Review: ‘After Birth’ by Elisa Albert.
In 2013, there were murmurs of a new feminist manifesto emboldening women across the nation, reviving a stalled second-wave feminism. You might have heard it whispered by the women leaving book club meetings, heard it from the lips of Sheryl Sandberg herself, heard it from its weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list. Lean in, they said. Forget maternity-leave policies, forget the income gap, forget the corporeal necessities of your children or yourself, and lean in.
Ari, the narrator of Elisa Albert’s “After Birth,” has, effectively, leaned out: sequestered in a dreary upstate New York town with her ineffectual professor husband and year-old baby, she has all but abandoned her PhD dissertation on “Algorithms of Girl.” It’s been a year since she gave birth to her son via emergency C-section, but she is still plagued by the trauma of “effective disembodiment,” the forced experience of being “severed from hip to hip, iced, brutalized, catheterized, tethered to a bed.” Profoundly alone in her “shitbox town,” deep in the throes of postpartum depression and possibly PTSD, relief comes in the form of Mina Morris, legendary ex-Riot-Grrrl rocker turned poet, first nine-months pregnant then a newly minted single mother. United by their isolation and confusion, Ari and Mina form an alliance that exceeds friendship: a partnership, a radical union of shared breastfeeding and generous intimacy, the “raft of women” Ari imagines might have shared in the rearing of each other’s children a hundred years ago.
Ari’s relationship with Mina, and her relationships with all women, is complex. She forms intense, consuming friendships with women she idealizes, only to be betrayed by their humanness. Her feelings towards women are angry, traumatized, shrouded in loss. The same could, in fact, be said of her feelings towards almost everything. Albert roots her narrative deeply in Ari’s consciousness, so her alienation, her anger, her confusion and her pain are profoundly felt. Albert’s prose is carnal, severe, a well of interiority and witty, excruciating truth. It is fiercely human. Her cadences are stilted, disjointed, alive despite Ari’s feelings that she “had died, was dead, only a ghost, not fully gone.” Her sentences breathe Ari’s postpartum trauma: birth is “a nightmare blur of newborn stitches antibiotics awake constipation tears wound tears awake awake awake limping tears screaming tears screaming shit piss puke tears.”
But Ari’s trauma does not exist in isolation: it is descended through the maternal line, from her depressed, “bitch from hell” mother, long dead from DES-induced cancer, and by her grandmother, tormenter of her tormentor, a survivor of brutal Nazi rape in Auschwitz. Ari’s mother and grandmother are omnipresent apparitions, her mother’s voice chiming in to admonish Ari for her failures as a parent or wife, and her grandmother’s repeated rape cleverly conflated with Ari’s—and her own—forced, involuntary C-section. (“You were raped,” Mina tells Ari outright.) Ari imagines her grandmother “strapped down, drugged and thrashing, crying out” in an alien American hospital, “tied to a bed in a different country, begging someone to help her in a language no one could understand.”
Implicit here is the trans-generational PTSD so many Holocaust survivors bequeath on their children. Ari’s third-generation PTSD is borne not only of her grandmother’s savage treatment by the Nazis, but also of the savagery of systematic medical intervention. Ari views the industrialization of childbirth as systematic abuse as opposed to necessary medical intervention, responsible for her postpartum dysphoria, as well as her grandmother’s suicide.
It is evident that Albert, a doula and an outspoken critic of the medical industrialization of childbearing, is writing from a particular theoretical perspective: Ari criticizes second-wave feminism’s “bullshit” calls to “defeat the body and be liberated from it,” and makes reference to both Barbara Ehrenreich’s work on medical intervention in childbirth, and Adrienne Rich’s influential Of Women Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. It is easy to see how, in a lesser writer’s hands, this novel could have become a preachy, sanctimonious polemic. But Ari’s close, honest, rage-and-grief-filled interiority saves the novel from becoming a dissertation, replete with academic sources and statements like, “Feminism without focus on the body, the soul, the relationship between the two—biologically female bodies with distinctly female struggles—is of no interest to me.” In Ari’s point of view, these sorts of declarations feel characterizing: Ari is writing her dissertation in Women’s Studies, she’s a feminist, she’s angry and unwavering and as sharp in her insights about everything from menstruation to Jewish summer camps as she is about industrialized childbirth. There is no room for dissent in Ari’s psyche. Either you are with her or against her and, ultimately, all women.
Those who are against her include the women in her family, her husband’s colleagues, the members of women-only groups who inevitably “rip each other to shreds,” and the second-wave feminists, with their refusal to admit that “living in these female bodies is different. More terrible and more wonderful.” These are the women for whom childbearing is a vanity project, or the women pulling their pantyhose over their still-distended bellies, shoving their kids into daycare at three months and rushing back to work, the women determined to “make it to the Oval Office, win, win, win.” These are the women who are leaning in. One might imagine that if Ari met Sheryl Sandberg, she would swiftly flip her off.
Marianne, Ari’s thesis advisor, dismisses novels as “a rehearsal, an avoidance of politics and activism and rage and grief. A way for the writer to remove herself from the real problem.” Albert doesn’t avoid anything: she has created, in Ari, a character who will shout her politics, her activism, her rage, her grief—scream it, spit on it, burn it at the stake. Ari refuses to adhere to the rules of a culture that insists women shut up about their traumatic births and their sadness and isolation. She refuses to present birth as sanitized, mysterious, some sort of gratifying miracle. She is not the woman sending out mild-mannered birth announcements pronouncing that baby and mother are doing fine, resting well, feeling okay. If Ari were to have a birth announcement, it would read: “Why so numb, so enraged, so broken?” She is incapable of glossing over the gory corporeal details—or the gory psychological details—of new motherhood, and, consequently, what erupts from her psyche is refreshing, fierce, piercing truth. “We’re as fearful of childbirth as we are of death,” she says. “Why else do we do everything to try and numb and control it? Why else does no one talk about it?” Elisa Albert is talking about it, and everyone should be listening. ✧
Lisa Metrikin is the Editor in Chief of The Brooklyn Review. She is a second-year fiction MFA student at Brooklyn College, where she also teaches. Her fiction has appeared in the Monarch Review, Independent Ink Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a native of Toronto, Canada. Previously, she worked in editorial and marketing at several early-stage tech startups. Follow her on Twitter @LisaSkapinker.