Praise of Motherhood

Praise of Motherhood

The death of the author's mother sparks a series of reflections on the secret roles mothers play in the lives of troubled adolescents.


When Phil Jourdan's mother died suddenly in 2009, she left behind a legacy of kindness and charity — but she also left unanswered some troubling questions. Was she, as she once claimed, a spy? Had she suffered more profoundly as a woman and parent than she'd let on?

Jourdan's recollections of his struggles with psychosis, and his reconstructions of conversations with his enigmatic mother, form the core of this memoir. Psychoanalysis, poetry and confession all merge to tell the story of an ordinary woman whose death turned her into a symbol for extraordinary motherhood.


An effective epigraph should prepare a reader for the rest of the work, and the one for Phil Jourdan’s Praise of Motherhood does exactly that. The quotation from Paul Valéry’s Tel quel, ‘Un lapin ne nous effraie point; mais le brusque départ d’un lapin inattendu peut nous mettre en fuite,’ translates more or less as ‘One rabbit does not scare us in the slightest, but the sudden departure of an unexpected rabbit can make us flee’. It functions as a comment on the suddenness of Jourdan’s mother's death from an aneurysm: ‘But nobody had warned me. Nobody had warned anyone’. Interestingly, the section of Tel quel from which this epigraph comes goes on to observe how a person who lacks foresight is less overwhelmed and flustered by a catastrophe than someone who plans ahead. Jourdan explicitly places himself in this latter category when he writes, ‘And though I didn’t cry I kept a series of notes, tiny memories it was important not to forget, ever-ever, things to stick into the book I had already decided to write about my mother’. This quality of deliberation appears again midway through the book, when Jourdan writes, ‘I don’t care how things actually happened. I want to rearrange it all, to make it into a streamlined, coherent narrative’. In a way, this desire underpins the project of Praise of Motherhood: memoir as an attempt to make sense of his mother Sofia’s death and her legacy. At the same time, there are novelistic techniques at work, evident in tiny details such as the way Jourdan chooses to spell his mother’s name as ‘Sophia’, but also more broadly in what Caleb J. Ross calls in his foreword a refusal to ‘allow the constraints of perspective or chronology to guide the text’. Take, for example, Chapter Four, in which Jourdan imagines how his mother might have turned to her friend, a priest, for help in dealing with her son’s teenage struggles with psychosis. The whole chapter is utterly convincing and, were it not for the occasional reminder, a reader could well forget that a good deal of it is being imagined by Jourdan after the fact, ‘guilt-ridden and wearing [his] writer’s hat’. A similar effect occurs in Chapter Ten, where Jourdan imagines the life story of Piotr ‘Brown Bear’ Popov, based on his mother’s claim that she was once a spy, ‘the part of her [he] knew the least, the most surprising aspect of an endless woman now dead but guttering in the back of [his] mind’. The book continues to eschew the conventional memoir narrative form, yet still persists in elaborating on the book’s portrayal of Jourdan’s mother. Chapter Eleven does this through a mixture of speeches by Jourdan’s parents, each one lopped off at both ends by ellipses, so that they form an accretion of impressions rather than a straightforward narrative thread. Chapter Twelve operates as a series of open letters by Jourdan to different groups of people who crossed his mother’s path, by turns angry (‘Go back to your stupid house with your stupid family and leave me the hell alone, leave my sister alone, and stop attending funerals to which you weren’t invited. Just go away.’) and tender (‘So dear old homeless lady, you will not die while I am around, not because I care about you, but because it’s what my mother would have wanted.’). In its penultimate chapter, Praise of Motherhood pushes the limits of memoir even further by positing, ‘Let this all have been a lie. Let my mother be sitting here next to me; let her have been here the whole time.’ However, this alternate version of events ultimately devolves into a nightmarish vision of matricide, as his mother falls apart and has to be reassembled using duct tape, only for the rebuilt figure to repeat, ‘You killed me. You killed me. You killed me.’ Yet this grim ending is actually laying the ground for the final chapter’s redemptive opening: "No, I didn’t kill you. If I had killed you, I would have nothing to write about. I’d already have committed every mistake, burned down every bridge, dismissed every memory I have of you as a facsimile. […] You saw the good in me, as I still see the good in you." In Ross’ forward, he writes that perhaps the book’s ‘great accomplishment is passing on the legacy of what the reader will come to know as a woman simply meant to exist beyond her own years… Jourdan invites the reader to be a member of his family, literally extending his mother’s impact to new generations and new lineages entirely’. Early on in the book, Jourdan writes, ‘Everyone, even in his profoundest hatred, loves his mother’. So whatever his stated reasons for writing Praise of Motherhood, the end result still feels like an incredible act of generosity on his part, affording the reader the privilege of briefly encountering Sofia, this woman who ‘was Love manifest’. ~ Ian Chung, The Cadaverine,

Phil Jourdan is a musician, translator, and fiction writer originally from Portugal. He now lives in the UK, where he is completing work on a doctorate at Warwick University. His new book, Praise of Motherhood, is a heartbreaking look at the loss of his mother Sophia to an unexpected brain aneurysm. The book is reminiscent of Catcher in the Rye, in terms of its profane language, teenage angst, and youthful rebellion. However, Jourdan follows a different track than Salinger by offering a very vivid portrait of an amazing and compassionate Portuguese mother. This memoir includes the difficult journey the author took after the death of his mother, the parent who had primarily raised him and to whom he was the closest. Jourdan also spends considerable time reflecting on his childhood and his adolescence, including his hospitalization for psychological issues during his teen years. These challenges parallel Holden Caulfield’s struggles, in terms of angst, struggles for identity, and loneliness. Another book that comes to mind is The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, where the typical hurdles of maturing are further exacerbated by mental challenges. Jourdan’s book focuses on his struggle through his grief. He began writing this memoir the day his mother passed away, after he was called back to Portugal by his family following his mother’s sudden collapse. His mother’s Ukrainian boyfriend and family members are also devastated by this loss, but it is primarily Jourdan who was the closest to his mother, and therefore he picks up the challenge of bringing her grace and beauty back to life in these pages. There is also a mystery about his mother which clearly makes Jourdan wonder what else he might not have known about her. Yet, it is clear that his love for her is unruffled by what might have happened during this time period of potential espionage. The book explores the themes of maternal love, the trials of adolescence, and the emotional struggles that shaped the author’s teen years. Through it all, this book stands as a tribute to the mother whose grace is reflected in this book in a timeless way. In the end, the reader is struck by the importance of appreciating those family members who give us love and guidance, no matter whether it is in a small town in Portugal or a bustling city in England. ~ Kathi Stafford, Portuguese-American Journal,

A loving and heartbreaking tribute, Praise of Motherhood is a candid look at life and all the things we feel, but can never find the words to say.

~ Booked Podcast

Jourdan crafts a story that is both heartbreaking and cathartic.

~ Brandon Tietz, author of Out of Touch

Praise of Motherhood is a brutally honest, touching, and gut-wrenching story about love, loss, family and, possibly, forgiveness. ~ Richard Thomas, author of Transubstantiate

This is a beautiful meditation, simultaneously subtle and powerfully direct, on the depth of emotion between a mother and son. Jourdan's words come back to me long after I've finished the book. Moments of this memoir leave me haunted, and in that way renew my devotion to fragile lives, which is to say all of us, all so human, and to life as wild and fleeting. ~ Monica Drake, author of Clown Girl

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