Mothers of the Dead: Abortion as Initiation- Perdita Finn

Two days after I was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church, I had an abortion. I went looking for one spiritual initiation and got another. 

I was crossing campus on a spring morning, headed to my class on Dante’s Divine Comedy, when the smell of wet dirt stopped me on the path. Piles of old snow were still trying to melt at the edges of the parking lot, but the green shoots of crocuses and daffodils were pushing through the soil. The world was coming alive again. I realized I was pregnant. 

I threw the can of pineapple juice I’d gotten from the snack bar into the trash, skipped my class and headed straight to the infirmary. For the past week I had woken up, sick to my stomach and out of sorts, craving something sweet to drink. In the midst of worrying about papers and exams and what I was going to do with my life after I graduated in two months, I hadn’t thought to wonder why. I couldn’t remember when I’d last gotten my period. 

“Fuck, fuck, fuck! Oh fuck!” I swore out loud. “Why now? What are you doing here?” There was no question that another being had become part of me, extending my very understanding of what it meant to be a self. I didn’t imagine a little zygote of replicating cells. I imagined a soul, whole and complete. 

I stopped in the shadow of the mountains that bordered our campus and spoke to that child. “I am sorry,” I whispered. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” 

Where does life begin? Circles go round and round and of that circle there is no beginning and there is no end. Life doesn’t begin at conception, it begins earlier than that somewhere else, beyond bodies and lifetimes, beyond time itself. But I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that, faced with the most terrible of choices, I had already made my decision.

That was the moment when I first became a mother. The moment when I dedicated my life to this being who would not be born. I would have to make something of this life I was now, for the first time, truly claiming for myself. I would have to make a difference in the world. I would have to make this choice matter. Still, my heart was breaking. I already knew she was a little girl. Who was she? Where would she go? What did it mean to say no to love?

The gray-haired nurse at the college clinic confirmed my pregnancy. She looked at my stricken face and asked me, kindly, efficiently, if she should make an appointment for me in the nearby town for “the procedure.” I nodded, choking back tears. I picked at the sleeve of the sweater I was wearing, a soft pink sweater that belonged to my roommate. Pink. A little girl’s color. 

Despite my conversion, I didn’t talk to God about any of this. And I certainly had no intention of confiding in the college priest I’d been studying with all year. 

Father Fallon was full of plans for the midnight mass on Easter Sunday where I would be officially welcomed into the Catholic faith. I was to go on a retreat for a few days at the monastery where he lived and, purified by prayer, arrive back at college in my flowered confirmation dress, ready to receive the Eucharist for the first time in front of a congregation of my peers, whose own faith was sure to be deepened by the example of my adult conversion. I would spend most of the retreat throwing up in a small, bare room by myself.

Fallon was the real deal. He was so liberal that the Church would get him as far away from young people as they could in a few years, despite the fact that he had created a vibrant Catholic ministry on a secular campus. He sang folk songs and talked about social justice. 

At our first meeting he had given me a small blue-and-white paperback containing the necessary doctrine we would discuss each week on Thursday evenings. 

“Do you have any questions about the Transfiguration?” he asked. 

“Jesus appeared as the Messiah to the apostles,” I answered, dutiful student that I was. 

“Exactly,” he smiled. “So how is the Nuclear Disarmament workshop going? What speakers are you getting?”

“An ex-commander of a nuclear sub who’s joined the Freeze Movement. I think he’s going to be very powerful.”

“Fantastic. That’s the kind of person who can really make a difference.”


Nov. 1st

Nov. 29th



Take Back the Magic: Getting to Know the Dead


Take Back the Magic is an invitation to intimacy and healing with the dead and the lived experience that none of us is ever alone and no one is ever lost to us.



The Gospel of “Groundhog Day”: How to Claim the Long Story of Our Souls

I became politically active for the first time in my life, inspired by Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker Movement, the Berrigan Brothers, and the Bishops’ Letter on Nuclear War. We talked about poverty and racism, violence and war and what it meant to honor the teachings of Jesus. 

I’ll be honest. Father Fallon reminded me of my father. The same square jaw and ruddy good looks. The same determination to do good in the world. They were both athletic men who loved the outdoors. And they were both men who held within them a seemingly bottomless bitterness that no amount of success or acclaim could touch. I wanted to please him the way I wanted to please my father. 

We never really talked about prayer. We didn’t explore contemplation or meditation or even devotion. We made no study of martyrs or mystics, never discussed pilgrimages, novenas, apparitions, miracles, or any of the messy magic of folk belief. Surprisingly, we didn’t concern ourselves with heaven and hell or the souls in purgatory, or even death and what happened after you died. We certainly never ever talked about abortion or sex, although I always remembered to wear a bra on Thursday nights.

He asked me once if I had a boyfriend, and I’d been casual and said, “No one special.” Maybe if he’d been a little older or less ruggedly handsome, maybe if he’d been a woman, I’d have felt comfortable revealing the truth. “There’s this guy I’ve been having sex with since sophomore year and I’m kind of hung up on him, but there’s no way he’s interested in anything more serious than a late-night glass of wine and the occasional fuck. But I like him, and I like having sex. In fact, that’s the one thing I’m not really so into about Catholicism, all the problems with sex. What’s up with that anyway? Can’t I just hang out with the poor and the peacemakers without taking on all of those hang ups about ordinary bodily desires?”

My own mother was Eve before the fall, shameless in her celebration of all things sensual and sexual. At fifteen she was posing naked on the beach for art photos. At seventeen she was losing her virginity to Gregory Peck. When she walked into a room, everyone turned to stare. She was a statuesque beauty with dark good looks and an impressive bosom.

She designed our home as a greenhouse for her plants with glass on all sides and no curtains. It was fecund with vegetation. Orange trees hung heavy with fruit, and giant gardenias blossomed all year long, filling the house with their intoxicating scents. Prehistoric ferns cascaded over the bookcases, cuttings grew out of cups in the bathroom, vines crawled over the stereo system. My mother let the iguana prowl around the downstairs and often wore my brother’s boa constrictor around her neck as a fashion statement. Some cat was always having kittens under the couch or in a closet. Outdoors were gardens filled with roses. 

The first time Clark met her he picked a ripe fig from a tree in the kitchen. “Ordinary people don’t grow trees like this indoors,” he remarked. “You sure your mother isn’t a witch?”

Artistically frustrated, she costumed herself, wearing caftans and feathers and turbans and shocking the cardigan-wearing Yankees of our little New England town. She often walked around the house naked, happily unaware that there was anything to be embarrassed about. She loved to lounge in the bath, lazily shaving her long legs while we chatted. That’s how, one day when I was eight, she casually introduced to me the wonders of birth, lifting one leg to show me the heavy pink folds of her vulva. “This is where you came from,” she explained.

She once brought my sister and me to a well-reviewed foreign film so obscene the other moviegoers began storming out after the first explicit scene involving, memorably, a pole dancer and a mechanical dildo. While my sister and I shared shocked sideways glances, my mother happily laughed throughout it, oblivious that there might be anything scandalous going on, even as we were the only patrons left in the theater. She said shorts were called “shorts” because they were meant to be short and made sure I was on the pill when I told her I had a boyfriend in high school. Later on, she encouraged me to let my lovers spend the night. 

“I don’t think my mother has had many lifetimes as a Christian,” I once confided to Clark.

He laughed. “I don’t think your mother has had many lifetimes as a human being.”

She was like some glorious ancient goddess, part tiger with the wings of a hawk and snakes writhing up her arms. Everyone fell in love with her, but her heart belonged only to one god, my father.

Like so many women of her generation, life revolved around her husband and his needs. We had dinner whenever he got home from the hospital. She hated skiing but we went skiing every winter. She threw parties for his colleagues and endured their bumbling flirtations. She was humiliated by my father’s infidelities. Her beauty and her sexual magnetism were ultimately inadequate charms against loneliness. At the end of the day, she would walk around her gardens, muttering to herself, dead-heading the roses, angry, irritable, frustrated. She’d pour herself a drink, another drink, turn on the TV and watch an old movie, depressed and sad. 

I’d been embarrassed to tell her about my conversion. She wasn’t actively opposed to religious institutions like my father; she just found the whole topic of God uninteresting. When I mentioned that I was studying to become a Catholic, she blew through her lips dismissively and shrugged it off. This too will pass, she seemed to already know. 

 My mother sighed on the phone when I told her I was pregnant. In the silence that followed, I could feel her complete absence of judgment. If I needed money for an abortion, she would send it. If I needed to raise a child on my own, she would support me. She didn’t say any of this. She didn’t have to. She waited for me to say what I wanted.

What did I want?

I wanted something from her that I didn’t know how to ask for. I wanted something she didn’t know she had. I wanted her not just to be the high priestess of sex but my guide through the underworld. I wanted her to tell me that the roses she grew were fed with blood meal and bone powders and the rotted bodies of fish. I wanted her to tell me about the slugs and the beetles and the bugs she killed to help them grow. I needed her to tell me that we all grow from the bodies of the dead.

I wanted her to tell me that I was saying “no” to a body but not to a soul. I wanted her to tell me that no matter what our beings were entwined forever and I would always be a mother in the land of the dead to this soul I had chosen not to bear. I wanted her to offer me ceremonies and rituals, to meet me at the crossroads so I could lay my sorrow down and invoke the ancient crones of old to absolve me of my shame and guilt. I wanted her to tell me that women are always making impossible decisions about life and death, that this is what it means to be a woman and a mother. 

“Can you send me a check?” I asked at last.

“Will he pay half? Have you asked him?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Good. He needs to accept his part in all this. I’ll put the check in the mail this afternoon.”

I didn’t tell my father. How could I? I had heard him describe with bitter horror what the city emergency rooms had been like before abortion was legal. “Every night trying to stitch some poor girl bleeding to death back together again.” But I knew that if I told him about my own situation, he would shake his head in contempt. “What’s the matter with you? You couldn’t remember to take a pill every day?”

I tried to tell Father Fallon I was pregnant on a hike we took together during my retreat. A stream, rushing with snow melt beside us, roared in my ears. On the walk, stepping over fallen trees on the mountain path, I tried one last time to be honest. I kept imagining what I was going to say. “I’m going to have an abortion, Father. Don’t try to talk me out of it. I mean it. You cannot talk me out of it. You can’t talk me out of my life. I’m only 22. I will never see this guy again. But will you forgive me? That’s what I need to know. Will you forgive me? Will there be any way to forgive myself?”

“You’re awfully quiet,” Father said at last. “Are you filled up with the spirit of this event?”

“Filled up? Yeah, I guess. In a way.”

I never said anything to him. I was a coward. I was a hypocrite. I might take the name of a saint at my baptism, but I couldn’t change the fact that I was lost, that I’d always been lost, that I always would be. My father was right. I was damned. 

I went through with my candlelit baptism and my confirmation in the gothic college chapel and afterwards my some-time lover, amused, showed up with champagne that he offered to everyone. Two days later he drove me to a clinic in the next town over and picked up Chinese food on the way home.

 Three friends were waiting for me when we got back. One had had an abortion in high school. The other her freshman year. The last, the friend who had suggested I visit that village in France, would not have hers until she was middle-aged and done with her many years of child rearing. They took me in their arms and let me cry. They rubbed my back and smoothed my hair. We laughed a little through our tears. But nothing about our sisterhood was emboldened or explicit. We knew we were supposed to be ashamed of our abortions and we were. We could not imagine that each of these souls that had reached out to us had brought us dark gifts it would take us years to receive. 

After my abortion, when there was no turning back, I became obsessed with scenarios in which I had gone through with the pregnancy. Again and again, I imagined the little girl I might have had. She’d have had blond curls, just like the man I’d slept with, and somehow his mother, who I’d never met, would have taken me to Paris, where she lived. In a recurring waking dream, I saw myself pushing this little girl in a swing at the park with this very beautiful, elegant woman, so much more refined than my own mother. I knew it was a pathetic, hopeless daydream born of my despair, but I couldn’t let it go. I would drift off and startle awake, having been there again in the park pushing this little girl on her swing.

An old roommate invited me to Vienna for a month after graduation and I flew off to be with her before I started a job in the fall as a high school teacher. Days before I arrived, however, she found herself in love and so I was mostly on my own— alone again in another city, wandering around trying to figure out what I was up to. I no longer had any right to imagine myself as a Catholic, but I kept seeking out old churches, mostly empty, where I would sit in darkened pews, lost in regret and confusion.

One day, in a dark Viennese chapel off a cobblestoned street I found myself staring at a medieval statue of Mary. Father Fallon and I had never talked about Mary, I had never learned any of her many prayers, and I had no idea what place she had occupied in the lives of the faithful over the centuries. I converted well after Vatican II which I would later learn was a covert attempt by Church leaders to eradicate devotion to the Lady and to transform the mystic intimate consolations of her beads into a public weapon to fight abortion. 

Unlike the submissive blue and white virgins from sentimental Catholic pamphlets and paintings, this Madonna’s face was jet black. As black as night. As black as dirt. She seemed to have been carved from a tree and, standing there before her, it was almost as if those long-gone roots still reached into the ground. She stared directly at me, an expression of fathomless acceptance on her face that brought me to tears. A shelf of candles flickered before her and I lit one.

This was the dark mother who could meet me in the depths of my desolation. She could swallow stars and give birth to galaxies. She could turn the trees to ash and regrow the forest. Hers was the darkness of the womb and the blackness of the tomb where the living and the dead were always changing places, coming and going, but never gone, never alone, never forsaken. 

On a table to one side of her altar, I noticed a few small squares of white paper and on them, in English on one side and German on the other, were the words to the Hail Mary. They were the words I needed. 

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Mother of God. What is bigger than all that is? What do you find when you come to the very edge of the universe and take a step beyond? Who birthed the cosmos? Who will hold it as it dies? A mother. The mother of the living. The mother of the dead. 

There was no one else in the church so I was able to sit there undisturbed. By the end of the morning my legs were stiff and I knew the prayer by heart. For the rest of my stay, I would have breakfast with my friend and then say I was going off to write in a café. Instead, I would find a church, preferably one I hadn’t been to yet, and sit there all day alone, saying the Hail Mary over and over until it was dark. No one ever spoke to me, and I never went to Mass, but without even knowing it, by the time I left Vienna, I turned over my sorrow and my confusion to Our Lady. All of it.

That is how I first met her. Not in the Catholic Church but when I had turned away from it, when returning to it was no longer possible. I went to my father’s house seeking sanctuary, but my mother called me home.


Excerpted from Perdita’s forthcoming book, Take Back the Magic



Perdita Finn is the author of the forthcoming Take Back the Magic (Running Press, 2023) and teaches popular workshops on collaborating with the dead. With her husband Clark Strand she is the founder of the international fellowship The Way of the Rose and the book of the same name, dedicated to the earth, the rosary, and the Lady “by any name you want to call Her.” She lives in the mossy shadows of the Catskill Mountains with her family, bears, owls, ferns, woodchucks, white pines, hemlocks and maple trees.

Support The Rowe Center