Memoir is a tricky business, and writers who have not written much about themselves can have a hard time grappling with it. How much should a writer tell? What should be kept private? How should a writer portray his or her own foibles, mistakes, and triumphs on the page, without sounding weepy, stiff and artificial, or far too self-involved?
This problem arises when writers experience something personally that they feel compelled to write about, even if they haven't written much about themselves before. I don't know a lot about the work of the science writer Eugenie Samuel Reich, but a quick scan of her work online suggests she is a journalist, not a memoirist. Yet she has taken on a difficult and personal subject in a recent article on Slate entitled "When is it right to let your unborn baby die?"
Reich chooses to keep her emotions to herself; what she gives us here is a straight narrative of what must have been an awful couple of months. She begins by plunging readers right in to the center of the story:
Twenty-two weeks into my pregnancy, my husband and I sat in one of the exam rooms at Mass General Hospital in Boston, talking with my ob about the possibility of a delivery in the next few weeks.
The fetus was too small for that stage of the pregnancy. The levels of amniotic fluid were low; the environment was drying up. And the placenta was deteriorating. If the baby were to be born then, it would "either die in neonatal intensive care, or survive with a moderate to severe impairment," she writes.
Reich's doctor raises the issue of delivering the baby early, but Reich wonders whether it would be better to let the pregnancy continue until she has a miscarriage. Her doctor asks her to come up with a target weight and gestational age at which she would choose to deliver rather than let the doomed pregnancy continue.
She then clicks back into her reporter's voice, and gives us relevant information about prematurity, neonatal technology, and regional differences in how such cases are handled.
She meets the challenges of memoir reasonably well. I might have expected a bit more about what she was feeling, but the counter argument is that by simply telling the story, she lets the readers feel it, rather than telling them how to feel. And as the piece continues, she tells us much more about how she made her decisions, and what the lessons might be for others in similar circumstances.
It's not giving anything away to say that she ends the piece by saying "some situations don't present any right choices."