On a motherless, motherful Mother’s Day, filmmaker Judith Helfand reflects on what she has learned on both sides of the camera from her mother Florence (of Healthy Baby Girl fame), who died this past September.
That saying – “Every day is Mothers Day” — whoever said that was right. Every day that I care for my new daughter, I want my mother even more. Why did I never think to record my mom taking care of my nieces and nephews, just doing the basics? I would give anything to see how she holds and consoles a screaming baby. I am dying to know what little songs she sang or games she played while diapering. What was her technique for getting a good “greps” (burp in Yiddish) from a baby full up on formula and not interested in burping? When did she start reading aloud to us and what was the first book? These are the things this new mother needs to know!
Three weeks ago motherhood was still an elusive dream. My plans to adopt were on “pause” since my mom’s death. But that all changed in a matter of hours. I was on my way to a Passover Seder I’d been dreading, our first family seder without my mother and my father, when I got a phone call from Forever Families Through Adoption, an agency I’d been working with for the past four years.
But I have been thinking about adoption seriously – daily, in fact – for the past 24 years, ever since my diagnosis with clear-cell adenocarcinoma at 25, and the subsequent radical hysterectomy that saved my life. The cause of this rare and very lethal cancer was my in utero exposure to the synthetic hormone mimicking chemical DES (diethylstilbestrol), a drug my mother was prescribed when she was pregnant with me in 1963.
Considered to be a “wonder drug” and “the best prenatal care money could buy,” this synthetic estrogen was prescribed to five million women in the United States between 1948 and 1971. DES informed and deformed my life and irrevocably changed my relationship with my mother and father in complicated and unimaginable ways, which I began following and exploring with my video camera.
In February 1990, as a 25-year-old woman at the beginning of my social change filmmaking career, my dream was to work on films that were political, urgent and socially relevant. I longed to be a real activist, in the middle of it all, which in my mind meant I had to go far away, theoretically if not literally, from my middle class Jewish family in Merrick, Long Island. We were average consumers who had enough resources to do what we needed to do, pursue a good public school education, go to college. I wanted to focus on and make films to support people, workers and movements engaged in real social justice struggles. Little did I know that I would soon be lying in a hot bed of struggle – with my mother and father as my comrades in personal filmmaking – in the very bedroom I grew up in.
At home healing from my hysterectomy, I decided to make the camera a witness to what my family was experiencing. Though the real blame lay with the pharmaceutical companies who had manufactured and distributed the drug, my mother couldn’t help but feel that my cancer was her fault. Our relationship was tested in ways I never could have imagined and we experienced the kind of guilt, stress, anger, pain and mourning that does not come with a map, a memo or a navigator.
And yet it was there, from the other side of my camera, while I struggled to make sense of what it meant to be “barren” and “sterile” and uterus-less at 25, that my mother taught me the most about parenting and the lengths one will go to protect, or at least heal, her child. It was here that she truly taught me about motherhood. And for this I will forever be grateful.
In many ways it was both a gift and a relief to translate my own grief and pain into a fully documented and scientifically sound story that could help reframe the discussion around toxic chemicals to include families and emotions. My mother and I, and our DES story, helped place extreme love and parenting at the very center of the toxics discussion rather than at the periphery.
On one level, the camera helped me push my mother to remember that the DES was not her fault and more importantly that we were not alone with this problem or this pain. Though she was wary of being on camera at first, she ultimately relented because she understood that filming us was what I needed to heal. She even learned to use the camera herself. Over the five years it took for me to shoot A Healthy Baby Girl, her shooting got better, steadier and became downright solid. Still, there was always a bit of resistance, which I could usually undo with a very long and loving “Maaaaaaaaa…” I was beginning to understand that her resistance was connected to a bottomless well of grief and guilt, pain and remorse that I could not shake, change or talk her out of. Despite how much she honestly offered of herself on camera, I still felt distanced from these feelings. I was afraid of her darkness.
There is one scene in A Healthy Baby Girl where I finally meet her resistance, her darkness, the bottomless well of pain, face to face for 11 minutes in a hallway outside of a hotel conference room in Boulder, Colorado. Two and a half years after my diagnosis, my mother and were meeting there with other DES cancer daughters and mothers. They had asked me to show the work-in-progress trailer for A Healthy Baby Girl. My mother hadn’t seen any of the footage yet. While she was putting on makeup before the meeting, I reminded her we were running out of time for us to look at the footage together, just the two of us. She said, “It’s OK, I’ll watch it with everybody.” Next, we see my mother sitting with a group of mothers and daughters around a television. I put in the tape and within seconds of seeing her face on the screen my mother runs out of the room. I run after her, not realizing that I still have a wireless microphone on and that it’s recording. Our voices echo in the hallway. My mother is sobbing, “Why does everyone have to see our pain? I can’t watch it, I can’t go through it a second time. I’m really a very private person!” Then, “You can use my voice, but don’t use my face.”
A few days later, on the plane on our way home, my mother turned to me and said, chuckling, “I guess you can’t use my voice without my face.” Over the next four years and beyond – as we completed the film, staged a world premiere at Sundance, had the honor of a national broadcast on POV – my mother still struggled with what it meant for us to share our DES experience publicly. For me it was natural, and I needed to do it. For my mother it was difficult. And yet over time she wrote personal testimonies to members of congress lobbying for a new bill about DES education and research, she answered questions at Q&As, she accepted interviews by the press and even became the first mother to accept a Peabody Award on behalf of their child. At the ceremony she made a public statement linking our DES exposure to current toxic/chemical issues and their impact on the healthy development of the next generation.
She stretched for me. She pushed herself to see our damages as more than the private pain she truly held onto for the rest of her life. And yet she never fully let go of her guilt. Many years later, she apologized to me for the DES damages. A few days later, she died.
My mother’s voice – her resistance as much as her parenting of me, somewhat muffled and very familiar from across our dining room table – became a core part of A Healthy Baby Girl and all of the films I have made since — its sequel Blue Vinyl, its threequel/epilogue Ek Velt: At the End of the World and most recently a New York Times Op-Doc titled “Love and Stuff,” which is the last film my mom will “star in.” Over 20 years, key lessons about extreme love, parenting, motherhood, relationships and the lengths we go to hold on to our kids, heal our kids and push them to grow were offered directly to me, jump-cuts and all, around our very own dining-room table:
Facing my first motherless Mother’s Day this year, I decided to re-release the first film starring my mother, A Healthy Baby Girl, on iTunes. I also decided to turn the footage I’d filmed during my last weeks with her into the Op-Doc for The New York Times. I thought these projects would give me a way to memorialize my mother and also get through my first Mother’s Day without her. It was while I was knee-deep in preparations for both of these projects that I received the call from the adoption agency. I had four hours to say yes to a healthy baby girl who would be born the next morning and within four days I welcomed Theodora Helfand into my own home, becoming a mother myself.
In many ways it’s taken 20 years of filmmaking to be a mother. Each step of my filmmaking life, each step of my evolution as woman/daughter/filmmaker and now mother, my mother was teaching me lessons from the other side of the camera. She prepared me to be a mother who will have to listen to what my daughter needs. And yes, it has occurred to me that she might need total privacy! Or perhaps she will want to tell her side of the story. And I will tell her, “OK, you can use my voice and my face. Whatever you need.”
Oy… what I have to look forward to!
And of course I will tell her all about her grandma, her Bubby Florence. Happy Mothers Day, Mom. You are with us. I feel you and I successfully got the baby to sleep in my arms as I type this very last sentence.
Judith Helfand is best known for her ability to take the dark worlds of chemical exposure, heedless corporate behavior and environmental injustice and make them personal, highly-charged and entertaining. Her films include the Sundance award winning Blue Vinyl (co-directed with Daniel B. Gold) and its Peabody Award-winning prequel A Healthy Baby Girl, as well as Everything’s Cool, also co-directed with Gold. In 2007 she received a Rockefeller Media Fellowship and a United States Artist Fellowship, one of 50 awarded annually to “America’s finest living artists” and more recently a MacArthur grant for her current film-in-progress COOKED — an exploration into extreme heat, extreme disparity and the politics of “disaster”.
As much a field builder as she is an independent filmmaker, she co-founded Working Films in 1999 with the late Robert West where she currently serves as a Senior Strategist. In 2005 she cofounded Chicken & Egg Pictures with Julie Parker Benello and Wendy Ettinger, where she currently serves as Creative Director. Her favorite Chicken & Egg maxim most used during mentorship: “Your problem is my problem — I just haven’t had it yet”. With her Chicken & Egg hat on Helfand was Producer on the Oscar-nominated 2014 Dupont winning short The Barber of Birmingham, and Executive Producer for the award-winning films Brooklyn Castle, Semper Fi: Always Faithful and Private Violence, which just had its world premiere at Sundance 2014.