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An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken

Updated: Feb 9, 2022

2008, Little, Brown

Julia recommended this book after reading it for her law class Meanings of Motherhood: Legal and Historical Perspectives.


The memoir recounts the author's experience giving birth to a stillborn son at nine months, while she was living in France.


Elizabeth McCracken is a fan of Duchess Goldblatt, who unknowingly reminded me to post this book.


Julia and I had a chat about it.



KB: What were your impressions of McCracken's memoir?


Julia: I thought it was very well-written and, even though I have never lost a child or been pregnant, I felt a lot of empathy towards the author.


KB: How did it relate to your class?


Julia: In her memoir McCracken says: “No more talk of angels. I can’t stand the tendency to speak of dead children as such. I do not want him elevated to angel. I do not want him demoted to neverness. He was a person, that’s all.” (p. 9)


In class we discussed Missing Angels Acts, legislation first passed in Arizona in 2001 providing for official birth certificates for stillborn babies. (Previously a stillborn death certificate was the only option.) Missing Angels Acts were advocated for by grieving parents who wished to obtain a birth certificate for their stillborn child. Many parents who do not wish for this type of birth certificate are, of course, empathetic to those who do; but, I wonder whether there are any parents who suffered a stillbirth and are specifically opposed to Missing Angels Acts. I did not find anything about this with a quick Google search. It seems as though someone like Elizabeth McCracken who "can’t stand the tendency" to call dead children "angels" would at least be opposed to the term Missing Angels Act. In her memoir, she recalls how difficult it was to have to choose a name for her baby for the certificate of stillbirth. She and her husband chose Pudding, their nickname for him during the pregnancy. "It’s the name on the certificate the city of Bordeaux gave us in early May, certificat d’enfant sans vie, certificate of the birth of a child without life — birth certificate, death certificate, whatever you want to call it." (p. 9)


KB: What was your professor's point of view on Missing Angels Acts?


Julia: Professor Sanger published an article on the topic where she analyzes how law influences culture and whether Missing Angels Acts could result in dictating how parents should deal with and feel about a stillbirth. She also addresses the potential implications for reproductive rights.


Julia: What stood out for you in the book?


KB: The author's suffering worsened by feelings of guilt:


Breughel, Fall of Icarus

Some days were worse than others. For about a week I got the opening line of an Auden poem that I’d memorized in high school stuck in my head: About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters . . . The poem describes the Breughel painting The Fall of Icarus, in which (as Auden explains) life goes on despite the tiny white legs kicking up in the corner of a harbor, Icarus sunk. My high school English teacher had explained that the myth was about hubris, ignoring the good advice of your wise father, but for me that summer the painting, the poem, everything, was about lost boys and the parents who’d failed them. (p. 28)

J: Her experience took place in France.


KB: Yes, that struck me, of course because I live here, but also made me think how suffering and place become linked. A friend of hers who'd had a similar experience said, “Now France will be ruined for (you),” and she agreed, "It’s a part of the world I will never, ever, ever go back to." (p. 12)


J: Do you remember the part about the specific French gesture, you know that puffing of the mouth?


KB: I think I know exactly what you mean by puffing. Remind me of the passage.


J: The author and her husband are talking, in French, with a midwife they have just met for the first time.


"Why do you look so sad? You’re going to have a baby!

“Le bébé est décédé” (The baby is deceased), Edward answered.

There’s a certain French — gesture? moue? — that is ubiquitous and hard to translate. In answer to a question or piece of information, the French person fills his or her mouth with air and then puffs it out, eyebrows raised. It means, It is difficult to say, and it can be the answer to, How do you drive to Lyon? or Do you have this in my size?

or, it turns out, The baby is dead." (p. 50)


KB: The situation is very sad, but McCracken's observation of that French-puffy-air gesture is surprisingly accurate.

 

Page references are from this online PDF of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

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