Each Illuminating the Other

I’m not often a hate-reader. I find there’s enough in the world to piss me off without going looking for it. I know people who hate-read blogs, magazines, newspapers, and probably sometimes books, and these are the source for much of what they write. I see absolutely nothing wrong with this if it helps you think and form your ideas. I further expect that the idea isn’t foreign to many of you, but it’s just not something I’m generally into.

I am, however, prone to sad-reading: reading books that provoke the deep blues. Now, I’m no Sally Sparrow; I don’t think sad is “happy, for deep people” or some such hipster adage, and I don’t seek sadness for some kind of elevating function. I just find that reading something devastatingly sad can pull me out of a funk by pushing me to a full-on emotion and not just that middle ground that can be such a quagmire. In that kind of mood, lighthearted things just make me cranky that I’m unhappy, but a sad book is like a reset button.

I picked up An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken during one of these periods. The book is a memoir of a woman whose first foray into motherhood is through the shortened story of her stillborn son. This book is not for the reader for whom frank conversations about grief after the loss of a child will be triggering, and I warn that the rest of this review may be triggering, as well. At the same time, this is a beautiful book, and if you’ve reached a point in your grieving where reading another’s account is bearable, I really recommend it very highly for its frank examination of grief as an internal experience and of the way people interact with those who are grieving.

Exact Replica follows the story of Elizabeth McCracken, her husband, and their son, who seemed perfectly healthy in utero but died within days of his anticipated arrival. The baby was named Pudding, the joke name the couple gave him during the pregnancy. After his birth, they decided not to supplant the name he had while alive with a name that would only be used in his death, and so “Pudding” is the name by which he is known in her memory and in this book.

Elizabeth tells us about her pregnancy and, in our own pregnancy writer’s words, “the stranger inside her,” the ways she came to know him through his physical presence and through the ways she and her husband imagined the future they would have as a newly-minted family of three. She describes the way her mind would wander years into the future, creating the person she thought Pudding would one day be. We navigate the twisted road of her grief at the loss of this future, at her conflict over whether to consider herself (and let or make others consider her) a mother when there was no child to parent.

The catch of this book, and what makes it so much more than a story about a stillbirth, is the juxtaposition of Elizabeth’s past pregnancy and Pudding’s short life with the new life of her second baby. The memoir was put on hold during this second pregnancy and completed almost entirely with this second baby on her lap, while she shares the story of her eldest child with her youngest. Life has gone on for Elizabeth, but she discusses a fact of grief quite frankly throughout the story. This quote from the first chapter really sets the tone of the rest of the memoir:

Now I think what that woman in Florida meant is: lighter things will happen to you, birds will steal your husband’s sandwich on the beach, and your child will still be dead, and your husband’s shock will still be funny, and you will spend your life trying to resolve this.

I’ve never lost a child, but I’ve known grief and depression and the way sometimes one becomes the other but they just don’t work like people think they will. We carry grief like an old injury that twinges and sometimes aches when the weather is right. It never goes away, even when it’s not showing, and while sometimes it gets too painful to face, other times it’s something you can mostly ignore. The knowledge that it’s still there, though, waiting to poke its nose out at you, never really leaves you. This idea reminds me of one of my favorite episodes from the most recent season of Doctor Who, “Vincent and the Doctor”. The conclusion of this episode is a similar evaluation of depression, in the idea that good things don’t negate bad things in life, but bad things don’t negate good things, either. They exist always side-by-side, each illuminating the other.

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination: A Memoir / Elizabeth McCracken. Back Bay Books (Reprint Edition), 22 February 2010. U.S. $12.99

Cover image from Amazon. Post image: Starry Night by TobanBlack on flickr.

8 replies on “Each Illuminating the Other”

I’m TOtally with you on the sad reading as a reset button. (Sometimes). (Sometimes I try it but just keep spiraling down anyway, not quite ready to be reset.) I wish I was more reliable.

But since the Beans (and, yes, the journey it took to get to have the Beans) I can’t read this kind of thing. I can’t read about miscarriages or young children’s death, illness or abuse. I literally feel sick. Even thinking back to things I’ve read before sets me off. I’m hoping I won’t always be like this, quite so sensitive to it (I never was before—SAD WAS MY JAM!) but now? I just can’t. (I read half of a review of “Room” and had to stop reading because I felt nauseous. For real.)

You’re one of the major reasons I put the warnings in before I got into too much description. I was a little leery of doing this review, honestly, because I knew more than one of the readers would be sensitive to the topic for one reason or other, but I loved the book and wanted to share it.

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