Review: Catriona Menzies-Pikeon Julia Leigh

Pick Your Own Misadventure: Avalanche by Julia Leigh

On the first page of Julia Leigh’s memoir Avalanche, the author injects herself with artificial hormones: ‘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 a book about hope, effort, and chance. Hope: the possibility of a child ‘conjured out of the ether’; the brittle optimism that sustains Leigh through years of fertility treatments. Effort: the brutal physical, psychological and financial costs of assisted fertility treatments. Chance: the statistics that, when finally in clear view, reveal that hope to have been remote all along.

It’s easy to read Avalanche as a cautionary tale about assisted fertility, about the reconfiguration of unlikelihood into lucrative possibility by IVF providers. But that’s not the whole story, and Leigh is willing to make an example of herself and her complicity in the process. As Avalanche shows, women who want to be mothers engage in magical thinking to turn their slim chances of conception into hope, and the greater contribution of Leigh’s memoir is as a portrait of this wilful, heartbreaking optimism.

The older woman trying to conceive is usually a figure of censure, if not ridicule. She has left it too late. She couldn’t find a man. In the endless media treatment of the topic, there are stock reasons trotted out for women delaying children. She put her career first. She really should have known better. Leigh dignifies this woman, in all her irrational frustrated wanting. She explains why trying to conceive doesn’t strike some women as an option until their late thirties, and why a smart sane woman might persist with fertility treatment against the odds. Conception narratives tend to culminate in the birth of a child. Avalanche doesn’t, and although the improbability of Leigh becoming a mother is marked from the very first page, the reader is buoyed with Leigh by the promise of each new cycle of treatment.

In her late thirties Julia Leigh reconnected with an old flame, whom she calls Paul. She lived in New York, he near Sydney and soon she’d shifted her life back to Australia. There is romance and its trappings: silk pyjamas, lots of sex, walks along the Bondi clifftops, an engagement, joint financial arrangements – and ‘right then our destined child was called forth as a possibility’. If there are warning signs about the relationship, Leigh rationalises them, or just ignores them. Huge rows don’t dampen her desire to have Paul’s child, and it is this desire that drives the first half of the memoir.

There are obstacles, most substantial of which is Leigh’s age. She is 38 years old when she first visits a fertility doctor. She shrugs off his warnings. ‘Back then, right at the beginning, I had an uneasy response to the so-called statistics. I told myself: each human body is a mystery; there are too many factors that distinguish one 38-year-old from another.’ Then there is Paul’s vasectomy, which needs to be reversed. Leigh, at least, is undeterred, the couple opt to hold off on fertility treatments.

The opportunity then arises for Leigh to direct her screenplay of Sleeping Beauty. Leigh is low-key about this remarkable turn of events: an author with no film experience receiving the funding green light to direct a film. It raises a dilemma for the couple. ‘What to do: how could I direct a feature film and become pregnant at the same time?’ She chooses the film and it utterly consumes her creative energies.

As Leigh makes Sleeping Beauty, her marriage to Paul collapses, but there’s very little of the film (or its polarised reception) in Avalanche, no vignettes of the writer at work, no quick sketches of the film’s plot. We hear most about her creative life through Paul. ‘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.’ Paul is a mouthpiece for criticisms of women who choose to pursue their careers over motherhood, and his scathing rebukes echo the smug commentators who weigh in on women who have missed the boat. Leigh is more circumspect in her reflections on the relationship between her creative life and motherhood:

And I also said — it pains me now — that I needed to safeguard “my hard-won creative life”. Why was I so quick to add any sort of caveat? Why did I set the two ways of being — motherhood, writing — at odds. The truth, which I knew very well at the time, was that many women had gone before me and found ways to lead a creative life and also be a mother. There were countless prams in countless hallways.

The gendered aspects of this conflict between work and babies aren’t heavily stressed – but we hear nothing about how Paul weighed parenthood against his career.

The strife with Paul continues through the production of Sleeping Beauty, right up to the film’s debut at Cannes. There is no progress on the baby front, just terrible fights, and the discovery that Paul’s vasectomy reversal has been unsuccessful. The only way for Leigh to get pregnant with Paul’s baby will be to use sperm collected during the surgery. After Cannes, divorce papers are filed. The couple split – but Paul agrees that Leigh can use his sperm, and then withdraws this agreement. On it goes: the cruelty and humiliations of a bitter relationship breakdown occupy far more narrative space than the romance. It’s agonising to read and a blessed relief when Paul finally falls into the background.

The intimacy of Avalanche often startles. Leigh does not retreat from anecdotes that make her family and friends, and indeed herself, appear callous, foolish, and wrong-headed. Leigh acknowledges her own delays and indecisions but she does not let her ex-husband off the narrative hook for his role in her — their — childlessness. If you accept Leigh’s account of him, Paul is a complete shit, petty and vacillating. Leigh’s tremendous narrative poise is never toppled by her raw anger with Paul, and that anger, and Leigh’s unwillingness to play nice with their shared past, is important. It’s an anger that expresses vulnerability and pain. It’s also a form of defiance, a refusal to yield to the fiction that women alone are to blame when they are not able to conceive.

In this, Leigh is kin to Plath’s Lady Lazarus: ‘Out of the ash I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air’. This is not the standard pose of the unwillingly childless woman, who is more frequently silenced by the misogynist language of infertility: barren, sterile, fruitless. Consider another poem by Plath, ‘Childless Woman’, which articulates a key trope of infertility, the association of childlessness with a failure of self-expression: ‘My landscape is a hand with no lines’. For Plath, the conflict between maternity and creativity was generative and ultimately destructive. Leigh fears the encroachment of a child on her creative life, but as she reckons with childlessness in Avalanche she resists silence, and in doing so charts an area of women’s experience that is usually left unspoken (and certainly omitted from the glossy brochures stacked neatly in the reception rooms of IVF providers). In this, she keeps company with Maggie Nelson and Rachel Cusk, whose memoirs of maternity are not populated by happy heteronormative families.

After Paul, the desire to have a child remains. ‘I was happy to be a single mother. If the choice was between not being a mother and being a single mother then I had no qualms.’ Friends question her decision to go it alone, but Leigh’s concerns are logistic, not moral. First she must find a sperm donor, and several potential candidates fall by the wayside. There are things that Leigh won’t do to conceive: use donor sperm from a man she doesn’t know, use donor eggs: ‘In the IVF world we all have our parameters, our personal lines in the sand. At least we do when we start out, before the harsh desert winds cut across the dunes.’ It doesn’t take long for the desert winds to start blowing. The doctors don’t discourage her from embarking on the expensive, uncertain process of IVF, but they’re not exactly forthcoming with information. As she discusses her first egg collection, Leigh recalls, ‘we did not talk much about side effects’.

Why freeze her eggs? With all the delays, it ‘seemed like my only chance to take action, to do something, to break out of my force-frozen stasis.’  Finally, she finds a donor. ‘When it was already too late I was ready to go.’ The nurses are kind, but there is plenty of patronising advice and fumbled care. Eggs are frozen, fertilised, implanted. ‘Since I was young I’ve had a phobia of needles’, Leigh tells us. And a page later,

In the course of my treatment I did close to 100 blood tests, probably more. I developed a strict routine: heat-pack, lie down, left arm first, turn my head to the side and let the tears fall. Symptom: I would sink into a disproportionate state of vulnerability, the tears would rise unbidden as I resigned myself to that vulnerability. Needle out.

She injects herself with the necessary hormones. There is a solace in these processes: ‘I laid everything out before me as if I were a surgeon about to undertake a major operation. … When each injection was over I felt a small sense of accomplishment. Done. The methodical experience lent itself to a sense of purpose.’  She presents at the clinic promptly in the tiny window calculated for fertilisation and returns home with drugs in distinctive cooler bags. There are tests and phone calls with the clinic about her hormone levels and new treatments and the results of the tests. None of it works. Each cycle requires the renewal of hope: ‘But what if my period hadn’t arrived? What if the test had been positive? My whole life would have changed. Just like that.’ Years pass.

At the beginning, Leigh is hopeful, and why not? ‘It seemed that every second day a celebrity in her forties was having a baby.’ That optimism recedes. ‘Nearing the end of my treatment it became harder and harder to kid myself that I was lucky, exceptional, or altogether outside the realm of statistics. The real reason I didn’t want to know about the IVF numbers was that I was desperate.’ Time is precious for a woman undergoing fertility treatments and Leigh doesn’t waste it in Avalanche. The pace in this section is exhausting. The reader is given little pause to absorb a barrage of data on side effects and probability. It’s all moving too fast. An experimental treatment to suppress the immune system? Testosterone? After she has endured several egg collections and two inseminations, an acquaintance tells her about someone else who went through it twenty times and had a child. ‘It’s worth it if you keep going.’ And she does keep going, in spite of the dreadful effects on her body and psyche.

On her next to last cycle, there is a positive result on a pregnancy test. Were it not for the blood test regimen, she would not have known she was pregnant. Her hormone levels stay low, and the second pregnancy test comes back negative. It’s devastating. She asks her doctor how many 44-year-old women bring a baby home after fertility treatment. The answer: just two per cent.  She gives up, her health in ruins. And that’s it; there’s no baby at the end of this narrative. What there is is a birthday party, Leigh’s, and a small child, her niece Elsie. Elsie gives Leigh some pieces of a pink jigsaw puzzle in a cardboard box: ‘It’s a box of babies!’, the little girl cries. The two play together, and Leigh is ‘suffused with a burning tender love for that astonishing girl’. This — finally — is the bare love that the avalanche of the book’s title exposes.

The first shot of Sleeping Beauty shows the film’s young protagonist Lucy sitting quietly in a lab as an awkward technician shoves a tube down her throat. It’s a long take, an unsettling opening to a film in which Leigh and a succession of men study Lucy’s body, often in environments so controlled they might as well be forensic labs. The actors’ performances are restrained and the production design is sparse and highly stylised. Lucy is adrift, and her drift leads her to sex work and ultimately to the literalisation of her general state of passivity: she becomes a naked, drugged object on a bed, a screen.

There are certainly continuities between Leigh’s memoir and Sleeping Beauty. As in Avalanche, Leigh has no compunction about bringing her cinematic audience uncomfortably close to the action, typically through long takes. Both works are unsentimental in their depictions of varieties of masochism, cruelty and self-control, and of bodies that are by turns grotesque, anaesthetised, and afflicted by age. Leigh is a far more accomplished writer than she is a director. The film’s studious formality is at once striking and tedious, and the implausible plot buckles under the weight of its own self-seriousness. Avalanche represents a significant refinement of the aesthetic on display in Sleeping Beauty, and it also marks a development from her two acclaimed novels, The Hunter and Disquiet.

Like those novels, Avalanche unfolds via spare episodes and aphorisms.  Writing non-fiction, Leigh remains an impressive, subtle stylist, always cool — and ruthless in her elimination of superfluous detail. Her prose billows occasionally into allegory — her sperm donor is introduced thus: ‘A prince came to my rescue. I walked up to his castle, knocked on the door’. In her novels, there is little exposition and the motivations of her characters remain opaque to the reader and to themselves. They are defined only by what they say and do. We encounter them as creatures of will, striving for self-determination and obsessive ends in an uncooperative, cruel world. The will that drives M to track the thylacine in The Hunter, the capacity to endure of the unnamed woman at the heart of Disquiet, these are reference points for Leigh’s self-portrait.

And yet there’s a shift in Avalanche, and that is because the reader is given access — albeit limited — to Leigh’s inner life, and because her vulnerability infuses every page. Leigh the novelist maintains a cool distance from her characters: if they are fallible, their author is not. That’s not the case in Avalanche, in which Leigh’s control of language is at odds with her inability to determine the outcome of IVF. She goes so far as to allow a disclaimer about her authority: ‘I guess it’s common sense but I sincerely believe in the truth of what I’m writing and at the very same time I know Paul would shape a different story.’ In the novels, Leigh dares her reader to follow her into dangerous places; she is much more accommodating in Avalanche (though still fearless). With mordant humour, a quality not much in evidence in her earlier work, she appeals not for pity but for recognition.

Avalanche marks a break from Leigh’s earlier work in its movement towards redemption via the restoration of love. Subtitled ‘a love story’, the memoir passes through the tumult of romantic and erotic love, the possibility of maternal love, and the varieties of effortful and effortless love that exist within families. We come to understand that Leigh’s love for her niece Elsie is not a substitute for maternal love; it is, rather, a model for Leigh’s commitment after the failure of IVF ‘to love widely and intensely … to unshackle my love from the great love I wanted to give my own child.’

Leigh tells the final tender scene between with Elsie straight: the aunt coming to terms with years of failed fertility plays with her niece. At the start of the game, she has to ‘lie down and pretend to be asleep’, a burlesque of all the general anaesthetics involved in IVF. Unlike IVF, this game yields a box full of babies, freely given by Elsie. The pair play jigsaw babies and Leigh does not recoil from these symbols of thwarted desire. She simply loves that small girl. If there’s an irony here, it is unimportant and Leigh doesn’t bother to mark it. It is not, ultimately, in the unfiltered nature of her disclosures that Leigh’s courage as a memoirist lies, but in her preparedness to trace an arc from hope to despair, and to come to rest not by renouncing love but by embracing it.

A friend says to Leigh, ‘I don’t know how you can choose to be pregnant. Our kids weren’t planned.’ Leigh’s response: ‘With IVF — you have to choose.’ What kind of choice is this? It’s an expensive one, that’s clear. In Avalanche, there are abundant off-hand observations of the cost of IVF and the profitability of the clinics. In another exchange with a friend, we overhear a reference to a woman who sold her house to ‘buy her kids’. The consultants Leigh meets are well-versed in the rhetoric of choice, presenting their pricey interventions as a function of women’s ability to choose.  It’s up to you, they assure her at each stage of the process. Yet the choices that Leigh is asked to make become baffling and no amount of googling clarifies them. ‘Pick your own misadventure’, she grimaces.

If this is reproductive freedom, it’s hardly liberating. Leigh sets herself up as a beneficiary of the sexual freedoms won by feminists. To her relationship with Paul she brings ‘her own trail of tender affections’ and she reveals early on that she has had an abortion. If assisted reproduction represents an extension of such freedom, it is ultimately governed by biology, circumscribed by the caprices of other people — and success rates are low.  ‘There’s a different graph Dr Rogers could have drawn that first day in the clinic. Most IVF cycles fail, or to be more precise, most assisted reproduction fails.’ Here lies the ethical impasse of IVF, especially when consumers like Leigh have stopped their ears against caution in the hope of having a child.

It was recently reported that Silicon Valley companies were offering to pay for the costs of egg freezing for employees. Many commentators hail such initiatives as a triumph for choice: women who want to keep working tech industry hours don’t need to get sidetracked by childbearing for another few years. A 2015 episode of Background Briefing investigated the success of the egg-freezing industry and found, as Leigh does, that most women’s expectations of taking a baby home were wildly inflated. The program included a set of extraordinary grabs from a cocktail party staged by a fertility clinic to provide information to women who were thinking about freezing their eggs. The technology was touted as baby insurance, as freedom to go on a second date without bringing up babies. Avalanche paints a very different picture.

The ability to choose when to have children, or not to have children, has changed the lives of modern women, and so too have reproductive technologies such as IVF. Such freedoms are not simple. Late in the process Leigh takes a trip to the Torres Strait for a screen project. Her medication is packed in her checked baggage, which is delayed. She presents at Emergency in a tiny hospital, desperate for a script. The harried doctor tells her, ‘we treat sick people here’. The irony is, fertility treatments aren’t just unsuccessful and expensive for Leigh, they make her sick. ‘My health was a ruin,’ she writes. ‘I was totally worn down, worn out.’ Cysts have appeared in her ovaries where there were none, her joints ache and her skin betrays her exhaustion; she’s afraid of further consequences if she persists. IVF leaves Leigh childless and erodes her self-conception as someone who can stay ahead of the odds. When she decides to stop fertility treatments she is spent; stopping, she knows, is an act of self-preservation. The consultants tell Leigh she could hold onto hope and roll the dice one more time — but by then, she’s shed her illusions about both luck and choice, and so have we.