Monday, August 8, 2011

Get Me Out -- Again

Cover of Get Me Out -- black with white type and an upside-down babyIt took me a while to move it from my waiting list to active status, but I finally read Get Me Out, which I wrote about back in February 2010 after hearing its author on NPR.

Randi Hutter Epstein's Get Me Out is a breezy, conversational read, considering it's a heavy topic (racism, sexism, classism -- what more could you want?).

In my earlier post, I described how enslaved black women were used to test ways of repairing torn uteruses, but the book reveals they were also exploited to figure out how best to perform cesareans. "In 1828, for instance, Mrs. Payne, an African-American Virginian, had her C-section in front of several doctors and 'leading citizens' who watched her and her baby die shortly thereafter" (page 160). Like their latter-day sister Henrietta Lacks, black women's bodies were used for the "greater good," while their lives were forfeit.

One of the class-related highlights was a reminder that medical men in the early 20th century thought middle- and upper-class (I assume white) women were too weak to bear children. Literally, that they were too frail to push. At the same time, upper-class ladies in New York were raising money to open lying-in hospitals for poor, mostly immigrant women. Was this out of the goodness of their hearts? Not generally, as a quote from a 1905 Vogue article makes clear: "What is needed is a department in the hospital...where these cruel parents shall be instructed as to the enormity of the crime they are committing in bearing children in their present condition of ignorance and poverty" (page 73). Plus ├ža change, ack.

The later parts of the 20th century had their problems, too. Prenatal X-rays were popular for decades, and continued to be used routinely even after studies were published showing leukemia rates were two or three times as high in children who had been X-rayed before birth. "The end of fetal X-rays came about not so much because doctors finally accepted the dangers...but because insurance companies began to reimburse for the ultrasound exam" (page 191).

Similarly, the synthetic hormone DES was used much longer than a reasonable, post-hoc observer can believe. It was approved by the FDA in 1947 for use in preventing miscarriages, among other conditions. "Many women were getting a lifetime's worth of estrogen packed into nine months, essentially consuming the equivalent of a nine-month stock of birth control pills every day" (page 136). Just six years later, a peer-reviewed study was published that showed DES was completely ineffective in preventing miscarriage. By this time, it was generally acknowledged that the earlier positive studies, done by two Harvard scientists, could not be replicated, and also that they had not been double-blind or placebo-controlled.

Despite its demonstrated ineffectiveness, DES continued to be prescribed up through 1971 -- that's 18 years of kids, a whole generation, treated with a drug that was known to have no efficacy. It took five years after the first cancer clusters among DES children began to be identified in 1966 to get the drug off the market. Although, to the FDA's credit, once the cancer study was published, the ban came down within a few months.

All of that is the good news about Get Me Out: It lives up to the positive coverage I had heard about it, and brings an important part of women's medical history to light for a wide audience.

What I didn't expect, though, was the handful of egregious proofos I found. The book was published by W.W. Norton, a reputable publisher, but I guess they've laid off the proofreaders and are relying on spell check.

From page 26, when discussing England's James II's lack of an heir, which led to the Glorious Revolution, the text says:

William of Orange took over the thrown.
I'm not kidding. It's right there in plain sight.

In the section on cesarean births, the book refers to Victoria Beckham (Posh Spice) as Victoria Posh, as if that were her real name ("When Victoria Posh planned her C-section for no medical reason..." page 165).

And a few pages later, when describing an eccentric woman who tried to start a movement urging women to give birth alone, the book can't seem to decide what the movement was called. I think it's euthagenesis, which is used twice, but it could be euthagenics, which is used once (pages 176-177).

I know I've listed only three mistakes (there were a few other missing quote marks and things like that, too), but they so interrupted my reading that I had to note them here. Publishers, get serious -- it's disrespectful to readers and authors both. This book's too important to have mistakes like these.

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