Since reading her personal essays in Guernica and The Rumpus, I have been waiting for Mira Ptacin’s memoir, which would paint large all that her stunning prose began to say about how motherhood starts and sometimes stops. When my pre-ordered copy finally arrived this January, I opened the brown box with eagerness and slight trepidation. I had already devoured literary memoir’s short cannon on neonatal loss, namely Elizabeth McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination and, more tangentially, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water. But this was the first I knew of about a termination for medical reasons, the only example I could hold in my hands of book publishing validating what was also my first form of motherhood.
This memoir is about reproductive rights during a time in the United States when those hard-earned laws are being scrutinized and restricted in dozens of states, threatened by Congress, and, as of this March, challenged before the US Supreme Court.
The publication of Mira Ptacin’s memoir is not first and foremost, however, a political act. It is first and foremost, a story of her life, which spans her upbringing in Battle Creek, Michigan, and eventual move to New York City to become a writer. It is an immigrant story, as Ptacin also charts the life of her mother, who was born in Poland, as was the brother Ptacin’s parents adopt after having her and her sister, and who dies suddenly as a teenager. It is about maternity and its various forms—pregnancy, adoption, mourning, egg donation even. As the author herself bills the book, it is about “the uterus and the American dream.”
What first appears on the page, however, is motherhood denied. Ptacin, from the shower in their tiny Manhattan apartment, asks her partner, Andrew, for frozen cabbage leaves to relieve her breast milk engorgement. The scene at once communicates their intimacy, as well as her authorial willingness to invite us into the harsh aftershocks of this sudden absence. “I don’t need the milk because there is no baby. All that’s left is the milk,” writes Ptacin, telling us—before she reveals much of anything else about herself—that her baby is gone. The tone is factual and forthright, going on to confess that she is tired, angry, embarrassed when her milk leaks, her sex drive all but gone. “What good is a sad, broken machine?” she asks.
Its goodness is in telling this, her story. I can claim so because I once sat on my mother’s back deck with two ice packs tucked into my sports bra, long after the cabbage leaves kept wilting against my skin under that June, California sun. I know about milk that must be dammed instead of used. I know what it’s like to feel ruined, perhaps permanently.
As the rest of the story unfolds, much of it is about how we not only lose, but also find one another. Of her blind date with Andrew, Ptacin writes, “I stepped onto one specific square of sidewalk in New York City where I met my match.” Three months later, at age 28 and while on birth control, she learns she is pregnant. Despite misgivings about being ready for motherhood or disappointing her Catholic parents, she intends to have this baby. “We’re still getting to know each other while we’re buying baby books,” she writes of pregnant courtship. “I don’t even know what he thinks about God, or Christmas, or nursing homes, or rodeos.” But they are in love and will marry—and we as readers already know their baby’s fate.
Poor Your Soul’s narrative structure stalls the gravity of this fate, as Ptacin continues to weave her backstory with that of her mother, Maria, who we see in Poland as a daughter, sister, and physicist, and in the United States as a wife, mother, and restaurateur. We even owe the book’s title to Maria’s voice—her choice in translation provides a refrain that serves both as warning and as sympathy. We as readers feel for Maria’s soul because as we are also told before arriving there on the page that she becomes a grieving mother. When we do reach this tragedy, it comes in searing prose and with the urgency of the present tense, in step with the majority of the book. We sense a maturity in the writing that mirrors the maturity summoned in the young girl by the loss of her brother: “The past few days feel as if everyone has been underwater, idly swaying like the slow limbs of a sea anemone. The life that surrounds us has been muffled. We are woozy, and our reaction time is slow. We talk in a strange staccato rhythm like the snapping claws of crabs.” Of the funeral, she writes, “I see my mother. Mom’s lipstick. Always on, always red. She has lost the boy she had saved. She has lost her son. . . . I finger the moist Kleenex in my pocket. It tears and rolls into tiny balls that stay in my pocket for years to come.” A metaphor, there, for the grief we always carry with us.
Remarkably, however, Poor Your Soul does not amount to a heavy-handed treatise on grieving because Ptacin also illustrates two whole lifetimes of struggles, rebellions, and passionate pursuits leading up to these losses. I can’t even say this is a book about the long haul of grief as much as it is about the pace and happenstance of female lives, their tragedies included. And those tragedies, coupled liked this, offer a reader like me two ways of surviving our children.
By this point we know well the posture of the book, the backbone of its author’s childhood spent at her chef mother’s restaurant and her doctor father’s hospital, as well as the smell and temperature of the midwestern place that first made her. That knowledge is a blueprint of memoir and also, as it turns out, for the quick succession of life and death the author will one day experience becoming a mother. Because it is at their anatomy scan that Ptacin and Andrew learn that their baby has “a constellation of birth defects” and is “unviable outside the womb.” Ptacin as mother is presented with three choices: terminate the pregnancy in a week, do nothing while the baby might die in utero, or induce early and deliver in a month.
When my son was diagnosed with a fatal heart defect at my anatomy scan, I also had three choices. I also grappled with what awful choice would feel the least so. In Ptacin’s grappling, she admirably holds nothing back. Her retrospect does not alter the reservations she has had about motherhood, that she had been waiting for the day when “relief and love would take over” and is now waiting to make up her mind about in which way “this sweet and scary, gigantic and tiny new kind of love growing inside me won’t be developing much more.” Ultimately, Ptacin and I reached different decisions. What was most terrifying for her felt the least so for me, and vice versa.
With Poor Your Soul, I have found solidarity as well as profound difference. Freedom of reproductive choice as it currently stands allows for just that. It allows me to choose to labor, deliver, and hold my first child stillborn, and for Ptacin to choose another ending. Just as she does not shy away from honesty in her grappling, she now invites us into the rooms of her decision—where and how it begins, the pain, the days it spans. She doesn’t let herself or her reader get away with anything short of her entire truth.
This honesty, and how it is and isn’t similar to my own version of it, should remind us that each choice is personal, that one version of the story is not all. In order for us to respect one another’s, however, we cannot permit any other body—a church, a politic, a parent, a memoirist—to invalidate the choice that was best for our bodies and our babies. As Ptacin writes of a young mother who made the third choice (induce labor): “That was hers. Not mine. She had the moments and experiences that came before her loss, and the moments and experiences before the baby, and the moments and experiences before those. I’m not her, just like she isn’t me.”
I might add that I’m not Mira Ptacin, just like she isn’t me. I am grateful to her for demystifying one of the most devastating choices a parent will ever have to make. My ultimate hope is that those who aren’t personally touched by this kind of choice may now understand it better because they are allowed a wide view of this author and all the moments and experiences that led to hers.