Film Review By Dr. Rich Gibson
"A Healthy Baby Girl"
Directed by Judith Helfand
In 1963, Judith Helfand's mother took a pill called DES to prevent the repeat of an earlier miscarriage. She already had two sons. Judith was born in 1964. At 25, Ms. Helfand was diagnosed with cancer of the cervix. The diagnosis was eerily serendipitous. Ms. Helfand, a film-maker and director of the earlier labor history film "Uprising of Thirty-Four", was working on a documentary about DES. The producers insisted everyone get a check-up. She had a complete hysterectomy.
Wilhelm Reich long insisted that the intersection of labor, sexuality, and the construction of knowledge composes the nucleus of grasping social life. There are few examples where this complex relationship is more movingly presented.
Without spectacle, in an atmosphere that illustrates the profound love of family and friends, and the fear of betrayal that always seems to attache itself to external crisis, Ms. Helfand painstakingly chronicles her struggle to turn her anger outward, to use her loss to deepen understandings that are at once economic, political, personal, and sexual.
A paraphrased and compacted exchange, beginning with her mother, wraps up this affinity.
"It's not anger I feel. It's sadness. I guess its anger at thecompany. It's hard for me to express. I know I didn't do anything wrong, but you blame yourself. I'd rather have had this happen to me. You lost your productive organs."
"No, Mom, I lost my reproductive organs".
"You don't have possessions".
"I lost my reproductive organs on top of that."
Part of her struggle was legal, another part intellectual. Ms. Helfand sued Lilly and Company. She did research. She discovered DES was known to have no effect on miscarriages in 1952, but the information was never widely circulated. In 1938, researchers saw that DES was linked to cancer in rats. Prior to 1959, 5 years before Ms. Helfand's birth, experts knew DES was a carcinogen. In 1959, DES was banned--for poultry. For years after 1959, DES was marketed to pregnant women who, in a culture more worshipful of M.D.'s, asked few questions.
She refused to let a collective problem become overwhelmingly personal. "My way of coping was not to stand in a hallway and cry".
She won the suit, improved her living quarters, purchased a video camera, and bought her mother and father a new and safer car. But the lawsuit brought no closure. The common sense belief is that surviving five years after a DES hysterectomy is good reason to celebrate a victory. But little is really won. Apprehension is permanent.
"This cancer gets between people you care about". The generations are ruptured. Her mother considers carrying Judith'seggs, but knows this could simply harbor the DES syndrome for another generation. Judith's companion offers a poem, "I wanted a baby girl even more beautiful than my grandmother...", tendering to replay Judith's own words to him. Still, Ms. Helfand and other women (DES boys were never formally traced) created new relationships and a sense of solidarity rooted in resistance and hope, knowing that much had been forever stolen from them. Organizing for political and legal action through the DES Children's Network (DCN), they caused the Bush administration to adopt laws that will bring some surcease in the future.
There have been many mass poisonings: PBB in Michigan, Agent Orange in Vietnam, industrial waste in fish, DDT, fertilizer in Florida's Lake Okechobee. To one degree or another, many people see others as complicit in their own poisoning. As an educator, this film helps me set things aright, going assertively for the roots of the malignancy, not the casualties. Helfand shows how deep friendships and authentic kindness, not passing alliances, are at the heart of a community which can help overcome what is powerfully portrayed as the embodiment of injustice.
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