A Universe of Context: How Research Helped Me Understand My Story

April 15, 2021 § 10 Comments

by Jennifer Berney

Seven years ago, when I began to draft my memoir The Other Mothers, I thought I understood my own story. It went like this: I wanted to build a family with my wife. I spent over a year and thousands of dollars trying to conceive using a method I thought would be quick and easy. We chose an anonymous donor from a sperm bank and paid a fertility clinic to perform the inseminations. The care I received was at best insensitive and at worst incompetent.  At our initial consultation, an embryologist mistook my partner for my mother. I wound up quitting the fertility industry with the hope that some other option might magically come through for me. It did. A friend-of-a-friend volunteered to be a donor, and my partner and I ultimately conceived via at-home DIY inseminations.

I believed that my story had value in that it illustrated how community can come through when institutions fail. I knew intuitively that the lack of care I received from my providers was not specific to me but symptomatic of the industry’s inability to adjust its model to the needs of lesbians, and a paternalistic attitude that discounted women’s experiences of their bodies.

I wrote this story down. I made these points directly. But early readers focused on other things. “What’s this book about?” a workshop leader asked a small group of readers who had read what I hoped was a near-final draft. The room was quiet for a minute. Someone finally answered, “It’s about all the things we go through to become parents.”

It was a good answer. My book is about that. But I was bewildered that no one could name the specific thing I was trying to say. Clearly, my work wasn’t done. “You might think about weaving in a little more context,” the workshop leader suggested.

She wasn’t the first to suggest that my book might gain something if I could expand beyond my own experience. Up until that point the idea had made sense, but I’d had no vision for how to implement it. But now that my own story had taken shape in chapters and scenes, I suddenly had the mental space to be curious.

I wonder if there’s a record of the first-ever assisted insemination. The thought came to me one afternoon soon after that workshop. I Googled my question and found the answer easily. The first assisted insemination took place in 1884. The procedure was kept a secret from both the recipient and her husband. The doctor told her he was going to examine her, and while she was unconscious he inseminated her with the semen of one of his assistants. In other words, the first documented assisted insemination was performed without the recipient’s consent.

I asked more questions and found more answers. Over the next months, I learned about the myriad ways that fertility medicine had been designed to preserve patriarchal interests, the ways it had invested not just in heteronormativity but also white supremacy. I learned also that queer people and allies had formed underground networks to match community donors with recipients, and that feminist collectives had facilitated home inseminations.

As it turned out, there was so much more to my story than my personal experience. There was a universe of context. When I began my research, I had hoped that I might be able to place my story on a map. By the time I had finished, the picture was vaster than what I ever could have anticipated, like one of those t-shirts that features our galaxy with an arrow that points to Earth with the caption, “You are here.” My research proved to me that my own experience with the fertility industry was more than series of subtle yet infuriating microagressions. My story was emblematic of a system that excluded me by design, not by oversight.

The process of researching my first book has, I hope, forever changed me as a writer. I’m now fascinated by the ways that our stories exist in relationship to other stories and histories, and writing nonfiction offers an opportunity to uncover these connections, to draw clear lines between the personal and the universal.  

Jennifer Berney is the author of the memoir The Other Mothers. Her essays have appeared in The Offing, Cosmonauts Avenue, and The New York Times, among other places. She lives in Olympia, Washington with her wife and two children.

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§ 10 Responses to A Universe of Context: How Research Helped Me Understand My Story

  • Really insightful and helpful. Thank you!

  • joellefraser says:

    This is a terrific tribute to the power of research, which is one of the units I teach in my memoir class at CNF. I’m going to add this as one of the readings for that week, as an example of how we can look beyond our personal experience and find a world of context that makes our stories even richer, and more relevant. Thank you for an inspiring essay that will help others with that “light bulb” moment. Congratulations on your family as well!

  • gmabrown says:

    Love this. Sharing an ah-ha moment like yours can indeed add the relationship and context we need to tell the story. Thank you.

  • Glasgow Girl G1 says:

    Great tribute! GG

  • This is a great line!! “I’m now fascinated by the ways that our stories exist in relationship to other stories and histories, and writing nonfiction offers an opportunity to uncover these connections, to draw clear lines between the personal and the universal.”

    That, exactly, is why I write nonfiction. There’s always another story attached somewhere in the context of “our” story. You said it well. And I am so glad you and your wife are now parents. So many are excluded in our society/societies because we don’t fit a certain mold. I’m so glad you spoke of yours.

  • I got goosebumps reading this post. Love the transition from “can you weave in a little more context?” to the historical and political implications of Jennifer’s story.

  • rachaelhanel says:

    Digging into research to find historical context is the best part about writing, in my opinion. But then again, I’m a history nerd!

  • lgrizzo says:

    This post came at a good time. I’m trying to add more research to my own memoir. You’ve given me much to think about.

  • Eilene Lyon says:

    This is an excellent point in exactly how to add context to memoir.

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