More than a century has passed since her death, and still we feel the profound impact of our grandmother’s illegal abortion. In 1914, she had no access to any other kind. She was 25 years old when she died, leaving behind not only the small children who would become our parents but also the multigenerational consequences that would follow.
We have only one photograph of her. It shows a beautiful Sephardic bride, standing straight and confident, in Kastoria, Greece. We don’t know even the most trivial details about her—say, the color of her real hair underneath the sheitel (wig), much less why, as a Sephardic woman, she wore a sheitel at all. We don’t know how she looked with a warm smile. But still, we miss her terribly.
Rayna Hazan was born in Kastoria in about 1889. In her late teens, following local custom, she married a distant cousin, Samuel Hazan, and in 1908 they immigrated to Manhattan. In October of the following year, Rayna had a baby girl named Bruna, and in April 1911 she had a second baby girl, Sophie. We have learned from family lore that both births were extraordinarily difficult, painful and frightening. When she became pregnant a third time, Rayna told Sam that she could not bear this process again unless she was with her mother. So Sam scraped up the money to send her and the girls back to Kastoria, where Sarah was born in February 1913.
In late summer 1914, now back in Manhattan, Rayna again found herself pregnant. The prospect of a fourth birth terrified her. She could not face the pain again.
Ironically, the birth control movement in the United States was launched that very year. Women political activists such as Emma Goldman, Mary Dennett and Margaret Sanger started a groundswell for a sweeping social reform campaign, not only to raise awareness of contraception but also to give more women access to it. Techniques then ranged from the rhythm method—timing sex with a woman’s least fertile days in her monthly cycle—to condoms, pessaries, and spermicides, including lemon juice used to soak contraceptive sponges. At the time our grandmother was discovering her fourth pregnancy, Margaret Sanger was defying the nation’s Comstock Laws by publishing and distributing information on how to prevent one. She knew how critical the need for information was, especially for low-income women like our grandmother who would often be tempted or forced to self-induce abortions.
But women’s reproductive progress wouldn’t come fast enough for Rayna. She had no money left to go home to birth a fourth baby. Only one acceptable solution remained—an abortion. And since abortions were virtually banned in New York State in 1914, the only solution available to Rayna was an illegal abortion.
It took 60 years for us to learn what actually happened to our grandmother, and why we never knew her. In 1974, two of Rayna’s aging daughters, Bruna and Sarah, attended a family dinner along with a very old aunt, who recounted Rayna and Sam’s frantic discussions about the risks of such a procedure. The rest of us at that family dinner never forgot how intently the two sisters listened to their aunt—her words were practically the only direct access they’d ever had to their mother’s story.
Rayna and Sam had decided to take the chance on an illegal abortion—and they lost. Rayna bled to death, and Sam had to be restrained from rushing out to kill “that butcher.” Bruna never forgot standing with her sisters on the landing of their stairs while their mother’s coffin was carried down past them. All three girls remembered that afterwards they were taken out for ice cream. Sarah recollected walking, at a young age, into a room full of people who suddenly stopped talking and started to whisper. This gave her a feeling of shame that she came to associate with her mother’s death.
Rayna’s gravestone summed up her life with poignant simplicity:
In Memory of
My Beloved Wife
And our Dear Mother,
Died Sept. 26, 1914
Aged 25 Years
Rest in Peace
Her legacy as a living person was short and shrouded in obscurity. Bruna, 4½ years old when her mother died, had a few memories of Rayna, but in her 90 additional years she never shared them for fear of losing them. Sophie and Sarah were likewise tight-lipped about their mother; Sarah, the youngest, could recall little more than sitting in her highchair in her mother’s presence.
Rayna’s post-mortem legacy, on the other hand, has been a long one. In March 1916, Sam remarried. His new bride was a young woman from Russia named Rose Feinhandler, with whom he had four more children. While Rose turned out to be the kindest imaginable stepmother, Rayna’s absence nevertheless left an emptiness in our family and in our hearts that has endured well into the third generation. Sophie, who changed her name to Sondra, never married or had children, and rarely seemed to enjoy being an aunt. Bruna and Sarah did marry and had five children between them—including the three of us who are writing this essay.
Over the years, all of us grandchildren came to recognize the force of the deficiencies that afflicted our mothers. Bruna and Sarah were extremely responsible parents, yet both struggled to give us the warmth and comfort that we later learned most children take for granted. And their struggles, in turn, had a tangible impact on our own capabilities as parents.
The therapist among us, Ruth, explains that Rayna died at a critical time for her small children. For example, at 19 months old, Sarah was developmentally in the so-called “practicing phase”: she was just beginning to explore the world. As a toddler, she needed to look back at her mother for reassurance and a sense of safety. But her mother was gone. In such ways, all three daughters lost out on Rayna’s reassurance, so it is hardly surprising that they would have trouble providing it for their children—us.
Likewise, each of Rayna’s grandchildren has experienced the effects of such emotional impoverishment in numerous ways, ranging from a deep-rooted mistrust of the future to sometimes immobilizing insecurities (such as a dread of travel) or self-destructive coping mechanisms. We experience a recurring sense of disconnect from the world around us, even these many decades later—problems for which years of psychotherapy have provided only partial solutions.
As third-generation adults, we know that the hole in Rayna’s daughters’ and grandchildren’s lives cannot be blamed on young Rayna. Who can decide for another human being how much pain and terror she must bear before taking a chance that may kill her?
We also cannot hold our grandfather, Sam, responsible. We understand that even after the tragedy, there was only so much Sam could do. In practical terms, he had to work long hours in his tailor shop to support his family. And in personal terms, Sam, whom we grandchildren would get to know reasonably well, wasn’t a nurturing or soothing sort of man. Rather, he was boisterous, and though exceptionally generous, he had no idea of how to care for young children—unless you count his disastrous idea of forbidding Rose, his new wife, to discipline her three stepdaughters.
Nor can any of this heartbreak be laid at Rose’s doorstep. Rayna’s girls’ psychological deficiencies began long before Rose arrived in their lives. By then, for instance, Bruna had long since resumed bedwetting, a habit she would not fully conquer for years, and Sarah was headed toward intermittent sleepwalking.
A photograph taken of the three little girls with a caretaker already signals their future unpreparedness for mothering. Witness the lost expressions on their faces, and the unforgettable reaction that Rose documented in her own handwriting at the bottom of the picture:
“1916—Just the way I found them, the three little lambs who lost the one whose love cannot be substituted.”
As Rayna’s grandchildren, now all near or past age 80, we three have experienced the multigenerational consequences triggered by an illegal abortion that was desperately sought and tragically botched. Now that the United States Supreme Court has seen fit to remove the safety net of Roe v. Wade, who will catch all the falling little lambs—and their lambs?
If present circumstances continue, it seems certain that growing numbers of families all over the United States will find themselves at the same crossroads of trauma where our young grandmother and her husband and their three fledglings stood more than a century ago. We dread the disappearance of the story we inherited from her, and we hope that this retelling will help to pass on to others this urgent warning.
Rose Rosengard Subotnik and David A. Goldberger are professors emeriti at Brown University (Music) and Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, respectively. Ruth Goldberger Sterlin is in private practice as a clinical social work therapist and consultant in Northbrook, IL. She has worked extensively with children and has published professional articles on attachment in relationships, as well as on cross-cultural issues. She currently serves as President of the Illinois Society for Clinical Social Work. The authors dedicate this memoir to the first two of Rayna Hazan’s grandchildren, Rochelle Goldberger Ekhtiar and Robert S. Rosengard, whom they credit with leading them into understanding.