Annie Ernaux’s Happening is a riveting, hard-hitting retelling of a time in the author’s life when she underwent an illegal abortion and the trauma surrounding it.
When the book opens, Ernaux is at a clinic, anxiously awaiting the results of an AIDS test. To her immense relief, the tests turn out negative. But the circumstances remind her of another kind of test she was compelled to take in her early twenties when she was not so lucky and the stress that she went through because of it.
Rewind to 1963 in Rouen and Ernaux is a young woman of twenty three, studying at a university and not in any serious relationship. She has missed her periods for a week and a visit to her gynecologist Dr N confirms her worst fears – she is pregnant.
Ernaux is very sure she does not want to keep the child. But at a time when abortion is not legalized in France, Ernaux’s options are limited. She has to find a backstreet abortionist and keep the whole affair shrouded in secret, confiding in her parents is certainly not an option.
In the meanwhile, Ernaux has to go on with her life as if everything is normal. She attends her university lectures and visits her parents every weekend, although it all feels unreal to her and a sense of detachment creeps in, normal life starts feeling quite alien. Indeed, here’s how she describes that surreal phase – “I was living in a different world. There were the other girls, with their empty bellies, and there was me.”
The rest of this novella, then, charts Ernaux’s anxiety inducing efforts of finding an abortionist, her own desperate attempts to induce miscarriage, and the near death experience she endures immediately after the abortion.
Ernaux, at the time, had no doubt she must end the pregnancy. The social stigma was just too great – first, the blemish on one’s reputation for raising an illegitimate child; second, the fear of being marked as a social failure, particularly exacerbated by her working class background. But her decision unleashes a gamut of emotions – shame, loneliness spurred by her inability to confide to anyone about her predicament, alienation because suddenly she could no longer connect with her normal life.
The father of the child, a philosophy student called P, on learning of Ernaux’s pregnancy refuses to get involved and take any kind of responsibility. Ernaux must fend for herself. Both were equally involved in that passionate encounter, but in an unfair society, the man goes scot-free, the woman has to bear all the negative consequences. Ernaux talks about how it is a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” If an unmarried woman was expecting a child, she would be looked down upon for wanting to terminate the pregnancy, but should she choose to keep the baby her fate is even worse because then she will be judged harshly for bearing a child out of wedlock.
The question of class and its crucial bearing on her decision to abort is captured in this paragraph…
Somehow I felt there existed a connection between my social background and my present condition. Born into a family of labourers and shopkeepers, I was the first to attend higher education and so had been spared both factory and retail work. Yet neither my baccalaureat nor my degree in literature had waived that inescapable fatality of the working-class – the legacy of poverty – embodied by both the pregnant girl and the alcoholic. Sex had caught up with me, and I saw the thing growing inside me as the stigma of social failure.
This class distinction is also made painfully apparent to Ernaux when in a medical emergency she is admitted to the hospital post the abortion, reflected in the sudden change in the doctor’s attitude when he realizes that she is a university student and not just another uneducated, working-class woman.
Ernaux also makes a critical observation on law and how it is the axis around which abortion revolves.
As often was the case, you couldn’t tell whether abortion was banned because it was wrong or wrong because it was banned. People judged according to the law, they didn’t judge the law.
Happening, then, is a product of Ernaux’s desire or obsession forty years later to write about her abortion and “face the reality of that unforgettable event.” However, she finds it is not always an easy thing to do. Part of her fights against the idea of documenting that traumatic experience, but the other part wants to embark upon that venture at all costs and not be plagued by regret for not having taken that step.
I want to become immersed in that part of my life once again and learn what can be found there. This investigation must be seen in the context of a narrative, the only genre able to transcribe an event that was nothing but time flowing inside and outside of me.
Happening is short, barely 77 pages, but packs quite a punch with its weightier themes of emotional distress, trauma, perceptions of law, working class anxiety and the social stigma faced by women. Ernaux’s prose is crisp and crystal clear as she writes in a style that is unflinching, frank, and not mincing on details. This was my first book by Annie Ernaux and it won’t be my last.