Perfectly Human: Nine Months with Cerian

Written by Sarah C. Williams Reviewed By Rachel A. Ciano

This deeply personal narrative of loving an unborn child takes us to the heart of what it means to be “perfectly human” in a society grappling with issues of personhood and identity. Sarah Williams, Research Professor in the History of Christianity at Regent College, Vancouver, takes us on her and her family’s journey through her third pregnancy with their daughter, Cerian (meaning “loved one” in Welsh). Along the way, she offers compelling reflections on the preciousness of all human life. The book is both a microcosmic reflection of the author’s world at this time, and a macrocosmic commentary on humanity at large. It is narrative meets pedagogy, and its story and message could not be more poignant and powerful for a world that so often ignores or denies the rights of the unborn.

The book opens with the “day of trouble,” when Williams was told at a routine, 20-week ultrasound that her baby had a condition (thanatophoric dysplasia) that would result in the death of the child soon after birth. She then takes us back to the story so far—the intentional prayers she prayed with her husband for this child, and the gruelling nausea of the early weeks of pregnancy. Williams’s mother also had a vivid picture of the child in these early weeks before the diagnosis, telling her, “Maybe this baby is like an amethyst. Perhaps the beauty is not easy to see at first but inside there will be something unexpected and intensely beautiful but also fragile. The beauty may need to be carefully honed before it is apparent to others” (p. 15). This is the path the book takes from here on, exposing the unexpected beauty of this fragile, unborn child not only to Sarah and her family, but to the people her pregnancy touches along the way.

As the story unfolds, the author draws us into her sphere: her household, her circle of friends, her church, her workplace, the waiting rooms, the doctor’s offices, the birth suite. To read this book is to feel like you are living with Williams, for she recounts her journey in an intimate and unguarded way, even including extracts from her journal and recording personal prayers from the time. This intimate portrait also gives us a picture of what it is to walk as a faithful friend, a caring husband, a prayerful mother and grandmother, a loving sister to this baby. Of particular note is Williams’s horror at the exclusion of her husband from the prenatal “system” in which they find themselves. To remedy this, she gives voice to her husband, including his own words along the way, to give a picture of his protective love for his child, his grief, and his hope. As well as providing an intimate portrait of living with Cerian, Williams offers God-centered reflections throughout her narrative, including her experience of God’s love for her and her baby. She concludes with a focused section on the ethical implications implicit in her story. In Sarah’s own description of the book to a group of bioethicists she meets in Oxford by chance, this book is “not really bioethics as such, more a personal story addressing cultural themes” (p. 148).

Originally published as The Shaming of the Strong: The Challenge of an Unborn Life (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2017), this updated work makes additional comment on the impact her story has had on those who have heard it and the importance of the narrative for our current cultural moment. She writes, “It is not only the personal resonance of Cerian’s story that prompts me to write about her again; it is also a deep and enduring conviction that Cerian—along with thousands like her whose physical bodies and mental capacities have never allowed them to live a so-called “normal life”—has something vital to say to a world that is restless and frantic, anxious and lonely” (p. 151). Indeed it does. This short little book packs a punch and is a precious contribution to not only the Christian world but the world at large.

In terms of providing a contribution to the Christian church, there are several points worth dwelling on. This book breeds empathy, and helps the reader think about how to care for a person and a family engulfed by difficulty and grief. By reflecting on the interactions she had with Christians along the way, we are able to observe helpful and not so helpful responses to the news of her baby, and see a model of faithful friends and family members who choose to grieve with her, pray with her and support her in thoroughly practical and loving ways. In this way the book forces us to consider the impact of our own words and actions, and gently encourages us to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Rom 12:15). Williams reflects on how this was embodied in her relationship with her closest friend, Janet, who was also pregnant at this time: “Janet chose to grieve with me. Later I would choose to celebrate with her. Both choices were costly” (p. 32).

There are spiritual practices highlighted in the book that will also prove to be an encouragement to Christians. By drawing attention to her own prayerful practices, as well as those of Christians around her, including her own mother, Williams offers a pattern of dependence on God to emulate in our own lives. She also highlights the important place of lament in Christian spirituality—an often-neglected aspect of Christian practice, although one that is being addressed of late (see G. Geoffrey Harper and Kit Barker, eds., Finding Lost Words: The Church’s Right to Lament [Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017]; Scott Harrower and Sean M. McDonough, eds., A Time For Sorrow: Recovering the Practice of Lament in the Life of the Church [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2019]). Indeed, the book shows in a very practical way how lament not only gave Williams a way to grieve, but also gave her relief: “relief that … provided me with a theological structure through which I was able to meditate and interpret my experience” (p. 73). Ultimately, this book gives us a model of faithful discipleship in the deepest valleys of life.

In terms of its contribution to the world at large, Perfectly Human has much to offer. Any reader of the book is forced to consider the question, “What is it to be human?” Absent a proper understanding of the God who makes people in his image, the essence of humanity is often distilled down to pragmatic considerations of autonomy and functionality. Value of life centers around quality of life; avoiding a “suboptimal life” becomes the moral imperative in a system where ethics is purely utilitarian (p. 36). Williams gently pushes back against this thinking throughout the book, while also pushing the reader forward to consider the ethical issues surrounding beginning and end of life. Among other topics, she offers compelling reflections on assisted dying once life is considered “suboptimal,” and the ethics and impact of pre-natal screening on mothers.

Williams sums up this winsome, tender and compelling story in her reaction to a doctor who struggled to understand their decision not to terminate. “Cerian is not a strong religious principle or a rule that compels me to make hard and fast ethical decisions. She is a beautiful person who is teaching me to love the vulnerable, treasure the unlovely, and face fear with dignity and hope” (p. 80, italics original). Williams replaces a narrow vision of what it is to be normal with a grander, fuller vision of what it is to be human, perfectly human. It is a book to be read and given away to others—whether they hold a similar worldview or not. A note to readers: plan where you will read this book—you need to prepare for its impact, as it will likely illicit strong emotions, even tears. But take comfort: to read this book is an act of healing in itself.

Rachel A. Ciano

Rachel A. Ciano
Sydney Missionary & Bible College
Croydon, New South Wales, Australia

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