trap and protect. Her creative action has been to construct a pool of them. The world of her adventure is pure pain. Will she swim or drown when her protective sac bursts? Can a person be re-born when her amniotic fluid is Strife, rather than Love?

The Cross and Resurrection go hand in hand. We find Love in Strife, and Strength in Weakness. It’s a proverbial no-brainer for Christians, though it takes the repeated experience and many acts of faith before we can truly live and know this paradox. In researching for his classic A Hero with a Thousand Faces, mythologist Joseph Campbell likewise found that a hero, or heroine if you please, is only born when she chooses death. In every prevailing myth this is true. Campbell called the locus of annihilation and birth the Belly of the Whale, or the World Womb. Darkness re-creates just when you think you are swallowed up:

The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died . . . here, instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again. The disappearance corresponds to the passing of a worshiper into the temple—where [she] is to be quickened by the recollection of who and what [she] is, namely dust and ashes unless immortal. The temple interior, the belly of the whale, and the heavenly land beyond, above, and below the confines of the world, are one and the same. . . They illustrate the fact that the devotee at the moment of the entry into the temple undergoes a metamorphosis. [Her] secular character remains without; [she] sheds it as a snake its slough. Once inside [she] may be said to have died to time and returned to the World Womb, the World Navel, the Earthly Paradise . . . Allegorically, then, the passage into a temple and the hero-dive through the jaws of the whale are identical adventures, both denoting, in the picture language, the life-centering, life-renewing act.

The woman in the tear drop is not yet a heroine. She rests in unrest, in an individuated flood of grief. The book, I ought to tell you, is filled with testimonies by post-abortive women. It’s called Forbidden Grief, written by Rachel’s Vineyard founder Theresa Burke. I stumbled across it in my junior year of college. I was a naive Pharisee then.

I can’t remember when I learned what abortion was. I do know I always had the (false) impression that women who had them were self-righteous and wanton. The assertion that they might regret their choice, to the point of collapse into infantile dependency, was almost grotesque. How could a woman deign to speak of sadness after making the decision to kill her child? Such were my wrong and merciless presumptions. Their pain scared me. It threatened my self-constructed dichotomy of myself as pure and good, and them as bad and un-holy. Not that I thought about abortion much; these impressions and divisions were nestled in my sub-conscious, informing various actions. Yet when I found the book I wasn’t able to put it down until I had entered the womb of Strife. When I emerged, my eyes were mercy-washed.

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While reading, I cried many times—mere echoes of the mothers’ pain. Woman after woman shared her story of pregnancy, anguish, and abortion. I learned that most women don’t want their abortions, and many suffer severe depression, suicidal thoughts and attempts, and relationship difficulties afterwards, among other trials. One woman wrote of having eight abortions. Each time, she grieved, sought pregnancy to replace the lost child, then felt compelled to repeat the termination, too. She suffered terribly, but couldn’t escape the cycle.

She and other women eventually find healing by sharing their stories with other women who have had abortions, as well as counselors, and priests. Naming the lost child is a pivotal factor for many in reconciliation. (This is true for fathers of aborted children as well.) I sincerely believe these mothers achieve a level of heroism by plunging into the depths of anguish, in speaking in spite of their shame, and believing that they are worthy of life and love.

When the heroine enters the Belly of the Whale, overcomes various trials, and dies to self, she then obtains the Ultimate Boon. Not only does she have new life, she has something to bring back to the Ordinary World to make it better. It might be knowledge, or a special object, like the Ark of the Covenant. It might be a baby. The mothers who speak out in Forbidden Grief bring a witness of Mercy, and a tale of an unjust law.

The Boon that is the book freed me from the confines of my own hatred and fear. When I finished reading it, I wanted to tell people what I had been given. I wanted to correct anyone who thought in the wrong pathways I had previously assumed. I wanted to break the silence of these broken mothers for them so they wouldn’t have to grieve alone. Grief is a ragged dog, coming round and round again no matter how often you kick him in the ribs. Feed him a little, ask him why he is, what he is, let him lick your toes, and you can learn to live with him. You can heal.

It’s amazing that the Boon can be as simple as a shared story, if the story is true. I was stunned to learn that for most women, the choice to abort is not made in freedom. For one reason or another, they felt they couldn’t handle motherhood. The stories they were told, or that they told themselves, were variations on “you’re not strong enough,” “I will abandon you,” “your life will be over,” and “you won’t have any of your dreams.” Beyond moral blindness, the threateners suffer a woeful lack of imagination. When did the hero’s journey leak out of the American consciousness?