Why I Wrote a Wishy-Washy Book

In re-reading Kathleen Norris’s sort-of-memoir Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, I came across this declaration:

I am telling stories, not writing prescriptions.

And I thought, Yes! Yes. Me too.

In writing about her experience with acedia (a state of spiritual malaise and indifference), Norris might end up helping readers recognize and combat this sin in their own lives. But the book is first and foremost Norris’s story, not a how-to book with step-by-step instructions for how readers can snap out of it.

Likewise, in writing about my experiences of having a disabling genetic condition, parenting a child with the same condition, and exploring preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to ensure that the next child would not also inherit the condition, I hope to inform and support readers as they face their own fraught reproductive decisions. But No Easy Choice is not an advice manual that concludes with a clear directive concerning whether or not Christians should use reproductive technology. As I write in my concluding chapter,

There is no moral to my story. This is not a fable ending with a quotable object lesson…I’m not going to conclude with a pronouncement about whether or not reproductive technology is morally acceptable, or offer a step-by-step guide for Christians who are contemplating whether to use IVF, PGD, or other technologies to have a baby.

While, as I wrote yesterday, I’ve been gratified by the positive feedback the book has received from a relatively diverse audience, there is one group of readers who are universally critical of No Easy Choice—readers who object to my refusal to communicate a firm conclusion about the morality of reproductive technology. In some cases, I suspect, critics are objecting not so much to my failure to communicate a clear agenda, as to my failure to communicate their agenda.

But setting that suspicion aside for the moment, what about my failure to render a clear judgment? Why have I chosen the wishy-washy way—raising questions without providing clear answers, valuing conversation over conviction?

Because conversations around reproductive ethics don’t need more certainties. They need better questions. The abortion debate is Exhibit A for what happens when people focus on communicating their crystal-clear agenda rather than asking questions and really listening to the answers: We talk past each other, trading barbs and pre-packaged slogans. We make inaccurate and demeaning assumptions about those whose opinion differs from ours.

I do actually have an agenda for No Easy Choice: to foster more robust, informed, and respectful conversation around these vital and intimate questions. Our usual way of talking about reproductive technologies, consisting mostly of knee-jerk reactions to the latest superficial and sensational media account, doesn’t actually help people make thoughtful decisions.

Because people making intimate reproductive decisions aren’t going to do what I tell them they should do. Read any honest account of difficult reproductive decisions, from people who received a dire prenatal diagnosis, dealt with infertility, or chose to have or not have an abortion, and you’ll find one consistent thread: People discover that when faced with their own fraught choices, what they thought they knew about their “position” on reproductive matters flies out the window. People find the certainties they used to hang their hat on to be inadequate. People who are passionately pro-life sometimes choose to terminate pregnancies. People who are passionately pro-choice realize they cannot possibly make the choice they have so vocally supported. Even those who ultimately make choices in line with their previously held positions will admit that such choices are not nearly as clear-cut as they used to think they were.

My focus is therefore not on dispensing advice, but on informing readers (head and heart) so that when they or someone they love are facing a complex reproductive decision, they will ask good questions, engage in helpful conversation, and know where to find resources.

Because a book focused on questions instead of answers will reach a broader audience. It’s a sad truth of modern public discourse that we tend to preach to the choir. Think about recent controversies, over Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood, over Catholic institutions and contraception. Think about all those impassioned blog posts and Facebook status updates and Tweets that people threw around. Do you think that any of that righteous indignation changed anyone’s mind? I don’t. I think all it did was reassure everyone that their opinion was obviously the right opinion, and those nuts on the other side are just…well…nuts.

If I wrote a book that reached a firm conclusion about whether or not Christians should use reproductive technologies, I would make a bunch of people happy—the ones who agree. And I would provide fodder for a bunch of other people to write righteously indignant blog posts, status updates, and Tweets about how misguided I am. But I doubt my book would actually help anyone. I doubt my book would actually make someone think, “You know, I’ve never thought of it that way before.”

But people are telling me that the book I wrote actually is making them think and question their assumptions. Just as I hoped.

Because I honestly don’t know whether Christian use of reproductive technology is right or wrong. This is the real reason I chose to write an open-ended book that raises lots of questions and offers few answers. Because I don’t know the answers. At the heart of my book is my own story. And I can’t say without a doubt that the decisions Daniel and I made were absolutely right or wrong. We did one cycle of PGD. It failed. We chose not to do another, for ethical, financial, and emotional reasons. We went on to conceive two more children naturally, neither of whom inherited my bone disorder.  I love the children I have. So in that sense, I guess I’m glad we abandoned PGD. But what if our PGD cycle didn’t fail? What if we had a baby as a result? I would adore that baby as much as I adore the children I ended up with. Might I see things differently in that case? Possibly.

I wrote a wishy-washy book—a book that asks lots of questions but provides few answers—because that was the only book I could write. And I think (boldly, but with a good dose of humility too—I’m plenty familiar with the odds against any book becoming a hit) that this book might actually make a difference in people’s lives, and in our cultural conversations around these most intimate, troubling, and difficult questions of whether and how to have our beloved children.

“I am telling stories, not writing prescriptions.” Because we need more stories. We don’t need more prescriptions.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • KSP

    Thanks for your vulnerable, sheer, amazing honesty, Ellen.

  • http://theradicaljourney.com/ Tim

    Ellen, sometimes memoir is so much more powerful than a textbook or even a manifesto. Telling one’s storyt cogently and transparently is illuminating and edifying. Like Karen said, it’s “vulnerable, sheer, amazing honesty”, and there’s nothing wishy-washy about that.

    Tim

    P.S. This reminds me of my reaction to Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy”. I thought at first I was going to get a treatise on orthodox theology. I was so pleased when I finally found that it was his spiritual memoir, his journey to orthodoxy.

  • http://babywithatwist.wordpress.com KeAnne

    Hi, your post showed up in my news alert for infertility. I’m off to look up your book next but having suffered from infertility and finally having a son via gestational surrogacy, I completely understand what you are saying. These decisions are not easy to make and what works for one family may not for another.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Hi KeAnne: Loved your blog name (“Baby with a Twist”) so much I had to click through, and was moved by your most recent post, especially this: “Maybe that’s the crux of my otherness: a nasty, deep-down suspicion that I don’t belong because I wasn’t supposed to be there.” I too have written about feeling “other” among other moms, because of having a physical disability. Thanks for reading and commenting. I would love to know what you think of the book.

  • Pingback: Why I Wrote a Wishy-Washy Book | Ellen Painter Dollar « CHRISTIAN PARENT HUB- CHRISTIAN PARENT NEWS AGGREGATOR


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X