What On Earth Was The New York Times Book Review Editor Thinking?

If the goal was to feature a condescending mother insulting women who pursue fertility treatment — mission accomplished

The New York Times Book Review

I appreciate how hard it must be to decide which of the new books pitched will make it into The New York Times Book Review. I also realize part of the job is to expose new points of view. This often begins with the book review assignment.

The decision to assign Rachel Cusk, an author whose book about motherhood raised hackles, to review a new memoir about an unrequited quest to get pregnant might have been genius had Ms. Cusk elected to exercise a modicum of empathy. The irony is that while she once claimed to be shocked by the vicious reaction to her deeply personal writing on motherhood, she sharpened the knives when writing about AVALANCHE: A Love Story, Julia Leigh’s account of trying to conceive.

Motherhood (who does it right and who does it wrong?) and fertility treatments (who should get them and are they fit to be parents?) — these topics are live wires. Sparks usually fly when they’re laid out for inspection.

As for AVALANCHE, readers and reviewers may agree or disagree on the merits of the book. Does it engage? Illuminate? In my estimation it does both. Those, however, were not the questions answered or explored in The New York Times Book Review. Rather, Ms. Cusk’s review oozed with personal judgment. About AVALANCHE Ms. Cusk writes:

“It is the work of a palpably weakened author, a testimony of personal suffering whose legitimacy — on this telling — seems to have gone outrageously ­unquestioned.”

Seems we could say the same about Ms. Cusk’s review. It was, indeed, “outrageously unquestioned.” Apart from lacking any subject matter expertise, the review opens with a self-serving pseudo-academic lecture on writing and the reviewer herself that ran a full eight paragraphs.

The condescension courses through the review. Seems Ms. Cusk has a unique talent for offending rather than edifying.

Adding insult to injury, she dismisses the rawness and honesty of the narrative, writing: “What follows is a story of emotional, physical and financial disintegration so agonizing that one almost wants to shield one’s eyes from the page.”

That, Ms. Cusk, is the point of the story: the tantalizing promise of in vitro fertilization (IVF), marketed for nearly 40 years by a burgeoning industry more often ends — not with a baby — but in spectacular failure. The hope that science can outsmart Mother Nature is what keeps people coming back for increasingly invasive, even experimental treatments. This dreadful and difficult contradiction dogs consumer/patients each step of the way. Meanwhile, side effects to medications are glossed over. Statistics are generalized. Paperwork and legal release forms pour forth. Buried in the fine print were statements that the doctor managing Ms. Leigh’s care might have a financial interest in the clinic

My advice, prior to publishing, would have been to run this review by a former I.V.F. patient to truly understand how cutting and silencing Ms. Cusk’s words come across. Instead, I’ll share a few of the responses from women who once walked in Ms. Leigh’s shoes. They felt sucker punched — invalidated even — by the review.

A blogger in New Zealand wrote: “This review purports to be so balanced, but is so arrogant, so deeply lacking in compassion, so biased to her agenda, I’m gobsmacked.”

New York-based blogger Sarah Chamberlin wrote on The New York Times Book Review Facebook page:

Rachel Cusk’s inability (or is it unwillingness?) to perceive the relevance and validity of Julia’s story is, for me, disheartening. An unfavorable review is one thing, an absence of compassion from a reviewer smacks those living with the silenced, life altering experiences of IVF veteran-hood and involuntary childlessness below the belt. This review is the epitome of not getting it. 
I was thrilled to read a book that details the plight of someone trying to conceive via assisted reproductive technology with such truth and unbridled rawness. And, finally, shamelessness. As someone who has been there myself, I can personally vouch for what Avalanche — A Love Story accomplishes. It brings to the forefront the normal emotional turmoil spawned from being intimately involved in human reproduction on a single digit cellular level. It documents the real, valid pain surrounding the shared human experience of one’s children existing in their dreams only as well as the fertility industry’s parasitical means of capitalizing on, what is all too sadly, a perpetually minimized and misunderstood state.

A quote from Julia Leigh’s book reinforces how former fertility patients have grown accustomed to the unbridled judgment demonstrated by Ms. Cusk. From AVALANCHE, Leigh writes:

“In the public imagination — as I perceive it — there’s a qualified sympathy for IVF patients, not unlike that shown to smokers who get lung cancer. Unspoken: ‘You signed up for it, so what did you expect…?’”

Amplifying Leigh’s words, a woman who delivered a child after multiple rounds of traumatizing fertility treatment compared the puzzling choice of reviewer — someone who never experienced infertility or I.V.F. — as “like assigning a cancer survivor’s memoir to someone who has never experienced that disease.”

From the blog, Different Shores, “In calling us retrograde and anti-feminist [Cusk] dismisses in one fell swoop the months I spent agonising over whether babies and motherhood — about which I had always harboured an uneasy ambivalence — were actually worth going through IVF for.

We are complex beings, Cusk, and cannot be lumped together under one unnuanced, unsubtle generalisation.”

Elissa Strauss at Slate did not mince words in her piece, Rachel Cusk’s Latest Book Review Gives a Lesson in How Not to Write About Infertility, writing “Cusk’s musings on infertility seesaw between obtuse and dismissive.”

She concluded, “ Infertility treatment can be physically, emotionally, financially and, sometimes, ethically trying. It can be hard to know when to start, and even harder to know when to stop. To take something this complex and reduce it to an act of myopia or selfishness is really to miss the point.”

I could not agree more.

Updated 9/23/2016: The New York Times published my letter to the editor. You can see it here>>>

Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos is the author of Silent Sorority. Her writing has appeared in WIRED and The New York Times.