Poor Your Soul, the debut effort from author Mira Ptacin, sets its sight on telling untold stories of women. The title, a delicious phrase taken from the idiosyncratic immigrant English of her powerful mother, signifies a complex, overlapping story of the bonds between two generations of powerful women dealing with death and the creation of life, using pain and suffering as the connective tissue. Ptacin, a native of the smaller Battle Creek, Michigan, finds herself beguiled by the glittering illusions of New York, a city she sees with both clouded and clear eyes, explaining, “So I left. I came to New York to be a writer, while noticing, “we go to New York to make our careers, and we end up stepping over homeless people lying flat on the sidewalk as we walk to work.”
And yet, as with so many of us, we plan diligently, something larger–God or the randomness of our universe–laughs at our pretensions. After many large schemes of fame and prestige, Ptacin finds herself belonging to the minute percentage of women who, despite the rigorous regimen of pills, gets pregnant with a new boyfriend, all without insurance. On Medicaid, the couple soon find out that the baby inside has fatal developmental challenges, resulting in an impossible choice for any person: terminate the pregnancy, wait it out, or induce labor which will almost certainly result in baby’s death. Ptacin’s boyfriend, who chooses to stay on as her husband, does his best to be there with the author, but she paints a portrait of vivid loneliness while a life that isn’t grows inside of her (“It’s as if being pregnant is a reminder that we are all born alone and die alone.”)
Ptacin tells this all-too common story of horror with grace, agility, and courage that would suffice to make this book urgent and heroic. The real artistry arises as the author navigates her own travails through the empathy she uses to understand her mother. Her mother emerges as a red-lipstick-wearing warrior, a figure with shades of Garcia Marquez’s timeless Ursula Beundia, who provides both the way in and the way out for Ptacin’s exploration of pain, and serves as the backdrop for the author’s contemporary experience of creating life and female choice. Maria ,born and raised in Catholic pre-Communist Poland, grew up around gruff hard men, a crooked father, lazy drunken brothers she tends to, and then grabbed a life for herself, emerging with a Masters degree in physics. With the change in government, her mother was able to capitalize on her talents and intelligence, ultimately coming to America to try her hand at the dream while first working as a housekeeper while she studied English.
In America, she created a giving, generous life for herself and goes on to open her own gourmet restaurant from nothing. Though she has two beautiful children of her own, she decides to adopt Julian, a young baby, to save him from the penury of Poland. At the age of 14, a month after Ptacin ran away and stayed away from home, in another act of random violence, Jules was killed by a drunken driver, left to die in the arms of his father. Using these episodes, Ptacin measures her life against her mother’s and ultimately siphons from her mother’s courage to make her own choices and to accept her own suffering.
Poor Your Soul is a work of impressive empathy, for Ptacin’s mother, for other women in similar situations, and for women who make different choices with their bodies. Ptacin never indulges in naivete or sentimentality, for she fully encounters the violence of living, of family life with impossibly strong mothers and guilt and shame, and the random sufferings of drunken drivers, and the often wholesale violence against women’s bodies in the processes of pregnancy (or just always). The chapters of the three-day procedure to remove the life from her flesh is searing, but honest and humane, and some of the most courageous writing I’ve seen in a while.
The violence, the potential for death and darkness, seems everywhere, as Ptacin writes with a honed awareness of the blooming potential of violence all around us, as a society of Americans, of humans as a species, and most urgently, as a woman. In a scene that sets the tone of her memoir, Ptacin writes of an early memory of a nearby field destroyed for the very American purposes of a mall:
the golden meadow was killed, confused and homeless herds of deer spewed into our yard and our neighbors’ yards, and soon after that, dead ones started to appear on the side of the highway more and more. We got used to it.
All of which, in a way, encapsulates one of the book’s central energies and the circling questions of Ptacin. How do we, as humans, survive the violence of living? What does it mean to continue to live after the death of Lily, her named unborn child, after the loss of Jules, her adopted brother, her mother’s beloved son, is a question she seeks to answer.
“There is no deadline,” she chants, both as a prayer, a hope, and an answer, at the end of the book.
Grief is unpredictable. Messy. Imagine: You are in the driver’s seat. You are with your child. You are asking about homework or talking about the dog and suddenly your entire life gets flipped upside down. There is a crash, broken glass, and then your son expires right in your arms. You are carrying your child and then he dies. How do you go on after that? You become weighed down by sorrow. By denial, anger, bargaining, depression. When does acceptance come? You want your grief to be temporary, predictable. You want to see the stages of grief and identify with them, check them off, but grief never ends. Maybe you expect a time limit where you can put it behind you and go on with your life, but how can you? You just do. Because the grief narrative never ends; it has become woven in, part of the braid of your life…
And yet, I found myself constantly wondering why Ptacin only seems to know how to direct the anger inwards and the empathy outwards. She writes with endless patience and kindness to everyone around her; she even tries on a bit of fleeting empathy for the murderer of her brother. And yet, to herself, she is nothing but a lazy, arrogant, thickheaded teenager who does nothing but cause pain to her parents. This sense that the author feared turning her anger outward, that perhaps, trained in the constraints of womanhood that tells women not to express anything negative, created a distance for this reader all which came to a head in what felt like an abrupt ending.
It took me a minute to step outside myself to see the bias in this judgment. Realizing that the best memoirs, like the best of friends, are those that attack the arrogant certainties of your life, I realized that Ptacin ended up crafting an almost anti-American tale of growing up, in which she judges her teenage angst and rage, in which the long winding paths of self-awareness lead her back home, back to the foundations of her generous father and her truly heroic mother. Maybe anger is not the end of the process of maturation, she’s telling us. Maybe honoring the humanity of our parents, using them as heroes in our lives, using our own pain to explore theirs, is as true and real and complex, or as mythological and superstitious as is killing them in therapy, as slaughtering them in our memoirs.
She doesn’t flinch from staring this violence in its manifold face, but she also doesn’t stew in the rage I felt vicariously. In the best sense, this book felt so different from the regular fabric of my days that as much as I embrace its categorization as for grieving mothers, that all of their stories need to be told, I want to hand this to the men in my life. Here. Read this. We all need this. To say that as a man I live a different life than the author here is to run into sterile truisms, but to say that submerged in the vivid world of that difference, interrogated by that difference. I felt not changed myself, but born to a new world larger than before. That is perhaps the greatest gift of a memoir such as this.
Poor Your Soul
by Mira Ptacin
Soho Press; 320 p.