When Francine married Rick Rivers, she did it without telling him her terrible secret.
They had known each other since fifth grade, but lost touch while attending different colleges. Later, Rick went into the Marine Corps. During those years, Francine got involved with a man and became pregnant. Frightened, and feeling she couldn't tell her parents, she did what was supposed to solve the problem, though it wasn't legal at the time: She had an abortion. Then she tried to get on with her life as if it had never happened.
Francine began to correspond with Rick while he was in Vietnam, and they married in 1969, a year after he came home. "Before we got married," he says, "we talked about honesty. We were going to base our marriage on truth." He told Francine about his not-so-sterling past, but she couldn't bring herself to tell Rick about the abortion.
"I was convinced Rick wouldn't marry me [if he knew]," Francine explains. "I'd grown up in a Christian home. Killing your own child ranked in my mind as the worst sin. I was ashamed into my bones. Since I thought God couldn't accept me anymore, I certainly didn't think a man could, either. So I convinced myself that I should have the right to reach out for happiness."
And the Riverses were happy, in many ways, those first few years. But even while she enjoyed the growing love and trust in her marriage, Francine couldn't forget the abortion. Sudden fits of grief would descend on her. The possibility of starting a family brought feelings of extreme guilt and unworthiness.
No longer willing to live a lie, she decided she could trust Rick with her secret. So after two years of marriage, Francine confessed. "I told him in the dark—literally," she recalls. "We were at my parents' house, lying in bed. I said, 'There's something I never told you.'"
Rick was stunned. "I'd known Francine practically all my life," he says, "and she was the most moral girl I knew. But what hurt most was that she didn't trust me from the beginning. I had always been honest [with her]. I think she told me at her folks' house because she figured if I walked out, at least she'd have a place to stay."
A Terrible Knowledge
After Francine's confession, the Riverses' relationship changed. "You can't drop that kind of bombshell and expect to go on the same," Rick says.
"People are not like God," Francine adds. "The Lord hears our confession, forgives and forgets. Rick couldn't forget."
When they had disagreements common to any marriage, Rick would sometimes use his knowledge against her: Who are you to tell me how to run my life? Look what you've done. Francine would bitterly wish she had never handed him this weapon.
"There were other things going on that contributed to the stress of that time," she says. "But when he'd throw the past back at me, he proved what I'd felt all along—that he couldn't be trusted with the truth. I wondered if he really loved me, now that he knew."
Francine's insecurity about Rick's love colored everything. When they decided to wait to have children until after Rick finished college, she secretly wondered if Rick thought she'd be an unfit mother. This wasn't true, but feelings often have nothing to do with reality. And her insecurity deepened Rick's frustration. What would it take to prove to her that he loved her? Whatever he did, it was never enough.
Then came the miscarriages. In 1974, Francine found out she was pregnant. But what should have been an occasion for celebration only deepened her sense of guilt. She faced again what she had done years earlier to end her first pregnancy.
Later, when the miscarriage began, she stayed alone in the living room, trying not to think, not to feel. "At the time, I felt it was justice," she says now, "[as if] God was taking back from me what I took from him."
Francine suffered three miscarriages in all, one before each of her three children were born. With every miscarriage, her self-condemnation intensified. Even her joy in her surviving children didn't assuage the shame she felt from deciding to go through with that long-ago abortion.
Rick refused to concede the existence of a God who delighted in punishing his wife for aborting her first child. He told her: "I don't believe for a second there's a God up there plotting how to make Francine and Rick miserable, just because of some mistake you made."
Rick's skepticism did nothing to diminish Francine's image of a wrathful God who left no sin unpunished. But things began to change after the Riverses moved to northern California in 1985. Francine started attending the Sebastopol Christian Church, and one day Rick grudgingly went along. Soon they were both committed Christians, growing in a more complete understanding of God's character.
As Francine studied the Bible, she began to see that God is also merciful and loving. Yet she had trouble feeling forgiven. "One day I was reading Proverbs 6:16-19, and it hit me that I'd done every one of those 'things the Lord hates' [such as 'a lying tongue' and 'hands that shed innocent blood'] by having the abortion," she recalls. Guilt washed over her again, and she was blinded by tears.
Another time, one of her children came home from his Christian school and announced, "Every woman who ever had an abortion should be executed for murder." Francine winced. "How could I tell my child that when he throws stones at these women, he's throwing stones at me?"
When the word "abortion" came up in the media, it was like a fingernail scraping a chalkboard. If she truly was forgiven, why did these things continue to bother her so? She had to find a way past the guilt and pain.
A Deeper Healing
Francine began attending the PACE (Post Abortion Counseling and Education) Bible study offered at her local Pregnancy Counseling Center. The studies covered such topics as the character of God, anger, forgiveness, depression, letting go and acceptance. "We studied what the Bible says about every aspect of our lives—not just abortion," Francine says. "We had to look at what we did—to the child, to our bodies. We looked at the full spectrum of God's character—his justice, but also the forgiveness offered through Christ. We forgave the people involved—including ourselves.
"I had to give my shame to the Lord and quit telling myself that God hadn't forgotten. Certain things you have to nail to the cross."
Over a period of months, after working with other women dealing with the same feelings, Francine found healing. One indicator that she is now free of the past is her ability to talk with others about the abortion.
And for Francine, who is a bestselling novelist, "talking about it with others" means writing about it. Her fiction has always been one way to work through ideas and problems. A few years ago, she says, "I felt that God wanted me to talk openly about what I had done, the effects on my life, and how healing came about."
Rick supported her attending the Bible study, but he says the book "touched on issues of privacy—my privacy. I'm not the kind of guy who walks down the street and says, 'Hi, my name is Rick Rivers and my wife had an abortion.' I would rather they know she's been a wonderful wife and mother, that she's a gifted writer, that she's a Christian who's working hard to help other people become Christians and maintain their faith. I was worried about her being hurt."
As she worked on the manuscript, Francine needed to talk about her intense feelings. But Rick just wanted to get on with their lives. Once he asked her fiercely, "Aren't we ever going to put this behind us? When will it end?"
But two years later, the end is finally in sight. Rick says, "I was wrong about the book. Writing The Atonement Child (Tyndale) not only completed Francine's healing process—reading it forced me to deal with personal problems and past mistakes of my own."
Francine adds, "Rick hasn't yet gone through the Bible study for men who are involved with post-abortive women, though he's planning to. It's harder for him to talk about how my long-ago choice has affected him through the years. But now when something's bothering him, we'll talk about it. We'll pray about it together. I don't have to wonder what's going through his mind. And we're finding that the closer we draw to the Lord, the closer we draw to one another."
A Fresh start
A man of action more than words, Rick spoke volumes when he proposed to Francine all over again. And last March, he and Francine renewed their vows at Bodega Bay, beside the sparkling Pacific. Francine says, "It was a message to me—and to our children: 'I would have married you anyway, and I love you enough to prove it to the world by marrying you again.'"
Rick adds, "We've never been happier!"
The Riverses encourage couples who are touched by abortion to face the issue in the light of Scripture. Francine urges women to seek healing even if their spouses don't want to deal with the problem.
"If one person can receive healing from the Lord and move on, it lights the way for the other person," she says. "No matter how painful the process, when you come out the other side, you feel so free. It's worth it."
Diane Eble is a freelance writer and the author of numerous books and articles. She and her husband, Gene, live in the Chicago area.
Copyright © 1997 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.