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“A primordial soup of crotch slime,” announces Lyz Lenz, twice in two pages, at the end of the first section of her new book, Belabored. This alarming turn of phrase encapsulates the book’s ethos. “Primordial soup” comes first, appealing to the myths of feminine darkness, power, and creation Lenz leans on heavily throughout the book. Humanity comes out of a feminine, watery, darkness, she tells us (dark or darkness comes up 38 times; water, waters, or watery, 36). In that darkness, the reader is told, lies female power. But just as soon as that lofty rhetoric is invoked, Lenz pricks it with the irreverent, bodily humor of “crotch slime.”
This sort of rhetorical seesawing would be disastrously uneven, for many authors. But in Belabored it works in the interests of the book’s implicit argument: feminists can mythologize pregnancy all we like, but the moment we allow myth to sever us from embodied experience, we’ve already lost.
The body as anchor
Lenz claims to “midrash” pregnancy through her blend of memoir and cultural critique. What her prose offers is less a midrash than a book-length declaration that feminist writing, no matter what watery depths of female power it seeks to plumb, must maintain its ties to what Julia Kristeva called “the abject.” In other words, Belabored never lets Lenz’s pregnant and postpartum body—oozing, bloody, with its vulva like “raw ground beef,” its breasts like “balloons full of sand,” its “stippled flesh” that “hung loose and raw”—out of the reader’s sight. Its repeated presence on the page is made more powerful by its sheer ordinariness.
Lenz parcels out her experience of two healthy, normal, relatively easy pregnancies and one early miscarriage sparingly through the book, weaving in her divorce for good measure. She uses those ordinary experiences as anchors to pull us through the narrative: the book is organized by trimesters, including a fourth “trimester” to include a discussion of postpartum bodies. In other words, the narrator’s pregnant or postpartum body is the material (mater, mother) that keeps us reading. Between her stories of midnight turkey sandwiches, six-minute miles, sexual assault, shitty husbands, and ghastly hemorrhages, Lenz intercuts an impressive depth of research on what it means to be a mother in America today.
What we can’t ignore
Lenz is a first-rate journalist, and Belabored reflects that expertise, never letting the reader assume that the narrator’s experience is the experience of pregnancy. At every turn, Lenz educates the reader on subjects from the Black maternal mortality crisis, to medical bias against fat bodies, to the shoddy science on mental health and breastfeeding. And still, in the end the book comes back, again and again, to her body. I like that about this book—I like that it refuses to let the reader ignore that a shitting, bleeding, ramshackle female body created the words on the page when Aristotelian patriarchy still insists that only the perfected male body controls the logos, the Word. It has a certain swagger.
Climate change, pandemic, and systemic racism combine to make pregnancy in 2020 an overdetermined site of our collective cultural anxieties and fears. Belabored gives us no easy solutions to those anxieties; this is not that sort of nonfiction book. But its primordial scream at the overlapping ways pregnant women are erased, overwritten, and abused in America today offers something its readers will need more, in the days and weeks to come: rage.
What, When, Where
Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women. By Lyz Lenz. New York City: Bold Type Books, August 11, 2020. 240 pages, hardcover; $19.99. Get it here.
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