Difficult Reading


The New Yorker summer fiction issue arrived this week, and since it’s been a busy few days, my husband got to it before I did.  He then warned me not to read Aleksander Hemon’s essay “The Aquarium: A Tale of two Daughters.” I should have listened. And ultimately I did.  I found Hemon’s account (which, fiction issue aside, is nonfiction) of losing his nine-month-old baby to a fast-growing malignant brain tumor impossible to finish. I started skimming rather than reading, then just allowing my eyes to take a kind of snapshot of the page, and finally had to put the magazine aside.  Since becoming a parent a little more than five years ago I have zero ability to handle stories like this. Having baby number two last fall in no way helped. This reaction is a little embarrassing, but it’s so primal, so non-negotiable, that I suspect this is some Darwinian adaptation at work here. That in the interests of remaining sane, and for the furtherance of our species, parents (mothers?) simply cannot dwell too long in thoughts of tragedy, calamity and terrifying loss. This way madness lies.  Or maybe it’s just me. In the on-line magazine The Millions, a pregnant Edan Lepucki describes reading any number of books that she’d been warned to avoid. www.themillions.com/2011/05/the-perils-of-reading-pregnant.html.

Before I was a mother, I represented a pediatric emergency room doctor whose stories of the ER were as powerful as they were beautifully written.  I could not, however, sell his collection. I’ve since come to understand why. I doubt I could read them myself now.  It doesn’t help (and maybe even makes me something of a hypocrite) that I’m the sort of person who believes we ought not shy away from subjects that are “just too hard,” on the grounds that the compassion or awareness we awaken when we read about the awful stuff that happens in this world can sometimes motivate us to ameliorate it, but here’s a place where my logic is overruled by my gut. Am I alone in this? I’ve heard wonderful things about Elizabeth McCracken’s  An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination: A Memoir, but I don’t know if I can hack it.

10 Responses to Difficult Reading

  1. Melissa says:

    I agree with you 100%. Motherhood led me to the Romance section of the bookstore. A momma’s heart must be happy and light.

  2. I read Elizabeth McCracken’s book because of our shared experience. I honor and respect her ability to put into words a subject that, for all my fluency with language, I find myself unable to write about. But I don’t expect such books to find general readership — who would willingly step into those shoes, no matter how compassionate you wish to be? — but I have asked some among my closest friends to read it, in the way I may read books about cancer or autism to understand their lives more deeply and fully.

    There’s also a difference between educating yourself when you are pregnant — far more pregnancies end prematurely than people generally are aware — and frightening yourself unnecessarily. Knowledge is good for pregnancy; fear is not.

    Compassion is good at all times, but not if it arises out of a sense of obligation. Motherhood is hard enough without taking on someone else’s pain. Don’t worry – we who have been through it find each other.

  3. Mardi Link says:

    No, you are certainly not alone in this feeling. Although my block is for sad horse stories and not sad baby stories, I have some idea what you mean. After losing a horse in a road accident I can’t read horse books anymore and certainly can’t do movies, either. Not even happy ones like Secretariat. (At least, my friends tell me its happy.) Give me a good Jack Reacher thriller, that’s what I’m up for right now!

  4. EEV says:

    I not a mother yet, but I understand you. I actually find myself getting more and more selective, not only with what I read, but in everything. I guess the more we mature, the more our taste become peculiar. That’s why there’s so many different books on market – plenty of choice.

    – EEV

  5. You are not alone. I absolutely cannot listen to stories of tragedy involving children. It’s too close to my heart, and I need lightness and hope in order to function. I believe you are right, it is pure biology at work.

  6. ElleKeen says:

    So not alone. I watched “Life is Beautiful” when my 9 month old baby boy took a nap. I cried so hard through the last half I gave myself a raging headache. It made me physically sick to watch the end of the movie. I’ll never watch it again.

  7. I’m not a mother, but I know quite a few who would probably have the same reaction to you, because the mere thought of anything bad happening to a child, but their child, makes their hearts hurt, sometimes to the point of physical pain and nausea. And I know a few who might want to read such stories to empathize, or gain some strange form of catharsis, although their numbers are fewer.

    I think everyone has issues that trigger them, and make it difficult or impossible to read books on that subject. For a lot of parents, this is probably it. I have a really hard time reading about people cheating on each other, although my reaction isn’t quite as visceral as yours. For some people it’s rape, for others it’s domestic abuse, for others it’s the loss of a pet. So you are very much not alone.

  8. Julie Nilson says:

    Since I had kids, I haven’t been able to stomach stories about bad things happening to children–especially not if the “bad things” are perpetrated by an adult. There’s already more than enough to be upset about in the real world, so I choose not to seek it out in my reading.

  9. Becky Taylor says:

    Even a random thought about either of my children suffering or hurting can bring on a huge crying jag. And I don’t mean their idea of suffering (not getting what you want or having to do what you’re told) I mean disease, pedophiles, cruelty, death–my idea of suffering. It doesn’t help any that I also work with children who are often in the process of getting out of or recovering from horrible circumstances and so I have very, very clear ideas about the fact that–Yes, it does happen. It happens every day to children who don’t deserve it and are usually powerless to stop it.

    No, I can’t read about it for leisure. Case files are enough. Even this post is making me want to cry.

    But it’s also true that I was no where near this sensitive before having children.

  10. jean michel says:

    As a father of two young children I approached Aleksandra Hemon’s piece with caution. But knowing Sascha’s writing, and having heard friends and colleagues talk about the piece in hushed tones, I couldn’t help but read it.

    I wept throughout the last third and am left shellshocked by the experience. I well-up at the very thought of it. It’s a piece of writing that will haunt me forever. I can’t put the genie back in the bottle but I’d feel dumb as hell if I’d missed out on reading such an extraordinary piece of writing simply because it might upset me (which it certainly did). That said, I have warned my own wife that she may not want to read it. And in a way I sort of hope she doesn’t.

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