A child dies in this book: a baby. A baby is stillborn. You don’t have to tell me how sad that is: it happened to me and my husband, our baby, a son. -From An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, page 6-
Author Elizabeth McCracken lived briefly in France, with her husband, in her early thirties. It is there she conceives her first child – a son named Pudding – and begins to dream of his life and how it will enrich her life. And then the unthinkable happens. In her ninth month of pregnancy, the child she and her husband have been anticipating dies. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination is the story of loss and how one woman moved through it.
Elizabeth McCracken has written a stunning memoir from the heart – a love letter of sorts to her first son and her husband. Her writing is never maudlin, yet is profoundly moving – and despite the bleak subject matter, it even manages to be funny at times. But it is McCracken’s honesty which makes the memoir powerful. She never pads the emotions or avoids the uncomfortable – instead she takes the reader through one of the most devastating years of her life with candor and grace. Lest the reader shy away from the book because a baby dies, it would be remiss of me not to mention that a child is also born and lives in this book…an event that is at the same time joyous, healing and bittersweet.
I will admit that this book hit me like a sledgehammer. It sent me reeling. I felt blindsided by the intense emotions it stirred up for me…because I lost a child too. No, I have never been pregnant. My loss arrived through infertility. And McCracken’s prose resonated with me. She writes about other women’s pregnancies after her unbearable loss:
Still, I wouldn’t have minded a pause in the whole business. A sudden harmless moratorium on babies being born. Doctors would have to tell the unfortunate pregnant, “I’m sorry. It happens sometimes. Tidal, we think. For everyone else, nine months, but for you, eleven months, maybe a year, maybe more. Don’t go outside. Don’t leave your house. Stroke your stomach, fine, but only in your own living room. Keep your lullabies to yourself. We’ll let you know when it’s time.” -From An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, page 43-
No, I insist: other people’s children did not make me sad. But pregnant women did. -From An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, page 111-
She writes of that horribly destructive behavior called Blame which threatens to stand in the way of moving forward through grief:
Blame is a compulsive behavior, the emotional version of obsessive hand washing, until all you can do is hold your palms out till your hands are full of it, and rub, and rub, and accomplish nothing at all. And so we grieved but looked straight ahead. -From An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, page 143-
I found myself nodding in agreement when McCracken spoke of the pain of answering those innocent questions about children posed by unsuspecting strangers. She wishes for a stack of cards she can hand out which say ‘My first child was stillborn‘ whenever a person coos over her second son and asks, “Is this your first?” How I wish I had a similar stack of cards reading “I am infertile” for every time someone asks if I have children.
I want people to know but I don’t want to say it aloud. people don’t like to hear it but I think they might not mind reading it on a card. -From An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, page 73-
Yes. I agree.
McCracken’s great gift is that she reveals to her reader her deepest sadness, and her greatest hope. And in the end, she leaves us with a message which can sustain those who have experienced intolerable loss:
It’s a happy life, but someone is missing. It’s a happy life, and someone is missing. -From An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, page 184-
This memoir is highly recommended, but with a cautionary note. I believed I had accepted my childlessness until I began reading McCracken’s words. I found myself closing the book often to weep, and yet I kept going back to read again. For women who have either lost a child or have never been able to conceive, this is a difficult book to read – but, it is also a hopeful book and one which reminds us we are not alone in our grief.