My Year of Meats

I recently read a book about a woman who kills her mother. Alice Sebold‘s follow up to The Lovely Bones, The Almost Moon, tells the story of a woman who can no longer stand her extremely ill mother so she suffocates her with a towel. The book goes back and forth between the 24 hours after the “murder” when she is wondering what to do with the dead body and flashbacks to a more-than-troubled childhood and hideous mother-daughter relationship.

My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki is even more disturbing.

This novel, which almost seems like nonfiction, is about a woman named Jane who assists in directing a “reality series” (it’s set in the 90s so reality shows were, you know, more realistic) shot in small towns across America and aired in Japan on Saturday mornings. We get some glimpses into the lives of families filmed for the show and we get a lot of glimpses into the life of a Japanese woman married to the man who represents the beef company that sponsors the show. (Did you follow all that?) The tidbits about the filmed families are somewhat humorous and get more interesting throughout the book, but the tidbits about this Japanese housewife whose husband abuses her in every possible way a man can abuse a woman physically hurt to read. Every now and then I had to close my eyes and look away from the book for a few moments, as if it were a gory slasher movie I couldn’t quite stomach. But worse. He rapes her, punches her in the face, kicks her around their apartment, makes her study this TV show and fill out questionairres about it and insults her intelligence every chance he gets. She takes it all in and thinks she is the one doing and saying something horribly wrong.

Another nauseating aspect of the story has to do with the beef company. Jane, intent on becoming a documentarian, looks beyond the families they film and discovers a myriad of grotesque facts and statistics about the treatment of animals and quality of meat in America. We’ve all heard horror stories from the news and movies and people who practice veganism and vegetarianism, but they are practically fairy tales compared to what is described in this book. Jane visits various feed lots and slaughter houses, and at one point sees an aborted calf fetus on the floor. …Yeah.

Still more upsetting, to me anyway, is Jane’s pregnancy. *SPOILER ALERT: Read no further if you actually plan to read this book!* While researching the treatment of animals and quality of meat in America, Jane learns quite a lot about certain hormones and drugs farmers have given their animals over the years to make them more fertile or fatter or somehow save them money, drugs which were also given to humans sometimes. She puts two and two together and realizes that her own health problems–a “collapsed” uterus and malignant tumors in her cervix, making it nearly impossible to get pregnant–are direct results of her mother taking those exact drugs when she was pregnant with Jane. This not only makes Jane angry with her mother, it also leads her to believe she can have sex with her boyfriend without using a condom because she can’t get pregnant, but of course she does that one time. She decides to keep the baby because it’s most likely her only chance to have one, but she monitors the pregnancy very closely out of fear something could go very wrong. Still she pursues her meat research via visiting slaughterhouses, where she gets into a horrible accident. At the hospital we learn that she has miscarried but not as a result of the accident; the baby had simply stopped growing inside her at least one week prior.

Some of you may know how I feel about having children. (As of now, I do not want to. Possibly ever.) And some of you may judge that feeling. But here’s the thing: I have never had the mentality that I was put on this earth to reproduce. I have never felt like I was born to be a mother, and I have never thought or said “I can’t wait to have kids!” I remember holding my niece for the first time and thinking, “Hm, I don’t think I’ll ever have one of these”. It’s something I think I want to want, but it terrifies me. First of all, I find it hard to imagine a time when I will be completely ready to put a whole other human life in front of mine in every single aspect of existing. Second of all, there are so many truly awful things that can happen when trying to have a baby. I’m not basing this on movies and TV shows, I’m basing this on real people whom I know and care about who have had a great deal of trouble getting pregnant, carrying to term and even getting healthy after the baby is born. So what if some day I decide I do want to have a child with the man I love and am married to, and we can’t? Say I can’t get pregnant and we go through all those drugs and tests. I don’t know if I would adopt. Say I do get pregnant but I miscarry. Over and over again. Maybe once at a just a couple months, maybe once really far along to the point where you still have to, you know, give birth. How do people recover from that? I mean, I know they do, but how? That sounds like one of the worst possible things a person can go through. Say I do get pregnant and successfully carry to term. Then I have a BABY! A child to dedicate my life to for the next 18 years, at least! I just know I’d be one of those moms who calls the pediatrician’s late-night phone number any time I thought the baby was looking at me funny. (I ask my mom if we should call the vet basically any time our dog seems too calm.) There are obviously millions of women who have been pretty successful at this and happy with the results, I just fear that may never be me.

So reading about Jane becoming pregnant despite her disease, then getting all excited about it even though she didn’t know she would want to keep the baby, then losing it so tragically obviously sent me into a tizzy. I’ve already given away quite a few spoilers so I’ll just tell you that while 60% of the book was really quite difficult to read, everything ends up pretty much okay for everyone, including one other female character who gets pregnant. This one really shook me up.

Next up for reviewin’: The Lost Girls by Jennifer Baggett, Holly Corbett and Amanda Pressner.

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