Deanna Fei’s memoir, Girl in Glass (July 2015), is as riveting and heart stopping as any thriller on the bestseller list. The difference is that Fei’s story is true, her account of giving birth to a one-pound, nine-ounce daughter, who, at 25 gestational weeks, would struggle for life in a NICU isolette for months before coming home. It’s no spoiler to reveal that the baby, eventually named Mila (a variation of ‘miracle’ in Spanish), defies all medical prognostications, by surviving brain bleeds and other near death experiences, to become a normal, normally perfect, little girl. Fei’s story would be unbearable without knowledge of its happy ending.
Girl in Glass charts, movingly and suspensefully, how one traumatized newborn takes her place in the world, but it’s also about the making of a family, and the significance of such a tenuous little life within it. It begins with a young professionally successful couple that takes the leap into parenting, an act of faith in themselves and the forces of good in the world. (Fei’s husband, though she does not fully name him, is Peter Goodman, an author and respected journalist who’s currently the editor of the International Business Times). They become the delighted parents of a son Leo, an experience at once wondrous and routine. Everything is playing out exactly the way it’s supposed to. Peter changes jobs so they can afford their Brooklyn apartment. They plan renovations to accommodate the new family. Then, before Fei ever menstruates—Leo suddenly weans himself—she discovers that she’s pregnant again. The couple is stunned but accepting.
But one night, after Peter leaves for an international work trip, the easy pregnancy comes to an excruciating halt. Terrible pain begins, but not the familiar rhythmic pains of labor, something deeper, more terrifying. At 4 a.m., alone with Leo, Fei scrambles to intercept Peter, via smartphone, at the departure gate; to find someone to look after Leo; to get herself to the hospital. In a cab, alone in the back seat, “my mouth clamped shut and my feet braced against the floor, I will myself to hold it in: the pain, my pregnancy, this life I’m supposed to be nurturing… Then I see the blood, and I know I am failing (4).”
Peter arrives at the hospital just as an emergency C-section is performed. Thus begins the saga of Girl in Glass: the arrival of an infant who hovers between life and death, who scores one on the Apgar scale of 1-10. Who endures crisis after crisis; procedure after procedure. Weeks later, when at last her parents are allowed to touch her, Peter’s wedding ring will slip over her foot and up around her ankle.
In coming days, Fei and her husband ponder the meaning of such prematurity; wonder if their daughter wants to stay or go. They want to take their cues from her, but it’s impossible. The chapters weave between those focused on Mila’s constant emergencies and Leo, the rollicking one-year-old at home, as happy as he is demanding. For readers, he’s the embodiment of innocence, the comic relief that gives his parents heart and readers joy.
Throughout, Fei remains awash in shame and guilt—her failure to bring her child to term; her concerns about what this trauma will do to Leo; her worries about her ability to be a good mother to both children. Her writing, laced with wit and startling detail, is the best I’ve read about the physicality of pregnancy and childbirth, of early mothering, about the twining of the maternal body and emotions with those of the newborn child.
Fei, author of the novel A Thread of Sky, and columnist for various online publications, including the Huffington Post, is a writer gifted with both lyrical and narrative skills. Here she deploys them in the service of young motherhood in extremis and she does so with astonishing grace. For example, Mila’s brain hemorrhage, as seen on a computer screen, is “a billowing white cloud (41).” Only rarely does a writer of such skill grapple with personal trauma and express its intricacies so memorably. In this way, Girl in Glass reminds me of Sonali Deraniyagala’s stunning memoir Wave about the loss of her family during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Girl in Glass has a long subtitle: How My “Distressed Baby” Defied the Odds, Shamed a CEO, and Taught Me the Essence of Love, Heartbreak and Miracles. It addresses a media fire ignited in February 2014 by Tim Armstrong, the CEO of AOL, when he announced to some 5,000 employees, that Obama Care and two “distressed babies” of employees had just increased healthcare costs for AOL by $7.1 million. As a result, the 401(k) contributions for rank-and-file employees were going to be reduced.
Fei’s daughter was one of those ‘distressed babies’—a term that so incensed her, that she, against the wishes and advice of Arianna Huffington, wrote an angry response for Slate. On the eve of its publication, Armstrong apologized to her and walked back his ridiculous plan. That column was, however, the seed that blossomed into Girl in Glass.
I suppose we could thank Armstrong for generating the fury that prompted Girl in Glass. Yet Fei’s memoir transcends by ozone layers that triggering incident. In its beautiful prose it expresses a very fragile newborn’s obstinate wish to live, the devotion and endurance of the mother who saw her through, and the young family that welcomes her home where she “settles in as if she knew she was headed here all along (211).” It will be read and remembered long after Armstrong’s clumsy frugality is forgotten.
Reviewed by Julia MacDonnell
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