By Elizabeth McCracken
Reviewed by Bromleigh McCleneghan
Writing Workshop Participant ’11
Back Bay Books, 184 pp., $12.99
The novelist Elizabeth McCracken is not a religious person, per se. On the question of the existence of God, she is “as neutral on the subject as is possible.” But her memoir about her pregnancy and the stillbirth of her first son bears witness to the transcendent in its exploration of love, grief, and hope.
It feels strange so deeply to love a book about so sad a story, and to laugh out loud at the tale of a baby who died before he was born. Even as I mourned with McCracken, I gave thanks for her book. She has given a great gift to those of us who are called to speak and sit with people who grieve. Her sensitive reflection and beautiful language trace the contours of a devastating loss in a way both particular and deeply embodied, and yet pointing to the universal aspects of this experience.
The writer is in her 30s, living with her writer husband (whom she describes as having been “ordered from Barnes and Noble,” in the perfect telling of their brief courtship) in southern France during this first pregnancy. She is both overjoyed and superstitious. She lives for the too-far-in-between opportunities to hear the baby’s heartbeat.
Readers are told of the baby’s death in the memoir’s first pages. The grieving couple is told they must provide a name for the birth/death certificate; the pregnancy endearment “Pudding” is the name the little boy has had over the nine months of his life, and now has for eternity.
McCracken also gives us cause to hope: she has another baby. She must know—as pastors offering words of assurance in tandem with prayers of confession do—how difficult it is to bear grief, to explore it, without hope. Her revelation of her second son’s existence allows us to delve with her into the depths of loss. She preemptively silences the platitudes that rise in our throats in protest of the tragedies we encounter. The book is gracious, its black humor divinely inspired. But it convicts any of us who have abandoned those who suffer and grieve. If platitudes are wrong, silence is as bad—if not worse.
Though a memoir is not an instruction manual, those who grieve and those who encounter grief will find wisdom in McCracken’s story. Summing up both the recovery from and the persistence of loss, she writes, “It’s a good life, and someone is missing.”
Bromleigh McCleneghan is associate pastor and director of Christian education at Baker Memorial United Methodist Church in St. Charles, Illinois. Bromleigh attended the Collegeville Institute’s summer writing workshop Writing and the Pastoral Life in 2009, and Apart, and Yet a Part in 2011.