(N.B. for the purposes of reviewing memoir, references to “Leslie” are to the character in the comic; “Stein” are to the author herself.)
In I Know You Rider, Leslie Stein’s third successive memoir, she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. She connects with friends and family who have had children to ask how their lives were changed by having kids. She discusses abortion with friends who have had abortions. She asks her mother if she had considered the ethics of reproducing. She had -- “You mean like overpopulation?” -- and it didn’t affect her choice. Leslie chooses an abortion, and has an abortion. The memoir chapters are presented as months of Leslie’s life before, during, and after the abortion, arranged out of chronological order and ending with her on vacation with an aloof partner, telling him she is so happy.
I’ve reread Rider a few times now, trying to gauge it through the framework of its press -- “a candid and philosophical memoir tackling abortion and the complex decision to reproduce” -- and trying to place it in the larger context of Stein’s memoirs. It is candid, but doesn’t trot out its trauma. It approaches philosophy, but backs off before it can get its hands too dirty. It’s the most focused of her memoirs, but doesn’t challenge the formula much beyond its presentation of narrative over time. To me, there is a black hole at the heart of Rider, and it’s Stein’s seeming ambivalence to tell the story at all.
Stein’s memoir work circulates on the experiential: the feeling of being truly present for something, the fluidity of thoughts and emotions that courses through her as an individual and her as part of a group. Her figure work, which has changed significantly from her early Eye of the Majestic Creature stories, works in direct facility: her characters are small, with big, childlike open eyes, hair never at a standstill and outlines never fully closed, as if experience is pulsating through their very form and into the watercolor world around them. Action is decompressed to appreciate moments individually.
Rider, if anything, seemed like it could have been the first of her memoirs to pulsate into a darker frequency -- to push past the limits of awe and camaraderie towards an individual angst, even to differentiate her voice as a memoirist -- and it occasionally does. There is a sublime moment in which Stein explores pain when her character undergoes the abortion without sedation. Stein closes the door and uses only dialogue and sound to demonstrate the horror behind it. The “whirr”-ing of the vacuum suction and her yelps in blue communicate this specific pain well enough to cause physical discomfort. It’s this selectivity of detail that functions best in the book -- a deliberate provocation of the reader’s imagination and direct invocation to her experience. A later scene, in which she lies awake feeling the burning hell of an IUD trying to settle in her uterus, uses a more well-tread abstraction of pain (red lines radiating from the body) and as such doesn’t make the same unique connection.
It’s impossible to approach this text without bringing some ideological gaze to it, but limiting herself to merely being a recorder of experience seems to have kneecapped Stein from interrogating the greater forces around her. My first question as a reader: why has she been made to suffer for routine reproductive health procedures? Leslie admits that she was not given clear information by her doctors about the option for anesthetics, and she is later surrounded by other women who are also seething in pain in the recovery room. Why is decency spared for patients of this particular procedure? And why are the other birth control methods she later recalls in conversation so physically taxing on her, in comparison to the “no big deal” vasectomy a friend recounts? If a status quo of disparity between sexes is evident to Leslie, she seems not to pass judgement on it, rather taking herself to task for not doing her own research.
In a later scene post-procedure while Leslie is working her regular shift at a bar, a radio broadcast covers the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and the impending jeopardy of the Roe v. Wade decision. She switches the radio off. It may have been too painful to hear, may have filled her too much with rage, or maybe it even just bored her, but there is no way for us to know as we are denied access to her headspace in this moment. It’s an interesting choice, and depending how you approach it, could either signify her refusal to open her existential angst to criticism, or the denial of her mental space as part of the greater experiential she is chasing. In either case, it’s the story’s most glaring refusal to pause for a moment of reflection in service of the fluidity of narrative.
It’s possible to argue that Rider denies voyeurization into a personal abortion narrative, but it’s a boundary that the story bucks up against itself. When Leslie decides to add a watercolor of her sonogram to the stream of photos of happy couples and children she sees on Instagram, she’s immediately misunderstood by her followers to be celebrating a pregnancy. She quickly explains her reasons to a friend for eventually taking the post down, but doesn’t explain why she posted it in the first place. This moment may illustrate the alienating experience of abortion better than the whole of Rider: in making a choice she deems best for herself, she has declared her autonomy. In choosing to share her autonomy to reinforce her identity, she’s invited public misinterpretation. And so now, she must reinterrogate both choices -- to abort, to share -- with the intrusive gaze of the public eye. It’s a greater metaphor for the slippage of Rider, too, in sharing an experience and demanding the audience figure out the meaning for themselves with an absence of context -- or maybe even figure it out for her.
A running gag throughout the story is Leslie picking up books by philosophers she’s interested in -- Heidegger, Nietschze -- and putting them back down when told by different friends of their problematic influences and legacies. The need to be ideologically pure, that there is a one-to-one correlation between exposure and complicity, betrays a similar distrust in self.
Stein is successful in resisting any impulse to justify or apologize for her choice in the narrative. It seems impossible for Rider to be co-opted by either side of the abortion argument as an illustration of a particular point. There’s no absolution or trauma chasing. As such, there is ultimately dignity in its presentation. But there is also an existential fault line that pervades Rider that Stein never digs her fingers under. An abyss spreads in front of Leslie’s eyes -- the health injustice, bodily horror, loneliness, pain -- but she consistently averts her gaze away from it. As such her moments of respite -- especially where the story ends -- are so unconvincing as to become grim. It may be that a passive approach to your own experience is no longer enough.