In the Same Universe
When she was pregnant with her first child, says Ina May Gaskin, her doctor told her she was ‘going to have a forceps delivery,” the reason being that firstborns tended to have brain damage without the use of forceps. The logic—or rather the illogic—seemed astounding to Gaskin, and yet she went along, even when she was tied down by her hands and feet to prepare for the birth. Now she recalls wondering, “What kind of movie am I in here?” But it was the 1960s, and in those olden days, Gaskin sighs, “How are you going to argue with a doctor?”
Gaskin’s questions persisted after that birth. Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin & The Farm Midwives begins with Gaskin on stage, asking, “How did we get so afraid of birth? How did we get so that we have millions of women now on this planet now, who think that they’re going to get through birth more easily if it’s surgery?” Her listeners smile as she speaks: they are, as she notes, al living “in the same universe.” Here the film, opening at the IFC Center on 16 January, cuts to a title card (in ‘70s-TV-style font) explaining that in 1971, Gaskin cofounded the Farm Midwifery Center in Summertown, Tennessee, followed by black and white footage of a much younger Gaskin, describing that project: “We feel like we’re an order of spiritual, revolutionary, lay, free midwives.”
Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore’s film goes on to track the work and mission of the Farm, co-founded by Gaskin and Stephen Gaskin, whom she met, she remembers. While she was “still married to my first husband.” A former marine, Stephen was then teaching writing classes—in the form of discussions with some 1500 students—at San Francisco State University. Like so many young people at the time, Ina May arrived in San Francisco in search of enlightenment, and she found it, in large part, in protests against the war in Vietnam and for civil rights, and the film here includes grainy images of same, as well as many clips of Gaskin, in long dark hair and embroidered blouses it appears that as the group evolved, someone had the foresight to record its activities, whether for historical posterity or home movies entertainment. Here the images provide authentic-seeming, amateurish documentation of a revolution.
Stephen was on his own journey, he says: “I wanted to be a hippie the way other little boys wanted to be a cowboy.” Their meeting in San Francisco, “the center of this transformation,” provided both with energy, drugs, and direction, and following some time on the road (literally taking their ideas and practices out in a caravan of like-minded supporters), they settled in Tennessee. Asked why Tennessee, in an archival interview, a lanky, bearded Stephen smiles, “Because the people were friendly.”
The Farm was friendly and then some. An intentional spiritual community, it provided self-sustaining agricultural and educational organization; less typically, says Deborah Devoursney, the Farm “prioritized midwives” via a Midwifery Center, one of the first out of hospital facilities in the US. A brief tour of the place reveals the thinking and the planning that went into it, their encouragement of participation by all family members and a community commitment to natural processes.
The film adopts an organic-seeming style, built on friendly current-day interviews and archival footage, including several birth scenes. Clips of footage of Gaskin’s back-in-the-day talks reveal she has a flair for standup comedy (“And here’s another thing: men think only their stuff can get way big and then get small and not be ruined!”) as well as a devoted following, repeatedly illustrated by shots of women and men’s faces, upturned and, again, nodding in agreement.
That’s not to say that everyone was or is copacetic with the Farm’s practices and philosophies. The encouragement of direct-entry midwifery, that is, midwives not trained as nurses first, early on drew criticism. Though the film doesn’t press the point in the usual way—via numbers, graphics or talking head counterpoints—Gaskin notes that institutional medicine has “interests that don’t always jive with its rhetoric. “Unfortunately,” she says, midwifery is “perceived as being against the interests of the hospitals, but the hospitals are to serve people and so it seems to me, we have to serve the interests of the mothers.” You know, because mothers are “people.”
While Birth Story commemorates the Farm’s ingenuity and history, it also looks forward, alluding to what can only be called a continuing battle against institutional and commercial interests, whether these are based in facilities and equipment sales, beliefs or medications. The film takes it cue here from the Farm and the Gaskins. It doesn’t argue against hospitals and doctors so much as it argues for midwives, and especially, for healthy, safe, and confident birthing.