Poor Your Soul
by Mira Ptacin
SoHo Press. 2016.
Despite changes that reproductive medicine has wrought over the last half century, the childbearing narrative still unfolds along familiar lines. Conception, pregnancy, and delivery offer a beginning, middle—and an end that is a new beginning. Naturally divided into months, the drama typically ends with a new baby whose adorable qualities will outweigh its constant demands for center stage. But the scenes in Mira Ptacin’s recent memoir do not nest as prettily as Russian dolls.
Early on, the reader of Poor Your Soul understands that this is not just another story of an unmarried woman surprised by a urine test. At the start of her second semester as a graduate student at Sarah Lawrence College in 2008, the narrator meets her future husband Andrew. By April, the 28-year-old finds herself “barefoot and pregnant in New York City,” even though she has been on birth control pills. She is the one percent who land in this predicament, and thinks: “It was as if my body had been wanting and waiting for this and I hadn’t even realized it. Pregnancy. I didn’t find it beautiful. I found it disturbing.” By contrast, Andrew takes the news calmly, and “appears almost glad.” Just one reason why Mira loves him; eight days later they are engaged.
But if the writer despairs that her body is out of control, her command of time more than makes up for it, as she problematizes the chronology to create a compelling, novelistic memoir. Throughout this book, her deft compression and rearrangement of events relieves what might otherwise be a tedious account of a year that is both beautiful and disturbing. Ptacin even maintains dramatic tension in the later sections as she takes readers on a wild tour of the post-procedural-post-partum zone featuring a wedding, marriage counseling, newlywed arguments, a honeymoon, therapies—and eventually the post-post-traumatic path to wellness. The book’s structure has an intriguing, taken-apart quality, like a puzzle you want to solve.
Dislocation in time is echoed in place, as the story shuttles between the now of the (mostly) East Coast to her childhood home of Battle Creek, Michigan. More exotic sojourns include a family visit to Poland (her mother’s homeland), a solitary retreat to California, and a Valentine’s Day honeymoon in Puerto Rico. The last third of the book reveals how Mira and Andrew settle into a new marriage cloudy with baby blues, and take the first unsteady steps toward recovery. Long-distance running becomes the cure and the lasting metaphor for Ptacin’s journey, as the book closes at the finish line of the Chicago Marathon, in October of 2010. Almost out of breath, she writes: “I am in control of my distance.”
Ptacin crafts her narrative arc with masterful intent, superimposing familial and personal history with her present tense journal. Her best reflections are free form. In the whirlwind of planning a wedding between visits to a family practitioner, she longs to feel “Giddy, pretty, glowing, strong, attached.” Instead, Mira discovers something is wrong. The disclosures are candid, clinical, and intolerable. The twenty-week fetus has an irregular heart structure, zero brain development, spinal bifida, and clubbed feet.
As the situation worsens, the narrator broods on how the past informs the present. The most significant of these accumulative reflections involve the loss of her younger brother Julian at age 14. These memories tend to be confessional, as the present collapses under the baggage of a long-ago day when a selfish lapse had permanent consequences. “I’d been a terrible teenager,” she admits, and then dwells on the possibility that her lack of responsibility contributed to his death. She was partying with the wrong crowd when she should have been helping out at her mother’s restaurant, which played into a fatal chain of events. “I try to solve this like it’s a mathematical problem,” Ptacin agonizes, “not yet incorporating into the equation what the outcome would’ve been if I hadn’t left home.” (Mira’s adolescent break seems to lie in the family turmoil of her own attention deficit disorder diagnosis.)
Maria, Mira’s mother, fills the role of best supporting actress. She is a high-energy “pixie with curves. … she wears sleek dresses with high-heeled shoes and an apron when she’s working.” The everyday courage with which Maria faces the loss of her son gives dimension to the through-line, a longer perspective, words to live by. Her daughter remembers how “She got out of bed, ate, exercised, bathed, dressed, and went to work. She cooked.” Her malapropism, “Poor your soul” provides the title. It is how she scolds her children. Mira translates: “If those weeds are not cleaned up in two minutes, then I feel sorry for your poor soul because it is going straight to hell.” Such a model of tough love!
Ptacin also shares her spiritual journey. In Chapter 11, Mira is in her second trimester, and must decide whether or not to continue the pregnancy. She has come by herself to a writing retreat at Lake Tahoe, to a mountain plateau. The topography provides an apt, natural analogy for her choice of whether to terminate or not. Here is a landscape of decision. Reading a tourist brochure she thinks: “I see the words on the page as metaphors for my current situation: formed by a series of large faults, capable of large magnitude earthquakes, located within Desolation Wilderness, the youngest deformation belt.” Living with her decision shapes the final third of the book; for Mira and Andrew, though, the unborn child the genetic counselor referred to as “it” will always be “Lilly.”
The prospective reader need only look at the subject headings on the verso to see that Poor Your Soul is not light reading. Consider the fifth: “Children—Death—Psychological Aspects.” Thankfully, the writer’s biography on the jacket moves beyond the agita and exhaustion of the later chapters, to a peaceful reality. (Mira, Andrew, and their healthy second child were living on an island in Maine when the book went to press.)
This unique memoir seems to add a vital chapter to the literature on the crazy-making reproductive choices that women struggle with. The narrator lives through more than her share and survives to tell the story. I’ll find a place for Poor Your Soul beside these maternal classics: Leslie Morgan Steiner’s provocative essays, Mommy Wars; Erma Bombeck’s comic and poignant Motherhood: the Second Oldest Profession; and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s comforting meditations, Gift from the Sea.
The personal narrative guru Vivian Gornick has said: “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.” I only know Mira Ptacin from this memoir, but as a mother and writer, I give her five stars—for the telling and the living.