Saturday, June 24, 2017

Book Review: 'Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict that Divided America' by Eyal Press

Review by Laura Clawson
Absolute Convictions 
My Father, a City, and the Conflict that Divided America
By Eyal Press 
Picador (previously in hardcover from Henry Holt) 
New York, 2007
Absolute Convictions is many things, each in enough measure that it must be named, none such that it completely defines the book.  It is, in no particular order, a memoir of author Eyal Press’s coming to grips with the controversy around his father’s work; a memoir of the family produced when a man born in Jerusalem before the establishment of Israel and a woman born in a Nazi work camp married and brought their young children to the United States; a history of Buffalo, New York; a history of legal abortion and of anti-abortion movements in the US; and a moving homage to the author’s father.  Most of all, it is a stunning work of compassion and understanding given the fraught histories it details.
Eyal Press’s father Shalom left Israel to do an obstetrical residency in Buffalo, New York in 1973, arriving in the U.S. just weeks after Roe v. Wade was decided.  At the time, the Supreme Court’s decision was widely viewed as settling the issue of abortion, removing it from the realm of controversy; surveys found that a substantial majority of doctors agreed with the decision; and Shalom Press did not understand the politics of or forsee the life-changing implications of his decision to perform abortions in addition to births and other care.  
Abortion was not a vehicle of empowerment in his eyes.  But neither was it murder.  It was, he believed, a last resort for women who felt they could not go through with an unplanned pregnancy.  Not in all cases: as he would soon discover, he did not feel comfortable performing abortions in the later stages of pregnancy.  There was a point, in his mind – the point at which the developing human embryo could survive on its own – where another human life was at stake.  But it made sense to him that, prior to this point, the decision should be left in the hands of the woman carrying the child and her physician, not a government bureaucrat.
This belief was not initially a political one, but a basic sense of what was right, and it carried him through decades of protesters outside his work and his home, through being called "a Jew with a circumcised heart" and a murderer.  One vigil outside his office, held on Yom Hashoah, an Israeli day of remembrance for victims of the Holocaust, labeled the office a "place where the Holocaust continues to happen."  Eyal Press writes:
My mother was in the car with my father on the night of the vigil.  I can picture her glaring through the window on the passenger side, silently taking in the scene in which abortion was equated with the genocide that had cost her sister’s life, and very nearly her own and her parents’.  Recently, I asked her what she had made of it.  She fell silent, then offered a single word: "Disgusting."
So Dr. Press was accustomed to continuing in his work despite enormous challenges, supported by his simple, most often unspoken belief that he was doing the right thing, and by his refusal to be broken by the intimidation he faced, when on October 23, 1998, his colleague Dr. Barnett Slepian was shot and killed by a sniper as he microwaved a bowl of soup in his own kitchen.
Absolute Convictions is framed around this murder, seeking most directly to understand how it came to this, that a man should be murdered for doing his job.  It is in explaining this and finding his own place that the many strands of the story Eyal Press tells are gathered together: How did abortion become such a controversial issue?  Why was it this issue and not the loss of industrail jobs that galvanized Buffalonians to protest so fiercely?  How did the anti-abortion movement evolve from prayer vigils to clinic blockades to ultimately producing murderers?  
Throughout Press’s own search for understanding – of why his father persisted, what motivated prostesters, and his own feelings about the turmoil – deepens and complicates the book.  Despite the harassment and intimidation his parents have been subjected to, Press never goes for easy condemnation or allows himself to paint anti-abortion protesters as cartoon villains.  Rather, he grapples with their humanity and the sincere belief that motivates them, even as he is unsparing in his depiction of the damage they do.  
Sitting in [protest leader] Rob Schenck’s office, I asked him what being at a rescue was like.  "I found it to be one of the most spiritual exercises I had ever engaged in," he said, his eyes brimming with excitement as though it had happened yesterday.  He had just described a sit-in that had taken place in December 1988, outside the doors of a medical complex at 666 Colvin Avenue – 666 being "the number of the anti-Christ in some interpretations of the Book of we laughed about that." I reached for the ice water and forced a smile; 666 Colvin was the address of my father’s office.  That morning, he had arrived at work to find a throng of protesters blockading the doors.  As usual, they didn’t move until the police carted them away, prompting other doctors working in the building to complain that the disruption forced them to delay procedures for their patients, including a blood test for a sick infant and treatment for a woman with suspected pneumonia.  "This is just outrageous," Dr. Leonard Wohlin told The Buffalo News at the time.  To Rob Schenck, it was exhilarating.  "It was peaceful, it was prayerful, it was courageous," he told me.
The book is attentive to the differences between protesters, from a quiet, peaceful (yet still persistent) "sidewalk counselor" to the people blocking clinic entrances or entering clinics forcibly and occupying them to clinic bombers and murderers - especially, of course, Dr. Slepian's killer - but at the same time, Press lays out the abstract beliefs and the concrete organizations linking one to another.  Indeed, he takes an even broader view, connecting anti-abortion protesters to Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin:
In retrospect, there is a connective thread: extreme fundamentalism, the virulent strain of militant faith that, in the mid-1990s, began to lead individuals from seemingly disparate movements to carry out violence in the name of their spiritual beliefs.
Absolute Convictions is worth reading for many reasons.  Its social and political histories of Buffalo and of struggles over abortion are informative, the views of immigrant life evocative, and the outlines it offers of the participants in and methods of anti-abortion activism are illuminating and essential (also see moiv’s recent diary).  But all of this is grounded in the father-son relationship between Shalom and Eyal Press, and Shalom’s quiet heroism.  The son’s book is like the father’s way of doing his job: calm, compassionate, insistent on seeing all people as three-dimensional, and ultimately steadfast in its defense of women’s right to choose and the right of medical professionals to provide the means for that choice.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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