"I get Botox," I said, offering her an example of my own imperfections. As I lifted my hair to display where my glabellar wrinkles should have been, Unruh stepped nearer. At that moment, our closeness was thrilling and scary.
Back at home, I began conducting imaginary conversations with Leslee Unruh, as I have done for years with my mother. I’d make elegant points; she’d see the light. But, as with my mom, in the real world, victory was difficult to come by. It’s not just that Unruh and I disagree about what’s right and wrong; we disagree about what’s true and false.
ONE YEAR LATER, in August 2007, I returned to South Dakota, this time to interview Unruh for MORE. It had taken me several e-mails and phone conversations to overcome her resistance. During one call, Unruh said she had read in a magazine article that my uncle was a slain abortion provider. I braced myself for the response that usually elicits from antichoice advocates — some version (or combination) of "Well, then, you can’t possibly be objective," "He deserved it" or "You need to pray for his soul." But Unruh simply said, softly, "I’m sorry. It must be so painful for your family." And finally, she and her staff agreed to have me back.
Unruh’s HQ hadn’t changed much, but the receptionist was now pregnant, and impending motherhood had evidently turned her nervousness into ferocity. When I pick up a brochure, she barks at me to put it down; she’s not sure I am authorized to see it. So I stand, hands folded, beside the knight in shining armor until Unruh beckons me to go outside with her.
We reach the yard through a back door in her office. "I use it to avoid people I don’t want to talk to — like you!" she says with a laugh.
The gazebo, fountain, potted plants, and little stone statues are pretty in the late-summer sun, but the place seems uncharacteristically messy and cluttered compared with the rest of Unruh’s operation. Then I notice the teddy bears. In the grass. In the trees. Some deep in the vegetation, as if they were extremely shy.
"Women leave things here every day," Unruh says. "Dads too." She calls it her Memorial Garden for the Unborn. She has created this haven, she says, because too many of her colleagues in the antiabortion movement treat women who’ve terminated their pregnancies with scorn rather than compassion. "I believe in a loving God, and he’s not sending women to hell because they’ve had an abortion," she says.
While demonstrating in favor of the informed-consent law outside a courthouse with a group of these postabortive women, as she calls them, Unruh says, she got into an ugly confrontation with some men carrying "horrible signs" with pictures of fetuses. "I asked them to put their signs down," she says. "I was worried about the women. But they followed us down the street to our hotel, chanting."
"We know what we did," she adds. "We’re not idiots."
"We"? Yes, Leslee Unruh, mother of five, has had an abortion. It was the defining experience of her life.
"I meant to grow up to be just like you: a typical liberal feminist," says the Sioux Falls native as she prunes plants and straightens stuffed bears. "Everyone in my family was a Democrat. I grew up in the time of Gloria Steinem, and it was exciting and inspiring." The 1972 Lincoln Senior High School yearbook reveals a boho-looking Leslee Bonrud lying in a circle with other arty types, the staff of a literary magazine called ut, an acronym for Unabashed Thoughts. After her parents’ divorce (Unruh says her father, a plasterer, once had a drinking problem), her mother worked as a housekeeper, and Unruh says she told her mother to "get out of the kitchen, start a business," so she could "get out from under the thumb of a man."
After graduating from Lincoln, Unruh tells me, she trained racehorses in Florida for about two years, then became a Shaklee vitamin salesperson back home. It was while selling Shaklee at a state fair in 1976, she says, that she met her future husband, chiropractor Allen Unruh.