At the end of 2013, everyone I knew was talking about a single essay: Ariel Levy’s “Thanksgiving in Mongolia: Adventure and Heartbreak at the Edge of the Earth,” published in the New Yorker in November.
Levy has been celebrated for her profiles (like the one about marriage equality pioneer Edith Windsor) and her examination of the effects of porn culture (her book, “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture“). But never had she published a piece as personal, or as impossibly painful, as “Thanksgiving,” about a miscarriage suffered when she was five months pregnant, during a reporting trip to Mongolia.
Levy starts with a particularly artful stroke: She tells the story of a favorite game she played, as a child, with her father. In Mummy and Explorer, she and her dad would trade off roles, and the game would culminate in the moment (sometimes Levy, sometimes her father) when the explorer stumbles onto the embalmed Pharaoh, who “opens his eyes and comes to life.” This image will be mirrored later, when Levy meets her prematurely born son, who opens not his eyes but his mouth, “opening and closing, opening and closing, swallowing the new world.” In this moment, it’s Levy’s eyes that are open, taking in the scene. She is enraptured, entranced, and then bereft. Which raises questions: Who is the mummy? Who is the explorer? What is lost and what is found?
Levy tells us that when she was young she was “relentlessly verbal” and “not a popular little girl.” The strength of this essay comes in her willingness to be not very popular on the page, and to defy readers’ expectations about what women are presumed to want. Levy is explicit about her ambivalence about motherhood. She always preferred games of adventure to “playing house” and never longed for children because she didn’t enjoy childhood. She writes:
I was afraid of being grounded, sessile—stuck in one spot for eighteen years of oboe lessons and math homework that I couldn’t finish the first time around.
She chose the profession of writer because that life went with the kind of woman she wanted to become: “[O]ne who is free to do whatever she chooses.”
But when she finally decides to start a family — because being governed by something other than her own “wishes and wanderlust might be a pleasure, a release” — she decides to take one last exotic trip. She accepts an assignment to Mongolia and the Gobi desert. A doctor tells her it is fine to fly up until the third trimester. Despite some friends being “alarmed,” and some abdomen pains she experiences before leaving home, she proceeds.
Levy does this, she explains, because she likes the idea of herself being five months pregnant in the Gobi Desert, just as she liked the idea of being a girl who’d travel to India alone at 20. The journey into motherhood is presented like another far-flung adventure. And, as she’s always been able to handle herself on such trips, Levy believes she’ll be able to handle herself on this one.
But the landscape is extreme. Levy effectively evokes the strangeness of being on “the edge of the earth,” where temperatures drop 20 degrees below zero at night, and where people live in felt gers, and where, while meeting with a source, she feels like she’s having “a latte with Genghis Khan.” In different circumstances this would have been romantic and fascinating; in this case, it quickly becomes clear that she’s in one of the worst places for a medical emergency.
“This is going to be the craziest shit in history,” Levy thinks to herself as she squats on the tile floor of her hotel bathroom, not quite realizing she is in labor. What follows is unflinching, and almost uncomfortably vivid:
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 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.
Levy deftly moves between describing the stark brutality of her situation — she later yanks out her umbilical cord with “one swift, violent tug” before bleeding her way across the room, to call a doctor — to the overwhelming tenderness of her encounter with her fetal son:
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 is late-term miscarriage here, something little understood or publicly discussed. Approximately one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, mostly endured in a fog of confusion and quiet grief. But here is Levy laying it all out, from the “elegance” of her son’s shoulders to the “lake of blood” on the floor. It’s horrifying but also stunning to read. (The American Society of Magazine Editors thought so too; at a ceremony last week in New York, the organization awarded “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” the National Magazine Award in essay writing.)
What makes these descriptions work as well as they do is Levy’s narrative voice, the point of view that she establishes with her material, which is by turn darkly comic, confessional and challenging. In the midst of what would be considered among the most traumatic experience in a woman’s life, she observes herself like a journalist:
I was vaguely aware of an enormous volume of blood rushing out of me, and eventually that seemed interesting, too.
There’s almost a pride attending the grittiness of her experience. It is not unlike that of foreign correspondents, writing about their encounter with war.
Alysia Abbott is the author of “Fairyland, a Memoir of My Father,” a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection and one of the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Best Books of 2013. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Vogue, Real Simple, and TheAtlantic.com, among others.