Writing Infertility: Belle Boggs and Monica Youn in Conversation
On the Continuing Stigma of Reproductive Intervention
Monica Youn is the author of two previous poetry collections, Barter and Ignatz, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. A former lawyer, she teaches at Princeton University and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Belle Boggs is the author of Mattaponi Queen. Her stories and essays have appeared in Orion, Harper’s, the Paris Review, Ecotone, Slate, and many other publications. She teaches in the MFA program at North Carolina State University.
Belle Boggs: Congratulations on all the wonderful and well-deserved attention Blackacre has received, including the long list for the National Book Award! Reading it, I wanted to ask you two kinds of questions—first about the precision of your language and how you approached the book’s structure and organization and research, and second, more personally and maybe more urgently, about your writing about infertility, the concept of “barrenness,” and the desire for motherhood. These two lines of questioning made me think about my own experience as a nonfiction writer—I have something to communicate, but I also care very much about structure and form and language. What do you say when people ask about your goals in writing Blackacre?
Monica Youn: Thanks, and congratulations in turn on The Art of Waiting and all the fantastic press it has received!
My goals in writing Blackacre shifted at different phases of the writing process. The first phase of the book (roughly corresponding to the Hanged Men section) coincided with my initial diagnosis of premature ovarian failure, and all of the personal and marital fallout that ensued. Suddenly a big chunk of my life plan—find a partner, get married, start a family—fell away. At the same time, there were a number of other crises in my family. My parents’ 45-year marriage also seemed to be dissolving, and my mother had reached a breaking point. And then my father-in-law had a fatal accident, leading the family to decide to withdraw life support after an agonizing week-long deathbed vigil. So the Hanged Men poems were my fairly desperate effort to come to terms with all of this turmoil and loss. And what came to mind was the figure of the Hanged Man—both in tarot and in François Villon’s poem, a figure for whom the situation, the world has changed drastically, but who finds in that new perspective a certain calmness.
And then in the second phase of the book (most of the ___acre poems culminating in the Blackacre sequence), we had turned a corner. We had decided to have a child using a donor egg, and most of those poems were written in the second trimester of my pregnancy. In writing those poems, I was looking back on my nearly frantic efforts to conceive over the past 4 to 5 years—efforts that included pretty much every medical and quasi-medical remedy for infertility known to humankind, including failed IUI and IVF cycles. I had become what you call the stereotype of “the desperate, uptight woman who blindly pursues conception at all costs, destroying her relationships and her dignity in the process.” And I was trying to figure out what had brought me to that point. And I concluded that much of the problem hadn’t been simple “baby fever,” but also a sense of the shame of infertility, a shame which you document with great insight and empathy in The Art of Waiting. And I was trying to figure out how that shame had rooted itself in me.
I had similar questions for you. Like my own experience, your experience of infertility and its eventual resolution seems to have taken place in several distinct phases. You explain how each step—temperature charting, hormone supplementation, IUI, then considering adoption, and finally IVF—required you to break down mental barriers, required you to overcome not only practical and financial considerations, but also considerations that seemed ethical in nature, the sense that such “artificial” or “extreme” measures seemed “selfish and wasteful.” I’m sure we’ll talk about those “ethics” later in this conversation, but first I wanted to ask a more writerly question—at what point during this process did you decide to write about it? I was struck by the vividness and detail of your recollections and was wondering whether you were documenting the process in journal or otherwise. And, if so, did the knowledge that you would write about the experience lend you a degree of distance from the experience, allow you to exert control as a writer over a course of events that seemed largely out of your control?
BB: I did take a lot of notes—keeping notebooks, for me, is a habit that gets more intense when I am experiencing something stressful (like medical treatment), and I think the physical act of note-taking, of recording and making observations, makes me feel like I have some control. I can remember one doctor commenting pointedly but not disapprovingly on my note-taking, something like “Oh, you’re one of those patients,” as I lay on an exam table with my feet in stirrups. I also let my doctors know that I was writing about it fairly early in the process, and I suspected that it in some way helped me as a patient. Maybe my emails were answered more quickly? Maybe I was more able to see the same doctor, who had a warm and personable manner, for my appointments? (As I got deeper into the research, particularly about the way poor women have approached the world of fertility treatment, I saw how my power and perceived power plays such a role in treatment and access.)
I also moved through the writing of my book in distinct stages. I started thinking that I’d write only one essay about my experience, for Orion magazine, and researching and writing the essay coincided with the end of a series of unsuccessful IUI treatments. I thought for a while that I was done; it was such a relief to write that essay, and to turn away from round after round of treatment. But I wasn’t ready to give up on having a child, which had also been part of my life-plan for as long as I could remember. So I saw that continuing the research would be a way for me to explore the way other people’s lives were affected by unusual paths to family—ART and IVF, donor egg or embryo, surrogacy, adoption or foster care—and the obstacles they faced on those paths. One of the experiences that was most memorable and useful for me as I worked to overcome my fears of treatment was meeting and spending time with an embryologist in her laboratory. She took such joy in her work, and was so precise and at the same time imagery-driven when she talked about gametes and embryos.
I think your book does a beautiful job of evoking conception at the mysterious and tentative cellular level. The first “Blackacre” is such a heartbreaking poem, beginning “one day they showed me a dark moon ringed / with a bright nimbus on a swirling gray screen.” I know exactly the look of that moon and nimbus, but I also feel the strange and devastating loss of “the next day it was gone”—it’s a loss that we hardly allow any room for mourning, even when “they called it my last chance for neverending life.” Later, in “Prevent,” you describe the “white egg” that “bursts from the ovary and falls away, leaving a star-shaped scar,” and you ask “at what point does this white lacework shift over from intricacy to impossibility, opacity, obstacle”? I wondered, reading these poems and others where you interrogate language and vocabulary—words as varied as “wide” and “yolk” and “need”—about the role of research and precision in your poetry, especially in the fertility poems. Do you start with a question, or a need to know or define something? With an image? With narrative?
MY: For the Blackacre sequence, I didn’t start with anything as concrete as an image or a overarching narrative. I could feel, like a physical presence in my body, the accumulated residue of years of infertility treatments, of perceived failure, disappointment, desperation. And I really wanted to free myself of that presence—that negativity—before my son was born. But in order to exorcise it, I first had to name it.
I could perceive this negative presence most readily in another text—what had always been my safety blanket poem, Milton’s sonnet “On his blindness.” It’s a poem a teacher made me memorize when I was 16, and I’ve always been captivated by it; for decades I had been in the habit of reciting it as a meditation while waiting for elevators, subways, etc. But then, after the infertility diagnosis, the poem, like many other things, lost its comfort for me. I couldn’t look at it without seeing the words “spent,” “prevent,” “useless,” “wide,” “chide,” “denied.” And so I thought I would dig into those words, into what I thought of as the field of the sonnet. And somehow in going to the roots of these words, I could try to understand my own situation.
I was trying to disentangle my own personal disappointment—whatever the pure core of that was—from the social stigma that I mentioned previously. And part of that effort was about the words we use to describe fertility (an agricultural term); barrenness (also an agricultural term); and sexuality (possibly from secare, “to divide or cut.”). How much of what I was feeling had its roots in the division of property, in a system designed to secure an heir to an estate? A system that required woman to be young, fertile, monogamous and thus had to stigmatize age, singlehood, promiscuity? And these stigmatizing terms hadn’t arrived stripped of context, of narrative. They had been embedded in stories, in histories. The wide-eyed Wendy, the quintessential ingenue for whom motherhood is prior to sexuality, is the opposite of the wide-legged Pasiphaë, the calculating, lustful, unfaithful, artificially inseminated wife. The Wise Virgins bask in the approval of the bridegroom, while the Foolish Virgins, who don’t save their oil for the bridegroom, wander the streets and probably don’t stay virgins for long.
I notice you weave similar narratives into The Art of Waiting: Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Lady Macbeth, Miss Havisham, as well as language from your acquaintances, from infertility chat rooms, from Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, and Pope Benedict XVI. I’m wondering whether the recognition of these narratives—of these stereotypes—helped you to overcome your initial reluctance to pursue assisted reproductive technology, to pursue your ultimately successful IVF. You had to overcome not only the logistical obstacles, but also the societal judgment you identify: that “to interfere is to be unnatural, greedy, grasping.” You’ve already explained that notetaking helped you distance yourself from a stressful experience, and how personal interviews with medical personnel helped demystify a clinical, invasive process. I’m wondering whether your ability to identify the societal mechanisms of shame helped you to avoid them or, to the extent you became entangled, to extricate yourself from them.
BB: Yes! I think you illuminate the impulse to look to literature and culture so well, and I definitely share this desire to name the sources of disappointment, of feelings of failure, the roots of shame and social stigma, so that I can move beyond them. Before I started treatment, and even when I was just beginning my earliest treatments, I had the largely unexamined idea that fertility was natural while infertility was not, and this came from a number of places: from literature, from culture, from family stories (my own “natural” birth, I learned only recently from my mother, was not completely unmedicated). It’s so easy to rest on stereotype and received notions of womanhood, fertility, sexuality—also this idea that women who long for a pregnancy that does not happen “naturally” are somehow wanting too much and should be patient and accepting. Pregnancy is supposed to be something that happens to you, something that arrives by miracle; it’s not supposed to be something you actively pursue. I came to believe that this narrative, which is reinforced in some religious teaching and in my insurance plan (!), was essentially anti-choice. Realizing this, and identifying the narratives that now seemed to isolate me, has been very freeing.
In “II. State,” a section of “Blackacre” that begins with a body “scooped out, emptied of need and rinsed clean,” you investigate the word “subjugate” and its origins in surrender, in passing animal-like “under the yoke,” and you write “to bear a yoke is to be bowed down, oxbowed, cowed.” But then the next, completely arresting image of your “feet strapped in stirrups,” but your legs “bent and splayed like the horns of a white bull” seems to take that power back. I can imagine that many women might identify with and appreciate this image—I did. I do.
Still, many readers are so interested in personal history and how it impacts the work. Have people asked you if Blackacre and particularly that sequence of poems would be different if you had not had a child, and if so what do you say to them?
MY: It’s so interesting that you singled out that “horns of a white bull” image. I put that in as a reference to Pasiphaë, but I made it intentionally oblique: I wasn’t that invested in whether readers “got it,” and I didn’t necessarily want to engage with the whole narrative network of Greek myth. I thought of it more as a personal totem; she’s a figure I find fascinating and with whom I in certain ways identify.
I’m afraid you’ve triggered an extended geek out session, so here we go. Pasiphaë is the Queen of Crete who falls in love with a white bull Poseidon had sent from the sea. Her husband King Minos had kept the bull rather than sacrificing it to the god. Pasiphaë commands Daedalus, the inventor, to make her a hollow wooden cow on wheels to trick the bull into mating with her. Having hidden herself inside the cow, she mates with the bull and ultimately gives birth to the Minotaur, in what is certainly one of the earlier examples of assisted reproductive technology. Like most demonized women in Greek myth—Clytemnestra, Medea, Phaedra, Myrrha, Scylla—Pasiphaë’s monstrosity is inseparable from her exercise of sexual and reproductive agency. These demonized women serve as a counterweight to most of the glorified virgins in these narratives who wait passively to be raped or married according to the desires of the male. Pasiphaë is reviled not just for the object of her lust—human/animal mating occurs with some frequency throughout the mythos—but also for the extreme measures she takes to gratify them. By using human ingenuity to take on the form of a cow, she has usurped the role of the male god, who took on the form of a bull to rape a previous queen of Crete, Europa.
So I put in a veiled reference to Pasiphaë at the moment of my son’s conception in Blackacre as an indication of how little things have changed. As you put it in your book, this culture still asks of women who take active measures to have children, “if they choose to intervene, are they defying God? Defying nature?” I remember in the middle of my struggles with infertility, I had dinner with my mother and one of her friends, a highly educated medical doctor, who—unaware of my situation—railed against IVF, which she said went against God’s will. My mother and I stayed quiet. As you point out in the book, contemporary health insurance plans perpetuate this natural/unnatural distinction.
A lot of what I’m doing in Blackacre is mapping this boundary between the natural and unnatural, exploring the question of why “fruitfulness” would ever be thought “wrongful”. And the final resolution—the grafted tree—is intentionally an equivocal image. Can what is “unnatural” truly be “your own”? (A question that, now as a mother, I can emphatically answer “absolutely!”)
So, finally turning to your actual question, I can’t imagine writing the Blackacre sequence without the knowledge that I had passed through this period of barrenness; part of the poem is about examining the means I used to become, artificially, “fertile.” As I mentioned, I had written a large part of the book a couple of years before I finally managed to become pregnant—the Hanged Men poems, the first Blackacre poem (the sonogram poem, not the sequence.) But I don’t know if I would have been able to sustain that mode for an entire book, to remain in that dark room. Even now I have trouble reading that first Blackacre poem aloud. As with you, my life and my book ended up shaping each other.
I’m wondering whether you can imagine what your book would have been like without your decision to pursue your own alternate path to parenthood. Are there parts of the book that you wrote after the initial Orion essay— after your failed IUI’s—but before you had found a path forward? Was there a particular turning point for you that corresponds to a particular point in the book?
BB: I love your answer/geek-out session above, and your insights about the long (long) history of shaming and demonizing women for any sexual and reproductive agency. Pasiphaë’s story and your identification with her deepens the poem for me, but I think I also “got it” through the power of your imagery and the way you broke the stanzas. And yes, what we bring into being, by hard-fought choices and struggles, is absolutely our own. I’m really interested in the false dichotomy we draw between nature and nurture; the way I heard an evolutionary biologist explain this is that we are “natured by our nurture.” In other words, the nurturing that happens after a child is born (or when the child is in utero) is also part of that child’s biology. Epigenetics suggests that, in fact, our environments and experiences can actually alter gene expression—so every child is raised by biological and some would even say genetic parents.
It’s interesting to me that our books came together in such similar ways. I also wrote about half of my book, or maybe a little less, before I was pregnant, in part to find community around my experience of childlessness but also to find answers: why was I resistant to assisted reproduction? Would I have the same resistance if certain barriers (cultural, financial), did not stand in my way? What were the (higher) barriers faced by other people?
The summer after I published the first essay in the book, I thought I was done with medical treatment, though I was still attending my support group. I went to Virginia to be with my mother while she had an unnamed “female” surgery in a rural hospital; she wouldn’t tell me about the surgery, what was being done or why she needed it. I spent the night on a bench in her room as she recovered, thinking about my friends back home from the group, two of them going through their first IVFs. At some point in the evening—very late—I began to hear moaning and crying, and I thought “get these women some pain meds!” But then I heard smaller cries, and joyful exclamations, and I realized that we were in the middle of a maternity ward, and that babies were being born all around us. That experience of being witness to pain, while also feeling the pain of my own outsider status, my fear of exclusion from the communities of women I knew, was one that I knew that I wanted to write about, though I wasn’t sure how, or what the resolution would be, if any.
My mother and I checked out the next morning. Back home in Walkerton we played Grey Gardens, got dressed up and petted and held my mother’s semi-feral kittens. I think that I needed to know that I would be okay if things did not work out as I had hoped, if I did not have a child. The capacity of the world to surprise us—to start the morning in a grim hospital room and end it in my mother’s sunny backyard, someplace I am completely comfortable and completely myself—is so reassuring. To find there something to think about, to write about. That was the moment I knew that I would be okay.