On speaking and silence
Updated: Aug 1, 2022
In Pompeii there’s an ancient Roman building that’s often referred to as the Villa of Mysteries. Among its sixty or so rooms, one is particularly well known: a chamber of frescoes depicting what many believe is an initiation into a women's society, theorized by some as a secret Dionysian cult.
It does not look fun.
Each fresco depicts a woman in relation to a series of other figures, some apparently earthly, others holy. There are satyrs and angels, demonic masks and even more demonic looking children and cherubim. With a little interpretive license, these frescoes could pass for horror film storyboard à la Get Out: the film begins when a modest, girlish woman shows up to an alluring new sorority. She's given some funny-tasting food, starts to panic and bolts for the door: but they've locked her in. After a demonic bacchanalia ceremony of some kind, she is broken down and remade into a new queen, cloaked and veiled–one of them.
It’s fitting that the bacchanalia panel is the only one in which a large section is missing. What exactly is done to her, or what was actually done to the women who stayed in this villa, will almost certainly remain a mystery forever. Maybe they just ate mushrooms and made frescos out of their hallucinations. Maybe they fasted for a month, engaged in multi-day wild orgies, or charmed snakes. Maybe they were stone cold sober ascetics and let out all their wild fantasies in their art.
It's impossible to say.
Nowadays every person with a smartphone has the chance to tell their story, hypothetically to billions of people. Politics today feel especially invested in the act of sharing our personal stories. People’s political awakenings are so often tied to breaking silence, breaking taboos, and a desire to feel seen and heard in the fullness of who we are (or, in the latest affront to human dignity coming out of Texas and Florida, in reinforcing taboos and silence with oppressive state laws). The entire social media industry, from the early days of myspace onward, is predicated on the assumption that sharing your story is cathartic, empowering, and even a political act. And it certainly can be.
But the sacred is often unspeakable.
As many readers know, about three months ago my partner and I lost our first pregnancy at 13 weeks. When I wrote the last newsletter, it was just three weeks after our loss, and I didn’t know what to say.
On the one hand, there is a conspicuous silence around pregnancy loss, despite how common it is. Depending on the source, you’ll hear that anywhere between 10-31% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. Some believe it might even be higher than 50%, but most of those losses happen so early they occur before the child-bearer realizes they’re pregnant. And some believe as many as one third of women will experience a miscarriage at some point in their lives, even if they also give birth to healthy babies.
I am not a data scientist, so I won't pretend to have any insight on which number is the most accurate. But my general takeaway from both the data and my own experience is that the journey to make a new life always carries with it the potential to lose it. As author Samantha Hunt said, "[W]hen I first became a mother, having made life, I became obsessed with death."
You wouldn’t know miscarriage is common though based on the literature. After I found out I was pregnant, I must’ve borrowed or bought at least ten books about pregnancy and childbirth, and in each of them the section on miscarriage was about as long as the section for fathers or non-child-bearers: a couple pages. In the way we conceive of reproduction, miscarriage and still birth are literally obscene: they happen offstage, they're non-events. Pregnancy loss, at least in my experience, is portrayed as an off-ramp from the parenthood journey, not part of it. Instead of “baby,” your unborn child is referred to as “the products of conception.” Very often doctors just give you a shot or hand you some pills and send you on your way. That was my experience. “No follow up necessary," they said. “Let us know when you’re pregnant again!” And instead of lab tests and ultrasounds being covered by health insurance (if you’re not one of the 31M people without it), many procedures change category or bundles once the baby is no longer living. In some cases, miscarrying is more expensive than delivering a baby–the fuck?
Our culture has invested a lot of time and study into how to celebrate, worship, care for, dote on, and revere the mothers of living babies (with the gaping exceptions of the U.S.’s paltry parental leave policy and dearth of subsidized childcare). But almost no one, at least in the cultures and countries I’ve lived in, seems to know how to do the same for the mothers of the dead.
In response to this, and because of the internet, many women have taken to social media, blogs, public speaking, and other means of publishing to share their story of loss. But nearly every account I found online was written by a white woman, and most of them had health insurance. One might naïvely think that this demographic is representative of those most affected by pregnancy loss, but proportionally they're not. The risk for miscarriage for Black women has been found to be as much as 40% higher than for white women. Asian women and Latina women have also been found to have higher miscarriage rates.
Like with other miscarriage studies, I don't have the science literacy (nor did I take the time) to find the best number or study. What I read varies. But my unscientific, global inference is that despite the rising army of white female bloggers, a lot of stories remain untold, unheard, or unheeded. Miscarriage remains more or less ob-scenae.
This silence has many causes. A really great article in The Cut details the ways in which our conversations around pregnancy and miscarriage have changed over the past two centuries or so. I highly recommend reading the article in full, but the part that resonated with me was a quote from medical historian Shannon Withycombe, about the ways in which medical advances have contributed to the stigma of abortion:
We arrived at silence because of the triumph of reproductive control and the medical triumph of prenatal care...We ended up with this narrative that every pregnancy is intended and every pregnancy is successful...We are so often told that medicine is so advanced, especially in prenatal care and reproductive medicine [that miscarriage shouldn't happen].
This last point by Withycombe starts to get at why I have felt myself increasingly wanting to talk more about my experience. It seems that the public discourse on childbearing today is only willing to discuss the nice parts: miscarriage is just one of many experiences that is left off the table. But I think part of what makes child-bearing so miraculous is precisely in its less-than-picturesque details.
In the support groups I've attended, we're not allowed to use "graphic language" because it may be triggering. Not one woman has ever asked for clarification on this, because we all know: no blood, no hospital stories, bodily descriptions, or what you saw when you looked into the toilet. Some miscarriages are indistinguishable from having a period. But many confront women face-to-face with realities of their own body in ways that leave them shaken, frightened, and sometimes disgusted. I know from talking to friends pregnancy can and often does the exact same thing.
My miscarriage was one of those confrontations. I experienced labor pangs for over seven hours, culminating in a visit to the emergency room because I was doubled over vomiting in pain. I bled for ten weeks. These details are only a fraction of what happened to me, and they are just a few among millions of stories like it.
But we don't hear or see them. On all the mommy blogs and maternity Instagrams you see the same thing: a skinny, blemishless white woman in a gauzy dress or bikini on a beach looking down at her belly, blissful, as if she's not constipated or unable to sleep or fighting acne or back pain. When we show women giving birth in movies, their little grunts and pants are quaint imitations of the guttural groans, moans, and sometimes howls of women who are at the mercy of one of the strongest muscles in the human body.
I have been so angry over the past few months because I feel I've been made to hold the shadow side of what the world does not want to talk about: that we live in our bodies, but we do not own them. That these bodies are capable of unbelievable feats of strength and tenderness, but they are also made of meat, blood, bile and bone, and capable of great suffering. On bitter days I think we are merely tenants of our bodies, and the Earth is the landlord. On better ones I think of it more like a stewardship.
But in either case, there is in public discourse a stubborn refusal to acknowledge just what is required to make and sustain these bodies, or the fact that all of them will and must die. Holding that shadow side can make you beyond bitter: some days it has made me crone-like in my spite, hateful and wicked in my thoughts. This is what happens with any reality or monster we refuse to face: it only gets nastier and louder with neglect.
But in the time that's passed, I've realized that forcing every single person on the planet (or even every person who runs a pregnancy-related Instagram account) to sit down and listen to my experience in graphic detail would not make me feel better. Telling my individual story over and over again is not what I crave. I don't need an audience: I need integration. Pregnancy loss isn’t painful because the world has yet to receive a play-by-play of my anatomical and emotional journey, but because we do not have adequate social and spiritual mechanisms to integrate this loss into the larger narrative about what it means to reproduce, what it means to have a body.
When someone gives birth to a living baby, there are baby showers, meal trains, christenings, balloons, banners, and email announcements that all integrate the event into the life of the parents’ community. I think what would make many people who’ve lost a pregnancy feel better is if society had the tools and rites of passage to integrate that loss, to hold it and honor it. If most doctors understood the range of physical and emotional sensations that accompany it. If it wasn’t considered an obscene part of pregnancy, or a detour from it, but one of many possible ways a pregnancy can end.
One of the things I did to help integrate this experience into my life was through writing a song, linked below. It's a demo, but the full version will appear on my forthcoming full-length album, Soft Animal, which I’ll be recording this month and releasing some time later this year (you read that right!! More info soon to follow).
The sacred is often unspeakable, but it is still singable.
Till next season,