A Historical Look at Abortion in 'Notorious Life'

At a time when the national debate on abortion rights feels so firmly entrenched at the forefront of our social and political conscience, it is enlightening to find work based on the issue's origins. Based on the life of Ann Lohman, who went by the alias “Madame Restell”, My Notorious Life depitcs the rise and fall of the grand dame of abortive and contraceptive practices in New York City. Written as a memoir, the story is delivered in the wicked tongue of Axie Muldoon, a loose interpretation of Lohman.

Our first encounter with her is brief, at the tragic denouement of her tale, mid-trial, before we are transported back to her humble beginnings on the streets of New York. With an ailing mother and two small siblings in tow, Axie’s world is upended by a series of tragedies and charitable encounters. She is ultimately separated from her brother and sister and, upon her mother’s death, is taken in my Dr. and Mrs. Evans, from whom she learns her skills as a midwife.

Our protagonist is strong, abrasive, and vulgar in her tone, a characteristic she acknowledges and relishes as she purposefully *s out expletives. Her brazenness makes her an exhilarating read if, on occasion, she exasperates with her quick temper. Her boldness and aggression do her no service, however, in the eyes of the law and the public, and acts only to exacerbate her detractors and highlight her demonic status.

Axie’s manner of speech, an antiquated slang revealed to the reader but elevated in elegant company, root us firmly in the mid-19th century. The details of attire, class, and of the squalor and splendor of the city itself are vivid and transformative; truly Victorian, too, is the great gender divide made so explicit by the narrator and subject of the book. In this world, woman is mother and, with the ever persistent threat of poverty and sickness, child is potential burden. It is a far cry from the New York of today, yet there are moments, even here, where her musings on her trade and the ethical complexities of it are sadly familiar territory in modern times. When speaking of her patients and of the men occupied with fashioning the legal parameters of contraception and abortion, she laments:

Was it a crime to talk to my ladies? Was it a crime to give them information and medicines? Was it a crime to protect them from the dangers of childbirth? ...Not in my book. But the leathery book of the judicial whiskers who made the rules told a different story. In their pages it was a crime to interfere at all with the machinery of a female enceinte, and the law said anyone who did so was subject to a fine of one hundred dollars and a year in jail: IF the child was quick, well — that was not my line of work to fix a quickened lady.

It is to the credit of Manning’s prose that we do not find our narrator preachy. Axie possesses no false airs of virtue and, although she is occasionally smug about some of her past, petty triumphs evading the law, she does not enter her position lightly. The villain of the novel and Axie’s ultimate downfall, Anthony Comstock, is certainly depicted as such — self-righteous in god-fearing superiority, he is a deliciously unlikeable character — but Manning makes pains to avoid glossing over the brutality required of Axie. The scenes of her practice are grim and bloody, and they linger with Axie who, for all her bravado, is not wanting for empathy.

My Notorious Life is a bold debut, both in prose and subject, and a largely successful one at that. In Manning we find a writer unafraid to tackle tough topics, and with a firm point of view, yet unburdened by the stylistic affectedness of so many contemporary authors. Most remarkable is her creation of the fantastically fiery Axie Muldoon, entirely Manning’s own, despite the novel’s inspiration. The argument is a delicate one, and so our heroine, thankfully, cannot be.