Julia Leigh is a novelist and film-maker from Australia who has written an exquisite gem of a memoir of going through unsuccessful fertility treatments, to be published in the UK on 6th October 2016 by Faber & Faber.
Avalanche: A Love Story is a short, compelling read and has stayed firmly (and sometimes unsettlingly) in my mind since I read it a week ago. It has caused a storm of protest over at the New York Times where an author I respected for her honesty about the difficulties of motherhood, Rachel Cusk, hauled Leigh over the coals in much the same excruciating and traumatising way she herself experienced upon the publication of A Life’s Work in 1997. In doing so, she mirrors the experience that many of us childless women know all too well: the trivialisation of our personal tragedy.
As someone who has been at the forefront of being honest about the emotional and social devastation of childlessness for several years now, I’ve a great deal of experience of how very unwelcome raw honesty about childlessness can be for those who’ve never experienced it and don’t wish to acknowledge the pain it can cause. For those with the luxury of denial:
“I didn’t want to tell people because I thought that unless they were involved in that world themselves they wouldn’t want to listen. Or they would only half listen and so diminish my experience. Or they would ask questions that required explanations too complex for conversation. Or they would offer advice based on hearsay and a general theory of positivity. Or I would make them uncomfortable because of my proximity to the abyss. Hush, keep your voice down, don’t mention it by name.” (Leigh: 101)
I consider myself to be in my seventh year of recovery from childlessness, dating it from the day that I acknowledged that I would never be a biological or adoptive mother. I was forty-four and a half and that day will be one that I predict will flash across my timeline when I die. Because it was a kind of death; the death of fifteen years of dreaming, hoping, planning, praying and trying to become a mother. And it was the death not only of having a baby, but of having a family, of having a chance to heal the wounds of my own childhood by doing it differently with ‘my’ children. It meant the end of ever becoming part of the community of mothers that my friends belonged to, and in the bleak future I envisaged, it meant no grandchildren, no-one to be my advocate in old age, no-one to visit my grave and the end of my genetic line. For those who think that you ‘can’t grieve something you never had’ I’d like to offer them this on a plate and see how easy they find it to digest… In fact, without the grieving process to guide us through this wasteland, I have no idea how any of us childless-not-by-choice women would ever get to the other side and find a way to navigate the rest of our lives in a society that finds childless and childfree women abnormal, sad, selfish and somehow ‘not real’ women.
As someone who hasn’t personally experienced fertility treatments but who has supported thousands of women who, like Leigh, have come out the other end of this ordeal without a baby, Avalanche gave me a visceral, first hand account of what it’s like to deal with the process on a practical as well as an emotional level. For example, I knew about the regular self-injections, and have seen photos of it, but it wasn’t until I read Leigh’s account that I could imagine it for myself:
“The advice was to do injections at around the same time each night so I chose 10 p.m. because that way I wouldn’t have to cancel too many evening engagements. Even then, I did have to duck out of dinners early, make excuses. Thankfully, the Gonal-f injection wasn’t too bad. Because it didn’t involve piercing the vein, taking blood from veins, I convinced myself I could manage it. The delivery mechanism was efficient. I swabbed myself with disinfectant, dialled up the amount of hormone on a pen, unwrapped a needle tip from its packaging and screwed it into the pen, then picked a spot on my belly, about two inches below the belly button, either to the right or the left. I laid everything out before me as if I were a surgeon about to undertake a major operation. There was a moment when I had to overcome an instinctive aversion to injecting myself, a bit like the moment I face every time I get into the swimming pool.” (Leigh: 56-7)
It is precisely this level of detail that makes Avalanche so compelling, so feverishly solipsistic. For women gripped by babymania, whether they are actively involved in fertility treatments or not, it is a state of mind we know all too well. In the very first blog I published for Gateway Women in 2011, I named it ‘the tunnel’: a state of mind where every experience, every decision, is mediated through the unrequited lust for a baby, for a family. And yet is precisely this claustrophobic experience that Cusk, in her front page (!) review fails to understand as the genius of this novel, rather than an example of Leigh’s prose ‘faltering’. Cusk claims that the novel is ‘overwhelmed by numbers, data, Kafkaesque interpretations of statistics, invasive medical procedures undergone in a fever of superstition or increasingly untenable hope.’ To me, as the sealed vault of many thousands of similar tales of physical, emotional, financial and spiritual bankruptcy, it has the unmistakable and nightmarish ring of veracity.
When I was first approached to review this novel, I researched Leigh to see if I could find out more about her book before I agreed; I needed to check that it didn’t end, as the vast majority of articles and books on this subject do, with some kind of ‘miracle baby’. And it doesn’t. Instead the ending tip-toes into the territory that I, and many others, have reluctantly been forced to explore – what happens after. In a culture where evil or nasty female characters in films or fairy stories are always childless, and where childless female politicians are viewed with a mixture of pity and suspicion, this is a task that little can prepare you for:
“Soon after I stopped I was haunted by the IVF. All the Googling I’d done about pregnancy-related topics came back in the form of advertisements for things like Clearblue pregnancy detectors or maternity clothes. I took care not to expose myself to painful situation and made a mental note to avoid grocery shopping at 3:30pm, which was also school pickup time when the streets were running with kids. I expect I’ll need to manage the terrain in this way for quite some time. Most of the baby things I’d collected I gave away. There were moments when I wanted to pick up my coffee cup and hurl it against the wall…” (Leigh: 131)
Leigh’s book captures the nightmarish reality of going through IVF treatments, whether you are lucky enough to ‘take home a baby’ as the fertility industry puts it, or not. It also, for me, as a British woman, makes me realise how much worse the experience is for those women who live in countries such as Australia and the USA where it remains unregulated. Many times in the book, Leigh is offered procedures that are fresh from the lab, barely tested, and asked to make her own judgment on whether to add them to her treatment regime. I was shocked, appalled and saddened by her experience at the hands of the medical profession. ‘Do no harm’ seemed to have been replaced by ‘on your own head be it’. By the end of the novel, she reports that her ‘health was a ruin’ (Leigh: 131) and I was not at all surprised, as I know of many women struggling with inexplicable health conditions post-IVF that the fertility industry has yet to acknowledge. We are a generation of lab rats.
As the novel closes, Leigh signals as her new destination, ‘a commitment to love widely and intensely. Tenderly. In ways that I would not have previously expected. I to You; I to We; I to This. To unshackle my love from the great love I wanted to give to my own child.’ (Leigh: 133).
It is an ending that makes me much more hopeful that any number of ‘miracle baby stories’, because in the end, the world cannot but benefit from such courageous love. And it needs it, badly.
This review is part of the Avalanche blog tour, organised by Pamela Tsigdinos of Silent Sorority. To read more reviews by other infertility / childlessness bloggers, check out some of the others below:
- Pamela (US) of Silent Sorority on Huffington Post: Have Fertility Treatments Become a Faustian Bargain?
- Jody (UK) on Gateway Women: The Private Hell of Failed IVF: A Review of Julia Leigh’s Avalanche
- Katherine on Inconceivable: Julia Leigh’s Avalanche and The Perception of Infertility Stories
- Different Shores: Rachel Cusk over-generalises over women, whilst judging them
- Mali (New Zealand) on No Kidding in NZ: Avalanche – A Book Review
- Cristy (US) on Searching for Our Silver Lining: A Journey of Love – Review of Julia Leigh’s Avalanche: A Love Story
- Lesley (UK) on Supporting Childless Women: An Interview with Julia Leigh
- Jessica (UK) on The Pursuit of Motherhood: Australia Day
- Loribeth (Canada) on The Road Less Traveled: Avalanche – A Love Story by Julia Leigh
- Lisa (US) on Life Without Baby: What “Just” Doing IVF Really Entails
- Kinsey (US) on Bent Not Broken: Avalanche – A Love Story
- Sarah (US) on Infertility Honesty: Book Review – Avalanche: A Love Story