Dr. Heller

Emily Gowen

The office door is open just wide enough for you to see a woman taking an afternoon nap. Even asleep, she seems disarmingly self-assured, like she wouldn’t mind you seeing her sprawled out on her couch in the middle of the day. On a table beside her there is a doll. It has ringlets and large eyes and an odd little hat. You look again. What you thought was a hat is in fact a convex silicon disc. It is! You laugh to yourself. A diaphragm! 

The aperture shifts. The woman on the couch disappears. You see another woman a few years younger seated in the corner of a small waiting room. A chart on the wall above her advises caution in the sun. 

A receptionist invites the young woman to her desk, and she rises tentatively and smooths her skirt. She looks at her feet, then at the rest of the room, but no one is there to rescue her from the embarrassment of being seen. Dr. Heller will be just a few minutes, the receptionist says, handing over a packet of paperwork. The patient—because that’s what she is now, here in this room—resumes her seat, apparently forgetting the papers in her hands. Perhaps they pose the wrong questions. She strokes the edges of the paper with a nervous thumb and avoids the radiating warmth of the receptionist’s gaze.

A faint alarm sounds, and a few moments later Dr. Heller emerges. Nothing about her appearance betrays the fact that she was just asleep. Her voice is brassy and the small room is full of her. Audrey Thorne, she says, reading off a clipboard. Do come in and have a seat. 

Audrey follows, and so do you. Back in the room with the couch and the doll and the diaphragm, Dr. Heller gestures to a worn, upholstered chair.   

You learn that Audrey Thorne has come here, to this particular dermatologist’s office, because she, like other women in this town and its surrounding communities, has heard whispers of what Dr. Heller can do for her. You learn that this young woman, with her beleaguered expression, has not come in for a routine mole check—though Dr. Heller does offer one—but is instead grappling with the fact that she has missed her period for the second month in a row and believes she could be pregnant. You see Dr. Heller offer an understanding nod. You watch her go to a closet at the back of the room and produce a small packet. The patient, Audrey, takes it nervously, and puts it in her purse without looking. 

But you aren’t watching this scene unfold, not really. You’ve been disingenuous, posing as a neutral observer. The scene you witness is one of your own invention; you’ve chosen the aperture, the angle, the resolution. Armed with the help of archival traces, you are attempting to conjure an impression of your great-grandmother’s life and coming to the wishful conclusion that she, unlike you, knew exactly what to do. 

You have her medical school diploma, the article in the local paper about her early support of Planned Parenthood, the testimony of relatives. Somewhere your great Aunt has a box of yellowing photographs and letters that you’ve never been bold enough to ask for. You feel, somehow, that this archive is her inheritance, not yours. 

But still, you want to perform an act of archival recovery, to understand what would possess a woman in the 1920s to fight her way into medical school. Was it toughness? Or a superhuman tolerance for being underestimated and dismissed? Or did she, more insidiously, enjoy breathing the rarefied air of a room in which she was the only woman? And what did she do with the power she found there? Your attempts to defamiliarize the figure of Dr. Heller, to invite us into the work of discovering who she is, are a cover for your own uncertainties about a woman whom your relatives mostly remember as an aging Alzheimer’s patient. You have seen time and again how the very mention of her name summons a fear of congenitally ordained forgetting.

You imagine—you hope—that she was one of the renegades who fought in the shadows, who used her knowledge, her access, her resources, to help women whose desire to have abortions had been criminalized. You launder your paralysis in the face of your own obliterated right to choose through her memory.

This young woman, Audrey, is a figment of your imagination, too, crudely and melodramatically drawn, because you think that’s how people need to envision a young woman in 1943 who is seeking an abortion. You think that if the girl who walked into the dermatologist’s office looking for an abortion were brimming with sexual confidence and professional ambition, you would lose your audience. But this is unfair, both to the girl and to your audience. 

The young woman looks up and, for the first time, poses a question. What will it feel like? Her frankness grips you with something like shame, and you avert your eyes. 

When you look again, the bashful Audrey has vanished, leaving another woman in her place. As you strain to bring Dr. Heller back into focus, something moves at the edges of the frame. A little boy with sandy hair loops a toy train around on miniature tracks, making a soft chugging sound with his mouth. Has he been here the whole time? You aren’t sure, but you search your memory for that sound. 

The two women continue talking, but you don’t listen. You are transfixed by this unruly little boy whose face betrays a total absorption in the imaginary world he traverses with his trains. This boy is your grandfather, and it delights you to imagine him this way. You wonder, and then try to forget, the ways in which his presence in this room might complicate the feelings of the women who have come to seek permission and support for family planning. You have always hated that term. Family planning. So toothless, but maybe that’s its strength. You feel an overwhelming urge to reach out to the child.

He stops what he’s doing. Has he felt your yearning to know him? He stands up, tucks his train in his pocket, and pulls out something else. Another diaphragm. He puts it over his mouth and tries to blow it up like a balloon, but the smile at the corner of his mouth breaks the seal. His mother rises, walks over to him, and reclaims the contraceptive without losing her focus on the patient. She pulls the child into her lap as she offers assurances that the medication is safe, but that there will likely be some side effects. You sigh, relieved, as it dawns on you that her decision to bring her son into the office today is compatible with—and not an insult to—her belief that women should get to make all kinds of decisions about how to live in relation to the mandates of children and family and work and bodies. And you watch her do it, balancing this leggy five-year-old boy on her knee while commanding the confidence and attention of this young woman. Balance, though, might not be the right word. He looks precarious. She looks tired. You are all questions again.

As it turns out, your powers of invention have limits. You can’t, for example, seem to access the point of view of the patient. Every time you look away, she shapeshifts. Sometimes she is tall and poised, a youthful double for Dr. Heller. Sometimes she is abject, crumpled, or openly weeping. Sometimes the pregnancy is obvious, other times it is invisible. Are you testing her tolerance for moral and emotional complexity? Are you testing yours? 

You struggle to visualize what it would look like for her to perform a surgical abortion. Specters of back alleys and coat hangers crowd your mind, and you know enough to know that’s not the real story, but not enough to understand what to imagine instead. And more importantly, maybe she didn’t. Maybe she listened quietly, noticed compassionately, and sent her patients home with nothing more than salves for their blistered hands and calloused feet. 

But stubbornly you wait and watch as the nanny picks up the child and the receptionist packs up her things and Dr. Heller goes back to sleep on her couch. Eventually, you nod off, too. 

Something wakes you. A light flicks on in the room off to the side of Dr. Heller’s office. You peer in. The walls are bright yellow, and she’s in there polishing some sort of medical instrument. Before you can take it all in, a heavy curtain trundles across a wire cable in front of you, and you hear another woman’s voice. Ambiguous silhouettes flicker in the middle of the room, and you hear cries of pain. And then it is quiet. The curtain remains drawn. The light switches off, and you grope around in the dark.

A hand finds yours. It belongs to your daughter, the baby you named in honor of the woman whose memory you are trying so desperately to reassemble. A woman whose life has pulled you into and out of and into the archives again. You lift the baby onto your lap, and she hoists herself up to a standing position, gripping fistfuls of your hair as she balances there, taking in the world behind you. 

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