Marquette alumna writes novel about illegal abortion in the 1960s


The cover of the Blackbird Blues.

Jean Carney sat in a dark room, perched at the top of her chair watching a man hit his palms against a drum in a constant pattern.

The man playing the drums reminded Carney of someone from her past, a boy who would use his hands and feet to make music in a children’s home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He had been sent to juvenile detention for killing his teacher.

As a reporter who covered the children’s court, Carney said she remembers no parent or guardian showing up to his trial. 

“I went to see him many times and I came to the conclusion that he had no idea why he killed his teacher,” Carney said. “He simply did not know.” 

Carney, a 1970 alumna of the College of Journalism, said she was always interested in journalism.

“They did not teach us the mechanics of being a journalist, they taught us how to think and how to ask questions,” Carney said.

Little did she know, her love of writing would manifest in a book called “Blackbird Blues,” coming out Oct. 1.

The fiction book touches on themes of illegal abortion and child abandonment in the 1960s, themes with which Carney became familiar with from past professions and passions. In the novel, the two women tell their individual stories with their connections with unwanted pregnancies.

Carney said she felt like the book wrote itself.

After graduating, Carney worked at the Milwaukee Journal, before it merged with the Sentinel in 1995. She said she was the first woman to cover City Hall.

Carney said being one of the only women at the newspaper shaped her. The men who sat in her section mentored her, and she saw them as “father figures” who taught her the ropes of the newspaper. 

Barbara Koppe was one of the other women who worked with Carney at the Milwaukee Journal.

 “(Jean) was one of the first women to get a major beat,” Koppe said. 

Carney covered a variety of topics, but she said covering mental health institutions was something that really stayed with her.

“You would see people chained to the floor and people screaming,” Carney said.

As a journalist, she hoped to make a contribution that would last longer than a day. 

She decided to pursue a PhD in human development at the University of Chicago and later opened up a private practice in Chicago, where she has been a practicing psychologist for the last 30 years.

Rita Sussman met Carney when they were child psychology externs together at Michael Reeves Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago. Sussman said she covers for Carney when Carney is out of town.

“I think Jean has an extraordinary ability to be empathetic and to fully (be) with the emotional experience of the person she’s with,” Sussman said. 

Carney said all the different paths in her life were connected.

“When you are a journalist, you get people to tell you something and they put it in a paper and tell everyone,” Carney said. “When you are a therapist, you get people to tell you something, and just don’t tell anyone. When you are a novelist, you let yourself speak and tell everyone.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story included incorrect information regarding the publication date of “Blackbird Blues” and the year Jean Carney graduated. The Wire regrets these errors.