An Ode to Grief: Reviewing Look at Him by Anna Starobinets6 min read

 In Review, Reviews, Russia
First and foremost, Anna Starobinets’s memoir Look at Him is a testament to the sorrow of losing an unborn child. As such, it’s intended to comfort women and families suffering through the same trauma as the author and her husband did in 2012 – when a fatal birth defect was discovered in the child that they were expecting. Beyond being a raw and honest ode to grief, it is also a fierce critique of a dysfunctional healthcare system that is stuck in the 20th century.

Let me start by saying that Look at Him probably is the best, if not most important book I’ve read this year. I was so overwhelmed by the impressions that it took days before I was able to let it go. Since the Polish government on 22 October decided to rule abortion of fetal fetuses unconstitutional (one week after I finished reading Look at Him), puts this reading experience in whole new light. 

Despite being a woman, I must confess that I haven’t spent too much time thinking about abortion. This is probably due to the fact that I’ve grown up and spent most of my life in a society were abortion is not controversial. On the contrary, I’ve been taught that abortion, together with easy access to contraceptives and morning-after pills, is the answer to an unwanted pregnancy (I recognize that while I consider my view to be liberal, others might beg to differ). I’ve also been taught that giving life to a new human being is just about the greatest responsibility that you can take upon yourself, and that for the sake of life should you choose to birth, you have to be ready to take on this commitment. 

These things aside, Starobinets’s memoir deals with the question of what happens when you are expecting a (wanted) child, to find out that it’s damaged to a degree that a birth would result in the death of the infant – and how you would survive in a society that refuses to acknowledge the grief and sorrow of losing that child. 

While this is a book dedicated to the thousands of Russian women – and their families, who are faced with the prospect of expecting a fatally sick child every year, I think that this is a book for all women – everywhere (and I sincerely hope that it will be translated and distributed worldwide). 

Broken motherhood

In the first part, we meet Starobinet, or Anna, at the ultrasound appointment in which a doctor discovers that there is something wrong with the fetus. This becomes the starting point of a bureaucratic nightmare in which she is shuffled between different doctors and gynecologists, who, without any display of compassion or sympathy, determine that the child she is expecting is fatally sick. 

Desperately searching for advice and comfort, she turns to different chat forums just to discover that other women – when faced with similar prospects – have been treated with such inhumane and almost torturous methods that it is bone-chilling to simply read about it. 

In pouring out their sorrows and trauma online (despite living in Moscow, in 2012 there were still no specialised psychologists or psychiatrists, no group therapy nor any books available to help women and their families to cope with the trauma of losing a child in this way), they are attacked by other Internet users who seems to live off of spreading hate. 

Growing obsessed with reading about other women’s experiences, she soon turns to English-speaking forums, which she feels are guided by different rules, by compassion and respect, where women get to pour their hearts out without being judged, where they can find some solace in their grief. 

Deciding against an abortion on Russian soil, the couple scramble to collect the money needed for terminate the pregnancy abroad. Despite this being a sad and somewhat confusing moment, the cultural shock awaiting them in at their chosen destination in Germany, a country guided by completely different ethics when it comes to abortion, is almost comical at times. Starobinet is such a great storyteller, and the translation by Katherine E. Young is masterfully executed. 

In total, we get to follow Anna for a year, from the initial traumatic discovery at the clinic in Moscow, through her abortion and the period of time she spends trying to recover from the experiences that she’s been through. Back in Russia, she is met with silence. It’s not that her friends and family don’t want to talk to her, but it seems like they don’t know how to. The general attitude appears to be that by not talking about it, she is supposed to forget and move on, only – she doesn’t. 

It turns into an even darker year, accompanied by recurring serious panic attacks and depression. In one of her efforts to get help, she is almost forcefully hospitalized for a (non- existent) eating disorder – which once again speaks volumes about the inadequacy of the Russian healthcare system. Yet, she manages to recover, becomes pregnant once again and gives birth to a healthy child (her second). 

Reflecting on a deficient healthcare system

While the second part of the book was supposed to be dedicated to interviews with both Russian and German specialists, doctors, and midwives, it proved an impossible task to get any response or interviews at Russian hospitals or clinics. Instead, this part alternates between focusing on the staff at the German Charité hospital and other Russian women’s experiences. Interviewing specialists and midwives about the approaches they use when giving bad news, how they support grieving couples, and handle the prospect of delivering a dead or dying baby, gives the reader deeper insight about this delicate question. 

Reading about how other women have dealt with their experiences is a thought provoking and humbling experience. It makes me curious to learn more about how my own country and fellow compatriots, as well how women all around the world deal with this question. 

While I feel like this book is the beginning of a much-needed conversation in Russia, I finish the last page feeling like I’ve learned something new, that this reading experience has made me more humble and aware of my own privileges. I spend the following days talking about it with friends and family, somehow I feel like both grief and death grow more distant, less scary. I now know that if I’m ever faced with a similar experience, I will pick up this book again and in it, find both solace and comfort. 

Anna Starobinets is a trained journalist and an award winning script writer and author. While her husband passed away in 2017, she continues to live and work in Moscow with her two children. 

Look at Him was translated to English by Katherine E. Young and published by Three String Books, Slavica Publisher Indiana University in 2020. You can buy it here

Featured image: Grief / Amanda Sonesson
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