A new short film on YouTube tells the story of one young woman’s experience terminating a pregnancy while offering a glimpse into the plight of the contemporary generation to dismantle an archaic stigma.
This is Not a Love Letter is, in truth, a conversation. The film conveys with an impunative honesty writer Isabel Pask’s own experience soliciting an abortion in the U.S. It is sequential and deliberate in form. It is intimate and brazen in feeling. It builds to a catharsis that has the capacity to resonate with anyone who has ever felt silenced or marginalized. It exudes love, laughter and sisterhood. In Pask’s words, it is a commentary on “the resilience of women”.
“I wrote this for the people who have had this experience,” Pask told Ms. “To let them know that, even though we’re not talking about it, you are absolutely not alone.”
Pask’s message is a vital one. As the stringency in abortion legislation tightens throughout the country, and the recent confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court threatens the endurance of Roe v. Wade, pieces like This is Not a Love Letter are more poignant and pressing than ever.
Under the direction of Ariel Zucker and in artistic collaboration with CNT Productions—a femme-led independent media company with the express mission of creating socially conscious content to uplift the nuanced voices of underrepresented communities—This is Not a Love Letter employs compelling visuals, composed recitation, a diverse ensemble and unabashed joy to weave a multidimensional narrative that in many ways furnishes a wholistic depiction of modern womanhood.
“The first time I heard [Isabel’s] poem, I thought ‘this is something people need to see,’” says CNT producer, actress and co-CEO Daryl Paris Bright.
“CNT created ‘Open, A Spoken Word Series’ as kind of a place where really incredible poetry could meet reflective filmmaking,” Zucker adds. “We ask ourselves with every single project: ‘Why now? Why are we releasing this now? What are we trying to say?’”
Timing is everything. In the United States today, 61 percent of all unintended pregnancies end in abortion and 91 percent of terminations are performed at less than 13 weeks into gestation. Yet, misleading rhetoric from anti-choice leaders parlays caustic conservatism into law creation.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic this year, 11 state governors attempted to exclude abortion clinics from classification as essential care facilities. Further, 18 states continue to uphold highly restrictive abortion laws, and government shutdowns of clinics impose further fiscal and logistical barriers—implications which overwhelmingly affect women from lower socio-economic classes, as 50 percent of all individuals who have the procedure fall below the federal poverty line.
The lack of access to a safe and secure abortion perpetuates feelings of isolation, and fuels the fallacious notion that obtaining one is something for which to feel ashamed.
This is Not a Love Letter subverts that shame, and turns it into “a landing place” for empathy, representation and truth.
“I didn’t write this to change anybody’s mind,” asserts Pask. “All I’m doing is telling you exactly what happened to me, and you can choose how to respond to that.” With this, the film avoids castigation, and facilitates a difficult but necessary dialogue .
“Joy lived inside this process,” Zucker told Ms. “In taking on this story and essentially unburdening Isabel with the weight of this isolation, we come closer to understanding how we are all affected by this, and finding the community in that.”
This notion of community is a prevailing theme in the film, and the mantle is gladly upheld by every single member of the assemblage. Ms. spoke to several of the film’s contributors to gain an understanding of the vitality of This is Not a Love Letter and the magnitude of abortion rights for both the individual, and for society as a whole.
“It felt like we were on a mission—that we were all there for something really important,” participant Michelle Veintimilla told Ms. “When you let women be who they are and stand in their authenticity, there’s going to be beautiful nuance to that.”
“[The poem] was both a window into an experience I couldn’t have imagined going through and a realization of how troubling the existing narrative is that perpetuates our social and political circles,” composer Linda Diaz told Ms.. “I’d never heard someone talk about getting an abortion, and to hear someone talk so openly of something that is often intentionally kept under wraps was incredibly moving.”
“Know that that room was warm, and smelled sweet,” recalled Victoria Pedretti. “All I remember was being in a tiny New York apartment feeling like ‘this is the way in which women can support each other.’”
“Isabel talks about elasticity, and I see this elasticity in the woman who raised me. I see it in my friends around me, and I see it in myself,” remarks Iris Beaumier. “She put it in a simple, but quite complex way that we all can connect with. I’ve had my own travails, but I have learned to bounce back and back and back. I have to.”
The breadth of the film’s resonance is borne in its inclusion of so many voices—from disparate backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual orientations and generations. The plethora of faces are all saturated in sympathy, and emotions swell like a synchronous tide. Pask’s words often echo from the mouths of other participants, who deliver them with a depth of understanding that belies the impersonal. There are rousing elements of dance and laughter that bare genuine exuberance, and encapsulate the friendship shared by the group of women. All of this serves to celebrate each person’s individuality, while reinforcing the notion that there is a prevailing element of solidarity in experiencing the world through a femme lens.
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“It’s a touching image to see an older generation of women supporting a younger generation, and women from different backgrounds supporting each other” participant Dominique Brown told Ms. “It demonstrates that it’s not just one woman’s issue.”
Bright relays the importance of representation as analogous with her religious upbringing:
“The only images that I saw of G-d growing up were of a white guy with long hair, and angels in stained glass windows who were also white. So when you only see a specific type of person as godly, then you do start to see yourself a certain way. When you don’t see a representation of you on screen, it’s harmful as well. That’s why it was important for us to show as diverse a group of women as possible in this film.”
Pask’s own religious affiliation is an integral component of her account. Lines such as “I didn’t talk to G-d for a month straight, but when I did, I found he was never ashamed” feel particularly impactful in the context of a sovereignty wherein a dichotomy between faith and choice is often alleged.
“Avoiding the topic of religion only adds to the stigma of it,” asserts Zucker. “When we refuse to allow that piece of it to be a part of this conversation, when so many people do have a relationship with G-d and do have to have an abortion, then we just continue to further the stigmatization.”
“Every individual is going to have a nuanced experience with religion, if that’s a part of their life,” Pedretti adds, claiming that an understanding of this can lead to productive conversation. “It’s not worth making assumptions about people. It prevents you from being able to connect with them.”
“I feel like a lot of people or politicians use religion to control— to make people feel guilty. This is not what religion is supposed to be,” furthers Bright. “It all just comes down to fear.”
In many ways, that fear can be the catalyst of stigmatization. So, how do we combat it?
“Being aware of what even happens to our bodies” asserts Beaumier. “I was aware of bodily autonomy and choice at such a young age. I think that’s important. Kids are smart. We just have to lay everything out.”
“You need a support system,” says Sebastine Beaumier, Iris’s mother and one of two participants representing an older generation of women. “Friends. Family. I told my child ‘look left, look right, then look left again before you cross the street’, but not everyone has this. So we also have to be aware of that and spread empathy.”
“This issue is complex. The emotions of grief are not something that are talked about in the U.S., especially around abortion,” Director of Photography Katelyn Rebelo told Ms. about why the topic of abortion is so rarely discussed, even in intimate circles. “People so often feel guilt, and that’s a complex emotion when you are someone who is pro-choice. So it’s ignored or repressed. That’s harmful.”
“With all forms of grief, there is some level of shame. There is some level of doubt,” says Veintimilla. “It’s not simple. It’s multi-dimensional.”
“This should not be a political discussion; it’s a human one,” participant Christina Chen told Ms. “The topic of abortion has always been so wrapped up in politics and legislation, that so many forget it’s a complicated, personal, human experience.”
“We live in a world where society feels like it can decide whether a woman is allowed to love herself,” says Diaz.
“It makes for a hostile climate in which you don’t feel like you can be open about it without being a ‘burden’ on society, or being labelled as careless,” says Brown, reflecting on her own decision to have an abortion. “You have all of these feelings around it you don’t really know how to deal with. Are you supposed to be sad for the rest of your life? Are you supposed to feel guilt? Are you supposed to be relieved? Do you feel guilt for feeling relieved?”
Another of the film’s contributors enumerated her own experience terminating her pregnancy when faced with dire health implications. “I was married, in my thirties, and quite excited to have a child when I fell ill,” the participant told Ms. “Now, I have to have a conversation with myself everyday that this was the decision I made, and it was the right one. It didn’t matter that I had this dangerous growth—I feel ashamed because there is a societal stigma”.
“There is a lot that goes through your head before and after. This is not an easy decision” adds Paula Zucker, director Zucker’s mother and another of the participants representing an older generation. “Whether you agree with them or don’t agree with them, you have to treat people with love and respect.”
Having had an abortion herself prior to the passing of Roe v. Wade, Paula was particularly moved by Pask’s story. “Writing that love letter to herself—that’s the most important piece. How do you come to respect yourself and love yourself after going through this? That takes time”.
Her participation in This is Not a Love Letter prompted Paula to reflect on the progress yet to be made in the fight for choice.
“The hope was that when [Roe v. Wade] was finally approved by the Supreme Court, the shame and the secrecy would somehow be shed—that the future generations wouldn’t have to carry it,” she told Ms. “But when I heard the poem, it felt as though nothing had changed. And it has to.”
The film begs several pressing questions: How do we as a society support women who elect to terminate a pregnancy? How do we generate empathy? How do we achieve bodily autonomy?
“[By] shedding light on these stories,” offers Zucker. “With that vulnerability, there comes so much strength.”
“The key is to push leaders to put women in the right places to effect change” contributor Nia Ragini told Ms. “Abortion is basic healthcare. We talk a lot about women’s health and access to abortion. The problem is so much deeper than just access to abortion. If we consider a 14 year-old girl with a serious learning disability in a part of the country without sexual education, it isn’t just that she lacks access to contraception, it means she doesn’t know what sex actually is. If she becomes pregnant, do we really think she had any choice in the matter? And, continually, she ends up being the one who bears the life brunt of a pregnancy.”
Paula stresses the importance of counseling, stating “without it, you really become so emotionally isolated, because you will carry this feeling of shame or guilt forever—even when you know it was the right decision”.
Many participants also emphasize the obligation of art and media to impart a truthful depiction of abortion.
“Art is a unifying act, no matter if it’s a film, a painting, a song,” says Chen. “I think ignorance is a product of just not knowing what’s outside your own bubble. Art has the ability to educate and break through that.”
“My first experience seeing abortion in media was For Colored Girls [Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf], and it was very violent and traumatic,” recalls Bright. “There needs to be so much more in terms of representation, because that’s not true to the experience. It’s not a hanger in an alleyway anymore. We need to know what’s real.”
“I think art is the only thing that can send darts through this raincoat,” says Ragini. “It’s raining, and lawmakers can’t tell because they have an umbrella, a raincoat and boots, while so many of us don’t, yet they’re the ones making the decisions.”
“We need more stories,” proffers Rebelo. “There are so few still that the complexity is diminished. You don’t get to understand the difference of experience.”
“We as performers and storytellers and art makers in general can work to try to divert, and uphold the complexity that exists within a lived experience. I think that is our job,” adds Pedretti. “We never create art within a bubble. We have to know what we are reinforcing. What are we communicating?”
“Listen to the cries of women. Listen to the pain of women” says Sebastine on how to pave the way for the right sort of communication. “As women, we harbor the pain in the details. I hope women of all generations will realize the door that has been opened by [Pask], as if to say speak up. People will take your pain and carry it on their shoulders to alleviate it. To let you fly.”
“Listen before you judge,” urges Bright. “Educate before you judge. Think before you make assumptions.”
For Zucker, the goal in producing This is Not a Love Letter was simple: “we want people to write a love letter to their own bodies,” she told Ms. “We were trying to plant a seed with this piece for people to kind of ruminate on something, and maybe it’ll grow into something more.”
Pask hopes anyone who views This is Not a Love Letter will feel empowered to come forward with their own experiences knowing they are not alone. For her, one thing rings true: “Resilience is so much about being able to choose joy despite everything else that’s happening. I shared that story with so many people, it broke up into a million little pieces to where my carrying of it is not so heavy anymore. If you trust people to help you carry those burdens, then you are going to feel lighter and own your story even more.”
CNT is a femme-millennial led production company producing socially charged content “with a bite”. This is Not a Love Letter is the third installment of “Open- A Spoken-Word Series”, which celebrates marginalized voices and stories. Find them on YouTube, on Instagram or at cntproductions.com.
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