by Julia Leigh
W. W. Norton, 2016
Review by Christian Perring on Sep 13th 2016
Julia Leigh, now in her forties, sets out her experience of trying and failing to have a child using assisted reproductive services. It's a tale of almost unremitting unhappiness as she persists in pursuing a child with the cooperation of doctors willing to take her money. She gets rejected by the man she gets into a brief marriage with, and then finds another man to donate sperm for her attempts. She started her attempts at the age of 38 and kept on going with ever diminishing chances of success, and despite many people close to her being uncomprehending or frankly unsupportive of her attempts, while others take a more sympathetic attitude. Avalanche is an extremely uncomfortable read, reflecting a sad and exhausting period of author's life. What makes it especially difficult is that Leigh is provocative in her self-descriptions, and she does little to make the reader sympathize with her other than set out the details of hopes raised and dashed. It's frequently very tempting to lose patience with the author, yet at the same time one feels guilty for judging her choices.
The whole ordeal starts out when Leigh restarts a passionate relationship with a man she had dated many years ago, with whom she had had a long connection. They had had an on-again off-again affair in between their other partners. He got married and had a child, but then divorced. With this final fling between them, they give themselves to each other wholeheartedly but wait to marry and try for a child. He had had a vasectomy so that needed to be reversed, but even with reversal the chances of pregnancy were greatly diminished. The marriage soon became tumultuous and they separated, only to reunite and split again. For a period, he was ready to let her use his stored sperm to try to get pregnant, which she wanted even though she would have had a better chance of pregnancy with sperm from a man who had never had a vasectomy. But then he changes his mind, and Leigh needs to find someone else to donate sperm, because she doesn't want to just use a sperm bank. She finds someone, but her own eggs are in short supply, and using IVF was hard on her body. She is physically and emotionally worn out by the process. Eventually she gives up when she realizes how small her chance of success is.
There's nothing wrong with wanting to be a parent, but Leigh's story makes the reader wonder how much effort it's worth putting into it when the chances are low. She is encouraged by many other people who give her examples of hopeful women in their forties who successfully get pregnant and have babies through IVF but the statistics she gives don't present much reason for optimism. We might wonder whether it is ethical for clinics and specialists to be encouraging women to be using their services, although it is hard to insist that it should be illegal to offer these services to women who are fully informed of the low chances of success. More difficult than that is the question of how we should respond to women who insist on pursuing IVF in the way that Leigh did. It's hard to know even what Leigh's attitude is: she seems hard on her former self, but she never expresses regret over her history of attempts to have a child. The ending emotion of grief over the loss of the possibility of having her own child. She briefly mentions the possibility of adopting at one point, but rejects it with little explanation.
Avalanche is brief work, in a very distinctive voice. For anyone contemplating assisted reproduction in their late thirties, it will be a profoundly disturbing read. It leaves the reader how much Leigh's experience was a product of her own poor decisions, how much it was a result of social pressure and misleading advice from specialists, and how much it was just bad luck.
© 2016 Christian Perring
Christian Perring will be working as an adjunct professor of philosophy in New York City in Fall 2016.