The Political Is Personal
Author Christine Henneberg wins the 2022 BookLife Prize Nonfiction Contest.Author and physician Christine Henneberg has been named the winner of the 2022 BookLife Prize Nonfiction Contest, an annual competition for indie authors. In her memoir Boundless: An Abortion Doctor Becomes a Mother, she reflects on her early career as a physician who provided abortions, and on her own eventual journey to motherhood. She offers a seldom-explored physician’s perspective on caring for women who seek to terminate their pregnancies. Throughout the book, she reflects on bodily autonomy, the deeply personal decisions women make concerning motherhood, and the compassion she brings to her role as a treating physician.
BookLife judge and author Lynn Melnick comments, “Boundless is a marvel of a book, at once deeply personal and very relevant to our current cultural moment. Henneberg’s prose and pacing are remarkably sharp and yet also so lovely. I found myself carried along by the words, then knocked over by Henneberg’s unflinching look at the healthcare system, abortion rights, motherhood—and herself.”
Henneberg didn’t originally set out to become a physician; her undergraduate degree is in creative writing. Her prose has the direct, vigorous elegance of those trained to science who also are natural-born writers. Early in the book she writes, “I knew about all the doctor-writers. I clung to their names (William Somerset Maugham, William Carlos Williams, Anton Chekhov), though not a single one of them was a woman. Through literature (Oliver Sacks, John Berger, Abraham Verghese), I’d been seduced by a version of medicine that hardly exists anymore. I’d wanted to use my knowledge and skills to guide patients from fear to safety, from suffering to relief.” As she began her career, however, she struggled with “the highly specialized, technological, and litigious world of hospital medicine in the United States”—one that sometimes erects barriers between doctors and their patients.
While navigating the challenging dynamics of the health-care system, Henneberg has held onto her commitment to see her patients as full, complex human beings. And she has found that many of the women she treats are working through many of the same ideas and decisions that she herself faces.
“Motherhood,” she says, “has been treated like a validation of womanhood, a credential a woman can hang on her wall to prove herself worthy of the space she takes up in the world. One form of shame I see in my patients is the feeling that they have failed at some aspect of being a woman. Sometimes when I see patients crying on the table, I recognize a part of myself in them—my own secret aspirations, my perceived failures and shortcomings. This recognition is an opportunity to extend a deep compassion toward the patient and to myself, [to say] ‘You are enough, without anyone else’s validation or approval.’ ”Of the book’s title, Henneberg says, “The thematic tension between boundaries and boundlessness emerged during the writing process. This tension appears over and over again in my medical training, my marriage, and in my own feelings about pregnancy: a desire to wall myself off from vulnerability and fear and sacrifice, while also longing to experience the love and connection of family.”
With this desire for nuance in mind, Henneberg sought to avoid buzzwords typically associated with the abortion debate. She suggests a new metaphor for what she calls “the unique, beautiful, vulnerable states of pregnancy and motherhood, which might also offer a new way of thinking about the inherent tenderness and tension in the idea of abortion.”
She also reflects on the ironies of the book and its title. “Since its publication, boundaries have become an unavoidable part of being pregnant in America. State borders and other arbitrary laws trap women in pregnancies they do not want or cannot support, or that even threaten their own lives.” She adds that, “abortion has never been readily accessible or affordable to any but the most privileged American women. But Dobbs has deemed the pregnant woman’s body an entity that warrants surveillance and control by the state.”
Although abortion rights are highly politicized in the U.S., “Boundless is a very personal book,” Henneberg says, “as opposed to an explicitly political one. I didn’t set out to argue or defend my staunch support for abortion rights, although I’ve done that elsewhere. But writing it absolutely affirmed my belief that the body of the pregnant person, precisely because of its unique, boundless state, must lie beyond the reach of any externally imposed law or morality.” She feels that this is exactly the opposite of the U.S.’s stance toward reproductive choice.
Henneberg takes some issue with the word ‘choice,’ however. “‘Choice’ is such an inadequate word to capture the fundamental justice pregnant women seek and deserve. As women know: choices can be great when you have them, but often you don’t. Or you can only choose between two un-appealing, even devastating options. This is—and has always been—particularly true for Black, brown, and indigenous women in this country.”
Despite the timeliness of Boundless, finding a traditional publisher has been a challenge for Henneberg, which is why she decided to usher the book into the world herself.
“This book—and my writing on abortion in general—has met with a lot of resistance from publishers and editors, presumably because it deals with a controversial subject that many are afraid to look at up close,” she says. “I recognize that, in selecting Boundless as the prize winner, BookLife is taking a risk, standing up for the book in a way they could have easily shied away from. For this I am especially grateful.”
Readers, too, can be grateful—for the courage, compassion, humanity, and dedication it took for Henneberg to write a book like Boundless.
Karen Clark is a freelance writer and editor. She owned an antiquarian bookshop in Manhattan for over a decade.