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Saturday, July 02, 2005

Barbarians at the Gates

Brooke Sheilds, in yesterday's New York Times:
I WAS hoping it wouldn't come to this, but after Tom Cruise's interview with Matt Lauer on the NBC show "Today" last week, I feel compelled to speak not just for myself but also for the hundreds of thousands of women who have suffered from postpartum depression. While Mr. Cruise says that Mr. Lauer and I do not "understand the history of psychiatry," I'm going to take a wild guess and say that Mr. Cruise has never suffered from postpartum depression.


I never thought I would have postpartum depression. After two years of trying to conceive and several attempts at in vitro fertilization, I thought I would be overjoyed when my daughter, Rowan Francis, was born in the spring of 2003. But instead I felt completely overwhelmed. This baby was a stranger to me. I didn't know what to do with her. I didn't feel at all joyful. I attributed feelings of doom to simple fatigue and figured that they would eventually go away. But they didn't; in fact, they got worse.

I couldn't bear the sound of Rowan crying, and I dreaded the moments my husband would bring her to me. I wanted her to disappear. I wanted to disappear. At my lowest points, I thought of swallowing a bottle of pills or jumping out the window of my apartment.


Since writing about my experiences with the disease, I have been approached by many women who have told me their stories and thanked me for opening up about a topic that is often not discussed because of fear, shame or lack of support and information. Experts estimate that one in 10 women suffer, usually in silence, with this treatable disease. We are living in an era of so-called family values, yet because almost all of the postnatal focus is on the baby, mothers are overlooked and left behind to endure what can be very dark times.

And comments like those made by Tom Cruise are a disservice to mothers everywhere. To suggest that I was wrong to take drugs to deal with my depression, and that instead I should have taken vitamins and exercised shows an utter lack of understanding about postpartum depression and childbirth in general.
Tom Cruise's comments were, as Joel Sax points out, just another example of a religious extremist's contempt for science. To say that more and more I attribute to Christian fundamentalism the same amount of respect I grant to Scientology or Astrology is not a stretch -- while individuals may find some truth in these things, it all just sounds like so much superstitious hogwash when you start trying to use it to determine public policy. The Ten Commandments is no more appropriate to a courthouse lawn than Roy Moore out there swinging a chicken over his head.

Bully for Brooke Sheilds. Talking about post-partum depression and admitting that she wasn't an instant Jiffy Pop mother risked bringing down on her head exactly what it did -- the wrath of religious extremists who would judge her decision to admit she almost wound up in Andrea Yates land. Brooke Sheilds' courage may have saved some lives and eased a lot of suffering.

My Roman history teacher Anne Sherrill once said that the Romans defined a barbarian as "he who destroys what he does not understand." Maybe Tom should spare us all the next Mission: Impossible remake and go straight for Atilla the Hun, a role he might actually have some passion for.