Though June Medical Services v. Russo, a case before the Supreme Court that would require abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at local hospitals, has slipped off the media’s radar during the pandemic, it is still causing anxiety for abortion-rights activists. June Medical Services, which is another iteration of the 2016 Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case, would create an undue burden on people seeking abortions by shuttering clinics in a number of states, including those that have only one left. Ultimately, these cases come down to choice: Who gets to determine what a person with a womb does with their body?
The Opposite of Fate, Alison McGhee’s sixth novel for adults, explores this question through the eyes of Mallie, a young woman living in a rural town who becomes impregnated through a rape. The trauma of the rape leaves Mallie in a 16-month-long unconscious state (not a coma because it’s difficult to recover from that long of a coma) that forces those around her, including her mother,a religious zealot, and her boyfriend, Zach, to decide what should become of the fetus that’s growing in her womb. When Mallie awakens, she has a lot of questions that no one’s prepared to answer, and there are a lot of people who have to allow her to take control over her life (and body) once again.
The Opposite of Fate is a timely and piercing read, pushing us to think about choice, both in the abstract sense and in our everyday lives. McGhee talked to Bitch about fictionalizing the ongoing struggle around abortion access, challenging stereotypes about rural communities, and writing about how trauma leaves an imprint on a survivor’s psyche.
What was the genesis of the idea for The Opposite of Fate?
I write for all ages; this is my sixth book for adults. I write a lot for children as well, but the adult novels are really who I am. That’s a strange thing to say because I have written a lot for children as well, but the characters that appear and reappear in all my novels for adults are all set in the exact place where I grew up. A very rural, very blue collar [area in] far upstate New York is the landscape of my youth.
[The idea for this] novel began so long ago. I don’t remember how old I was, but you may be familiar with Terri Schiavo’s right-to-die case. I was just mesmerized by that [case] and it made me think: Who has the right to decide this massive life or death question when you’re in a state where you can’t make your own decisions? Schiavo’s husband was arguing that she would want to die, but her parents were saying, “No, keep her alive at all costs.” This woman was in her 20s, and she was on life support for years. It horrified me in the same way that the story of Rip Van Winkle horrified me when I was a kid. Everyone [Rip Van Winkle] loves is 20 years older [when he wakes up], and they’ve lived this whole life that he missed out on. And so, those two experiences, plus my ongoing frustration, mystification, and anger over abortion rights became the kernels of the idea [for this book].
My goal in writing a book is to write toward a question mark rather than a period and to try to explore an issue rather than pronounce judgment for readers, so I thought this book was my chance to try to understand some of these issues from the point of view of people who don’t have the same beliefs [as me]. That was my great challenge with this book: trying to inhabit the mind of somebody who believes very differently from me on issues like abortion and religion.
Your characters are so intentionally fleshed out; they don’t neatly fit typical media characterizations about rural people in the United States. Do your books purposely work to undo some of the misconceptions people have about rural Americans?
That is such a good question! I feel like you’re delving into my own experience because I grew up in the southwestern end of the Adirondacks, a really rural place. It’s all dairy farms, and people make their living as handymen or servers in diners. It’s a hardscrabble existence. A lot of people in those places are very white, very blue collar, very rural, and they do vote for people like the guy in the White House. At the same time, they’re often laughed at, mocked, and scorned for the way they live. I have my foot in both worlds: I went to this fancy little college. I live in a city. I’m extremely liberal. And yet, my parents are still alive, still live in the house I grew up in, and they’re both firmly against you-know-who. But when I go to the diner with my dad, all his [male] friends who I love and I have known all my life believe very differently from me on many things. Yet, we love and respect one another. That’s a deep core value of this book and all my books that are set in that place.
At the beginning of the book, readers follow Mallie as she awakens from a 16-month-long unconscious state. Her muscles are atrophied, so she can’t move as she once did. What was your research process, especially around comas and what happens to people’s bodies as they come out of comas?
It was really extensive. I talked to doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, physical therapists. I talked to a friend of mine who was in a coma for a number of months. Mallie’s situation is the far edge of what’s possible. You can’t really be in a coma for more than a couple of months without extensive brain damage. It’s very rare. So I fudged it in the book by saying that Mallie’s in an unconscious state [caused by] a brain infection, which is actually possible. You can recover from that with no brain damage: Your cognitive functions are intact and your body comes back to normalcy. But it was hard to come up with a medically plausible scenario for the experience I wanted her to have. That’s a hard thing about being a fiction writer. I want to write realistically. I’m not a fantasy writer.
Multiple people in the book refer to Mallie’s intense empathy—or ability to pinpoint other people’s emotions—as “witchy stuff.” Why was it so crucial to craft a protagonist who is deeply in tune with her own emotions and the emotions of those around her?
No one’s ever asked me this question. I think the answer is twofold: One, this is how she has always experienced her life. She can look at somebody and know what they’re feeling. She’s a massage therapist, and she’s so good at it for the same reason. She knows. She can feel those blocks and the pain in people, and she knows how to help resolve it. She knows how to help draw it out of them. That’s partly a learned response to a lot of pain in her early childhood. Mallie was actually the 9-year-old child star of my first novel. [Mallie’s empathy] also plays off [of] and intensifies the fact that—Wait a minute, I was unconscious for 16 months, and I don’t remember any of it. But somewhere in my body, I must know. How can I either bring that back or understand that things happened to me that are held in my body that I’ll never be able to remember and resolve?”
Mallie’s relationship with her mother is complicated, to say the least. You are careful about not portraying her mother or her mother’s fundamentalist Christian church friends as villains, though Mallie refers to them as a cult. Was that intentional?
Yes, it was very intentional. I’ve had a lot of complicated relationships with various forms of religion in my life, not personally for me, but just witnessing the effect on friends and people close to me. That was another area where I wanted to put myself in somebody else’s mind without judgment and try to experience life through their eyes. Mallie’s mom isn’t the typical [religious zealot]. She struggled with some mental-health issues that were largely untreated, and she found great comfort and solace in her church. Who am I to deny her that? She had a rough life, which in a way turns her into a human instead of this sort of monstrous person who forced her daughter’s body to do things that her daughter wouldn’t have wanted to.
Beanie, the orderly who cleans Mallie’s hospital room, tells her, “It’s good to see you talking for yourself instead of the way it was, with all them thinking they could talk for you.” That’s one of the book’s strongest lessons: Women have to be our own best advocates. Would you agree with that sentiment?
I completely agree with that sentiment, and I would push it one step further. I love Beanie; he’s one of my favorite [characters in the book]. When he tells Mallie that, it plants that seed in her, like, “It’s not just my purpose to figure out what happened to me. I get to choose my own story. I get to create my own story. And no one is going to tell me what my story is.”
In the last year or so, it’s just been one horror after another raining down from this administration. I recognize how exhausting it is to be a woman, so I’ve started pushing back and saying to my boyfriend and to all my men friends, “When we’re at a party or sitting around the dinner table with a bunch of people, and somebody says something that’s slotting women into a particular category, it’s not up to me to fight this battle because I’m the woman at the table. It’s up to you! I’m fucking exhausted here, so, this is your battle now,” just as it’s my battle as a white person to fight to undo racism, to call it out and try to fight it. The person who’s being persecuted and stereotyped [shouldn’t have to] battle.
The entire book revolves around the various people in Mallie’s orbit, including her neighbor-turned–father figure and her brother, but who can Mallie actually trust to operate in her self-interest?
You’ve hit on a core piece of the book that I had to figure out as I wrote my way into it. When someone you love is in deep trouble and they’re unable to act for themselves, it’s our instinct to take over and do what we think is best for them. But when Mallie comes back to life, every single person in the book has to come to a point where they look inside themselves and say, You need to back off now. This is her life. Beanie [recognizes] that from the beginning: He’s constantly checking in with her, but offering advice only in the form of suggestions and questions rather than telling her what she has to do or what she should do. So even though he’s a peripheral character, he’s 100-percent trustworthy. And by the end, everybody in the book can see that about him.
Zach, Mallie’s boyfriend, is another character who I really trust. He’s separated from her only because he has that baby. And he wants to do what’s best for her, but he’s not sure what that is right now.
When Mallie first awakens, doctors tell the people in her life to “let her lead the way” and for them to “take their cues from her” because “trauma, no matter the source of it, lingers in the body and in the psyche.” Is The Opposite of Fate ultimately about how we process trauma?
Yes, completely. At its deepest core, it probably is about that. The man I was in love with killed himself when I was 24, and the ways that trauma has played itself out—even when I don’t recognize that that’s the root cause of it—is mostly in my body. For the first 10 years, and even [now], the couple weeks before the anniversary of the death, I felt like I weighed a thousand pounds. I wouldn’t know what was going on. Why can’t I get anything done? Why am I so tired? And then it would hit me. The body knows more than the conscious mind knows so much of the time.
I don’t want to discount male trauma because I know it’s there. But for women, it’s a little more visible. We hold so much in our bodies, and it’s very helpful if we can find ways to release [trauma] through our bodies.
Every choice we make is influenced by everything that has come to bear in our own lives and on our own belief systems.
There’s really a focus in the book on the fact that Mallie was a massage therapist and that so much of how she processes trauma comes from that training. That was really thoughtful to include.
It comes from conversations I’ve had with a couple [of] massage therapists. A good friend of mine is a hairdresser. I said to her, “Monique, you must feel what people are going through. How do you not take that home? How do you keep that out of your body?” It’s very interesting when you talk to hairstylists about that because many of them have really interesting stories. It’s fascinating. When people start talking about it, you realize that everybody knows something about the body that we don’t generally talk about.
Choice is really central to this novel, with everyone on all sides attempting to make choices about what should become of Mallie’s baby and her body. How did you navigate that fraught political terrain?
It was very difficult. Even in the time since the book was finished and in the process of being published, we’ve seen more choices being taken from women. In the midst of this pandemic, you see places that offer abortions being shut down. And it’s so disturbing and troubling to me because I believe it’s an individual woman’s choice to make. So, I went back to Roe v. Wade, which was in place when I was in my teens. I talked to some older women who remembered what it was like before that, and then I traced the history since then and saw how precarious that case stands now. And with our Supreme Court tipped the way it is right now, I’m genuinely afraid.
I also know we have pharmaceutical options available to us now. But I decided not to talk overtly about the way laws are changing and being chipped away. For my purposes, it was best to go toward the heart of the question: Who gets to choose? The fact that Mallie was in a coma made that very stark. It brought out all those issues. And in a way, [Mallie being in a coma] made it clearer to write about.
What is the biggest lesson you hope people take away from this book?
Every person you meet is a complicated human being and every choice we make is equally complicated and influenced by everything that has come to bear in our own lives and on our own belief systems. I have had people write to me and say they were so comforted by the fact that the book was so human and that it really allowed them to see all sides of this issue. That makes me really happy because it means I did my job. It’s like me sitting in the diner with my dad and his buddies. Yeah, I love you and I respect you—and I [will] do anything I can to cancel out your vote come November!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.