There’s all sorts of reasons why I don’t feel I’m in a position to comment on Julia Leigh’s Avalanche, an account of her experience with IVF. However, Leigh makes a statement early in her memoir that made me pause and think –
“In the public imagination – as I perceive it – there’s a qualified sympathy for IVF patients, not unlike that shown to smokers who get lung cancer. Unspoken: ‘You signed up for it, so what do you expect…?'”
“Qualified sympathy” – it’s an interesting phrase. Have I ever been guilty of qualified sympathy? Probably, although certainly not in relation to someone’s desire to have a baby. It’s these kind of gritty bits that lodged as I was reading Avalanche.
Leigh describes her yearning for a baby; the physically exhausting IVF process; and the emotional strain of constant cycles of waiting, hoping and disappointment –
“The process was forever throwing up new ways to be disappointed that I hadn’t even dreamt existed. The constant uncertainty took its toll.”
She began clear-minded about how many IVF cycles she was prepared to go through however, like many people on an IVF program, the gamblers mentality of “Just one more…” or “We’ve gone this far…” kicked in –
“…in the IVF world we all have our parameters, our personal lines in the sand. At least we do when we start out, before the harsh desert winds cut across the dunes… My own parameter was that I couldn’t face using a stranger’s sperm. I wanted to have a special personal bond with the father of my child.”
Avalanche does not have the happy ending you might expect. For this reason alone, it’s an important book. There’s no hint of the ‘miracle baby after 30 rounds of IVF’ story that is so often heard – instead, it’s a realistic and honest account of the gruelling and frequently unrewarding IVF process. Remarkably, what is absent from her story is any bitterness, although she admits to being selfish and questions whether this is compatible with being a good mother.
Leigh raises some of the ethical questions associated with IVF – costly additional procedures that are ‘impulse buys’ for women desperate for success, doctors that have a financial stake in clinics, and the ‘business’ of babies.
“An uncharitable thought… IVF seemed to be a great deal about levels and cut-offs. If number X, then do Y. I wondered if it was the medical equivalent of conveyancing in the legal world, which is to say, largely formulaic, a matter of following protocol.”
Her thoughts on the ethical issues, as well as the interface between the ‘formulaic’ and emotional decisions inherent in the IVF process were interesting but brief – I would have liked more although I appreciate that we’re talking about extremely complex issues. Equally, Leigh’s thoughts on grief and when we can grieve – for an imagined child? For an egg? For a blastocyst? For an embryo? – were fascinating but brief –
“I’m an expert at make-believe. Our child was not unreal to me … A desired and nurtured inner presence. Not real but a singular presence in which I had radical faith.”
3.5/5 Thought provoking.
“We bought a bottle of Cointreau and called it kissing syrup.”