The Boy Who Lived: Stillbirth and Life after Death

Ghostbelly: A Memoir.
By Elizabeth Heineman. (New York: The Feminist Press, 2014. 320 pp. $16.95.)

How do you grieve for a stillborn child? How do you ensure your child is remembered for having lived, not just for having died? These are the questions that Elizabeth Heineman explores in the unflinching, yet deeply intimate, Ghostbelly: A Memoir. Through Heineman’s prose it becomes clear that there is no script for stillbirth, no one way to grieve, to remember, to heal.

Ghostbelly is the story of Heineman’s stillbirth, but it is so much more. It is also the story of a person trying to make sense of how a healthy and vibrant pregnancy ended in the death of a full-term fetus. It is the story of a home birth and a midwife estranged from the medical establishment, a midwife who made an error in judgment. It is the story of a mother and father who brought their dead baby home to bond before they buried him. But most of all, Ghostbelly is the story of a baby called Thor. It is the story of a baby who died an hour before he was born and his mother’s commitment to make sure the world knew that he existed, that he was “not nothing.”

Elizabeth Heineman’s book takes place in the present, though as a historian of modern Germany and Europe, she frames her story using terminology relating to pre- and post-World War I. There is the Belle Époque, the period of joyful optimism during which she, at the age of 45, becomes pregnant with her second child, a child who tests negative for chromosomal abnormalities, a child whom she carries without incident to term. Her Belle Époque, however, bleeds into Verdun, a silent battle of attrition waged both within her body and between the politics that keep out-of-hospital midwives ostracized from the medical profession. Heineman must accept the War Guilt from those around her who wanted to distill blame down to home birth and, therefore, her choice to have it. She then enters an Age of Anxiety where she is expected to move on, discovering that she now had to figure out “when and with whom it was still OK to talk about Thor” because her grief often made others uncomfortable.

Heineman takes a historian’s eye to her book, and uses historical moments and phrases as the scaffolding to tell her story, but this is not a history in the conventional sense: it is the history of a moment in her own life. Framing the book through war, however, serves to highlight the battle between the medical profession and out-of-hospital midwives. In Heineman’s case, a midwife made a mistake — but the likelihood of error was heightened by the political warfare between the medical profession and out-of-hospital midwives, midwives who may be eager to demonstrate the excesses of intervention when there is no sign of trouble, but who miss out on the collaborative sharing of knowledge experienced by other medical practitioners. Heineman believes that a midwife made the mistake that resulted in Thor’s death. But she argues that politics killed her baby.

Ghostbelly is beautiful, difficult, and jarring. It is at times lyrical and reflective, other times list-like and train of thought, and there is no real beginning, middle, or end to this story. Instead, the stillbirth looms throughout, punctuated by vignettes of life before, during, and after this one moment in time, demonstrating that grief has no narrative. The book was clearly meant to be cathartic to Heineman — writing about Thor made him more real to her, and it forced the world to acknowledge that his short life meant something. But the book has wider importance as well. Ghostbelly looks into the veiled world of fetal death, a world that is often kept as far away from the living as possible. Heineman pulls back the shroud that surrounds stillbirth and the result is a glimpse into the complex world of life after death — a world inhabited by the living and the dead alike.

Meggan Woodbury Bilotte is a co-founder of Nursing Clio. Originally from Wyoming, she is now one of the many transplants to call Madison, Wisconsin home. She is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as a mother, a partner, a teacher, and a student of the world. In her academic life she studies midwifery, motherhood, and modernity in the American West. In her home life she studies crayon drawings and the physics of flying kisses.