A Mother's Meditation on Loss

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By Peggy Orenstein,
author of "Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night and One Woman's Quest to Become a Mother."
Tuesday, September 16, 2008


A Memoir

By Elizabeth McCracken

Little, Brown. 184 pp. $19.99

Some friends and I used to call ourselves "The Dead Babies Club." We would meet for brunch and talk about our losses -- miscarriages, stillbirths, terminations after amnios revealed acute abnormalities. We may have been a grief-stricken lot, but we weren't going to be a silent one: We wanted to be seen, to be acknowledged, to mark these events that didn't exactly make us mothers, but made us . . . something. And so, we were willfully conspicuous, overly loud. Because we knew: No one wants to hear about your dead baby.

Elizabeth McCracken knows that, too. That's why, in her lovely, crystalline meditation on the nature of grief, motherhood, marriage and France -- a memoir occasioned by the stillbirth of her first son -- she opens with a quip: "Once upon a time, before I knew anything about the subject, a woman told me that I should write a book about the lighter side of losing a child." See, she seems to be saying, this won't be so bad. What's more, she reassures us, a healthy infant lies on her lap as she writes.

I hope those signposts are enough to ameliorate readers' aversion to the subject matter, the excuse that the book isn't for them unless they, too, have borne a dead child. After all, you don't have to be an alcoholic to love Caroline Knapp's "Drinking: A Love Story." Nor do you have to have lost your jaw to cancer to appreciate Lucy Grealy's "Autobiography of a Face." The best memoirs transcend their particulars, offer a fresh look at the bumpy terrain of sorrow, love, youthful folly, aged folly, resilience and selfhood. McCracken's is one of those, and it would be a shame to pass it by because it strikes at one's deepest fears.

The dead baby has a name, by the way: He is Pudding, one of those goofy place-holders you give a fetus after seeing its inscrutable shadow on an ultrasound screen. McCracken, author of the wonderfully weird novel "The Giant's House," tells his story, and hers, with heart and wit, but amazingly little self-pity. Like any woman who loses a child -- say, to a random comet that drops from the sky -- she strafes herself with self-blame. Our bodies, ourselves, our fault, right? Eventually, she displaces that recrimination onto the entire country of France, where she and her husband, Edward, led a classic boho writer's life before Pudding's death. Understandably, she swears she'll never go back. I imagine she will even shun French dressing, french fries, French braids. It seems a reasonable and healthy choice.

And so, a baby has died, but no one is gone. Nothing changes on the surface of McCracken's life, yet, of course, everything is different. She is different. But what does that mean? During the unfathomable, 24-hour period between the time she learns that her son's heart has stopped beating and when she gives birth -- is it birth? -- she wonders what to call herself. Is she still pregnant if her baby is dead? And, more bedeviling, once he is delivered, then who is she? Is she a mother? she asks over and over. Is she a mother?

There is, she realizes, no language for what she has become: At least if your husband dies, you are a widow. What greater torture for a writer than to lose control of her own life's story and then to find that there are no words to name the experience? One of the pleasures (if a bittersweet one) of "An Exact Replica" is that McCracken has let the seams of her creative confusion show. We witness the struggle to restore her narrative integrity, to make visible the invisible, to make readable the unspeakable. "I am that thing worse than a cautionary tale," she muses. "I am a horror story, an example of something terrible going wrong when you least expect it, and for no good reason, a story to be kept from pregnant women, a story so grim and lessonless it's better not to think about at all." Yet tell that story she must; I'm grateful she did.

In the end, of course, McCracken's tale does offer lessons, both mundane and profound: Time does not heal all wounds. Closure is a load of hooey (hallelujah, sister!). All you can hope after tragedy is to go forward, letting loss heighten your ability to love.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company