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13Nov 2012

A writer chronicles a painful choice.

A premature infant

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."

-Paul Raeburn



Thanks for clarifying how you intend memoir, that is quite reassuring. I've found various definitions online but it had seemed that you were talking about memoir the literary genre, in which  the point is the experience, and events have to be true to the author’s memory but not necessarily as they happened. Here, my story is the connecting thread but I felt the real story was the high-risk pregnancy epidemic and the calls it is forcing parents to make on fetal viability.  In that vein, the piece does report a number of women’s stories aside from my own.  Anyway, thanks for drawing attention to the story!

I think you're defining memoir a bit too restrictively. My definition would be closer to this one I found online

A record of events written by a person having intimate knowledge of them and based on personal observation.

That would seem to me to describe your story.

If you were reporting on another woman who had had a similar experience, it would be a very different story.

I meant no slight; I hope it's clear that I liked your story.

I wrote a book-length memoir myself a few years ago, and while it is based on events of which I had intimate knowledge, I'm not sure I'd agree that I was entirely absorbed in my own perspective. I tried to put my thoughts and views in context. And I did acknowledge that I later came to realize that some of my views were wrong.

Paul, the feelings involved are very clear: I wanted to save my baby, but I also wanted to save my baby pain, suffering and lifelong disability. From there, the story is about the decision whether to miscarry or deliver, which I approached by researching much of the scientific and cultural context that is then reported out in my piece. I think that other parents are likely to value this kind of fact-based reporting on pregnancy and fetal viability (especially but not only because the abortion debate has so abused sentimentality), and that writing about it without elevating my feelings actually makes the story more accessible to those who have had different outcomes, including tragic outcomes, and you see that in the Comments on Slate.  “Memoir” I don’t believe means any use of first-hand experience by a reporter to get into an issue as you use it, but a genre in which the author becomes entirely absorbed in their own perspective, and from that point of view I’d take it as a compliment if the piece doesn’t come across as memoir.

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