A Better Woman: A Memoirby Susan Johnson
Accalaimed novelist Susan Johnson found, at age thirty-five, that her arms began to feel "empty." Soon her desire to have a baby became overwhelming. She had no inkling then what/blockquote>/center>/i>
If I had known...what giving birth was to cost me,
would I have dared to fall pregnant?
Yes, yes. A thousand times, yes.
Accalaimed novelist Susan Johnson found, at age thirty-five, that her arms began to feel "empty." Soon her desire to have a baby became overwhelming. She had no inkling then what motherhood would cost her or give her. But as she went on to experience pregnancy and birth, and their impact on her marriage, her health, and her heart, she recorded it all in a black-and-red notebook. Here, Susan Johnson takes that raw, potentially wrenching material and creates an inspirational work of autobiography.
If I had known...what giving birth was to cost me,
would I have dared to fall pregnant?
Yes, yes. A thousand times, yes.
In a hauntingly lovely account, Johnson portrays a woman transformed by motherhood, and a writer forever changed by a widening chasm of experience. Simple acts such as getting her newborn to breastfeed prove unexpectedly difficult. The husband she adores becomes a sparring partner, their newly purchased home a disaster, her time to write nonexistent. Then, just when she believes she may be getting her life together, she becomes pregnant again.
Soon ecstasy jostles against bewilderment, rage, and despair when she develops a rare complication of childbirth. Facing major surgery, Susan calls herself "a one-woman catastrophe, a small ruined country." She is also going to bed at night planning what she will write in the morning, burning to get words on paper.
The mesmerizing narrative she created is A Better Woman, a chronicle of love and courage, by turns poetic and searingly graphic. It should be required reading for every woman hungry to give birth and every mother yearning to have her deepest feeling heard.
- Atria Books
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.80(w) x 8.72(h) x 0.93(d)
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Getting Ready to Fall
When we are green, still half-created, we believe that our dreams are rights, that the world is disposed to act in our best interests, and that falling and dying are for quitters. We live on the innocent and monstrous assurance that we alone, of all the people ever born, have a special arrangement whereby we will be allowed to stay green forever.
This Boy's Life
The year that I turned thirty-five, my arms began to feel empty. I remember a moment when I was sitting behind my lover in a car driving through France, staring at the back of his head. Everybody in the car was talking but all I was conscious of was a longing in my empty arms to form themselves into that ancient female crook and cradle a baby.
I was living in Paris then, and my sixtyish, childless painter friend Simone confirmed that this longing first struck the body. 'My own body did not need it,' she said in English, without sentiment or regret. 'You must find out if yours does.'
My lover was an Italian-American who spoke heavily accented French. His character had a large dose of American schmaltz and an Italian love of drama, and inside his head were screened private soaps in which he imagined himself as the war/foreign correspondent who finally settles down with a difficult but artistic Australian.
He cried easily and was terribly kind. He had thin lips and when I first kissed them I imagined myself falling into a kind of black abyss. I had separated from my English husband and left Hong Kong only a short time before and was not sure I wanted to kiss anyone.
I told him this but it only increased his ardour. The less available I was the more he wanted me, and it took days, weeks and months for him to convince me that his hands bore no weapons and that his fleshless lips opened into softness. With one finger I traced a line down his flesh and was surprised to find his skin's tenderness.
Perhaps because I found myself hopeless I was writing a novel about hope. I lived in a large room with a tiny kitchen and a shower installed in a kind of cupboard. The room was off one of Paris's poorer streets and when I lay in bed I could clearly hear my neighbour's stream of piss hit the bowl of the toilet above me.
I tried to forget my lost husband as best I could but pain often roared in my chest. Yet paradoxically I was often exhilarated, when words rushed down my arm and out my blue pen, when I sipped a café crème and happened to look up at the dusty Paris sky. At times I even felt lucky.
My lover and I often talked of children even though we were virtual strangers. Once he sobbed in bed late at night when he spoke of the mutilated bodies of children he had seen in a river in El Salvador. I held him and my small room was crowded with our mutual terror.
I had never thought of myself as someone capable of ever having children. I thought it was what normal people did, people whose bodies and hearts and minds functioned in a way mine did not.
This conviction arose, in the first place, from an awareness that my body was not like everyone else's. My mother and I still dispute this, but I say I was aware of the hole in my chest as early as six, when I fell off a fishing wall onto rocks covered with oyster shells and had to take off most of my clothes so my rescuers could get to the wounds.
In my version I remember trying desperately to cling onto my shirt to cover my terrible flaw: between my flat nipples there was a large hole, as though God punched his clenched fist into me before he let me out. I already knew that no other children, including my two younger brothers, had this imperfection and that it somehow marked me.
I remember standing in the sun holding in front of me a blue Hawaiian shirt while fresh blood streamed down my arms. There was blood on my legs, on my face, in my eyes, but all I was worried about was hanging onto the shirt so that no-one would see how different I was, that I was not a normal girl.
Even years later, after I turned sixteen and the hole was repaired by breaking my sternum and re-setting it with a steel pin, I never felt myself to be like everyone else.
Now that my sons are here I sometimes find myself watching too carefully the flare of bones in their tiny boys' chests, on the lookout for the smallest hint of collapse.
I believe now that the bones which formed me physically formed me in other ways too. Many people who grow up into writers experience themselves as different, left on the sidelines by illness, physical uniqueness, tragedy, some profound notion of their own solitariness. Only children often become writers, children from toxic marriages, children whose interior worlds somehow became more radiant than the regular world witnessed by eyes.
I believe now that I wrote myself into life. Before I learnt how to do it I lived as if blind, forever raging against the dark. Learning how to write illuminated life itself for me, letting me see fully for the first time its shape and dimensions.
Before I learnt to write I did not know who I was. I was young, of course, but back then it always seemed that I was living in the wrong place, with the wrong people. I remember miserable early years living with a man who was totally unsuitable for me and sharing a house with his politically active friends. It was the late 1970s; I was nineteen, twenty; everyone else was closer to thirty and appeared to know everything.
I would sit in our room trying to get the courage up to say something at a meeting, or even at dinner, but whenever I was in a room filled with people having a discussion about the banning of street marches in Queensland I noticed the wrong things. I noticed that a woman had been crying, for example, or that someone's hands shook or that so-and-so appeared to have an unrequited crush on the dark, good-looking man in the corner. In other words, I was a writer. I was a witness to the small, unspoken gestures which reveal felt life, I was in love with the idea of making sense of everything I saw.
I did not yet know how to write but I was already full of yearning. I felt strangled by inarticulateness, choked up with all the million things I wanted to say and it was only when I held a pen in my hand that I felt soothed and the world became untangled. I longed to grab life by the throat and wrest it into some kind of beautiful pattern so that other people might recognise the weave. I wanted to move people in the same way I had been moved by books which illuminated the experience of being alive and breathing. I wanted to write the truest things I knew.
I see now that I also wished to create or invent myself. I do not understand how other people can live their lives without this. For me, living without writing, without trying to make messages from chaos, would be like living in exile from the deepest part of myself.
It seemed to me that my body grew older faster than the rest of me. At thirty-five I sometimes still imagined myself a young girl bursting free, smashing imaginary fathers and impossible husbands and anything else which stood in my way. I was embarrassingly unmade on the inside, still groping on the water's edge while my same-aged friends had long ago swum away.
If at thirty-five I knew without a doubt that writing was to be my life's work, I was less confident about my ability to love and be loved in return. I remember being stung when my Paris lover remarked that my books were way ahead of me and it was vital that I catch up.
I secretly looked upon my best friend Emma in Brisbane as a grown-up, with her long-time husband, her two children, her steady, everything-in-place life. She had a proper house and a car, living-room furniture: she knew what she would be doing from one month to the next.
I thought of women who had given birth as having passed through one of life's most crucial doors, mothers somehow rendered unable to reveal the secrets they had found on the other side to those non-mothers who had not passed through.
The year I turned thirty-five I began to sense clumsily that I must find a way to move forward into the second half of my life, to find a way to grow up properly. I certainly did not believe that the only way of doing this was by having a child, I only knew that I had come to the end of myself. It was clear even to me that the old way of being myself was no longer working and that unless I wanted to spend the rest of my life emotionally atrophied I had better act.
Meanwhile, my body had its own plans. All the while I was trying to compose a mature intellectual and rational framework in which to answer the question of whether or not to have a child, my body believed it already had the solution. I felt like a fruit ready to burst, ripe with longing: I was pure sensation, physical craving, tangible as hunger or thirst. My body was yearning to be taken over, filled up, my blood longed to feed a living thing not itself.
No matter how hard I tried to think about the effect a child would have on my life and work (and I believed very seriously in Cyril Connolly's dictum that 'the pram in the hall' was chief among the enemies of promise) I could not calm the clamouring in my veins.
I thought of all the woman writers throughout history who had not had children, and it seemed to me that childless woman writers vastly outnumbered those with children. I did not know if having a child would mean the end of my creative life, if a single, irreversible act of physical creation would imperil my inner creative self. My writing was myself, my writing had made me and I did not know who I would be without it.
I remembered too how I had believed for a long time that having a child meant the end of your active life, shutting forever the door to adventure, to daring, to chance.
I knew without doubt that children were messy, noisy, sometimes boring, that they ate up your time, your energy, your very core and yet...and yet ... I wanted one. I wanted something difficult and all-consuming, something powerful and obliterating, some experience of life I could not walk away from.
In short, I wanted to feel the weight of life. It seemed to me that I had always floated above life, above commitment, above responsibility, that I had somehow failed to enmesh myself in the fabric of living. As Doris Lessing wrote of herself in her autobiography, in words that also happened to fit me, I had 'rejected the human condition, which is to be trapped by circumstances'.
And, as if all this wanting wasn't enough, I also wanted the right man to make my imaginary baby with. I wanted love with which to knit our child, soft kisses and warm skin to make his bones. I wanted a baby to grow from the strength and wrap of my lover's arms, an organic offshoot of happiness.
Of course I see now that all this wanting, such a terrible blind urge to be pregnant and loved, carried with it the seeds of disaster as well as of redemption. In a novel by Diane Johnson, a character is described as being 'one of those people whose lives progress like one of those charts of heart attack, serrated peaks and valleys like shark's teeth'.
My life is like that: I got my baby made out of tenderness and a peak higher than clouds, but I also got a husband who feels he did not get as much choice about a baby as he should have. I got my baby knitted with love but I also got a badly broken body and a valley far, far from light.
When I married my first husband on a rainy day in London, my lips trembled. I had starved myself the month before and had practised saying the registry office words over and over. I thought they would halt in my mouth on the day, but they came out entirely whole.
Afterwards we went to a swank London hotel with my best friend Emma's aunt and cousins. Emma's aunt, a psychotherapist, had already tried to warn me off marrying someone I had known only three months but I wanted love to split me open and I heard nothing but the roar of want in my ears.
I had already had a bad falling out with another friend in Australia who had written to suggest that we have the honeymoon without getting married. How dare you? I wrote back. Have I ever told you how to run your life?
I was so convinced I was doing the right thing I would have killed anyone who had tried to stop me. All my instincts were telling me it was right, every nerve and muscle and fibre in my body screamed out that my husband was going to be my husband for the rest of my life.
In Hong Kong six months later a voice inside me tried to announce I had been wrong. I immediately stilled it, but I was flooded with shame, horrified by what was to come.
If my own instincts were so wrong, how could I trust anything again? You can see, can't you, how willing I have been to risk everything, to believe in the one, shining redemptive act. My friend Emma once said she admired above all my ability to take risks, but if daring to leave the safe world of nice, responsible men, of full-time work, the world of sick pay, holiday pay and mortgages had led me to the charm of a tiny rented flat in Paris, holidays in friends' houses in Corsica, whirlwind romances with unsuitable men and a writing life which I mostly loved, it had also led me to broken relationships and relative poverty (those old peaks and valleys). Many times (and more recently than I care to remember) I literally had only a few dollars to my name and I questioned the wisdom of leaping.
I think in many ways I have been an impulsive child, oblivious as any three year old playing catch by the road, heedless of the speeding traffic in her ecstatic dash for the ball.
My first husband and I had quickly spoken of babies. We had identically crooked eyeteeth and the very first night we had dinner together in Paris we joked that so would our children.
I was thirty-two then, and in reality children seemed to me a long way off. In reality I suffered a kind of psychic terror every time I thought seriously of children. It seemed to me that whatever I was made of was not strong enough to bear it, either physically or emotionally.
I was not yet ready either to relinquish the stage, to gladly pass the torch to those coming up from behind. If secretly I felt I could not yet handle the responsibility of children, I also felt a mean-spirited urge to keep hogging the light. My life was still unfurling, I was still having trouble imagining myself fully grown, let alone imagining someone else's growing.
In short, as I'm sure you will agree, I was remarkably self-centred, emotionally stranded somewhere around adolescence. Is it any wonder that my marriage began to fall apart around my head, that my husband and I began to squabble like the children we were?
Some readers (and the occasional friend) think of my novels as my life served up re-heated, but I know my actual life is not shaped like fiction at all. My books are my means of ordering the world to attention: in real life husbands never go in the direction I want them to go and I can never see well enough in the dark.
At some point after I left my husband I slunk back to Australia. If I had been able I would have told no-one of my return and never set foot outside the door, so total was my sense of humiliation. For the first time in my life I felt that I was fundamentally broken and might never heal, that whatever old tricks I had used before to get myself to stand up again were no longer of any use.
Amazingly, I kept writing the novel about hope while all hope inside me was extinguished. While I felt my old self to be effectively dead I kept doggedly writing about a boy whose hopeful innocence saved him.
At some point I went back to Paris again and took up with the Italian-American lover who tried to convince me I was not dead. I believe his own grief was attracted to mine and that he thought he could save me.
I no longer remember the exact steps I took in my growing-up journey. I know only that it had something to do with the collapse of my first marriage and the great jolt that gave me, along with the kindness of my Italian-American lover, even though I subsequently learned that he loved me best when I was grief-stricken and far away, and that when I turned my face towards him he grew afraid.
It had to do, too, with long nights by myself where I stared down my own aloneness and dared imagine that I might be growing old. Somehow I began to feel that I had passed through barren land to end up in a place where I was comfortable enough to invite other people (even a baby) in.
By the time I met in London the Australian man who was to become my second husband, I felt both larger and smaller, calmer and certainly humbler. I no longer saw my life as an endless vista opening eternally before me.
A woman friend of roughly the same age as me had died of AIDS contracted through heterosexual sex, and I had gone through a crazy time of projecting my inner fears onto something outer, even convincing myself at one stage that I too had contracted AIDS, no matter how impossible, no matter how many tests I had which proved otherwise, no matter that a small rational part of me knew all along that I was being wildly irrational. Yet somehow I managed to come out the other side, finally able to experience myself as a fully-grown, middle-aged woman.
By the time I met my second husband I was ready for a baby and, just before I turned thirty-eight, several months after we were married, my body finally got its reward.
In no pregnancy book I read then or since was there a description of what was about to happen to my body. If my body had been impatient for metamorphosis, it was about to undergo its greatest crisis, in a catastrophic change more akin to decay than to fruition.
If I had known then what giving birth was to cost me, would I have ever dared to fall pregnant?
Yes, yes. A thousand times, yes.
Even now, remembering all the pain and suffering I have lived through, I would go through it all again. Even now, knowing that the freakish outcome of Caspar's birth was to make me feel like a freak all over again, I have never once wished him away. Every day I count myself lucky to have him.
I have felt the full weight of life upon me.
Copyright © 1999 by Susan Johnson
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