Sweet dark purpose
Scaling the IVF mountain in Julia Leigh’s ‘Avalanche’
In Julia Leigh’s 2008 novella, Disquiet, a woman escapes a troubled marriage in Australia for her family chateau in France. Shortly after her arrival, her sister-in-law returns from hospital, cradling a stillborn child she and her husband wish to “get to know” before the funeral. The baby’s body is wrapped and stored in the freezer, and the book becomes a study in what remains unsaid, delivering all the disquiet promised by its title.
In subject, Disquiet is a radical departure from the Sydney author’s acclaimed 1999 debut, The Hunter, which charts the hunt for the last thylacine, and yet there are striking similarities between the two. Each novella begins with an anonymous figure introduced into a landscape. (Although Leigh allows other characters to name her protagonists, they tend to remain archetypal in the narration: the hunter is “M”; Disquiet’s protagonist is “the woman”.) Sleeping Beauty (2011), Leigh’s debut film as director and screenwriter, operates according to a similar schema. A young woman, played by the luminous Emily Browning, steps into a strange new world in which she consents to being drugged to sleep alongside paying clients.
As both author and auteur, Leigh is less interested in plot than in atmosphere. She combines ellipsis with long tracts of stasis, so that her structures can feel like a succession of stills. But there is a ruthless process at work. Almost imperceptibly, Leigh raises the temperature of these atmospheres, until her central figure is provoked into some sort of action: a breakdown or breakthrough, or perhaps both.
Leigh’s new memoir, Avalanche: A love story (Hamish Hamilton; $24.99), marks a stylistic break, even as it addresses her recurrent themes: grief, obsession, corporeality. She abandons her anonymous third person – so impersonal it can feel like third-person squared – for the shock of the first person. The emergence of Leigh herself in the story allows for an unexpected (and welcome) black humour: “With those [medical] consents I felt the same sense of empowerment, fair bargaining, ability to discuss and negotiate a document, as I did when I signed off blindly on the terms and conditions of the latest Adobe update.” Despite this tonal change, the story’s arc is familiar, only this time it is Leigh herself stepping into the strange landscape of IVF at the age of 38.
Leigh has never been one to spare her audience; at times her ruthlessness can feel Artaudian. Sleeping Beauty opens with a scene in which the young woman, a test subject for medical research, has a plastic tube inserted into her throat, provoking a gag response not only in her but also in the viewer. Avalanche begins similarly, with Leigh essentially violating herself: “For a great many nights I injected myself with an artificial hormone produced in a line of genetically modified Chinese hamster ovary cells. I did this knowing that no matter how hard I hoped, no matter what I tried, chances were I’d never have a child.”
This is less viscerally shocking than Sleeping Beauty, and yet the immediacy of the storytelling ultimately renders it more potent. As Leigh recounts – or almost recites – her experience of IVF, it is as if she is recalling a dream from which she has only just awakened: “Heads in the waiting room did not turn. This was a temple of discretion. No-one expected or wanted to be here. Immediately I noticed the wallpaper was neither girl-pink nor boy-blue but a considerate shade of yellow.”
One of the most striking features of The Hunter is the resemblance between the hunter’s powers of observation and Leigh’s own:
Now he senses it has happened, the alchemical change which seeps through the bones and leaves a man with faculties so attuned that he is no longer man, is more than man. Now M is the natural man, the man who can see and hear and smell what other men cannot …
Leigh has a keen eye for animal behaviour, and turns a similar gaze to the human world. And yet in her novellas her characters remain mysterious: we witness their actions but are largely denied access to their inner lives. At times – particularly in the immaculately styled Disquiet – they can seem arranged into position, rather than set loose on one another. Avalanche, by dint of being memoir, allows a new access to interiority.
The first 30 pages of this book are a love story, with something of the quality of a doomed fairytale. (Dreamscapes and fairytales both lie beneath the surface of Leigh’s prose.) Leigh reconnects with a boyfriend from her youth and then marries him, recounting their relationship in intimate detail: “For Paul’s birthday I gave him a word. ‘To smund: when a woman, a wife, lays her length upon a man, her husband, and with slow loving sinuous movements caresses, presses her soft warm breasts against his chest.’”
Despite such candour, the reader is blindsided by the relationship’s sudden demise on page 27. (One aspect of Leigh’s austerity is her refusal to signpost “plot developments”.) The couple divorces, but Paul agrees to allow Leigh to use his sperm. Later he recants. “He didn’t think I should be a mother; I was too selfish; I didn’t know how to love.” In perhaps the book’s most rancorous passage, Leigh bumps into Paul at an art gallery with his new partner and her children. “I watched him kneel down and raise a young girl onto his shoulders,” she writes. “He glanced up at me with the chill dead-eyes of a shark.”
One of the themes that emerge from this brief marriage is the conflict between being artist and wife. In an early love letter, Leigh signals the need to safeguard her “hard-won creative life”, something she later questions: “Why was I so quick to add any sort of caveat? Why did I set the two ways of being – motherhood, writing – at odds? … There were countless prams in countless hallways … It wasn’t either/or.” And yet this “either/or” becomes a fault line in her marriage: “He said he didn’t sign up for me putting my career ahead of everything else, he said I was blind to how my work bled into our lives and obscured all the good things.”
As Leigh steps beyond her marriage, seeking a donor elsewhere, her story becomes broader, offering a harrowing account of the real costs of the IVF industry. “I played my inner trick of pretending it was all Monopoly money,” she remarks, though money is the least of it. Leigh has always been interested in bodies: the immaculately dissected thylacine from The Hunter, harvested for its DNA; the stillborn baby from Disquiet in the early stages of decay; the unconscious Sleeping Beauty, shockingly manipulated by an older man. In uncanny ways, all of these early works presage Avalanche, which reveals the toll taken on women’s bodies by IVF. “My health was a ruin,” Leigh reports. “I was totally worn down, worn out. My skin was bad and so were my hips … One of my ovaries, about two months after my last egg collection, was uncomfortable and twice the size it was before treatment. There are cysts that weren’t there on my initial ultrasound.”
Such insults are superseded only by the emotional fallout of IVF. By nature circular and repetitive, grief can lead some of our finest writers to lose focus, but Leigh’s approach recalls the tautness of Joan Didion, even down to the italicised notes to self. “Do not whine,” Didion writes on an index card, in her eviscerating Blue Nights. “Do not complain. Work harder. Spend more time alone.” Leigh provides herself with similar instructions: “So keep writing. Stay near. Capture these strong feelings before they are blanketed by time.”
The book is above all about Leigh’s relationship with hope: “It’s an industry predicated on failure. The true graph depicts a mountain with one face Hope and the other Despair.” Over the course of the book’s pages, she maps her trajectory from one side of this mountain to the other. At the beginning of treatment, her husband calls her “Pollyanna Juggernaut”: “Pollyanna was determined to look on the bright side, plow ahead. She would not, could not, countenance the abyss.” By story’s end, Pollyanna Juggernaut has been dismantled, and yet Leigh remains rigorous even in despair: “it’s self-pity that’s the killer”. Only after she has concluded treatment does she ask her doctor for the real statistics: “In the last year, what percentage of women my age at the clinic had taken home a baby using their own eggs? Her answer: 2.8 per cent for 44-year-olds. 6.6 per cent for 43-year-olds.”
Such slim odds, such unthinkable costs. This might sound like an account of exploitation except for Leigh’s frankness about her complicity, her wilful blindness. Too subtle a writer to signpost a moral position, she instead allows her audience to come to its own conclusions. The process of IVF, she confesses, offered her purpose, as did its promise: “There is comfort in purpose. Part of me wanted to have a child just so I could have an inviolable reason for being. Sweet purpose. Sweet dark purpose, secret of secrets: a child would save my life.”
It is difficult to criticise an industry that has brought such joy to many. As Leigh acknowledges, the prize is supreme: “What if the [pregnancy] test had been positive? My whole life would have changed. Just like that. I would have held my breath, warding off miscarriage, and at the same time every day would have been a joy.” But as I read this memoir I thought of all those women I know who have undergone these torments, often in silence. Leigh suggests that “there’s a qualified sympathy for IVF patients, not unlike that shown to smokers who get lung cancer”. Beyond its singular stylistic pleasures, Avalanche’s value lies in its exposure of a hidden realm of suffering, in its appeal for a less qualified sympathy.
Disquiet is prefaced with the epigraph “with my burnt hand I write about the nature of fire”. These words, by the Austrian poet and author Ingeborg Bachmann, seem more apt here. Avalanche is no recollection in tranquillity; there is a sense instead that Leigh is writing for her very survival. By turning her keen gaze to her own body, her own burnt hand, one of our greatest technicians has found a subject worthy of her style.