What we’ve got is what we tell each other.
— Marsha Mainzer
“The hysterectomy took six hours,” remembers Judith Helfand. The doctors removed her cancerous cervix, as well as her uterus, fallopian tubes, and part of her vagina. “I got to keep my ovaries,” she adds.
It was 20 years ago that Helfand had her surgery, when she was just 25 years old. By then, she says, she had been having regular DES effects examinations for potential cancer since she was 14. Helfand describes all this in her documentary, A Healthy Baby Girl, originally released in 1997 and screening 2 March at Stranger Than Fiction (she will be on hand for a Q&A following the film). And then she describes how it happened.
In 1960, when Helfand’s mother, Florence, was five weeks pregnant, her doctor prescribed diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic estrogen, in order to prevent a miscarriage. A brief photo montage and voiceover provide the basics of Helfand’s parents’ experience: first generation American Jews, they met and married in Brownsville, then moved to the suburbs to raise their children. Florence, her daughter narrates, was “probably the typical DES mother: white, middle class and confident she had given me the best prenatal care money could buy.” Eleven years later, in 1971, the Food and Drug Administration banned the use of DES during pregnancy, after finding it causes cancer in women exposed to it in utero.
Helfand was diagnosed while working on a documentary project on DES, after which the filmmakers asked her to serve as their focus. Thus she brought a camera crew with her into the hospital and, advised by the crew, to hire a product liability lawyer to sue the manufacturer of her mother’s DES, Eli Lilly. (As it happened, Helfand was “lucky” that she knew the manufacturer’s name, as many more DES daughters, as they came to be called, were unable to bring suit without such specific information.) When her lawyer warns Helfand that she needs to be sure she wants to make her personal story public, she’s already thought that problem through: “My disease is public and political,” she says, “This isn’t a private thing we’re gonna keep in our house. It’s not going to fester here. This is very public.”
“This” also ends up being the film’s argument, made in multiple ways. Certainly, A Healthy Baby Girl makes public Helfand’s own experience, her surgery and her recovery, as well as her complicated family life. “This disease is all about relationships,” she notes, whether regarding her mother’s abiding sense of guilt (“It hurts your relationship in a way that can never be repaired”) or Helfand’s future (a visibly unhappy ex-boyfriend appears in the film, as well as a next boyfriend). With wit, grace, and a compelling openness, the film also tracks the work of making the problem public, through organizations like the DES Cancer Network, founded by DES daughters Margaret Lee Braun and Susan Helmrich, “to pool medical information and provide support,” and also to expose corporate cover-ups (the film submits that pharmaceutical companies knew DES caused cancer in rats as far back as 1938).
Shot on 8mm and hi-8 (Helfand’s cousin lends her a videocamera), the film also illustrates this development, a seeming home movie made to expose long hidden truths, a broadside grounded in personal pain. (She constructs a similar story in Blue Vinyl , a film about toxic vinyl siding, another corporate abuse of consumer trust.) Asked whether she’s angry, Florence says no. “It’s not anger that I feel, it’s a sadness over the whole thing. It’s hard for me to express how I really feel.” And yet over the course of the film — as Helfand becomes more vocal about and politicized by her experience — she invites viewers to share in her education. Helfand’s conversations with her mother model this process as well, as Florence starts to participate more energetically in the education and the film project. Though she resists (“I don’t want it, I’m too private a person”), she’s eventually not only a subject but also picks up the camera.
When Judy asks her mother to describe her feelings about the experience, how it has changed her, Florence is thoughtful. She regrets not knowing more when she needed to, of course, but she also sees her own transformation in broader terms, lamenting her loss of faith in authorities she once considered trustworthy. “Forty and 50 years ago,” she says, “We revered the doctors. They were the gods. We never questioned.” Now, 20 years later, Florence’s expression of shock and apprehension is sadly familiar.