Paul Solet’s 2009 film Grace can be tough to watch for several reasons. It deals with an unconventional zombie story: a baby that dies in utero comes back to life after her devestated mother delivers her and wills the dead baby to live. The lengths to which mother Madeline (Jordan Ladd) goes to ensure that her child remains alive are indeed horrific. However, the true horror of Grace isn’t the zombified child. It’s the discomfort endured in the experience of stillbirth, from the debate of maternal care to the delivery of the dead child to the instinct to carry on in the face of nature that becomes the true horror story.
|This film is a difficult watch for me.
A hot-button issue of the pregnancy experience is the rate of Cesaeran section and induction, and Solet doesn’t shy away from an issue with which many women struggle. Madeline is adamant that she wants to deliver away from a hospital setting, which is perfectly safe in the event of a normal, uncomplicated pregnancy. However, Madeline’s meddling mother-in-law Vivian (Gabrielle Rose) loudly voices a differing opinion, which tends to happen when a baby is involved: the notion that the expectant mother must surrender all medical decision-making in the name of her child. After experiencing chest pain, Madeline is taken to the hospital, where her Vivian sends family friend Dr. Sohn (Malcolm Stewart) to care for her without the young woman’s consent. Sohn recommends immediate induction (and implied C-section) after fearing preeclampsia; once Madeline’s midwife Patricia (Samantha Ferris) arrives, all hell breaks loose. Patricia walks in to find a group a medical professionals attempting to forcibly restrain Madeline while she is screaming that she doesn’t want to be induced. She then demands to see Madeline’s bloodwork and asks for other symptoms, diagnosing a gall stone that would give her child the additional 9 weeks in utero that would give the baby a better start in life. Seeing as a full-term pregnancy occurs at 37 weeks, the baby undoubtedly would have to spend time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Issues for preemies include not only an immediate stay in the NICU with ventilation assistance, but the possibility of issues later in life as well, including learning disabilites (as a former teacher, I can vouch for that) and sensory perception issues. Patricia is clearly looking out for the best interests of the baby, and fights for Madeline to have a say in her medical care as well. Make no mistake, the notion of having your right to make medical decisions for you and your child ripped away from you by people that refuse to acknowledge your wishes during your own birth process is terrifying. Its inclusion is something that women experience every day in the world of childbirth: doctors that tune out your wishes in favor of what they feel is best, or, in some cases, is the most convenient route that avoids a lawsuit. And that decision-making is often challenged with one guilt-trip inducing line: “You don’t want anything bad to happen to your baby, do you?”
Then there’s the birth itself, or rather, the stillbirth. Stillbirth is something that many people would be happy to pretend doesn’t exist. No one likes the thought of a dead baby, and yet Grace not only treats this with sensitivity and respect, but stares directly at it in all of its sorrow-inducing glory. Grace refuses to look away at something many of us don’t want to think about. The birth scene is short but intense: we see Madeline laboring; we hear her screaming, as many before her have labored and screamed. We see comforting hands. We hear the rallying of the doulas and assistants. We hear them trying to get her through this biological process. And then we hear the silence, the lack of a baby crying, which is the absolute worst terror a parent can experience in the delivery room. We see the look on Patricia’s face as she hands her former lover her dead child, and the way that she orders suction for a baby that everyone in the room knows is not breathing so that she can treat the baby like every other child she delivers. Without saying a word, without adding violins or a single-note sequence on a piano, Solet drives home how terrible this silence is. It’s everything that we don’t want to face: it’s the quiet when there should be a loud, joyous noise. We see the blood and the pain of labor, but we don’t get the reward. There is nothing cute screaming at the end of it. There’s no laughter, no erasure of what’s been endured. There are no happy tears and introductions of mother and child. There’s only more pain and misery, and all we can do is sit there on our couches and stare, empty, at this woman cradling a dead child that she wanted more than life itself. Worst of all, it forces us to admit that this is a reality for women, despite that we have high-tech ultrasound equipment, advanced blood work, C-sections and NICUs. For all our advancement, some babies are born dead, and there is not a goddamned thing we can do about that.
|Admit it, you wanted this baby to cry.
Madeline’s story is one that is all too common for women. She’s gone through infertility in order to get pregnant. At the beginning of the film, sex has no joy for her: it’s a chore, and we watch her hopefully hold her legs up in an effort to conceive. She’s had two miscarriages and considers this pregnancy to be a miracle. Seeing as 10-20% of all known pregnancies end in miscarriage, as well as the staggering amount of women that need to seek out fertility treatment, we have either gone through this ourselves or know someone who has. If I’m being frank, I’ve experienced both infertility and miscarriage, and I can assure that there are no words in the English language that adequately describe how utterly powerless, humiliating and painful of a hell it truly is. To watch Madeline means that she is a proxy not only for me, but for many other women I know, and I’m not even counting the grieving fathers in this. On top of it, we also get the bullying process of birth in a hospital setting (oh the stories I could tell there). It could stop there, but Solet keeps punching. We are forced to confront an even worse reality when we already sympathize with this poor woman that just wants to be a mom: we see her baby’s stillbirth. We see the crushed look on her face, the sense of failure she feels, the abject agony of loving something so much, enduring physical hardship, then not getting the miracle that somehow, something was wrong with the tests and the baby was actually alive. And we don’t want that. We don’t want to see that. We want a happy ending for her. We want to see a cute baby nuzzling and suckling its mother. We want to hear it cry. We want there to be a reward because we can sympathize with her, and every indignity – every time she’s been talked over, every piece of heartache she’s endured – should have its reward. We don’t want to admit that we have taken those moments in our own lives for granted. We want more for her because we can’t bear the thought of it happening to us. We don’t even want to entertain how we would react to someone handing us a dead child after giving birth. Some things are too horrible to put into words.
|Can’t watch this without tearing up.
In this light, Grace becomes a horror story long before we get to the realization that this child needs blood to survive. It’s horrifying long before Sohn and Vivian are murdered. It’s more than we can bear before our titular child has taken a hunk of flesh from her mother. Grace speaks to that which we don’t want to admit is there: the harsh reality that when we attempt to become mothers, we stop being people with voices and start being public property that is debated without our input. This film represents the pain and anguish we endure to have our children. And it is the lurking fear that not all of us will achieve maternity with a live, crying child. It is the darkest, most primal fear, and we are afraid to whisper it, let alone look it square in the eye.