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An Excerpt from Contradiction Days

An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood

By JoAnna Novak • July 24, 2023

Book Cover for Contradiction Days: An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood by JoAnna Novak.

We are pleased to share an exclusive online excerpt from JoAnna Novak’s new memoir, Contradiction Days, available July 25 from Catapult, about a soon-to-be-mother whose obsession with the reclusive painter Agnes Martin threatens to upend her life.

After taking my blood pressure, my temperature, and my pulse, the nurse told me to remove my underwear. She handed me a Pepto-pink paper blanket, folded in a long rectangle. I was wearing a dress: I could just roll that up.

It was the end of March. I was alone in the fifth-floor examining room. I had asked my husband to stay in the waiting area. It was only our second time in this suite of offices in this tower at Cedars-Sinai, and walking from the parking meter down Third Street, I recognized the dance studio and the empanada walk-up, the launderette and the nanoscopic Birkenstock shop, the weird Third Street businesses east of Robertson. I wished I were still outside. With my dress bunched below my bra and the paper blanket covering me from the navel down, I saw it all over again, the worst eruption I’d had since Santa Fe.

I had ordered a pair of maternity jeans online. For a while, shopping for pants, I’d gotten excited in that hollow way I did buying clothes. I would hope, quite simply, that what I wore could change me. I’d checked mostly Goop pregnancy guides, to consider whether Gwyneth Paltrow’s favorite jumpsuit, Breton-striped top, cardigans, cropped trousers, editor’s picks for leaky-day thongs, and maternity bras would look good on me. That’s how delusional I was.

The jeans arrived. They were a deep indigo wash, with false condom pockets on either side of the fly. Attached to the waistband was a tube of stretch fabric the milky brown of an old bandage.

I pulled them on. They fit in the hips and the legs. Then, the stretchy fabric went up, up, all the way over my bra.

I modeled them like this for my husband. We stood in the living room laughing. Neither of us really understood how large my body would become.

“Could you just cut that part off?” he asked.

Instead of returning the jeans by mail, I’d taken them to A Pea in the Pod in Beverly Hills. My husband drove with me — he often drove with me, he liked driving with me. I liked it, too, when I wasn’t feeling worried about needing his company.

I’d left him at a cafe. Good luck, he’d said. I tried to smile. It felt sick and fake.

In the store, the blond salesclerk cinched a mannequin’s rhododendron-red wrap dress and greeted me. The tattered mailing envelope with the jeans was in my tote bag. I unfolded the jeans at the register.

“People love those,” she said, “when they’re further along. You’re so tiny. Go, try things on.”

I flipped through the clothes. Whenever I lifted a hanger, the clerk found me. I didn’t like her. I was not tiny. I felt teased, called out for my non-tininess. It was a veiled insult, dressed as a ploy to get me to buy stuff. Did this woman think I was a moron? Was this a directive in the employee training manual: Compliment the rag. She’s taking a giant mucus shit and tearing her vagina, getting stitches in her perineum any day now.

Waiting for the doctor, I tried to smooth out the paper blanket. I should’ve caught myself, I thought, I should’ve been able to stop. In hindsight, the cognitive flip was clear: I was thinking things like, Sure, put the fitting rooms in the back of the store so passersby aren’t subjected to awful pregnant bodies of women like me. The store was rack-crowded and mallish: pregnancy wasn’t Chanel.

I combed the racks, feeling awful: I didn’t want to waste time shopping for maternity clothes. It was already a waste of money. No lipstick could hide this pig.

In the back of the store, the track lights flickered. The fitting rooms were small, curtain in lieu of door. With twelve garments on the rod, I could barely lift an arm without bumping an elbow or a knee or my ass into that curtain. I was already fat — how magnificently fat would I be at the end of these nine months? And I’d grabbed so much beautiful expensive shit to garb my fatness: yoga pants and matching racer-back tanks, bamboo bras, dresses, T-shirts, button-downs, rompers — everything with a secret: a button-down expanded with side panels of stretch ribbed material; a bandage-style cocktail dress with compression fabric sewn into the tummy; a snug-busted baby tee Frankensteined with a flowy tunic.

In leggings, my thighs bulged; cellulite dimpled the fabric. In the dress, my hips ledged over with morbid flesh. In the singlet, my stomach — it wasn’t a bump yet, just a bloated splodge — suffocated. I was drenched with sweat, my crotch, under my arms, down my spine.

Also, I wasn’t breathing.

I’d been in the store a very long time.

I pounded a bottle of water in the dressing room. I’d used this as a trick to get myself out of a panic attack before — to, as my therapist put it, halt the deregulation.

Now I had to pee. I left the dressing room, holding a sleeveless chambray romper. The word maternity was nowhere on the romper. No secrets, no stretch: a Humpty Dumpty silhouette, a playsuit for an overgrown child.

“That’s it?” the clerk said. She sounded disappointed.

“Is there a bathroom?”

“Of course.” She smiled sympathetically.

I was part of the club.

A stand steamer guarded the doorway between the final sale rack and the stockroom, where the bathroom was located. A dusty window let in tea-gray light. I peed, shut my eyes, and tried to stop the jittering in my brain. When I opened my eyes, it hurt to blink. I ran the hot water, and in the mirror above the sink, I saw my face coming apart.

“You’re fine you’re fine you’re fine,” I whispered.

By the time I handed the clerk my credit card, I was trembling. It wasn’t an even exchange. I owed another twenty-eight for the romper. Two hundred dollars to clothe a body reduced to its basest female function.

I put on my sunglasses and walked toward the parking garage. Gorgeous women were leaving Intermix, sauntering into Sephora, alone, with friends, on phones, in perfect matching yoga sets, with chevron-quilted Gucci pochettes, schlepping shopping bags from Louis Vuitton like I schlepped my holey canvas bags from Ralph’s.

I needed to get to the car. I would stand there and cry, a surge of big body-racking tears. I would sit on the ground in front of the car, against the wall. It was underground, it would be like being dead, no one would see me. When all this passed, I would text my husband.

Then I heard his voice.

“Hey, J!” He waved, holding a pair of cold drinks, a big smile on his face.

I cringed.

“I got you a decaf iced Americano,” he said. “I was just coming to look for you. Did you find any nice stuff?”

I winced. Didn’t he see? His hand hovered over my back, testing whether to touch me. I yanked away. I was shaking, squeezing back tears behind my sunglasses, barely breathing. I clenched my teeth.

“What kind of good stuff do you think a piece of shit like this can find?” My voice was under my breath, like a person talking to herself.

“What are you talking about?” he said. “JoAnna . . .”

We were moving, walking toward Santa Monica Boulevard. This was worse than Santa Fe. I was sober. I had no excuses. This was cloudless, warm, perfect Southern California. My husband was carrying my bag. He had to carry a useless pregnant person’s things. Like carrying a sign that said my wife is a receptacle.

I said that to him. I spat the word vessel.

We got to our car in the garage, and it got worse. I got louder, I was crying so hard that I was gulping air, coughing when I tried to breathe. What was I saying? It was pointless, all of it, and I was tired of pretending there was a point. It made me sick, how inevitable it seemed . . . All this up and down, fear and hope, worrying about food and worrying about writing, when really, there was only one solution: I needed to kill myself. I needed to kill myself without hurting the baby. Was that possible? How premature was not too premature? Could I make it that long? In a sort of numb, caged way? If the baby could be taken out of me, I could be euthanized. Like a dog. Except I was less than a dog. I should be so lucky to be as good, as pure, as loving as Lucy. I was greedy, vain, superficial, and I would never be good enough — I hated how cliche and narcissistic this made me: another reason to kill myself now.

“Take the baby out of me and go live with your parents,” I said to my husband. “They’re good people. Or start looking for another woman now. I don’t care. I’ll help you. One of your students? Fuck her. I don’t care. You should. You should. I’m sure plenty of your students would like to, one of those girls . . . who is pretty and happy and young, who’s not a messed-up, garbage piece of shit. Because that’s all I am . . .”

Etc. etc. etc. etc.

We sat in the parking garage for a long time. A woman climbed into her navy Escalade and backed out. A Volvo pulled in.

“You’re none of those things, J.” My husband’s tone changed. “And I’m not going to start, as you put it, fucking another woman.”

“You’re wasting time.” I was crying harder, because he didn’t see this was the truth. “You’re wasting money sitting here. You should let me go so I can . . . You don’t deserve this. You could be so much happier without me, I know it, all right? Just accept it.”

I couldn’t remember what else he’d said, if he’d yelled or argued or been scared. I didn’t know how long we’d sat there or how long I’d cried or how I finally came out of it. It made me want to die all over again, confronting how harmful I’d been. In the doctor’s office, I replayed our silent drive home, east down Wilshire, past Farmers Market and The Grove, right on La Brea, left on San Vicente, past the new Sprouts, cresting the hill by weird, overstated Midtown Crossing, San Vicente becoming Venice, a hundred doughnut shops, men on medians hawking feliz cumpleaños carnations, KFC where I’d once seen a guy in the drive-through change the next car up’s tire, Virgil Video with the Superstar cutout, sidewalk grill outside Fallas at Western, CVS, Food 4 Less, or was it Smart & Final? Back to our neighborhood, Hidalgo Car Wash, a sign painted on Manteca-white bricks across from the ARCO.

I heard voices through the walls, women in rooms around me. Laughing. The snick of a door. I was anxious for the doctor to come in. Out the window, I saw the hills, a slaughterous tinge of sunset.

I’d rehearsed the bullet points with my therapist. I would be calm. Factual. I’d read a lot of Pregnancy 411. I knew about baby blues. Hormonal spikes. Postpartum depression. Given my history — the suicide attempts, the resulting stint in a psych ward — it seemed responsible to ask a doctor if this was normal, prenatal ambivalence — normal, for a person like me.

I needed to tell the doctor so if I did . . . something to myself the onus wouldn’t be on my husband.

Now I wished I hadn’t made him stay in the waiting room. At my first appointment, he’d taken a photo of me mock-stricken beneath another paper blanket; pre-ultrasound, he’d captured me pliéing in a hospital gown. I could be irreverent with him. I could be composed and only a little hysterical as the phlebotomist drew my blood. I wouldn’t be vulnerable with the doctor: I’d be calm. I wouldn’t convey how terrifying it was, my brain dissolving.

There was a knock. Thigh-gap Jennifer had recommended getting to know all the doctors in the practice since any one of them could be doing the delivery. The doctor this afternoon was Dr. Tan, a man in a white coat in his forties or fifties. He wore a gray button-down. No tie. He had a shadowy mustache and a back-combed cloud of black hair.

He shook my hand. His hands were waxy, cold. He asked me what I did. I told him I was a writer and a professor. This seemed to please him. He nodded and adjusted the examining table until I was horizontal. Gingerly, he lifted the blanket and touched my belly. It was still strange to me, the firm lump of it: a tumorous muscle. He pressed my pelvis, nudged around my kidneys, and replaced the blanket.

“Looking good,” he said, singsongy. He sat down at the computer and keyed notes. Then he spun toward me. His white coat was open, his fingers spread across his thighs. “Questions?”

I wanted an elective C-section, I told him. Even though it was a long way off, I wanted to be sure it was in my file. He looked upset. Why would I want that?

“It’s the pain,” I said, quietly. “I have friends who were in labor for twenty-four or thirty-six hours. I would rather . . . know what’s going to happen, when.”

These were my husband’s friends’ wives. I’d heard about their contractions, their tearing, their stitching, their post-delivery immobility. I didn’t want those kinds of stories told about me, play-by-playing centimeters of dilation like football yards.

“That’s not something all of us do,” Dr. Tan said. “If there’s not a medical imperative, it’s considered . . . There’s a lot more risk to the mother and the child. It’s not advised. There’s a reason that vaginal delivery is called natural childbirth. Because it’s natural. A C-section is a major surgery. Every surgery comes with risks. Anything else?”

“My weight,” I said. “Am I gaining too much weight . . . ?”

His eyes went to the screen; he scrolled, exasperatedly. The tiny mouse wheel zipped.

“No, your weight is completely on target. You shouldn’t be worrying about gaining too much weight. This is not the time for that.”

I nodded. “Okay,” I said. “I just . . . okay.”

“Anything else?” he said.

When I described to Dr. Tan how depressed I’d been, the table was reclined. “Confessing is a supine activity,” writes John Berger. The paper blanket, which he’d moved aside to examine my belly, was repositioned across my lap. I looked down my body: if I focused, I could see a whorl of pubic hair through the pink.

I spoke as objectively as possible. “I have a history of eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia, EDNOS. I also have dysthymia and anxiety.” I propped myself up on my elbows, how I would’ve done crunches last month. “Lately, I have experienced . . . a lot of suicidal ideation. Passive suicidal ideation. I haven’t written a note. No plans . . . But. I have suicide attempts in my past, and this is . . . alarming.”

“When were your suicide attempts?”

“Fifteen years ago,” I replied.

“What kind of attempts?”

“Overdoses. Pills.”

No reaction.

“It’s frightening,” I said, nervously. Maybe I’d been too objective. Too downplaying. “I think about how my body is serving this utilitarian purpose — carrying the baby — and it makes me feel so . . . disposable.”

“Why would you feel disposable?” He sounded mildly vexed. “Why would carrying a child make you disposable? It is an incredible gift. A profound responsibility.”

I leaned forward. His tongue poked behind his upper lip and bulged out the flesh.

“I think about how I should be happy right now, and I’m not. I’ve been so scared.” It was an understatement. I kept trying. “Then I think the baby doesn’t deserve that. So, when the baby is born, the baby will be better off without me. The baby shouldn’t have a mother . . . thinking these things. Imagining her body in a dumpster. I shouldn’t be feeling so . . . I don’t know, dehumanized or invalidated by this. I just want to know how people deal with these feelings.”

The examining room was cold. I caught a whiff of sterile gauze, old rubbing alcohol, like a phantom nurse readying my injection.

Dr. Tan looked at me with the expression of someone regarding an outré work of art. My husband got this way around Jeff Koons.

“What you’re telling me is very, very troubling,” he said. “This is serious. Do you understand? I should be calling up the orderlies and having you taken to the emergency room for a psychiatric evaluation.”

“I’m not going to kill myself — I think about it. I think how it would be good to be gone.”

“Let me be honest with you,” he said. “This is not normal. These are not feelings people ‘handle.’ This is in the top 10 percent of the worst things I’ve ever heard from a woman in your shoes. This is serious. It raises in me a good deal of alarm, as your physician. It’s not just your anxiety or your anorexia, all right? You’re a mother now. You have a new life inside you. A life to think about, which means thinking about a person other than yourself. It sounds to me like you’ve built your whole identity around being depressed, around your eating disorder, around thinking of yourself . . . this way . . . and I don’t know how that served you in the past, but right now you’re being selfish. You’re endangering this new life. And now you need to think about what’s best for this baby. This little baby inside you, the baby that you’re carrying. You’re caring for. This baby, you’re its mother. All right? You’re a mother now. You’re here because you wanted this. If you’re going to be a mother, you need to act like one.”

I was silent.

He wheeled back to face the computer. “Are you seeing a psychologist?”


“And you’ve told that person about these thoughts?”

“I have.”

“Have you ever been on antidepressants?”

“Yes. Celexa. In high school. For a year.”

“Why aren’t you taking anything now? Why hasn’t your psychologist prescribed you anything for this?”

“I don’t like medication,” I said.

His brow furrowed. I could see then that behind his indifferent expression, he was scowling. He turned toward me again and held up his left hand.

“If I get stung by a bee,” he said, pointing to the meat of his palm. “If I get stung by a bee, and you know I’m allergic to a bee sting, what are you going to do?”

I blinked.

“You’re going to stick me with an EpiPen. Or call 911. You’re going to give me the drug that will neutralize the poison in my body. If I’m a diabetic, and I go into a diabetic coma, you’re going to give me the insulin.”

“Right,” I said.

“Your brain is producing chemicals that are . . . I don’t want to say poisoning you, but, in a sense, they are. They’re poisoning you. They’re making you think those thoughts are true. And they’re not. Those thoughts aren’t right. This is not what a woman in your position should be thinking. The medicine will counter that. That’s what Zoloft will do.”

“You can write the prescription. I won’t take it,” I said flatly.

“Why not?”

I sat up on the examining table. I tucked the blanket around my legs like a pencil skirt. “I’m not asking for medicine. I’m asking if there’s anything I can do — exercise, changes to my diet, yoga, whatever.”

“All of that is fine,” the doctor said, “but if your system is trying to fight off poison, deep breathing isn’t going to help. Think about your baby. Think about the mother you want to be for your baby. That’s all you need to worry about right now. Being a good mother to that baby. I am strongly, strongly encouraging you to take the Zoloft.”

The room buzzed with silence. “Right,” I said.

He got up, pulled aside the curtain shielding the door, and left. I wadded up the blanket and shoved it into the garbage. The can was full. The crumpled paper stuck up over the lid.

I found my husband in the waiting room.

“How did it go?” he asked.

I shook my head.

In the car, I told him. What the doctor had said, what the doctor had prescribed. I was terrified my husband would be mad at me. As if my rages weren’t enough, here was confirmation I was truly fucked up: I didn’t want to follow medical advice.

“No. That’s wrong,” my husband said. I could see the color in his face: he was seething. “This is the problem with our healthcare system. With medication. Our country. This guy sees you, what, ten minutes? That entitles him to question your entire life and put you on an antidepressant? How does he know how you’ll react to it? He’s not a psychiatrist. He doesn’t know you.”

I felt oddly defensive. “He’s probably trained to—”

“To what? Make rash judgments? To brush you off? What if you weren’t happy to be a mother? What if you’d been assaulted, what if you’d been raped?” He punched the steering wheel. “Who the fuck does he think he is?”

“I’m not filling the prescription. Are you okay with that?”

“I would never take that. Never. But I’m not you.”

“I’m hungry. Want to get an early dinner?”

We went to a French bistro hidden inside a strip mall. I ordered a coupe of champagne and took two sips. We sat, legs touching, at the bar. We ate caramelized endive and burgers and Paris–Brest. “I’m so angry,” my husband kept saying. “I’m so angry.” We got home and the moonlight fell, shell gray, on the bed. We fucked and he gathered my hair into a long ponytail and yanked it back.

That night, after my husband went to sleep, I sat in bed with my notebook. I wanted to write, and I couldn’t. I stared at the ripples in the wall plaster. My attitude had shifted. Even if the shift were not permanent — of course it wouldn’t be permanent — I could learn from this. The doctor couldn’t help me. My therapist couldn’t help me. Only I could help me.

A few weeks prior, bumming around on the internet, I’d read an article titled “Agnes Martin on How to Be an Artist.” A photo of Martin as a stocky old woman in a canoe came up. Behind her, the sky was cumulus. The water was placid. Mountains. Fog. Smoke. She wore a parka. Her hair was Caesar short and mist white, her skin was lined, her mouth was set. I stared at her eyes, how directly they met mine, the irises jolting blue. The article swiftly dispensed with the schizophrenia-made-her-flee-New-York narrative and used her mental turmoil as a springboard into the hopefulness of her prose: “I believe in living above the line . . . Above the line is happiness and love . . . Below the line is all sadness and destruction and unhappiness. And I don’t go down below the line for anything.”

I wasn’t yet sensitive to her contradictions. I didn’t yet know she’d told interviewers she’d never been depressed; I didn’t yet know in letters she’d written of “purest melancholy.” I didn’t yet know she’d used the word madness. I only knew what I felt in my gut — that if Martin had declared she didn’t go below the line, there was a good chance she had been below that line and, surfacing, vowed not to go back.

I had to help myself.

I hated Dr. Tan’s moralizing, and yet thinking about Agnes Martin, I knew, in a way, he was right. Having an eating disorder and depression and anxiety was integral to my self-concept. Perhaps, in being so open about mental illness, I’d kept my illness alive. I had prized sadness and destruction and unhappiness, nestled them against my heart like locks of baby hair in a dead locket, because for a long time, I had conceived of my own work in a state of purest melancholy. That wasn’t right anymore. Martin’s belief in happiness and love while living with schizophrenia made me want to do better. To change. After twenty years of therapy and treatment, I had tools; I was not using my tools. I was choosing to go below the line.

Above the line was reading, writing, and exercising — everything I’d been neglecting. If I wanted to change, I needed a plan. I drafted it in my notebook. I tried to make it manageable.

Write one poem a day.

Go to the gym, read on the treadmill.

In the morning, I would tell my therapist and my husband. If a month of concentrating on this plan did not curb the suicidality, I would fill the prescription. I would take the Zoloft. Putting this into words brought me great peace. I closed my eyes. Lying in bed, I thought about Dr. Tan twisting on his stool, screwing himself lower and lower. Soon he was a snake, twisting on the ground, and I was high up on the examining table, safe. Suddenly I could sit up.

Excerpted from Contradiction Days. Reprinted by permission of Catapult. Copyright © 2023 by JoAnna Novak.

A photograph of JoAnna Novak.

JoAnna Novak is the author of the memoir Contradiction Days: An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood, out in July from Catapult. Her short story collection Meaningful Work won the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Contest. She is also the author of three books of poetry, most recently New Life, and a novel, I Must Have You. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New York Times, and other publications. She is a cofounder of the literary journal and chapbook publisher, Tammy.


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