By Allison Green
David arrived at our house in an oversized raincoat. He’d brought a magazine for assistance; it was somewhere in the folds of that big coat. My partner Karen handed him a jelly jar, and we agreed that when he was finished he would put a candle, unlit, in the front window. Karen and I left him to his magazine and walked down the block. The day was pleasant for a Halloween in Seattle. We kicked at dry leaves heaped along the sidewalk and laughed at the strangeness of the situation, how we were waiting for David but trying not to imagine what he was doing, how none of the residents of the neighborhood could have guessed what we were waiting for.
After about fifteen minutes, the candle was in the window. As we went up the walk, I sang that Rocky Horror Picture Show song about a light in the darkness. Karen and I smiled giddily at each other, then stopped smiling so as not to spook David. I tried to act normal as we entered, not avoiding his eyes but not staring either. He was already wearing his coat. From its depths he pulled out the jar, wrapped in a washcloth to keep it warm. We thanked him. He raised his eyebrows and went out the door.
Karen and I had been together twelve years when I finally agreed to have a child. We had been moving around the country for jobs and graduate school since we met in 1985, and finally we had settled back in Seattle, my hometown, with solid jobs, mine at a community college, hers at the public health department. We bought a house. I could think of no more reasons to wait.
I’d never felt an urge to have children, but Karen always had. Still, when I agreed to try, I also agreed to carry the child because of Karen’s health complications. If anything, pregnancy and birth sounded cool to me; dealing with a toddler didn’t. I put one big condition on my agreement: I wanted a known sperm donor, not an anonymous one. He didn’t have to be actively involved in the child’s life, but I wanted to be able to show the child a picture and say, “This is your father.” I was squeamish about putting a stranger’s semen in my body, not for fear of disease—the latest testing procedures seemed reliable—but because I needed to know who I was communing with on a cellular level. I needed to know what he looked like and how he talked, what he cared about and how he treated people.
After spreading the word to our friends, Karen and I found our donor in a writer I’m calling David. He had gone to graduate school with a good friend of mine, Wendy, and wasn’t attached romantically. He was interested in helping us because neither he nor his brother had had children, and they probably never would. Although he didn’t want to parent himself, he liked the idea of his family’s genes continuing on. The situation was complicated by the fact that he was living in California now, not Seattle, but we were willing to pay for his flights up, and he liked the idea of free visits to a city he loved.
David was funny and self-deprecating, which suggested a sweet vulnerability underneath. I liked him immediately and grew to feel a brotherly fondness for him. Although we didn’t have a relationship that allowed for this, I often felt the urge to lay my head on his shoulder and nestle into him.
After discussing expectations, drawing up contracts with lawyers, having medical evaluations, and charting my ovulations for a number of months, we were ready in late-1997 for the first insemination.
David left that Halloween afternoon, and Karen and I sighed, glad to be alone. In the bedroom, I shimmied out of my pants and lay down, feet up on the wall. My doctor had given us a catheter syringe and tubing, and Karen put the syringe in the jar to suck up the semen. We both squinted at the jelly jar. It had been a long time since either of us had seen that liquid. It was oddly translucent, not milky, and there didn’t seem to be much. Karen wrinkled her nose, but I was fascinated. So much intrigue surrounding such a modest substance.
Karen was having trouble getting the semen into the syringe. “Maybe a smaller jar would be better,” she said.
Finally, she got what she could into the syringe, inserted it into the tubing, and pushed the plunger. I felt nothing, not even an ooze. And now I was supposed to wait, feet on the wall, for twenty minutes. Karen sat on the edge of the bed, keeping me company. It was exciting; it was nice. I felt engaged in something purposeful and good.
The next morning I was a wreck.
At the same time that Karen and I were trying to have a baby, I was casting around for a new writing topic and was drawn to the story of my great-great aunt, Ruby Jane Hall Thompson, a woman long dead. She was very large, which had earned her a nickname derived from the town in Idaho where she lived: “Lewiston,” as in “Here comes Lewiston.” It wasn’t a nickname she knew she had; my father told me his uncle used to call her that.
Ruby Jane was a Christian Science practitioner. At first I didn’t know what that meant, but I learned that a practitioner was a kind of faith healer. Christian Scientists, as I understand it, don’t believe that matter exists; our true reality is the spiritual. Believing in God means recognizing the false nature of the material world, including sickness and disease. Practitioners help Christian Scientists pray through their self-induced periods of sickness and back into right alignment with God.
What drew me to Ruby Jane was the idea of being related to a larger-than-life mystic, a western Idaho healer. I imagined Lewiston in the early twentieth century as a desolate, wind-swept town, and I imagined Ruby Jane there exerting her power in one of the few but classic ways available to women: as a kind of witch. My novel would be gothic, magical realist. I began to research Christian Science.
Mary Baker Eddy, it turned out, is the only American woman to have founded an influential religion. Born in 1821, she had health problems throughout her life, and in her ongoing quest for relief, she finally hit on the principles that would inform her famous book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Eddy must have had tremendous determination, skill, and charisma to self-publish this book, teach a growing legion of followers its principles, and start the church in 1879. By 1894 she had erected the church’s first building. By 1908, when she was eighty-seven, she had started the Christian Science Monitor. Thousands of people still attend her church. On Wednesday nights, they gather to tell stories of miraculous healing.
That the church was started by a woman, and that it is peculiarly American, with its focus on optimism and boot-strapping, made it all the more fascinating. My great-great aunt Ruby Jane was born while Eddy was still alive, and the founding mother must have been a thrilling model of what a woman could be. Indeed, the church is quite female-centric; the Lord’s Prayer begins with “Our Father-Mother.” I imagined Ruby Jane as an ancestress of power and wisdom. I would go in search of her.
When the inseminations began, I had been on Prozac for a year. After a decade of attempting to manage my many bouts of anxiety with meditation, hypnosis, exercise, and therapy, I had given in: Give me the drug. It worked, to some extent. Going on Prozac felt like finally taking an aspirin after a life-long headache; suddenly I could see more clearly and function more smoothly. As Karen and I began talking about having a baby, I researched the influence of Prozac on fetuses. Although there was a small risk of damage, many researchers said that the risk of depression was equally bad if not worse, so it was hard to say whether a woman should stop taking the drug. I decided not. Still, sometimes it didn’t seem to be helping.
The morning after insemination, I felt as if I’d mainlined fear and shame. What if the donor is infertile? What if he has HIV after all? What if I get pregnant and it feels like an alien sucking at my insides? Why do Karen and I have to share such an intimate act with a stranger? Why do I have to hold such a humiliating position against the wall? What is this body that used to be mine?
I did everything I knew to reduce the anxiety: writing down my fears, giving myself pep talks, going to yoga, working out. As usual, the tension would take days to dissipate.
Nine days later, I got my period. Maybe we mistimed my ovulation or maybe my cycle was weirdly short that month, but we were using an ovulation predictor kit and monitoring my cervical fluid, although it was often hard to read. One of the challenges of the process was predicting ovulation with enough accuracy to get David on a flight in time to be at our house during the fertility window. He hated to fly, and as the months went by and I didn’t get pregnant, his fear ballooned. He came off the plane each time sweaty and weak, which couldn’t have helped his sperm count.
In December, I made a chart of the logistics: David was arriving on Thursday. Whether the ovulation kit was positive or not, we would have to inseminate. If the kit was positive on Friday, then pregnancy was still possible. If it wasn’t yet positive Saturday, then we had wasted the month. What were we doing? Had my demand that we have a known donor doomed us to fail? Did I really want a child?
One of the terms from Christian Science that captivated me was “malicious animal magnetism.” The idea of “animal magnetism” was around in the nineteenth century, and Eddy added the word “malicious” to the phrase. It’s a way of describing evil, and in Eddy’s theology, evil always comes in the form of bad thoughts, that is, thoughts that contradict or undermine God. Therefore, people’s thoughts can be corrupted by malicious animal magnetism. In her memoir about growing up Christian Scientist, Blue Windows, Barbara Wilson calls malicious animal magnetism the “repressed madness” inevitably created by a church that focuses so relentlessly on the positive. She says Eddy was paranoid about competing healers and used the phrase to refer to their attacks on her.
The idea of evil as something tempting and animalistic somehow makes it less frightening to me; it’s not deliberate but subconscious, a feeling that sweeps one up and makes one do things. It’s the evil wrought by a scared cat, lashing and hissing from a corner. When the fear passes, the cat retracts its claws.
My anxieties seemed like a form of malicious animal magnetism. And like the Eddy cure—which was thinking right thoughts—various authors, doctors, and therapists had suggested that I write down my thoughts when I felt anxious and analyze them. So I did: It was obvious that I was afraid of having a child. But I was also afraid of not having one. And I was afraid that my anxieties about having or not having a child would hound me throughout the entire insemination process. In other words, I was anxious about anxiety. This was ridiculous. Surely it was normal for a woman embarking on a pregnancy to be afraid. I needed to accept the uncertainty of the situation and relax, let the cat retract its claws. Of course, relaxation was easier said than done. Maybe what I needed was a practitioner.
The following June, I skipped insemination to go to Boston on a Christian Science pilgrimage. I saw the Eddy monument in Mount Auburn Cemetery. I listened to a tour guide at the Mother Church talk about why she wore glasses; she wasn’t spiritually advanced enough yet not to use them. I walked through the Mapparium, the stunning, three-story, stained-glass globe made in the 1930s of over six hundred glass panels. I wondered if Ruby Jane had ever seen it.
One afternoon I sat on the outdoor patio of Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square, reading the copy of Science and Health I had picked up in a used bookstore. Men played chess nearby, and pigeons strutted beneath the table. According to Eddy, prayer should be silent; loud prayer excites the emotions. Prayer as it is often practiced is not that useful; it tends to make us hypocrites, as we promise God things we can’t or won’t deliver. In any case, God knows our thoughts already.
This conception of prayer sounded sensible. Prayer should be silent, like the silence I was trying to coax out of my body through yoga and meditation. I shouldn’t make promises to be less anxious, just strive to be. One of my yoga teachers said, “You don’t breathe; the world breathes you.” Replace “the world” with “God” and the phrase would mesh with Eddy’s philosophy.
Indeed, it was striking how Eddy’s ideas dovetailed with so many of those made by the books and therapists who had tried to soothe me over the years. In a book on meditation, for example, the author said that he noticed a small lump on his neck and started to worry. The lump had been there for a while, but it wasn’t until he noticed it that he became afraid. In other words, his mind made him afraid, not the lump. Eddy would have concurred. She would have gone further and said the lump didn’t exist. Still, Eddy and this author shared a common solution: Stop thinking about it; think of something else.
I drank my coffee, listening to the chess players smack their timers. Maybe Ruby Jane could help me. Maybe I could conjure her when the fears threatened to overwhelm. Or when I was lying there, feet on the wall, willing the sperm to dance on up to the egg and get introduced. I didn’t have to become a Christian Scientist to recognize the value of positive thinking. Or to mentally rely on my ancestress, the faith healer.
In July, we seemed to have timed the insemination just right. My mucous was stretchy; the ovulation predictor turned a positive shade of blue; David was punctual. But I didn’t get pregnant.
In August we agreed to try one last time. By now we weren’t awkward with each other, even as Karen and I returned from our walk. David could get his part of the job done in nine minutes. We opened the front door, and I joked, “My man!” He passed over the jar.
This time, we all knew that I probably wouldn’t get pregnant with David’s sperm. We smiled tenderly at each other, hugged. We said goodbye. Karen and I went into the bedroom, and I put my heels on the wall. All weekend afterward I cried and moped. It felt as if someone had died. I was sad for us, sad for David, sad for what could have been.
On Wednesday, I got in the car and drove the five hours from Seattle to Lewiston, Idaho. The trip took me through an area of southeastern Washington called the Palouse, a surreal landscape of undulating brown hills that rippled to the horizon. Driving through them was like winding through a maze with no obvious exit. Once I had emerged from them, I confronted the Lewiston Grade.
Lewiston is at the bottom of an abrupt two thousand foot drop from the plateau of eastern Washington to a valley where the Snake and Clearwater Rivers converge. The highway built in the 1970s smoothly descends to the city, but the old highway, called the Lewiston Grade, sweeps back and forth in sixty-four curves, an engineering marvel of its time. Both my parents, who grew up in the region, remember sickening ascents and descents of the old highway, so of course I had to drive into Lewiston that way. The disconcerting series of switchbacks, a trip Ruby Jane must have taken many times, made for an atmospheric entrance to Lewiston.
After checking into my motel, I went to the public library and found Ruby Jane listed as a practitioner in a 1941 phone directory. It gave me her address, and I drove to her house, a modest, two-story structure near the cemetery. The church she attended had been abandoned for a new one in 1965, so I couldn’t see it, but I still wanted to attend a Christian Science service in Lewiston.
I entered the church that evening hesitantly, wearing a dress purchased for the occasion—I didn’t otherwise own one—and hoping not to attract too much attention. A dozen people, mostly women, were sitting in blonde pews. I took a spot in the back. The early evening sun saturated the colors in the glass panes: red, purple, and an earthy, 1960s orange-brown. On the wall hung two quotes, one from Eddy—”Divine love always has met and always will meet all human needs”—and the familiar “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
I had timed my trip to be here for the Wednesday night service, traditionally devoted to testimonies of healing. I wasn’t prepared for the coincidence of the evening’s topic: reproduction. A man sat at a card table in front of the pews and read passages from the Bible and Science and Health, passages which I later learned are chosen by the Mother Church and read at every service on that day throughout the Christian Science world.
One reading expressed the idea that children are not created from matter but from idea/mind. I listened, looking down at the place where my belly would swell if I were pregnant. If Ruby Jane were still alive, and if I had the courage to explain the inseminations to her, she would probably have said that my failures until now had been my fault, that I hadn’t believed enough. It was true that I had trouble believing I would get pregnant; it seemed fantastical that a child could coalesce out of cells swarming in my fallopian tubes. But hadn’t I done all I could, given the circumstances?
The reading went on, contending that parents must take as much or more care planning their children as they would propagating crops or breeding livestock. This language was straight out of the eugenics movement, a popular effort in the early twentieth century to “purify” the human race; it used the cover of science to mask its racist, homophobic, and anti-immigrant intentions. If I had needed some prompt to help me better imagine my great-great aunt’s time, this was it. Ruby Jane had probably believed in eugenics, and she would have been horrified by my request for help with my fertility. Not only was I a lesbian, but the father-to-be was the son of immigrants. Better, she might have said, to let this opportunity pass.
I listened with growing skepticism to the testimonials that followed the readings. One woman got over a headache by reading the Statement of Being. Another said she had been praying about the recent bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. She didn’t like Muslims—Hindus were okay—but she was trying to love universally.
A third woman said her child had felt fine during the week but something strange had appeared on her face. The girl didn’t understand why she couldn’t go outside to play. The mother put her in front of the mirror and said, “Do you want people to see you like that? No? Then you will stay inside until you look the way you want people to see you.” Surely the girl had chicken pox. And surely the mother knew she was contagious but couldn’t admit it. What a twisted way to deny disease.
My romantic obsession with my great-great aunt ended right there. Ruby Jane was probably only as wise as her time and place allowed; we probably wouldn’t have liked each other. At least, we wouldn’t have agreed on much. I had come to Lewiston to learn the truth, and the truth had set me free.
My period arrived that month as usual; I would never get pregnant. I continued to work on a novel inspired by Christian Science, but it would go nowhere, even when I ran across the story of a woman, a contemporary of Eddy’s, who got pregnant when her husband was out of town and claimed Eddy was the father. A lovely twist on lesbian insemination.
Karen and I broke up a year later, for reasons unrelated to the pregnancy attempt. As I tried to understand why I had gone through insemination despite a lack of maternal urges, I came to understand that having a child with David, friend of Wendy, was a way to create an extended family, whether the members of that family were genetically related to me or not; I wanted us bound to each other, loving unconditionally, the way families are supposed to be.
When I considered the pleasures of childrearing, they weren’t what most mothers probably think of first: the cuddling, the joyful giggling, the birthday glee. Rather, I was thinking of a community of relatives and friends joined by the connections among our children. I imagined sharing coffee with other parents while our children ran in and out; imagined barbecues and croquet games and badminton; imagined roving holiday feasts. What I was remembering was the community my parents had made at a midwestern university when my father was on tenure track there. The most fun I ever had was darting through the parties of drunken academics, like the summer party where the associate dean roasted a sheep in his backyard or the winter party where the anthropologist taught me to fold wonton skins. That is, it wasn’t a child I wanted but a community, and my insistence on a known donor was related to that desire.
My obsession with Ruby Jane was related, too, to a desire for connection, one that stretched back through time and ancestry. She represented a visionary woman, someone on whom I could call for strength and clarity. But ultimately, I realized that whatever genetics we had in common, we probably didn’t have much else.
Some years after my last insemination attempt, Wendy called one June afternoon to say the baby had almost arrived. I raced to the hospital and ran into the room just a few minutes before Eva’s little head and gangly body emerged. The midwife handed Eva to Wendy’s husband, and we all smiled, breathless and awestruck. Every year thereafter, I have been invited to Eva’s birthday party. And the children run in and out, and the adults drink wine, and the party goes on well into the evening.
ALLISON GREEN is the author of a memoir, The Ghosts Who Travel with Me (Ooligan), and a novel, Half-Moon Scar (St. Martin’s). Her essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, Calyx, The Common, and other publications. Web site: allisongreen.org.