Twilight sleep



(Originally written for the Blogging from A to Z April, then I decided to be consistent and have every letter be about a character.)

For a long time I vaguely knew that women in America used to be put to sleep during birth, and that that practice slowly started fading out during the Seventies. Even after I started reading about natural childbirth and the history of hospital birth in my early twenties, I still didn’t know the entire truth about the horrific twilight sleep era.

Women for at least 50 years had no memory of giving birth, were tied down with lamb’s wool restraints, put in straitjackets, not allowed to have any friends or family in the birthing room, all sorts of horrific abuses. It makes me so sad to think my own grandmothers must’ve been victims of twilight sleep, and didn’t even question it, since this was the era of “doctor knows best.” I think I threw up in my mouth a little when I was reading Ernestine Gilbreth Carey’s Rings Around Us and she seriously called her OB “that precious, God-like man.” Given that she gave birth in 1938 and 1942, the odds are that she was a victim of twilight sleep and that that “precious, God-like man” let all this happen to her.

Needless to say, I’m glad my primary genre of choice is 20th century historical fiction, so I’ve been able to encorporate awareness of this thankfully discontinued practice into certain of my books, in a way that fits with the storyline and characters. It’s definitely not just stuck in there to push my own views. It always has something to do with the story.

In Little Ragdoll, oldest sister Gemma is completely traumatized by her ordeal with twilight sleep (in addition to being forced to see a male doctor). Ever since she had her birth son Giovanni in June 1961, she’s been unable to stop telling anyone and everyone about how she was mistreated in the hospital. Her mother, the black-hearted Mrs. Troy, and all the women in her abusive, unwanted first husband Francesco’s family think she needs to shut up and know her place, but Gemma’s five little sisters, her one decent brother Allen, and her former nanny Sarah (who’s little more than an exploited live-in slave) are very moved and inspired by the horror stories she’s told. This makes all of them want to seek out natural childbirths, and since midwifery, homebirth, and natural childbirth started coming back into fashion during the Sixties and Seventies, it fits perfectly with the historical timeline.

In my Russian novels, radical Katrin is an enthusiastic proponent of twilight sleep. Like many feminists of the era, she views it as a basic women’s right and 20th century progress. She hates some of the things that are considered hospital routine, like unwanted episiotomies and her babies being fed sugar water when they’re in the nursery, but she accepts it as the price to pay for being a modern woman.

Kat also embraces twilight sleep, since her mother had 15 daughters and almost lost her mind on account of so many pregnancies, labors, and children. Kat is quite displeased when her third birth (a third set of twins) has to be at home because she hasn’t been working and her intellectual, head in the clouds husband Nikolas doesn’t earn enough money to afford another two-week hospital stay.

Anastasiya, the nicer of the two antagonists of the first two books, is quite upset when she gets pregnant from a drunken one-night stand in Paris and is forced by Katrin to birth at home to avoid a scandal. Even when she’s in labor, she’s still in denial about the situation and is trying to come up with all sorts of ways to go to a hospital anyway or have twilight sleep snuck in.

Here, largely taken from the explanations midwife/former nurse Veronica Zoravkov gives Lenore, her sisters-in-law, and her friends in Little Ragdoll:

On what planet is it not considered abusive to tie a laboring woman down to the delivery bed, wrap her head in gauze, not let her see her own baby for four days, give her a shot drying up her milk, let her lie in her own filth for hours and give her drugs to slow labor because the doctor wants to go out to eat and see a movie, and give her a combination of morphine and scopolamine so she has amnesia in addition to pain relief?

Scopolamine isn’t an unsafe drug, in certain circumstances, and with the proper doses.  But when mixed with morphine, and given to a pregnant woman, it can be very dangerous.  Some women bled to death after giving birth because they got too much, and many babies born to women under twilight sleep came out groggy or not breathing, or even stillborn.  The combination of these two drugs induced a tranquilized, amnesiac state in which a woman couldn’t remember feeling any pain but remained conscious. A lot of twilight sleep babies had to be delivered with mid to high forceps since their mothers didn’t have the ability to push properly when under the effects of those drugs.

Twilight sleep was created in Germany shortly before the First World War and called Dämmerschlaf.  Some wealthy American women went abroad to deliver their babies in the German clinics that offered it, and raved about it when they came home.  There was a whole league formed to promote it, and at the time it was seen as a very important issue in the struggle for equal rights for women.  Even prominent feminists supported it, like Mary Ware Dennett, a pioneer in the birth control movement.

MWD wrote a very popular pamphlet called ‘The Sex Side of Life: An Explanation for Young People,’ educating young people about human reproduction and how physical intimacy between a man and a woman who are married and in love is a beautiful, natural thing.  They felt being free of pain during childbirth, which had a higher death rate in those days, was a very important right.  MWD herself had three very painful deliveries and lost her husband because she’d been cautioned not to have another child.  There really wasn’t anything except chastity to prevent that in those days.

What these women didn’t know was that while they were in that amnesiac state, they also lost their inhibitions due to the drugs.  Doctors and nurses tied them down to the beds and put gauze over their heads because they often thrashed around.  They were still feeling pain, even if they couldn’t remember it.  Sometimes they were given earplugs so they didn’t wake themselves up with their screaming.  A lot of women were given a shot to dry up their breastmilk while still in that amnesiac state.

The only husbands admitted to delivery rooms were the husbands of women with a lot of money, or doctors whose wives were patients.  The vast majority had to wait in the so-called Stork Club, the waiting room for husbands.  The average man waiting in the Stork Club had no idea what was happening to his wife, and she of course wouldn’t be able to tell him what happened to her, since she had no memory of it.

Progress report


For the past week, I haven’t been getting a lot of progress done on my Russian novel sequel. I’m steadily coming along on Chapter 37, “First Visit to Minnesota,” and the word count is around 323,000 as the chapter draws to a close. I thought perhaps I was just hitting a wall because I’d been with these characters for so long at a stretch again, but then I started to think it might really be because while I have the notes/outline for the entire book, not to mention having had the entire story memorized backwards and forwards in my head since I was about 15 years old, I don’t really have the earlier chapters of Part II outlined in my head in as much detail as I had all the chapters of Part I. Once I get up to Chapter 41, “Union with a Snake,” when Lyuba finally cracks and does what the book title suggests and what’s been hinted at and developed towards for much of the book, it’ll be smooth sailing. The remaining chapters after that, “Facing the Music in Minnesota,” “Beyond the Rocks…or Not?,” and “Who’s the Father?,” plus the Epilogue, “No Thirteenth Time,” are outlined and memorized in my head in much greater detail.

I got a lot of work done on editing and rewriting The Very First, and the word count is around 30,000 now. I decided to bite the bullet and leave out the original Chapters 2-30, which only served to introduce each character and tell a little about the layout of the town and what the world was like in 1938. So I moved the chapters of Part II into Part I, and decided, since the book is so short, I won’t even divide it into two parts. I consolidated a lot of chapters, since many of the chapter titles ended up bearing only a faint connection to what actually happens in them. Now I only have to add two, maybe three, new chapters. There are going to be chapters called “School Days” and “High Holy Days.” I might also put in a chapter about Halloween. I’m pretty confident I can get it to around my original misestimation of 43,000 words.

I also modified some things so it would seem slightly more age-appropriate, though I didn’t entirely take out things casting the characters as older than they are. That’s an important part of the entire series, and to suddenly have them acting and looking so much older when the Max’s House books begin in June 1941 would seem rather abrupt and out of thin air if it weren’t already established from the jump. There are always reasons given for it, and it always is supposed to make sense in the context of the story, the characters, and the quasi-religion of WTCOAC. Like, for example, when Cinni is gleefully showing Sparky the adult version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey they’re going to play at her birthday party, which her own father took her to buy because she thought it was funny:

“This is what Americans consider funny?”

“People with a sense of humor do.  My daddy took me to the novelty shop so I wouldn’t get in trouble for buying it underage.  And it’s wrapped in brown butcher paper so no one will really know what’s inside.  There’s something in this country called the Comstock Act, and it makes it hard to buy certain things and send some stuff through the mail.  They have a movie code too, forbidding certain things.  All of it’s damn stupid.  I hate these modern-day Puritans who think the world is like a Norman Rockwell painting or some movie or book set in a small town.  That kind of life never existed for most Americans.  It’s just a fantasy people create to feel better about themselves.  Besides, it ain’t like I’m gonna do adult things with a boy at my party.  I’m just playing an adult version of pin the tail on the donkey.  I didn’t start setting fires when I learnt about fire.  I won’t go out and become a harlot after seeing dirty pictures or playing this game either.”

I also made the age of Cinni and her friends ambiguous, so I wouldn’t shock so many people. While I feel their behavior is a funny parody of modern-day preteens and teens who think they’re all grown-up already, and serves to call out, as Cinni says, people who want to pretend America in that era was so ultra-moral, innocent, perfect, and happy, I know it might shock some people if they knew how old these kids are really supposed to be. It’s said a number of times they’re not little kids anymore, but they’re not teens yet. We know Cinni and some of her friends are already sprouting bustlines, but Cinni says she’s still a bit young to get her “lady days” (how these girls refer to their period). At one point Cinni refers to the sixth grade as being in the future. I think I might finally come out with their actual age in the third book.

I also converted, as I previously mentioned, the third, fourth, and fifth Max’s House books from their old MacWriteII formats. I didn’t have to do too much reformatting on the files that make up the fourth and fifth books (three files each; I think those two books might end up somewhere in the vicinity of 60,000 words?), but I have more reformatting and editing to do on the third book. There are six files that make up Resolutions, and I’ve estimated it’s somewhere in the vicinity of 90,000 words. (I think the sixth book, Two Happy Endings, and the eighth book, Back to School, will be somewhere in the same longer vicinity after I convert those files.) I’ve got a lot of work to do on #3, since it’s just so overwritten, contains stupid bits of dialogue and scenes that serve no purpose other than giving my 15-year-old self an excuse to work in some of her current obsessions and interests like showing off how many obscure foreign languages and cultures I knew of, has a rather obnoxious, preachy, judgmental, editorializing narrative voice (I use third person omniscient, not first person!), rather like D.W. Griffith’s intertitles, and contains things that weren’t entirely historically accurate, even considering it’s part historical fiction, part spoof. (I just love the episodes of parody talkshow Lulu that are featured during this particular book!)

Right now I’m reformatting, editing, and rewriting the second of the six files. I’m completely rewriting the birth scene of the quints. I was so naïve about the history of hospital birth when I was 15. I was so naïve I thought women were allowed to be conscious, eat during and immediately after labor, have their husbands and other relatives in the delivery room, get large beds to labor on, and only have to be in labor for a little while. Little did I know this was the era of knock ’em out, drag ’em out obstetrics, with the terrifying, abusive twilight sleep, enemas, shaving, forceps, lamb’s wool shackles, nurseries that kept babies isolated and apart from their mothers except for one hour every day, shots that dried up women’s breastmilk unless they insisted against it (because, you know, it would be vulgar, dirty, and lowbred to not use bottles), and episiotomies. Bambi is tied up to the twilight sleep crib and given a shot of something. The next thing she can remember, she’s in a bed in a recovery suite, the five babies swaddled up and being held by her, Mr. Seward, oldest stepchild Tiffany, and Mr. Seward’s brother and sister-in-law. I was quite a few years away from becoming a birth junkie at 15. I probably would’ve been shocked had I known I’d grow up to want a natural childbirth!

I’m going to focus, during the editing and rewriting, on the real major storylines of Resolutions: The birth of the quints, the stupid but hilarious tv show The Hermit Family, Kit’s troubles with her mother and her boyfriends, Sparky’s anguish over what’s going to happen to Lazarus and Malchen back in Europe, Kit’s makeover of British girl Paulina, who horrifies her sisters Galatea and Lolanda with her resulting wardrobe and behavior, and Elaine’s kind of creepy phase where she glorifies Death and the idea of plotting and planning a suicide, as though she’s planning a wedding with a month by month, week by week checklist.

Other weekly reports from other people in the Writers Support 4U group: