Robert S. Boynton


Profile of Jessica Mitford

Birth of a Nation

Newsday, December 13, 1992

PART of the fun of reading Jessica Mitford's new book, "The American Way of Birth,” is imagining her doing the reporting. As we talk over coffee early one morning at her daughter's Lower East Side apartment, the very proper and British Mitford becomes visibly uncomfortable when I bring up the subject of bonding, which, it seems, is practically a mantra for some of the more touchy-feely midwives she interviewed for her book. "It is a subject that fills me with great uneasiness," she admits before she goes on to regale me with anecdotes from a book called "Spiritual Midwifery"; "reading it nearly killed me with all its mushiness," she deadpans.

At 75 Mitford is anything but mushy as she holds forth on everything from the collapse of world communism ("When Khrushchev told the truth about Stalin in 1956, it was a staggering blow, but I hold no great ill will toward the Party") to libel lawyers ("They are like the psychiatrists who always say 'no' when asked whether somebody should be let out of prison"). A lifelong radical, Mitford loves to shake things up.

Mitford, whose mother once likened giving birth to having "an orange stuffed up your nostril," was at first a bit wary of the topic of her new book. But once she caught a whiff of the scandal and injustice lurking within the birth business, she proved to be her usual intrepid reporter. Her voice rises with anger when she talks about the conspiracy against midwives in this country, an effort she likens to the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the 1950s.

Mitford's own vividly contrasting experiences giving birth - detailed in the first chapter of the new book - provided her with firsthand knowledge of the wide spectrum of labor-and-delivery experiences. The author's first child was born in 1937 in the idyllic home-birth circumstances then considered commonplace in England: When labor pains began Mitford merely phoned the local Labour Party maternity clinic, and within minutes a doctor-and-nurse team were at her bedside. After her move to the States in the early 1940s, Mitford endured three traumatic episodes having babies in American hospitals. The anesthesia administered during one of these births, "possibly a short-lived fad of the moment," she writes by way of example, "consisted of having hot air pumped up one's rectum."

In "The American Way of Birth," Mitford argues that the shift away from giving birth with midwives (from 50 percent in 1900 down to a mere 4 percent 1986) and toward having cesarean sections (from one in 20 in 1970 to one in four in 1987) results, in good part, from the medical profession's greed and egotism. The politics of birth, like most other things, comes down to economic calculation. Who else but a relentless muckraker like Jessica Mitford would write a history of birthing that includes an entire chapter on the forceps (invented in 1588) and an epilogue entitled "Money and Politics" that lays out her argument for socialized medicine?

But Mitford is no dewy-eyed idealist, and much of the book is a very amusing and wryly observed jaunt through the absurd world of postmodern birth techniques. We learn about the Empathy Belly, a huge womb-like structure with large breasts worn by the male partner so that he can appreciate the discomfort of the later stages of pregnancy. It comes with a special pouch that presses on his bladder to create an uncomfortable desire to urinate at inappropriate moments. Mitford also discovers the Fetal Teaching System, which is a cassette-player and two speakers worn on a body-belt to transmit soothing sounds to the fetus. While genuinely sympathetic to the dissident spirit of the midwifery movement, Mitford has little time for birthing's more far-out ideological innovators.

The daughter of Lord and Lady Redesdale, Jessica Mitford was born at a time when the major political movements of modern times were locked in a pitched battle. You can practically read the history of the era from her family's biography. Each of her sisters chose a distinct path - Nancy became a famous novelist, Unity a close friend of Hitler's, Deborah the Dutchess of Devonshire and Diana married Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists.

"Decca," as Jessica has been known since childhood, traces her radicalism to the day she told her mother: "I say, wouldn't it be a good idea if all the money in England could be divided up equally among everybody?" Her mother thought it was quite a poor idea, but at 17 Decca ran away with Winston Churchill's leftist nephew, Esmond Romilly, to work in Spain as a news reporter helping the anti-Franco Loyalists. Mitford eventually married Romilly, much to the dismay of her family, and the two of them lived together in London's working-class East End.

In 1938, Mitford had come to the U.S. as a tourist and ended up staying in the country when World War II broke out.Romilly joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and died when his plane went down over the North Sea in November 1941.

Years later, living in California with her second husband, labor lawyer Bob Truehaft, Mitford was fired from a job soliciting classified advertisements for a San Francisco newspaper because of her leftist politics; she began writing because she didn't know what else to do. "I was done having children and had no education; I could barely type," she says. "So I figured that the only thing that requires no education and no skills is writing."

Mitford's first book, a memoir, "Daughters and Rebels," was published in 1960. Fame came suddenly to Mitford when "The American Way of Death" - inspired by Bob Truehaft's work with victims of a corrupt funeral industry - became a best seller three years later, after which Time magazine crowned her "Queen of the Muckrakers." Her next book, "Kind & Usual Punishment," provided a startling look at the prison business - indeed, Mitford's discovery that it was in fact a "business," with convicts serving as raw material, was the book's most shocking revelation - and brought together her savage wit and her concern for social justice to great effect.

Mitford has lived in Oakland, California, since 1949. Together she and her husband have been involved in the fight for civil rights and fair housing and against police brutality and job discrimination. One of their early activities was to front for black families who wanted to buy houses in white areas of Oakland. They met during World War II in the Office of Price Administration in Washington, where she was his assistant.

More than anything else about journalism, Mitford loves a good fight. "I don't think I'll get death threats the way I did when I wrote "The American Way of Death," she says with a trace of disappointment in her voice. "I expect the AMA will try to discredit me. The undertakers I wrote about were a quite isolated bunch so nobody much cared about them, but doctors are loved by everyone and have a huge PR machine to keep it that way. They are bound to fight me - I should hope."

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