Book review: Little Disasters by Sarah Vaughan

By Casey Newman

It’s rare that a book tugs at my soul, but Little Disasters by Sarah Vaughan made me feel things, and made me seriously consider a career change (I’ll get to that later).

Marketed as a thriller, Little Disasters is the story of Jess Curtis, a stay-at-home mom of three and her close-knit group of friends. The birth of Jess’s daughter Betsey 10 months earlier has seemingly pushed her over the edge — Betsey has inconsolable colic, her birth was traumatic for Jess, she has little to no support at home, and to top it off, she’s suffering from severe anxiety and postpartum OCD.

Jess’s OCD is so severe, she has a near constant stream of intrusive thoughts about harming her baby. So, she does what any terrified parent would do: she hides the knives, pots, pans or any object that could be used to harm Betsey, and she keeps her experience to herself. 

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As an OCD sufferer myself, it was clear to me within the first few pages that Jess had OCD (though she’s not diagnosed with it until much later in the story). I struggled with some of the same thoughts when my children were babies and still have some really upsetting ones pop into my mind from time to time. I felt so much empathy towards her and found myself shouting in my head, “You have OCD! You’re not crazy! It’s treatable, tell someone what’s going on!”

But, as OCD patients are apt to do, Jess keeps her thoughts and feelings to herself because, well, they sound crazy, and if anyone found out she was thinking like this they’d take her baby. 

Jess’s world is turned upside down when she has to take Betsey to the ER after an injury. She’s treated by her old friend Liz, who admits she hasn’t kept in touch with Jess much since Betsey’s birth. 

Liz starts to notice red flags when Betsey’s injury and Jess’s story about how it happened don’t add up, and what follows is a heartbreaking journey that though fictitious, every new mother could experience. 

Jess, struggling with postpartum mental illness, is overwhelmed and terrified and her supposed support system — her friends, husband and family — are all but non-existent, leaving her to suffer in silence. 

Though I spend a lot of time advocating for maternal mental health and a better system, watching Jess’s journey stirred something in me that has made me seriously consider going back to school to become a postpartum therapist or social worker. It’s clear to me that if Jess would have been educated about what was going on inside her mind, had check-ins with the right people who could have spotted warning signs and had support, Betsey’s injury would not have happened. Instead, new mothers are left to read their breastfeeding pamphlets from the hospital while thinking that maybe they’re losing their minds because they’ve never had these thoughts or feelings before.

Jess’s story is the story of every new mother. She may not have postpartum OCD or anxiety, but chances are she’s overwhelmed, afraid and alone. And, chances are there is no support for her, because… America. Sarah Vaughan was able to write Jess in such a way that, if you’re a parent who’s experienced the postpartum period, it hits you in your soul. 

For me, this book wasn’t a thriller but a heartbreaking, honest portrayal of motherhood and how so many things need to be fixed if we’re going to be a society that not just supports the baby but also the mother. 

Casey Newman is a mother of two from Green who depends on wine to get her through bathtime and bedtime. She is a maternal and women’s health advocate who volunteers with several birth and maternal rights organizations and has spoken to Congress members about issues affecting moms.