By Eileen Pollack
When I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to teach creative writing, one of my graduate students told me that his wife wanted to meet me. “She says it’s eerie, but she feels as if she knows the characters in your stories, especially the teachers at your school.” As it turned out, my stories seemed familiar because my student’s wife, Jill, had grown up in the same tiny town in upstate New York as I had, in the building right behind my house. Even though Jill is ten years younger, nothing much had changed between her childhood and mine, including the favorite sayings and peculiar behaviors of our teachers.
Another coincidence: It turns out Jill dated my mother’s best friend’s son. After they broke up, the boy’s mother continued to act as Jill’s surrogate mother. Thrilled by this connection, Jill and I grew close. One night, she and her husband invited my son, Noah, and me to dinner, a generous act, given that I was trying to survive the lonely, depressing days after a divorce. When Noah and I showed up at their house, Jill handed me a book with a faded but eye-catching turquoise cover. Being Born, the title read. Above the title was a photo of a tomboyish girl—who strangely enough resembled Jill—and a clean-cut Leave-It-To-Beaverish boy marveling at a nest of eggs.
“I know that book!” I cried. “That’s the same book my mother gave me to teach me the facts of life!”
Jill smirked. “You’re right. It is the same book.” She opened the cover and showed me “Pollack fmly, 55 Willey Ave., Liberty, N.Y.” inscribed in blue ink in my mother’s pristine hand.
I jumped back. Not only was this a book I had last seen in 1965, when I was nine years old and living halfway across the country, it was a book I had tried my hardest to avoid. Imagine if an ugly, scary dog had bitten you as a child, then followed your scent for thirty years, only to spring from a friend’s front door.
“How did you get this?” I demanded. Jill pointed to the piece of notepaper protruding from the book.
Bob and I were cleaning a bookshelf and found this book that Eileen Pollack’s mother gave me for Dean & Mike. I thought you might be able to use it and, eventually, give it back to Eileen. She may like to have it, since she probably read it as a child.
If not for the smiley face, I would have wondered at the woman’s sanity. Could she honestly have thought that Jill would use Being Born to teach her own children about sex and love? The book had been published in 1936, then re-issued in a “revised and enlarged 35th printing” in 1952, four years before I started being born myself, and even though the facts of life hadn’t changed much since then, I assumed someone must have invented a more up-to-date and engaging way of presenting them.
What intrigued me was trying to remember why I had refused to do much more than open and shut the book. I was the kind of child who couldn’t not read. If I was on my way to the bathroom, I would grab my father’s dental journals so I wouldn’t be restricted to reading the toothpaste and deodorant. Had something about this particular book put me off? Or would I have balked at reading anything whose cover assured me that it was “A FRIENDLY BOOK OF FACTS FOR BOYS AND GIRLS THAT IS THE STANDARD WORK ON THE SUBJECT,” friendly being the fakey adjective teachers used to describe policemen and doctors, who, despite what grownups said, had the ability to haul you off to jail or jam a needle in your arm. Nor would I have reacted well to the author’s sexually ambiguous first and middle names, Frances Bruce, or the unpleasant connotations of her last name, Strain, with its implications of a difficult bowel movement.
“Blech,” my son said. “What is this thing? The pictures are disgusting.”
I figured he was saying this because the human reproductive system will always disgust a child of eight. But when I took back Being Born, the images returned to me with frightening clarity. The hideous black-and-white diagram of “the mother’s reproductive system” resembled nothing as much as a disapproving, big-nosed secretary in hideous cat’s-eye glasses, while the map of “the father’s reproductive system” reminded me of an evil alien with testicles for his eyes and a penis and foreskin for his nose. (Are any words ickier to the ear than “scrotum,” “testicles,” “penis,” “seminal vesicle,” “epididymis,” “erectile tissue,” and “urethra”?)
I quickly set down the book, at which the pages turned by an unseen hand and fell open to the photos that spanned the center seam. “Blech!” I said. And you would have said “Blech,” too, if you had seen those grainy clay models of cross-sectioned human wombs splayed across a table like cuts of spongy gray organ-meat. If that wasn’t enough to make you retch, you could have turned the page and found a series of illustrations that, despite the floral imagery of the captions (“Hands and feet blossom from tiny buds”), resembled the severed limbs of a plastic doll some malicious child had held to a flame until they melted.
Still you would have thought, given how ignorant I was of the mysteries of grown-up life, I would have studied Being Born with a microscope. It’s not surprising that a girl of nine wouldn’t know what a penis looked like. But I didn’t know what a penis was. When I was in third grade, one of my piano teacher’s cats gave birth and I asked her how she could tell which kittens were boys and which were girls. Well, she said, you could tell boy and girl kittens apart the same way you could tell boy and girl human beings apart. Oh, no, I said, that didn’t make sense. The only way you could tell human boys and girls apart was by the length of their hair, and boy cats and girl cats all had the same length hair, so how could a person know?
That’s when Being Born appeared on my bedside desk. And, when I didn’t pick it up and read it, on the sink beside the toilet, then elsewhere around the house, until my mother finally gave up and put it inside her drawer.
Only to take it out a few years later when I asked my brother to show me his circumcision scar. You might think this proves I knew what a penis was. But I had read somewhere that circumcision involved cutting a baby’s foreskin, and I had no idea what a foreskin was. In Hebrew School, we often recited a prayer about Jews carving God’s words on the doorposts of their houses and keeping them as “frontlets between their eyes,” and I had decided that circumcision involved carving the Hebrew letter chai on a baby’s forehead, but I couldn’t see my brother’s chai, so I figured the scar had faded and asked him to point it out.
At which my mother removed Being Born from her drawer and put it back beside my bed, then on the table in the living room, then back inside her drawer, where it must have stayed for years until she handed it to her friend.
And now, here I was, holding Being Born again. I opened to the inside jacket … and immediately was struck by the discovery that only fifty short years ago, adults were out of their minds. While it made sense that Mrs. Strain would include an endorsement from the Journal of the American Medical Association, how could she have been clueless enough to boast that “This is a book to arouse enthusiasm.” Arouse? Nor was I persuaded by the good doctors praising Mrs. Strain for being “unemotional and scientific” while remaining “friendly and personal” when any kid could guess that reading Being Born was going to be as friendly and personal as listening to a doctor ask you how things were going at school while sticking a thermometer up your butt.
Even the author’s assurance that the answer to the question “Where was I before I was born?” is “as fascinating as the story of Treasure Island or Robinson Crusoe” struck me as oddly inappropriate, given that Treasure Island is a book about a fatherless child being abused by a one-legged pirate and that Crusoe presumably spends a significant portion of his adult life with nothing but his own hand as a means to sexual gratification.
Nor would it have escaped my notice that Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe are boys’ adventure stories. In Frances Bruce Strain’s universe, boy fetuses might be allowed to live on tropical islands before they’re born, but girl fetuses no doubt are required to spend those nine long months sitting quietly in tiny pink padded cells. She can’t describe an egg without chiding it for not fitting the acceptable dimensions of femininity. “Curiously,” she writes, “the egg cell or ovum is many, many times larger than the sperm cell. Being a lady, you would expect her to be small [a curious grammatical ambiguity, that dangling participle], but instead of being smaller, she is larger.”
In refusing to read Being Born, I was clinging to what little pride the world allowed me in being female. If I didn’t know what penises were, how could I envy boys for having them? It wasn’t that I wanted to be a boy. For years, I had been stealing looks at my older sister’s pamphlets about how to stay neat and fresh even when coping with “the curse.” As inane as those booklets were, with their tips for washing cashmere sweaters so they wouldn’t lose their shape and making boys feel special by asking them questions about themselves, they heralded an era when I would be able to go places in cars with boys and enjoy exciting adventures without my parents. If getting my period was the price I needed to pay for such freedom, so be it, and I appreciated the way the authors of those pamphlets didn’t whitewash (so to speak) the way cramps could keep a girl curled up in bed all day or send an embarrassing gush of blood through the bottom of her skirt or shorts.
But that same girl could have picked up Being Born and read the entire section on men-stru-a-tion (“such a long word and such a personal one for girls”) without figuring out that once a month blood would come streaming out her vagina and she had better be prepared. As to cramps, Mrs. Strain’s opinion was that any healthy girl could entirely prevent cramps, if only she took care never to catch a chill or think gloomy thoughts!
The author applied this same goofily evasive approach to her male readers’ questions about their “seminal emissions.” Despite two-and-a-half pages of explanations, a reader would never have guessed that such emissions had anything to do with sexy dreams. As to the reasons a boy’s penis might become erect, he likely had failed to empty his bladder, or else his erections had been caused by “excitement over a ball game or fire, or over an examination, or punishment.” Now, I have never had an erection, so for all I know a boy might find himself with a hard-on from catching a pop-up fly, toasting a marshmallow, or studying for a difficult math test. But if Mrs. Strain truly wanted to assure her readers that getting an erection while being spanked was normal, she might have tossed her readers a hint that thinking about a girl (let alone another boy) might produce an erection, too.
All she has to say on that score is that when we are “really stirred up,” we get stirred up “all over,” and if readers want to know more than that, they should turn to page 30, where they will find this maddeningly elusive bombshell:
When the two mates are ready to unite and the sperm fluid is to leave the father’s body, the penis becomes hard and straight like a finger, though much larger in size. Erect, it enters more readily into the long narrow pas- sage of the mother that leads up into the place where the egg may be found.
I’m all for an approach that is “devoid of emotionalism and sentimentality,” but you can’t tell me Mrs. Strain is showing a “sympathetic understanding of youth” by refusing to acknowledge that if you tell a boy that one day his penis is going to grow as hard as a finger (only bigger!) and he is going to stick it up a woman’s narrow passage, he is going to want a few more details as to just how his penis is going to become hard and straight, and that his female friends are going to be left dangling, so to speak, as to whether this isn’t quite a painful activity to engage in.
I suppose that making fun of a book like Being Born is like shooting giant ova in a barrel. I can hardly express surprise that a book written in the middle of the previous century by the widow of a Congregational minister would have taken a sexist view of sex. I was happy to discover that at the end of a long, bizarre discussion of interracial coupling, Mrs. Strain issues a heartfelt plea that each of us accept everyone else, no matter his race, color, creed, or nationality. What I object to is that the author presents sex in such a frightening and repulsive way while pretending there is nothing the least bit frightening or repulsive about what she’s saying. How else to explain the passage in which Mrs. Strain tells her readers that “[o]nce in a great, great while, the soft down coat on a human [baby] does not disappear. It stays.” Such a baby grows up to be covered with thick dark hair. But not to worry! Some circus will pay the child “a good price to be exhibited before the public as the Wild Man or Wolf Man.”
A woman who sees nothing unpleasant about life as a sideshow exhibit will be all too willing to illustrate her account of childbirth with a nightmarishly distorted Karl Rove-headed baby being extracted from yet another grainy cross-section of a female torso by a pair of disembodied hands in white rubber gloves. And if you are going to admit that little girls are bound to hear stories about childbirth so disturbing that they announce “I don’t believe I shall want any babies when I grow up,” you can’t brush off such worries with a fairytale about how the stories “got started long ago when there were no hospitals, no doctors, no nurses who were especially trained in the care of mothers” and how giving birth in a hospital has become a piece of cake. I gave birth at one of the best hospitals in Boston, attended by a team of doctors and nurses so well-trained that even their ova and sperm had degrees from Harvard Medical School, and I can tell you some pretty disturbing stories about the mistakes everyone made and the pain and misery I was in for two days of labor and the emergency C-section the doctors eventually needed to perform to save my baby’s life.
Not that I disagree with Mrs. Strain’s testimony that the contentment of nursing a newborn is worth every bit of the pain and mess, or that feeling a fetus kick inside you is “like the flutter of a bird in the hand,” or that it is very exciting to “hear the little heart beat,” or that some people say you can even hear a baby hiccough inside its mother. I am here to testify that nothing is more bizarrely miraculous than feeling another human being hiccough inside you.
What drives me nuts is the way the author of Being Born seems unable to accept that sex and birth (and love) can be beautiful as well as ugly, wondrous as well as painful, enticing and mysterious as well as frightening and repulsive. Not only does Mrs. Strain seem unable to convey such complexities to a child (who is perfectly able to understand that it’s possible to both love and hate one’s parents, or that it feels wonderful to run and play even if one becomes hot and sweaty in the process), she subscribes to the delusion still prevalent today—cross reference Martha Stewart—that everything can be made beautiful and pleasant if only the lady of the house dresses it up in the right décor.
You can see this in the chapter in which Mrs. Strain goes on about the differences between animals, who eat and reproduce by instinct, and human beings, who have conquered their wild, instinctual natures by relying on good manners. While lions and monkeys kill other animals and eat them raw, human beings make a social occasion of eating. “There is a lace or linen cloth on the table, pretty china, bright silver and glass, flowers. Everyone talks and laughs, tells the events of the day, and enjoys the good warm food. … Sit down alone and try to eat your dinner on a newspaper with an iron spoon from an iron pot, and see what would happen to your appetite.”
According to Mrs. Strain, the same is true of that other human appetite, “mate hunger.” Animals might run around showing each other their brightly colored buttocks without so much as an introduction, but human beings have learned to wear clothes and mate in private. Instead of using bodily colors to attract each other, “men and women use color in dress, personal decoration and hair arrangements, voice, gesture, words, songs, smiles, gifts—all sorts of things.” This allows them to find partners who match their “heart’s picture” of the ideal mate—at which point, if Mrs. Strain’s illustrator is to be believed, they marry and take off their clothes, revealing themselves to be as pure and airbrushed as the hairless, breastless “modern statue of a young woman” reproduced near the end of Being Born, and the “ancient Greek statue” of a young man equally devoid of pubic hair, with genitals so tiny and dark I couldn’t have made them out if I had tried, which I don’t remember doing, because I never reached this far in Being Born.
Then again, I probably saw many images of naked men, if not in that book then elsewhere, even if I refused to let any of them register on my conscious mind. How else can I explain that I went overnight from being completely ignorant about sex and birth to being the font of wisdom for the other kids? In seventh grade, when I was finally forced to sit through a movie called “From Boy to Man,” the penis on the screen provided the final piece in a puzzle I had been filling in all along.
That same week, I saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and was aroused to the point of sexual obsession by the scene in which Robert Redford surprises Katharine Ross in her bedroom and orders her, at gunpoint, to take off her clothes, at which they have passionate sex and the viewer understands that the “rape” was only a game the couple had been playing all along. One of my classmates also had seen the movie, and she and I became so exhilarated by our discussion of the rape scene that I ran over my fingers with the sewing machine and just kept talking.
Which was as good a sign as any that I was ready to understand the facts of life.
Maybe all we need to do is wait until our children’s psyches are developed enough to accept that something can be exciting and painful—both—and then confess that sex is as weird and gross as they think it is, but eventually they are going to want to do it anyway, and when they do, please use a condom. After that, they are on their own. I like to think I was as enlightened and hip about discussing the facts of life with my son as any parent could be, but I am sure he couldn’t wait until our conversations were over and remains as baffled by love and sex as I am.
No matter what anyone says or does, kids are going to pick up the facts of life from other kids, or, if they are lucky, from reading novels. Now that I think about it, I became a writer precisely because I wanted to get down in words how pleasurable and painful life can be from the moment we inhale our first breaths to our first experience of love and sex, with the astonishing opportunity this provides to give birth to very small people who will grow up to be as thrilled, confused, and terrified by love and sex and birth as we are.
Author’s Note: Even today, when books about sex are so much hipper and forthright than they were when I was young, most kids would prefer that their parents speak to them directly about love and reproduction than squirm out of the conversation by handing them a book. One of my students told me that when she was in seventh grade, her mother brought home several copies of a huge, colorful book about sex and gleefully demanded that my student hand them out to her friends as bar mitvah presents. (Rather than read the books herself, she ended up learning what she needed to know by reading The Clan of the Cave Bear novels.) Another student said that as a sixteen-year-old babysitter, she was asked by a parent to read her charge “the book on the nightstand” before the little girl went to bed. Imagine her dismay when the book turned out to be a discussion of the facts of life, complete with transparent overlays of the reproductive organs. (The babysitter also knew that the little girl was adopted, which the girl herself did not, and she half expected the mother to ask her to clue in her daughter on that information, as well.) Everyone in my class agreed that handing your child a book about sex just makes the topic seem all that much weirder and undiscussable, except one student, who said her parents were so unbelievably embarrassed by anything the least bit sexual, she much preferred reading a book than witnessing their discomfort as they stammered and squirmed, trying to impart what little they knew about the subject.
Elleen Pollack directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan and divides her time between Ann Arbor and New York. Her book,THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM: WHY SCIENCE IS STILL A BOYS’ CLUB, will be published in September of this year by Beacon Press.
Brain, Child (Spring 2010)