The Lady and Monstrous Eyes: The Violence of Childbirth, Female Death, and the Post Mortem Gaze

*This blog has been updated to reflect the correct founders of Death and the Maiden!

Dead bodies cannot give consent. When a person dies, their next of kin must honor their wishes (if they have been recorded in a legal document, such as an Advanced Directive) according to the law. However, it is rare that a general member of the public has all of their paperwork in order in preparation for their most often untimely death, and so their wishes become problematic when they may have been expressed but not recorded; in these cases, most horrifically displayed in the cases of some transgendered men and women, the next of kin does not have to honor the dead’s wishes. The next of kin can display the body as whatever gender they wish, in whatever outfit they wish, in whatever make-up they wish, and they can choose to cremate or bury, ignoring their loved one’s wishes if these wishes are not written verbatim in advance.

Cisgendered dead woman have also been subjected to this violation of consent, and it has been well recorded and documented throughout history, by the titillating accounts of medical “theatres,” the specimens and wax models in museum exhibits, and literature. This theme of consent being ignored unfortunately follows the pattern of consent given by women while they’re alive, and by that I mean that sometimes a woman does not give consent, and she is violated regardless. I’m choosing to focus on cisgendered women in this post specifically because of the connection between three things: cisgendered women, childbirth, and death.

I just returned from my first ever Death Salon, an event that focuses on Death Positivity, or in other words, talking about death so that one is able to better accept their mortality, be better prepared for their own death (as much as a living person can be), and understand the fragility and sacredness of life. This event was hosted at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, and it was organized and executed (he-he) by the Order of the Good Death, whose famed members include Caitlin Doughty, Megan Rosenbloom, and Sarah Troop.

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The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.

Ms. Troop co-runs the blog “Death and the Maiden,” with Lucy Talbot. The two ladies founded the blog together to “examine the relationship between women & death by sharing ideas & creating a platform for discussion and feminist narratives.”  A couple of months ago one of my posts was kindly featured on their site. I explored how death gives women power because of the innate nature of the way women both bring life to the world and end it, for each child they birth will grow up to die. Yet this relationship is of a fragile nature, and can be corrupted and taken away from women by those around them. I’d like to explore more of this relationship here, specifically in regards to how female corpses are treated after death.

One of my coveted purchases from the Mütter Museum included a book by Roseanne Montillo called The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece, which examines the real-life origins and inspirations that led to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Dissections of women were common throughout history; perhaps you can even speculate that they were fetishized, because women possessed something other, something that men, their dissectors, did not have, and that was the vagina, fallopian tubes, and the uterus, and the capability to grow and nourish a baby. And though this is a natural, beautiful quality because it produces life, childbirth is an intense physical and at times (okay, let’s be honest, it’s most often always) a violent, blood-soaked experience. It is also tied to something innately tragic, for childbirth has been a historically dangerous endeavor for both woman and child to endure. This danger persists today.

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Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died at thirty-eight soon after giving birth to Mary’s sister. Her midwife, frustrated that she could not remove the placenta, promptly left, and a male doctor, Dr. Poignand, was called to the house “several hours after the baby was born.” Shame on that midwife! Upon his arrival, Dr. Poignand greets the exhausted Mary Wollenstonecraft with a few “disparaging comments about delivering a child without the aid of a male physician nearby,” (because that is what you say to an exhausted new mother), and then he promptly “rolled up his sleeves, raised the dampened sheets that covered [her] sore body, and, without latex gloves, inserted a hand between her naked legs. Slowly, the doctor removed Mary’s placenta piece by bloody piece, pushing his dirty hand several times within her vagina.”

The violence that Mary Wollenstonecraft endures at the hand of this impatient male doctor is for naught; a piece of the placenta remains in her uterus and festers horribly, causing her death a few days later.

With the myriad of dangerous outcomes that can accompany the birth of a child, dissecting young mothers who were recently deceased was certainly no rarity for budding anatomists. In fact, some of them relished in the opportunity. Roseanne Montillo describes in The Lady and Her Monsters how in 1521, the well-known Italian anatomist and professor Jacopo Berengaria da Carpi recounted to his anatomy students his dissection of a dead woman’s placenta in a public demonstration, much to their horror. His account tells of how he held this dead woman’s placenta aloft “before almost five hundred students and our University of Bologna and also many citizens.” This is Berengaria’s prize, his trophy. It is not unlike the beautiful hide of an exotic animal that is splayed in the blood-stained hands of a proud hunter. His account continues:

“The viewers were riveted as the professor brought the woman’s entrails out of the rib cage toward the open air. He seemed to find nothing odd in what he was doing; to him, the anatomist was not only someone poking the flesh and prodding the innards of a corpse, ‘but a philosopher who investigates the secrets of nature.'”

Or a man who violates a dead woman without her consent, or treats her body with disregard because her body is only relevant when the child is within it; when the child is born, the woman’s body can be explored and manipulated with gruesome vigor.

I found this to be the case in a particularly disturbing illustration that I witnessed during Dr. Robert Hicks’ talk at Death Salon. Dr. Hicks is the Director of the Mütter Museum, and he focused his presentation on the idea of the “post mortem gaze,” which is the privileged gaze that the living possess when they view a specimen, a corpse, or a photograph of the dead, and what the nebulous responsibilities of having such a privilege might entail. It is a privilege that has become relevant in our media as of late due to the massive portrayal of dead bodies, mostly non-white bodies and specifically African American bodies. There are all kinds of gazes, as Dr. Hicks mentioned. The male gaze. The female gaze. The white gaze. All of these gazes have their own privileges and implications.

Let me return to the post mortem gaze, and the post mortem gaze on the female body:

image courtesy of Aida Manduley, who live-tweeted during Dr. Hicks' presentation.
image courtesy of Aida Manduley, who live-tweeted during Dr. Hicks’ presentation.

I am referring to the illustration on the left hand side of the screen, that of a woman who has just given birth and the eight voyeurs surrounding her. All eyes are on the babe, while the woman is ignored. She lies on the table, exhausted, her stomach hanging open like a tent flap. A man with quite a large saw, presumably her ‘butcher,’ leans on the woman’s stomach, shutting her out of the privileged view of gazing at the babe.

This image was so striking to me, for it speaks to a post mortem gaze that oscillates between one of mutilation and fetishization. A woman’s body becomes altered by childbirth, but this illustration demonstrates that alteration to the extreme; she is already like a corpse, being dissected for all to see.

Childbirth is unique in that it is one of the few “surgeries” or “dissections” that occur when the patient is awake and alive.

I witnessed further evidence of the fetishizing nature of the post mortem gaze first hand, during my time visiting the exhibits of the Mütter Museum. Many of the glass cases featured wax models of bodies and body parts alike, as wax looks realistic and behaves like skin. Interestingly, Dr. Hicks pointed out that historically, wax models of women were often eroticized; their hand is positioned to twirl their hair, or their gaze looks upward in a doelike, sexy way.  These ‘come hither’ females are wax models with their entrails dipping out of them, and yet they are portrayed as seductive, as if to entice the living to curl up beside them…

This fetishization continued, I noticed, with the museum’s extensive exhibit of unusual fetal specimens. Conjoined twins. Fetuses with enormous tumors, or born without part of their skull, or with their innards spewing out of them. The study of such fetuses as this, Dr. Hicks explained, is called “teratology,” or, the study of monstrous births. Today, it is stilled referred to as teratology. Monstrous. Monsters. Yet these are human children, with genetic abnormalities that are not due to their “sin” or to their mother’s behavior, or to some other unforeseen curse, but by chance, and we call them monsters. Again, this is another example of women, and by association, their offspring, being viewed as other, as alien, as monstrous. This exhibit, I noticed, and it’s no surprise, is the one which seduces the post mortem gaze most effectively, and I found myself unable to resist. They are so intriguing, these poor little beings, and they are displayed in glass cases for us voyeurs to view them in all of their horrific, tragic otherness that was not of their doing.

I wondered about their mothers. I wondered if their mothers had died during their births, and I wondered, whether they had lived or died, if they knew that their children were being placed on such display. Due to the nature of how the museum was founded, and the time that these specimens were acquired, the answer is most probably no: these mothers would not have wanted their children here, and they would have never given their consent. As Dr. Hicks said, the museum would not exist in all of its post mortem glory if it had been created today.

The post mortem gaze, however, is also a gaze of mourning; it can be used to honor the dead and to respect their life. This is the purest form of the gaze, and thus, the hardest to obtain.

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