Jill Christman was kind enough to sit down with me during the summer session at the Ashland University MFA Program where she is an instructor and discuss her very personal story “Nineteen Weeks and One Day.”
Joan Hanna: I was so excited to have “Nineteen Weeks and One Day” in our July issue. This story, like most of your other writing, comes from a personal experience. Can you share with our readers how you came about writing this essay about Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome?
Jill Christman: “Nineteen Weeks. . .” was a rare circumstance for me in that I didn’t think I could tell this story. In my first book, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, I tackled
everything from sexual abuse and accidental death to drug abuse and eating disorders. All of these were hard topics, of course, but I felt always positioned to deal with them. In writing about Baby Brother (the name we call the baby we lost), I felt a new kind of challenge as a writer and as a human being—and I don’t know that I’ve gotten to the bottom of this challenge.
Baby Brother’s story is central to a memoir I am finishing now called Blue Baby Blue. This book spans the time from my pregnancy with my first child to the birth of our second living child—about five years. I’ve had five pregnancies and I have two living children. What I’m trying to do in this new book is examine my relationship with fear through the lens of motherhood.
This book was well underway before we found out our baby had Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. The chance of having a baby with this condition—which the doctors told us
was “incompatible with life”—is about 4 in 10,000. Writing this story was particularly difficult because this was not something that was done to me; we made the choice to end the pregnancy. It was an impossible decision to make, and we had only four days to go through with the surgery for legal reasons. In the end, we could not make the choice for him to suffer the way he would have suffered.
JH: I can’t imagine having to make a decision like that so quickly. How long of a period of healing did you have after choosing to end the pregnancy and before you actually were able to write this essay?
JC: It was almost immediate. I got out of surgery, got on a plane and went to my mom’s house in Washington State. I started writing letters to the baby. That’s all I wrote that summer until I wrote this essay—less than a month after the diagnosis. I want to say it was almost like a confession, but confession is too strong a word because I would make the same choice if I were faced with it again. I could actually make the decision much easier with all I know today about what happens to these babies if we try to save them. My husband, who is a poet, and I had this unspoken agreement between us that this was a thing that was so private, so personal, and so painful that we could not tell this story.
People knew we had lost a child but only our closest friends knew the whole story.
JH: So of course, you had to write about it.
JC: Exactly. I had this compulsion to write about it and my husband had the same need. We realized on the same day that he was writing poems and I was writing these love letters to the baby. The reason I wrote this separate short essay was because I needed to see if I could speak our loss in a more public forum. Reading the essay to the MFA program here at Ashland last summer was a really important part of the process because I was at a point with Blue Baby Blue where I had to decide whether I could make this story part of the book. In the end, I couldn’t not include it; it was too important.
JH: All of your work has these themes of loss and rising up and continuing. Is this rising up and moving on something that comes to light in the process of writing? Or is it a product of healing which you apply to the writing?
JC: I don’t know how to separate the two. I couldn’t live without the writing. I don’t think I could do the healing and the rising up without the writing because it allows me to circle around and around something in a way that is fundamentally healing. In order to write something, you have to think about that something hard, from every possible angle, and what that does for me is clear out the dark and unexamined corners—until those shadowy places no longer have the power to scare or hurt me.
JH: One of the techniques you use is to break the protective wall between you and your reader. For instance, in “Nineteen Weeks” you stop at one point and say, “Wait, No, I’ve written this all wrong. This is not the story. I am lying. I am a terrible liar. I made it up. Let me try again.” I love that you stop and say that. What do you think this does for your reader?
JC: Although I do use that as a technique, in the case of “Nineteen Weeks,” I had reached a kind of human break. I couldn’t finish telling the true story that ended with our baby’s death. It came out on the page in that way and I left the trace of my inability to speak there. Also, I was putting a question to myself: if I could retell the story and make it come out the way I wanted it to, what would I do? Which of course is a way of telling the real story in the negative space.
JH: Jill, thank you so much for sitting down with me today and sharing not only this emotional experience but also your writing process. I have just one final question: What does recovery mean to you?
JC: Recovery for me comes after we do the hard work of grieving, after we go right through the middle of things. This active grieving (much of which I do through writing) is a kind of spiritual, emotional, and psychological inner burning in the space where all the gunk has collected—the grief, the shame, the sorrow, the rage—to get to a place where I can feel joy again. That’s recovery.
When I was writing Darkroom, I came to understand that I had allowed myself to be wholly defined and shaped by outside forces—my free-wheeling mother and my absent father, my elementary school art teacher and my abuser, photographs and family stories, therapists and teachers, my very own flesh and skin—and the act of writing was an opportunity to use my own creativity and intelligence to take an active role in shaping my own life. And what do you know? I think it might have worked.