The Blue Cotton Gown: A Midwife's Memoir
by Patricia Harman

Beacon Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8070-7289-9.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 09/12/2008

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Body Language

I think this is the bravest book I have ever read. It took me captive from the first paragraph:

I have insomnia...and I drink a little. I might as well tell you. In the middle of the night, I drink scotch when I can't sleep. Actually, I can't sleep most nights; actually, every night. Even before I stopped delivering babies, I wanted to write about the women.

And held me captive with this: the stillest part of the deep night, I sit down to write. I need to sleep...but I need to tell the stories. The stories need to be told because they are from the hearts of women; the tender, angry hearts; the broken, beautiful hearts of women.

The women. The women who bring their bodies and their souls into Harman's examining room. Who tell her their stories, which she captures for us with a rare compelling clarity and honesty. And not just their stories, but her own, as well—the story of a nurse-midwife, half of a wife-husband medical team, who is struggling to keep a small family practice afloat in the face of IRS threats, uterine cancer, a gangrenous gall bladder, and problems in her thirty-year marriage.

The Blue Cotton Gown is a compilation: a memoir of a year in the author's life, its passages interspersed with the stories of the women who visit her practice, as well as the story of the practice itself. Every part of this memoir is about women's bodies, since that is Harman's profession and her calling. There is Heather, an unmarried teenager pregnant with twins. Nila, who has already delivered seven babies and is cheerfully expecting her eighth. Holly, whose daughter is anorexic, and Trish, whose daughter kills herself with an accidental overdose. Reba, who needs instruction in finding physical pleasure ("Sometimes I wonder where I get the balls to talk to women like that...Sometimes I crack myself up"). And there's Kasmar, who is transitioning from being a woman to being a man, and needs a little help. We all need a little help, Harman says. "We are all here for one to one another...We are all here for one another and that is enough."

And in Harman's practice, which is all about women's bodies, being here is enough, most of the time. The Blue Cotton Gown is about women's stories, each different yet all held together by common elements, each told with sympathy and loving attention that bears witness to the inevitable pain, the loss, the fear that comes with being human, whether we are the nurtured or the nurturer. "The patients, me included, are all the same under these blue cotton gowns," Harman thinks, disrobing before the surgery that will remove her cancerous uterus. "Naked and scared."

Yes, naked and scared. This is not an easy book to read, in part because it is so utterly unformulaic. I could not predict how any of the stories were going to turn out. Would Caroline's baby die, nearly strangled by an umbilical noose? Would Kasmar's transgendering bring happiness, would Nila make it through another pregnancy, would Holly's daughter start to eat again? Would Harman's practice—and Harman's marriage—survive or go under? Every story held me with its urgency, but the stories were sometimes so honest, so ruthlessly real, that I had to put the book down and look away—and then come back, when I could breathe again. This doesn't happen to me often as a reader. When it does, I know I've found a treasure.

"Some women are born to be midwives," Harman says, and some women are born to midwife the stories of others. Patsy Harman is both. Read The Blue Cotton Gown. It is your story, too.

Patsy Harman, CNM, has published in The Journal of Midwifery & Women's Health, as well as alternative publications. She is a regular presenter at national midwifery conferences. "With women for life" is her philosophy. A Story Circle member, she is the mother of three sons, and lives and works near Morgantown WV with her husband, Tom. Visit the author's website.

Check out our interview with the author of The Blue Cotton Gown.

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