A woman’s choice

By Anne Taylor Fleming
May 16, 2013

Actress Angelina Jolie’s tattoos on her left arm show the latitude and longitude of the birthplaces of her children and her partner Brad Pitt, January 29, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Blake

We use that word so often: choice.

It has become the code word for abortion, alas, and thus a lightening rod for activists on both sides of that continuing battle. But this week Angelina Jolie redeemed the word and the idea behind it — that a woman has a right to choose what happens to her body, however tough that choice sometimes is.

The one she made — and announced in an stunning New York Times Op-Ed — to have a double prophylactic mastectomy was gutsy, and, as she herself wrote, “not easy” — though doctors told her that she was carrying a faulty gene that upped her chances of getting the disease that killed her mother to 87 percent.

These are the moments of truth for any woman. When you look at your life; assess the risks; what’s at stake; what matters to you (and those you love), and then step up and say, yes, I will take control here.

I will make this rough decision. I will let my breasts be removed that I might live to see my kids grow up. There was something both fierce and tender in Jolie’s words, always the best, most winning combination.

Whatever the odds, however sensible it might seem to anyone on the outside, having your breasts taken off when there is no sign of cancer is major. There had to be some serious soul-searching, some tears — and then out of it, strength.

Jolie had to know she would get some pushback. Indeed, there are doctors already questioning her going public, fearing she will influence other women to have radical mastectomies they might, in fact, not need. I know these doctors mean well. But there is something a tad patronizing in their stance, as if women cannot make their own decisions — obviously in consultation with the best medical personnel they can find.

Jolie was careful to be specific about the nature of her risk, the gene mutation she carries. There was nothing reckless in her piece. It was calm and direct, encouraging other women to make their own decisions. Given the relentlessness of the media, she also had to figure her decision would get out; too many moving parts—friends, nurses, tabloid “journalists.”  She may have decided to get out in front of it in a responsible way.

Here is a woman taking charge. What a relief at a time when the stories we hear are full of the other, women being victimized in the armed services — thousands and thousands of them even, sometimes, in a sick turn, by the very men supposed to be in charge of investigating abuse in the military.  Not to mention the vile brute in Cleveland, Ohio, who held those three young women prisoner for a decade, during which he repeatedly raped then, impregnating them and then beating and starving them until they miscarried.  I have found myself sickened so many times in the last couple of weeks reading the paper or listening to the news — a sense of disgust and fury and sadness.

Stirring then to open the paper and see the brave, bold words from a Hollywood icon, somebody flipping the switch, a woman refusing to be a victim, refusing to live in fear with a sword of Damocles hanging over her head. She doesn’t know she would get the cancer. Nobody knows. But she wasn’t going to hold her breath and wait for the sword to drop.

I am struck by how hard that is — especially, still, for women. Hard to say, this is what I am doing, this is who I am. Judge me or judge me not.

Of course, Jolie is no stranger to that kind of bravery and bravado.  It has marked her life and career. She has appeared wacky at times: mouth-kissing her brother on stage when she won her 1998 Oscar for “Girl, Interrupted,” wearing around her neck a vile of blood that came from her then husband, the seemingly equally nutty Billy Bob Thornton. We could laugh, we could snort.  After all, everything she did was public.

But there was always the other, altruistic side, her humanitarian work, notably with refugees as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations. I should say sides because, of course, she has also been a big movie star, sometimes playing fearsome action heroes, like the butt-kicking Lara Croft. Then came motherhood, the global adoptions — bait for late-night jokes — and Brad Pitt, who extricated himself from a marriage to be with her and with whom she had three more children. And then the directing career.

This is a woman who is willing to keep pushing, trying, loving, doing — not willing to be pigeonholed.  She reminds us that women are complex and that this is a cause for celebration not derision.

As she will, she has taken the narrative back into a serious direction with one breathtaking article — reminding other women that they, too, have choices. Some medical ones, but others, too. That life is big and should be; that you can love kids you adopt as much as those you give birth to, that you can risk looking foolish and gorgeous all at the same time; that having your breasts off does not reduce your femininity, and that you had better look for a life partner who supports you in the choices you make as Pitt is clearly supporting hers. That you don’t have to live in fear.

It’s a great, vital message — larger maybe than Jolie herself even expected.

 

PHOTO (Insert A): Actress Angelina Jolie (C) chats with her adopted son Pax Thien from Vietnam next to Maddox (L) from Cambodia at a security check point before leaving Con Dao island, off Vietnam’s southern coast, November 16, 2011.  REUTERS/Stringer

PHOTO (Insert B): Angelina Jolie (C) arrives with her children at New Tokyo international airport in Narita, east of Tokyo July 26, 2010. REUTERS/Toru Hana

PHOTO (Insert C): U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie chats with children in the Dadaab refugee camp on the Kenya-Somali border September 12, 2009.  REUTERS/Boris Heger/UNHCR/Handout

 

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