Empathy and Memoir: A Review of Cheryl Klein’s Crybaby

Reviewed by Alexis David

Crybaby: Infertility, Illness, and Other Things That Were Not the End of the World
by Cheryl E. Klein
Brown Paper Press
September 20, 2022, Paperback, 344 pas, ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1941932193

Cheryl Klein’s memoir begins when she is at MacDowell doing a residency. She writes, “wind rattled the shutters and whipped the power lines outside as I thought about ghosts and loss and the dent that I discovered in my right breast.” This is a memoir about struggle. She writes, “I’m trying to tell you, as honestly as language allows, how it was.” How much does language allow us to understand someone else’s story? How is reading memoir an act of empathy?

As a thirty-nine year old woman who is navigating fertility clinics and the adoption process, I inhaled this book, which is about a woman, Klein, trying to have a baby. In my online yoga class, we are asked to stretch up to the point where it hurts. This is how far Klein takes her writing: to the point it hurts, presumably for her and definitely for the reader. The narrative is painful to read. So, why did I like it so much? 

Perhaps because vulnerability and shame are at the heart of this book. Klein thinks there is something terrible about her: in this instance, she’s a young girl who gets mistaken by a teacher as a “pregnant heterosexual” to which she responds, “I was completely invisible.” This narrative thread gets picked up later in the book, when as a lesbian trying to conceive she does not have the privilege of unlimited sperm that people in heterosexual relationships have. Klein lashes out at one point, “Fuck all those straight women with their easy pregnancies.” Klein lets her anger propel the plot forward. This anger creates suspense. 

I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs lately. Why is it so appealing? I turned to Dr. Brené Brown’s work. Brown writes about comparison as a social phenomenon. There are many different types of comparison, but one that I’m curious about here is the German word “schadenfreude.” The idea that we get pleasure out of other people’s troubles. When I read the full title of Crybaby: Infertility, Illness, and Other Things that Were Not the End of the World, I immediately requested an Advanced Reader’s Copy from Brown Paper Press (the book comes out in September 2022). I experienced a lot of “schadenfreude” in this book. But perhaps, it’s not as cruel as it sounds. I wasn’t happy that the author had such a hard time. I was happy because of those last few words at the end of the sentence “not the end of the world.” Klein is a trusted guide. I knew she would see me through this journey. 

She is relentless; “I tried to bend myself to the world.” But, she also shows her own search (like mine now) for people who have not had an easy time getting to the next stage of life. She writes about a friend named Holly who tells her about her bipolar diagnosis, “I think about that August night sometimes, how we were two racoon-eyed people staring at each other across a refreshment table. Being as honest as two acquaintances could be, and still not communicating the half of it. Lonely ships, lonely ocean.”  This is why I come to memoir. Because even if you do find yourself at a summer barbecue, sharing something personal about yourself to another, trying to be vulnerable, you cannot truly understand someone’s struggle. Or maybe you can understand it, but you cannot feel it. Klein made me feel her struggle. This book is written by a courageous writer and published by a press who chooses, as Finley Peter Dunne said, to “[comfort] the afflicted and [afflict] the comfortable.” 

Crybaby shows us that we need story to process our trauma. Klein writes, “I wanted to live in a happy story, not a tragic one, but even a tragic one seemed preferable to no story at all.” Story allows us to make sense of terrible things. We need writers who risk their own vulnerability, who don’t turn away from the tragic, but instead use it as a material, who, like potters with clay, turn mud into vases. Klein’s book is important. It is a non-traditional narrative, but at the same time, it’s also a universal narrative. Aren’t we all navigating uncharted waters? And aren’t writers the oracles we need to both alarm and soothe us? I think so. 

About the reviewer: Alexis David is an American poet and fiction writer who holds a BA from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, an MS from Canisius College and an MFA from New England College. She published a chapbook called Animals I Have Loved with Dancing Girl Press. She reviews books of poetry for Tupelo Press, North of Oxford and the Masters Review. Links to her published work can be found here: https://alexisldavid.wixsite.com/alexis/writing.