Monday, November 11, 2013


"The truth is, the ten or twenty minutes I was somebody’s mother were black magic": Ariel Levy's "Thanksgiving in Mongolia"

Ariel Levy's latest piece for the New Yorker is a surreal and devastating account of brief motherhood, miscarriage and loss. It begins in her mid-thirties, after a decade of thinking, "I didn’t like childhood, and I was afraid that I’d have a child who didn’t, either. I was afraid I would be an awful mother. And I was afraid of being grounded, sessile." But slowly:

The idea bloomed in my head that being governed by something other than my own wishes and wanderlust might be a pleasure, a release.

I got pregnant quickly, to my surprise and delight, shortly before my thirty-eighth birthday. It felt like making it onto a plane the moment before the gate closes—you can’t help but thrill. After only two months, I could hear the heartbeat of the creature inside me at the doctor’s office. It seemed like magic: a little eye of newt in my cauldron and suddenly I was a witch with the power to brew life into being. Even if you are not Robinson Crusoe in a solitary fort, as a human being you walk this world by yourself. But when you are pregnant you are never alone.

At five months, she takes a doctor-sanctioned trip to Mongolia. One night, wracked with pain, she runs to the bathroom:

I felt an unholy storm move through my body, and after that there is a brief lapse in my recollection; either I blacked out from the pain or I have blotted out the memory. And then there was another person on the floor in front of me, moving his arms and legs, alive. I heard myself say out loud, “This can’t be good.” But it looked good. My baby was as pretty as a seashell.

He was translucent and pink and very, very small, but he was flawless. His lovely lips were opening and closing, opening and closing, swallowing the new world. For a length of time I cannot delineate, I sat there, awestruck, transfixed. Every finger, every toenail, the golden shadow of his eyebrows coming in, the elegance of his shoulders—all of it was miraculous, astonishing. I held him up to my face, his head and shoulders filling my hand, his legs dangling almost to my elbow. I tried to think of something maternal I could do to convey to him that I was, in fact, his mother, and that I had the situation completely under control. I kissed his forehead and his skin felt like a silky frog’s on my mouth.

This happened at 19 weeks. "I had been so lucky," she writes. "Very little had ever truly gone wrong for me before that night on the bathroom floor. And I knew, as surely as I now knew that I wanted a child, that this change in fortune was my fault. I had boarded a plane out of vanity and selfishness, and the dark Mongolian sky had punished me. I was still a witch, but my powers were all gone." When she returned to the States:

Well-meaning women would tell me, “I had a miscarriage, too,” and I would reply, with unnerving intensity, “He was alive.” I had given birth, however briefly, to another human being, and it seemed crucial that people understand this. Often, after I told them, I tried to get them to look at the picture of the baby on my phone.

Read it, read it, be ready to cry; this piece is good beyond words.


37 Comments / Post A Comment


I cannot stress enough how important it is that everyone read this. I think we've all been using the word "heartbreaking" wrong until just now.


@newyorkette ahhhhhh for real.


Yo, much respect@n


There are no words for this piece. Stop everything you're doing and read it now.


That was so, so heavy. I'm glad I read it, but I want to go home and hug my mom now.


@Clare Me too.


"I tried to think of something maternal I could do to convey to him that I was, in fact, his mother, and that I had the situation completely under control. I kissed his forehead and his skin felt like a silky frog’s on my mouth."



Read it, but do your pregnant friends a favor and tell them not to; when I was pregnant it's the kind of thing that would have haunted me with superstitious worry. For all our civilization and science pregnancy is still such a fraught and mysterious time, it's easy to go to a kind of dark, primitive place in your mind during it because of the total lack of control.

Also, thank god this was not posted somewhere with comments, because they would have been just awful.


@sophia_h I was going to say, I'm really glad I didn't read this while pregnant. I think I need to hug my baby.


@sophia_h Oops, too late. And I'm right at 19 weeks. A friend just posted a link to this without any background, saying that everyone should read it. It was tough to read, but whew - am glad I did.


Another recommendation on preterm birth that is similarly harrowing but with a happier outcome: Kelley Benham's Pulitzer-finalist piece on her 4-month premature daughter.


@TheBelleWitch Juniper! I read that entire series at work one day and was just weeping at my desk. It is masterfully written.


Eyes welling up..... wow...... it probably didn't help that I'm listening to mournful, dreamy music.

Also, yes, like the others say..... this is important to read.


I have no words except for thank you for posting this, and also, where the hell are my tissues?


I absolutely couldn't even get through the synopsis or comments. My 11 day old baby is on my lap. She's as healthy as a horse, but this was impossible to read. Stormy tears and newborns don't mix. Not for those not yet done with postpartum hormones.


This was incredibly wrenching and beautiful. But as a pregnant hypochondriac, I probably should have put it on my wait-to-read list.

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

I can't even handle how beautiful the writing is, and how devastating her story is. It's like witnessing a destructive yet gorgeous storm.


Oh, oh my. I need to hug my kid. Last night I broke up with a boyfriend, this morning my grandfather died, and this was the thing that finally made me cry. So beautifully heartbreaking and honest. I'm reading it over and over again. Thanks for posting this.


Jimminy Cricket. This is a powerful thing. I'm totally fascinated by *her* fascination with the brief life of her child. It makes me think about how Western culture prefers to keep death at a distance, whether or not that is what's helpful.


@GEEKitty This story is difficult to read, but addresses some of that.


"Her partner bent to insert a thick needle in my forearm and I wondered if it would give me Mongolian aids"


Have to say, that hit me in a visceral way. I get that she was in a terrible place emotionally, not thinking clearly, and I wouldn't wish her experience on anyone. At the same time, "Mongolian aids"?! Her being in a terrible place emotionally doesn't excuse casual racism and othering. Or it doesn't for me, anyway.

She could have said: "and I was afraid the needle wasn't clean." She could have said: "and I didn't know if it was sterile."

It's hard for me at that moment not to just pull away from her narrative and think things like: "Well, I'd feel more for you, but I wouldn't want you to catch yellow people cooties off my feelings."


@antilamentation I otherwise liked the piece but was grossed out by that turn of phrase as well. Also, a bit like that but not as bad, was the part where she said she felt like she was talking to Genghis Khan while talking to someone in traditional Mongolian garb. It would be like talking to a Native American in traditional costume and saying, "wow it was so great, it was like I was talking to Geronimo!"

I hate to nitpick on such a sensitive story that I otherwise really loved, but those two lines did distract me, like you said.


@antilamentation Yeah, I agree, that line was genuinely offensive to me, and I am not too easily offended. I thought that she was, in the whole rest of that scene, just writing from a point of frantic, panicked thinking, and that could excuse an un-thought thought... but yeah, Mongolian AIDS :(


@j-i-a I think I'd find it easier to take if she had said something like: "and to my shame now, I wondered then if the needle would give me Mongolian aids", or something that at least showed she owned her racism later, or had given it some thought afterwards.

I mean, no one is perfect. Everyone has prejudices. Under the worst stress I have also had knee jerk reactions which I haven't been proud of, and which then tell me something about areas I need to work on, or blindspots which I need to address.

I can see how much she was suffering. I can imagine it's extra terrifying to go through such a huge emergency in a foreign country where you may not speak the language, and you aren't sure about the reliability of the healthcare on offer. I can imagine how shocked and vulnerable she might have felt. AND I can also see she's not reflected at all on what it means to turn a whole nation of people - some of whom were trying their best, even if ill-informed, to help her at the time - into a byword for an infectious disease.

It's like what zeytin pointed out, about turning every Mongolian in a traditional costume into Ghenghis Khan - and she wasn't suffering at that point in the narrative.

I'm thinking that she shouldn't have been travelling. Not because of any risk to her health or the baby's health. But because of her attitude towards other cultures and peoples. Also, I don't see why the editors at the New Yorker didn't step in and challenge some of what she was saying before it went to print.


@antilamentation I feel these comments are somewhat naïve. She'd just delivered a desperately premature baby and was offered a tampon - she and everyone in the hotel was not equipped to deal with this because this is an extraordinary experience. She was on the verge of death and had already lost a child, right there in the hotel room. Not sure what level of thought is appropriate in these circumstances - and no I don't think it should have been edited.

It's not "casual racism" to think "where the hell am I and who is looking after me and what will happen to me and will I die?" when you are suddenly facing your own death and the death of your baby and you are thousands of miles from any one who loves you or from anything familiar. How do you think the Syrian asylum seekers travelling across Europe to find refuge feel if they are forced to give birth and face a terrible loss in a foreign land where they don't know the language and don't understand the system and don't recognise the food and are a thousand miles away from home? Not "Oh gosh what a lovely place this is and how I hope to get to know it deeply so I can represent it fairly in all my future descriptions of this event".


@dontannoyme I totally understand the fear of the needle and not trusting whether it is clean or not, in an unfamiliar place in the developing world. That's not the problem. However, I find it hard to believe that in that moment she was afraid of getting "Mongolian aids," because that's not a thing. She probably thought "Oh God is that needle clean, I don't want to get AIDS/ other diseases." The "Mongolian aids" thing sounds like something she came up with later when writing about the experience. Of course I can't know for sure, but that's how it came across to me.

Anyway I am not accusing her of being a racist, but it did stand out to me when I read the piece.

Better to Eat You With

@dontannoyme We're not living the experience in the moment with her. We're reading a carefully crafted reflection on the experience, one that, through most of the text, goes to great lengths of care in its language choices. That she thought this was okay to include is...not okay.

And to call other commenters naive when your comment doesn't reflect an awareness of the crafted and edited nature of the article (a particularly naive approach to the reading experience) is also not okay.


@Better to Eat You With Jesus Christ. Yes, it's crafted. The point of that phrase is to illustrate her state of mind. She's presenting herself as unsanitized and flawed. Ariel Levy knows 'Mongolian AIDS" is a bad thing to think. She knows you know it's a bad thing to think. She does not need to hold your hand and walk you through it.

What packs a bigger punch - "I was worried about getting sick" or "I was so freaked out I let my worst self shine through"? She's being honest.


@dontannoyme She could have indicated her fear of a needle that wasn't clean without turning it into a comment about a whole race and nation of people. She could even have written something like: "I wondered if I might contract HIV from an unclean needle." Making it "Mongolian" HIV when there's no such thing as ethnicity-dependent strains of HIV makes no sense to me, except as a comment about the race of the people she was amongst.

Also she isn't a Syrian refugee. I have no sense that Syrian refugees go around talking about "European AIDS", or making HIV out to have any kind of nationality or ethnicity.

What I also struggle with in terms of her comment is that I want to empathise with her. I really do. As a woman and someone who has travelled to different countries, lived in different continents, adjusted to different healthcare systems, I know it can be daunting to need care in a country which you're not (yet) familiar with, let alone when you're having a medical emergency. I can see what a terrible experience and a loss she had. But when she writes about "Mongolian aids", it feels to me, as someone from Asia, like I've been punched in the stomach. Do people really go around talking about minority groups as if they are strains of diseases? If she was writing about being afraid of contracting the "Gay aids" or the "Black aids", would that also be OK? I get that she was traumatised, and again, I want to empathise, but I don't see that that gives her a free pass to say things like that. Does great suffering mean that it's OK to make derogatory comments about other people? I don't think so.

And again, I can see she was reacting without filters at the time. But writing a piece to be published is a reflective exercise after the fact. There's no actual awareness in what she's written about the kind of statement she's making, either by her, or her editors.


@TheBelleWitch Who is she trying to punch when she's packing that punch? I can as a reader understand that people in shock and terror sometimes react in ways that fall back onto stereotypes or prejudice. I can think of times I've reacted badly to things myself. I can empathise with thinking or saying the wrong thing in an unfiltered way.

But here's the thing: if in a knee-jerk reaction - whether out of fear, or shock, or whatever feeling - I said something racist or prejudiced to someone else, I really hope that on reflection afterwards, I would get that what I had done wasn't right. And while I might hope they could understand that I was reacting in shock and fear, I also wouldn't expect them to feel OK about my making a racist statement just because I was in a very bad place myself. I wouldn't expect them to just put aside hurt feelings and let me off the hook without my needing to take any responsibility for what I'd said.

I feel like somehow this is a situation where the people who feel punched in the guts by what she wrote are being asked to overlook that feeling of being othered, or diminished, or described in a pejorative way, and expected - by the writer and the editors - to instead work doubly hard to feel for the author. I suspect it's easier to stay with the punch of her loss and pain, rather than to ignore the way she's punching a bunch of other people right in their racial/ethnic identities by writing what she's written.


This is really searing. I've never read anything like it. Thank you Ariel for sharing the story of your baby.

I want every man in the world to read it.

lucy snowe

I probably should have commented without reading the thread-- I would have been in the place of my primary reaction to this, which was cathartic grief. My son started crying in his crib when I was halfway through, and I went and held him and smelled his skin.

I don't know if Ariel Levy would necessarily mind being called out for racist comments. She was pretty blunt about thinking horrible things of herself in the aftermath. And she was frank about the horrifying things she would say to people in the wake of her grief (like the words she threw at the salesladies helping her find clothes for her new shape.)I think she chose that offensive turn of phrase to illustrate her state of mind at the time-- to show how thoroughly all sensible filters had been jettisoned once she left that bathroom. I doubt she finds her use of those words admirable.

But who knows? I thought it was a powerful piece.


I understood her to have been sharing her thoughts at the moment, understanding she'd been weak and sick for a considerable length of time at that point. She sounds more dead than alive, certainly exhausted past rational thought.
But I was horrified at her yanking the umbilical cord out of herself, and watching the baby turn blue. Too much.


@Myrtle Pulling out the umbilical cord herself wouldn't have done any harm, it's only attached to the placenta.


I've made $64,000 so far this year working online and I'm a full time student. Im using an online business opportunity I heard about and I've made such great money. It's really user friendly and I'm just so happy that I found out about it. Heres what I do, www.Cloud200.com

Post a Comment

You must be logged-in to post a comment.

Login To Your Account