One day I was down at the beach with my Aunt Carrie and she looked over at me and said, “Did you ever hear Jane’s voodoo abortion story?”
She immediately had my undivided attention. Readers of this blog remember Jane, right? The one who’s been married seven times and once suggested that nuns go straight to hell? (If not, go back and check out Boxed Wine and Bourbon and The Triumph of Hope over Experience. Your life will not be complete until you do.) Jane has a colorful past and a spark of storytelling genius, and I would have been riveted if Carrie had said she had an anecdote about tax returns, much less voodoo abortion.
So I indicated that I was all ears and Carrie told me this story.
When Jane was in high school she began experimenting, as teenagers do, and although later questioning by an angry nun would reveal that young Jane was not sure of the exact definition of “sexual intercourse” (this was not covered by Catholic schools in the ‘70s), she must have managed it somehow because she began to suspect that she was in a family way.
Jane confided in her best friend Sue, and after considering the symptoms in light of what little knowledge was available to the younger generation in conservative, rural Mississippi, the girls concluded that Jane was in Big Trouble. But all was not lost, Sue told her. She knew of a way that Jane could solve her problem without ever having to bring it to the unwelcome attention of parents or teachers.
For those of you who did not grow up in the rural South a generation ago, I should explain that in that time and place every middle-class white family had a black maid. Sue’s family was fortunate enough to employ a woman who was skilled in the arts of voodoo, and Sue advised Jane to seek her counsel immediately.
This was before Planned Parenthood.
So they went to see the voodoo woman, who listened to their explanation and then took out a small bone tied to a length of string. This is an indispensable prop for such things. (As far as I know she did not have a chicken, but the picture at the top of this post was the best one I could find. I imagine her with a piercing gaze and an intimidating presence, at least from the perspective of a teenage girl.)
The voodoo woman dangled the bone solemnly over Jane’s head for a while, and then she shook her head. “You want to keep this baby?” she demanded.
“No, I don’t want to keep this baby!” Jane wailed. “I’m seventeen and my parents are going to kill me!”
The voodoo woman thought for a moment and then, possibly wanting to help or possibly recognizing the entertainment value of the situation (personally, I favor the latter), proposed this solution: Jane should go down to the lake at midnight and wade in till the water came up to her chest. If she stood there for thirty minutes, her problem would be solved.
That seems reasonable, thought Jane, demonstrating about the caliber of judgment one would expect from a pregnant teenager.
So that night she and Sue went down to the lake and Jane waded in. It was February, and even in Mississippi February is cold. So she stood shivering in the icy water as her lips turned blue and her breath fogged up the air, and Sue, good friend that she was, stood on the bank carefully timing thirty minutes with a watch.
The next day they went back the voodoo woman and told her that the deed was done. She asked whether Jane had gone in deep enough and stood there long enough, and they assured her that they had followed her instructions to the letter.
“Well,” said the voodoo woman, “that usually works.”
But not this time, apparently. After dangling the bone on a string once more over Jane’s head, she shook her head and asked again, “You want to keep this baby?”
“No!” cried Jane, still in mortal dread of angry parents and vengeful nuns.
The voodoo woman thought for a while and then, perhaps curious to see just how far Jane was willing to go, explained that the next best solution would be to take a whole box of Epsom salts, mix them with a whole gallon of water, and drink the whole thing in one go.
Epsom salts, for those of you unfamiliar with the substance, are taken internally to produce a cleansing, laxative effect. The instructions for an Epsom salt cleanse, which I just looked up online, recommend dissolving 4 tablespoons of the stuff in water and consuming the mixture in small doses spread over a 24 hour period. The instructions also warn you should clear your schedule for two days to allow the cleanse to run its course, because it will not be nearly as clean and tidy as the word “cleanse” implies.
I don’t know how big Jane’s box of Epsom salts was, but I’m sure it dwarfed the recommended 4 tablespoons. It may have crossed her mind to wonder if perhaps voodoo methods were underserving of the faith she had thus far placed in them, but then on the other hand maybe such drastic measures were necessary after the failure of such a foolproof plan as standing in the lake. So, screwing her courage to the sticking point, she mixed up a gallon of Epson salt-water and forced it all down.
I will gloss over the next few days; suffice it to say that they were unpleasant and about what you would expect from someone overdosing on laxatives.
When it was all over and the dust had settled, Jane staggered back to the voodoo woman to consult the dangling bone, only to be told that although she had expelled more from her body than she had thought possible, she still retained her uninvited guest.
The voodoo woman, perhaps taking pity on Jane’s sufferings, told her that the next method (“This always works”) was more moderate: pick up the heaviest thing she could lift and carry it up and down the stairs until she collapsed.
So Jane, grimly determined to exhaust every possibility, went home and found a chair that was almost as big as she was and hauled it up and down the stairs until she couldn’t take another step. The next day she went back to the voodoo woman and waited apprehensively while the bone was dangled over her head.
“Well,” said the voodoo woman at last, shaking her head with the air of one giving up on a hopeless case, “it’s a girl!”
And it was. A few months later Jane was having a shotgun wedding with her first husband, the one she later brained with a frying pan out of sheer exasperation after he drunkenly drove his car into a slow-moving train. But that is another story.