In 2013, Ariel Levy published her critically acclaimed essay Thanksgiving in Mongolia in The New Yorker, recounting the experience of giving birth to her baby at five months, alone in a hotel room in Mongolia, and ultimately losing him. “For ten minutes I was somebody’s mother,” she says. That feeling was impossible to come to terms with when she returned home, and the culture of silence surrounding miscarriage rocked her. “I felt like: why doesn’t anybody talk about this? This is an incredibly intense experience that a lot of women have. And when it happens to you there’s no literature about it, there’s very little, so you feel insane.” For Levy, this taboo extends to the entire animal experience of being a woman: menstruation, fertility, childbirth, child loss, menopause—all things to be whispered, not discussed. Listening to Levy make this broad experience of loss deeply personal and public is incredibly moving. Ariel Levy’s memoir The Rules Do Not Apply, is out now.
Ariel Levy: When I was 38 I accepted an assignment in Mongolia and I had been writing stories for The New Yorker, and before that New York magazine, for 20 years and this was going to be the last adventure like this for a while because I was about to start on another kind of adventure: I was five months pregnant and I was about to have a new kind of life. And I wasn't worried about it. My doctor had said it was fine to fly until the third trimester and I was not concerned. But the second night I was in Mongolia I went into labor in my hotel room and I gave birth and for ten minutes I was somebody's mother. And when I got home from Mongolia I was so sad I could barely breathe and friends or women who knew what had happened to me would take one look at me and literally burst into tears. And I actually understand how that felt for them now because now women come to my readings and things and I see them and I look at them and I immediately know what they're going to tell me. They have a particular kind of look; they just look blown apart.
The reason I wrote about it in this essay for The New Yorker called 'Thanksgiving In Mongolia' was that I felt like: why doesn't anybody talk about this? This is an incredibly intense experience that a lot of women have. And when it happens to you there's no literature about it, there's very little, so you feel insane, you feel like a crazy person that you're having that level of grief for a baby who wasn't even quite a baby, and are you the only person who's having this reaction to this experience? The answer is no. At this reading that I gave for my book The Rules Do Not Apply last week in San Francisco this lady raised her hand and she was like, "I have three children who are alive; I've lost four babies; I'm at 77 years old and I miss every one of them." And that was amazing to me. I mean, more and more I'm meeting women who are older who are like, "Oh yeah, it's never stopped hurting." I mean it goes away. At first you sort of live in grief, like in a tunnel of grief, and then eventually grief lives in you and it's just something you take with you and you're not walking around about to cry. But it is a big thing and I think that in more general terms things that have to do with this business, with this animal experience of being a woman—you know, not everywoman is going to have a child, not every woman is going to lose a child, god knows, but every woman at some point in her life is going to have some kind of intense experience around menstruation, fertility, childbirth, child loss, menopause, all this stuff, all this animal stuff about being a woman, we don't talk about. And it's an enormous part of the lives of half the human population. We should talk about it, I think.
So when I got back from Mongolia I wrote this essay about the experience of losing my baby there. And the reason I did that—well, there was no reason, it just happened; it sort of came out of my fingers and I didn't think about it. But if I were to think about it subsequently part of the reason I did it was because just like anyone else is proud of their offspring, I was proud of mine. I mean I think if you have children who are alive—most people I know who have kids spend a certain amount of time looking at them and being like, "Oh my god, I made you. You're a person. Like, look at you, you're beautiful!" And I did that. Only for ten minutes, but I did do it and I was proud. I was like, 'World, I made a person! No one knows but me, no one met him alive but me. I'm going to write about this because I feel compelled to, for whatever it's worth, I want to proclaim this person's life happened.' And that was why I wrote it. Now why I published it was that I thought it was a matter of feminism that that should be a legitimate subject for writing, for literature, for publication. And the response I got to that made me realize I should write about it more.