Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives

Women We Read This Week

Anna Merlan’s “Ghost Child: The Strange, Misunderstood World of Delusional Pregnancy”
on Jezebel

For some reason I started reading this just before I went to sleep the other night. I was about halfway through when my husband crawled into bed and made the mistake of trying to talk to me. “I’m reading about ghost pregnancies,” I told him. His eyes got wide. “Are you ghost pregnant?” I am not any kind of pregnant and I told him so very very quickly, but that got me thinking about all the worst ways to deliver news of your ghost pregnancy—although, of course, a major thing about being ghost pregnant is that you don’t think you’re ghost pregnant.

That’s the tragic thrust of Anna Merlan’s reporting here, which centers on a woman called Ruby who believes she is pregnant despite numerous medical assessments to the contrary, including one by an ultrasound tech at an NYU hospital:

The ultrasound technician there didn’t see a baby either. Ruby thought his scan had been far too brief to show anything. Things grew tense, and something happened between them. Ruby calls it an argument; the hospital, citing medical privacy laws, declined to comment. After a little verbal tussling, Ruby says, the ultrasound technician told her she would be taken to see an OB-GYN, who would examine her further. Instead, she was taken into a psychiatric seclusion room and held down by four male orderlies, one pinning each of her limbs. She was given injections of Ativan, an anti-anxiety drug, and Zyprexa, an antipsychotic. She screamed, thrashed, and finally, defeated and sleepy from the medication, fell asleep. When she woke up, she was in a locked ward at Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric center.


The history of delusional pregnancy is long, largely inextricable from the general pathologization of the female experience, and even now it’s not especially well-understood. So, unsurprisingly, there aren’t many accounts that treat the patient’s claim with anything resembling empathy. But as Merlan follows Ruby’s attempts to get released from Bellevue and prove the legitimacy of her pregnancy, she also probes at the boundaries of Ruby’s presumed delusion—almost like she’s answering the unasked question of what would it look like if I tried to believe her?


Emily Raboteau’s “Who Is Zwarte Piet?” in VQR

Emily Raboteau had me at hello. The opening paragraph of this thorough, thoughtful and unflinching examination of the racism inherent in the Dutch tradition of “Zwarte Piet”–the black-faced sidekick to Sinterklaas–has rhythm in its lines that calls the reader to attention.

Morning sickness served as my constant companion during the fall and winter I lived in Amsterdam. At times I would have to park my bicycle on a humpback bridge to vomit into a canal. Maybe a smell set me off: the fishy brine coming from a haringhandel, the poop of the sad swans in the red-​light district, or the stink of some cheese at Noordermarkt. But it wasn’t just the smells pushing me toward nausea. Zwarte Piet was also making me sick.

If Dorothy Parker were still alive, she might agree that, along with “cellar door,” “sad swans” deserves accolades for sheer verbal pleasure. And pleasure–whose, at what cost, and by virtue of what sort of amnesia–is one of the themes that runs through this strong piece. Dutch neighbors excoriate Raboteau for suggesting that Zwarte Piet is a racist trope. He makes children happy, they tell her. Why does she want to ruin their joy? These arguments that it’s all in fun–holiday parades of bulbous-lipped, Afro-ed black-faced Piets, clad garb associated with the era when the Dutch slave trade flourished–persist even though Dutch children of color are routinely called the same name by their peers in bullying and hazing that becomes the stuff of distinctly unjoyful childhood memories.

There is much that I loved about this piece, including its exploration of the ways that national memory represses trauma, and its whirlwind tour through the multi-national cast of ne’er do wells and Satan stand-ins who are the often overlooked flip side of Santa’s jolly coin. I loved it too because I read it in Harlem–which of course borrows its name from the Dutch Haarlem–on a day when groups had called for a national Die-In to protest the injustices meted out to Eric Garner, Michael Brown and so many more young black men and women in this country and the city once known as New Amsterdam. These are dangerous, difficult, excruciating days. Raboteau’s story is not only about a Dutch tradition. It is about racism hidden in plain sight everywhere, and how it is sometimes protected in the name of our own children. And it suggests, though does not promise, a way to think about more authentic joy in a world that remembers and, from those memories, seeks change.


Jessica Pishko’s “The Red Room” in The Toast

First, I should say that “The Red Room” is no breezy read. An essay about sexual assault, the whole thing holds together with taut strands of story, and each sentence, each paragraph and experience lands like a brick. That’s not to say that it is clunky, but that each component is heavy and contained and they are cemented together almost forcefully. But how else can we tell the story of assault?

Pishko pulls experiences from college, from dating (on the phrase “date rape”: “It’s like rape combined with something that’s supposed to make you feel special”), and from her experiences working as an attorney, resulting in a layered collage of affronts. Pishko doesn’t make elegant that which is ugly; doesn’t apply logical continuity to that which is illogical; doesn’t create for a reader a cohesive story. Full of doubt and contradiction, the experiences and attempts to make sense of them seem at constant odds:

The next time it happened, I was wiser. Someone who’s a victim once is more likely to be a victim again. I didn’t learn that until afterwards. The shrink didn’t warn me.

Or this:

He told me at the time that I would never forget him. He told me that I was weak. A stronger person would not have put up with it. She would have resisted. I often tried to picture this mythical perfect woman. She doesn’t think that there’s anything wrong with her. She goes through life assured that her feelings are the right ones.

There is nothing about this essay that is soothing narratively or logically. It doesn’t even try. Instead, it seems to be an attempt to lay down what happened, but couldn’t have, shouldn’t have; it lets the facts, in all their discordant harmony, tell a story that doesn’t make sense.

Katie Booth


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