I saw The Fighter the other night (which I loved). For those who haven’t seen it, one of the plot points in the film revolves around HBO making a documentary about Dicky Eklund's (Christian Bale) “comeback,” but really, it turned out to just be a documentary about crackheads in Lowell, MA, that embarrassed the whole Eklund/Ward family (not to mention the entire town). Since I was so into the movie, and since my husband is from one of Massachusetts' “Three L's”—Lynn, Lawrence, Lowell—we immediately downloaded a torrent of the documentary.
Filmed in 1993 as part of HBO’s America Undercover series, High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell focuses on the spectacle of the problematic junkie epidemic, which became prevalent in the early ’90s due in part to one of Lowell’s major employers declaring bankruptcy, which negatively affected the already economically-depressed city. I thought High on Crack Street would be a portrait of Eklund’s downward spiral into addiction after having once been a celebrated professional boxer—as The Fighter suggests—once known as “The Pride of Lowell” but his story actually takes somewhat of a backseat to the other two crackheads profiled in the film, Boo Boo and Brenda who really stole the show.
The film is like a time capsule of what life was like for crack addicts in 1993. (There are so many scrunchies going on.)
But, as the story evolved—with Brenda [above], a mostly toothless prostitute in her early 30s (who has a way of speaking in the same cadence as Little Edie Beale) discovering that she’s pregnant—I realized that it was a time capsule of what abortion consultations were like in 1993. And it’s disturbing.
Brenda spends her time in crack houses with an assortment of characters, sometimes including Dicky, but mostly with her boyfriend Boo Boo, with whom she has a love/hate relationship. When she realizes that she’s probably pregnant, she goes to a free clinic for a test and information on obtaining an abortion.
I was disgusted at how inept—and frankly, unethical—the clinic’s employee appeared to be at her job during the consultation scene.
First she asked Brenda about her plan for this pregnancy.
Brenda answers, “I’m a prostitute. I’m a drug addict. I’m gonna get an abortion. For definite.”
The employee says, “Is there no…Is that your only option or is that what you just wanna do? What’s your reason for that?”
Then, perhaps because she knows that she sounds like an idiot—because 1.) Brenda has already enumerated her reasons and 2.) Brenda, nor any other woman, is absolutely not required to enumerate her reasons—the employee hastily adds the afterthought, “Well, you don’t really need a reason now. That’s your choice.”
Yeah, exactly. But it seemed like the employee was only saying that to remind herself, rather than the patient, of something she should already know very well, working at a place like a free clinic: That abortion is merely one (not the only) option from which a woman can choose, and that whatever her decision—be it abortion, adoption, or raising a child—she’s not obliged to validate it. The understanding (or so I believed) is that when it comes to a woman’s pregnancy, she’s the only one who can and should judge whether or not she should get an abortion. “Reasons” behind a woman’s choice aren’t important. What’s important about a woman’s choice is that she have choices, plural.
But after a while during the consultation, she breaks down in tears, perhaps due to feelings of guilt about her choice, after being questioned about her reasons, or due to the emotional anguish of being harangued by her boyfriend Boo Boo.
Brenda learns that an abortion will cost $395. I found this interesting, since, nearly 10 years later, in 2002, I obtained an abortion at Planned Parenthood for $400. (Paying an extra $30 for general anesthesia.) I was kind of surprised that the price hadn’t risen much in that time. But because I didn’t like the whole herding-cattle treatment I’d felt at PP (its lack of privacy, a changing area that looked exactly like a gym locker room, and a recovery room staffed with only two nurses attending to 20 or more patients, who were half-naked, bleeding, fainting, and vomiting all over the place), when I became pregnant again several years later, I sought an abortion at a private facility. I didn’t have health insurance, so it cost $1500 (cash, they didn’t take cards), but I found the experience much more tenable. (And they had better snacks in the recovery room. Lorna Doone cookies and Skittles, as opposed to PP’s saltines.)
Anyway, Brenda leaves the clinic without making an appointment for an abortion, because she’s told to go home and think it over, even though it was obvious to me that Brenda had come to a decision about what she wanted to do, and was clearly mentally competent in doing so. Seeing as how one of the biggest hurdles with crack addicts is commitment and follow-through, I thought it was crazy that they would encourage her to walk away to mull over something she’d already seemed to resolve in her own mind. Much of first-term abortion relies on doing it in a timely manner, and time can easily slip away from junkie in the middle of a bender.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened with Brenda. She put the whole issue on the back-burner and spent the next two weeks smoking crack. Eventually, she got around to making a list of priorities in her life.
3.) Make a copy of key
5.) Call mom
6.) Get papers/bag of things from (Boo’s) house
7.) Get a job
8.) Get an apartment
Two days after writing the list, she had only managed to cross off “Laundry.” Four months after writing the list, that was still the only priority that was met. Now she would need a late-term abortion.
Knowing that she had procrastinated herself into a dicey situation, Brenda exhibited a sort of gallows humor when she sought a consultation to terminate her pregnancy, saying stuff like, “Abortion city, here we come,” and “Hopefully, [it’s] young enough to slaughter.”
But then she changed her tune after the ultrasound tech personified the fetus for her, by making her wave to it. Brenda then decided to keep the baby. She went home and smoked more crack.
Another few days go by when she finally tackled #5 on her priorities list—she called home. Her parents were adamant that she get an abortion, no matter how late in the game it was, knowing that her intentions to raise the child—who would undoubtedly be born with complications due to Brenda’s daily drug use, both freebasing and injecting crack/coke—were nothing but a (crack) pipe dream.
Going back for her third consultation, Brenda learns that she is much farther along than she’d realized. At this stage in the game, she’d have to travel to New York for a procedure, which would involve inducing labor, and giving birth. If the child was able to breath on its own, it would have a right to life, and be placed in an incubator. It seemed as though she was willing to take this risk. But that’s the last we see of Brenda in the film. She goes missing.
Several months later, after filing missing persons reports in several surrounding towns where she’d been spotted smoking crack, Boo Boo learns that Brenda is alive, sober, has given birth, and that the baby is apparently alive and in her custody. He is told that she wants no contact with him. Not long after that, Boo Boo, who had shared needles with Brenda, discovers that he is HIV positive.
In an epilogue at the end of the film, we learn that in 1995, Brenda died of a drug overdose. No mention was made of her child.