‘Dead Babies and Seaside Towns’ reviewed by Dr Fiona Johnstone

‘Dead Babies and Seaside Towns’ by Alice Jolly (Unbound, 2015)

51DTeRJ0Y6L._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_Alice Jolly’s memoir Dead Babies and Seaside Towns is a timely attempt to address the double taboo of stillbirth and infertility, ‘to talk about the dark things, to tell the stories that don’t have a happy ending’ (Jolly 2015, 74). The narrative is easily summarised. The stillbirth of Laura – the author’s ‘dark red, bony, beautiful’ second child – is followed by a catalogue of reproductive losses: four miscarriages, two failed cycles of IVF, and a series of thwarted attempts to adopt. Finally, a live baby is conceived from a donor egg, born to a gestational surrogate mother in the United States, and brought home to England after a complex set of legal negotiations that establish a precedent for other international surrogacy cases. Weaving together these interconnecting and overlapping aspects of reproductive health – stillbirth, miscarriage, IVF and surrogacy – the thematic and intellectual reach of Dead Babies and Seaside Towns extends significantly beyond that of other recently published memoirs of stillbirth, such as Elizabeth McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination (2009) and Elizabeth Heineman’s Ghostbelly (2014).

The first half of the book is a compelling account of how it feels to inhabit the shadowy world of dead babies, a ‘silent and shuttered place’. Unaware of any present-day frames of reference for stillbirth, Jolly initially experiences her daughter’s death as anachronistic, ‘Victorian, archaic’ (p. 46); frantically searching the hospital corridors for her missing child, she is conscious her actions contain ‘something of the Victorian lunatic asylum’ (p. 43). She later realises that her story is devastatingly contemporary; logging on to the web-forum for Sands, the UK’s stillbirth and neonatal death charity, the author finds herself in ‘the bleakest area of cyberspace […] an unending world of loss, hundreds of stories, hundreds of comments, hundreds of photographs, hundreds of Dead Babies’ (p. 46).

The author’s lived experience constitutes a catalogue of the ‘intangible costs’ of stillbirth, which include stigma, social isolation, and disenfranchised grief (Heazell et. al. 2016: 606). Jolly describes herself as ‘the pregnancy leper, every woman’s worst nightmare […] the carrier of plague and death’ (p. 302); her friends say the wrong thing, or worse fail to say anything at all, and are subsequently ‘condemned without trial’ (p. 75); acquaintances ‘see death’ in her eyes and hurry away (p. 76). She attends support groups and meets with other bereaved parents, but the only useful insight that she gleans is the importance of waterproof mascara.

Subsequently multiple miscarriages are dreary rather than dramatic, involving monotonous, repeat visits to the hospital, measuring, waiting: ‘Nothing we can do. Come back in two weeks. Another two weeks. We’re not quite sure. Let’s wait and see. No heartbeat. No, I’m sorry. Nothing we can do’ (p. 91). When she looks back on her diaries, the author is shocked by how little she has written about these early pregnancy losses; miscarriage is a peculiarly unspeakable type of bereavement despite its commonplaceness (around one in five confirmed pregnancies are thought to result in miscarriage); as Jolly notes, it is this very ordinariness that makes it so devastating (p. 115).

Jolly is a writer by profession, and this is evident in her considered approach to her material. ‘Grief is a disastrous subject for a book’, she notes, ‘It is slippery, episodic, repetitive. It lacks shape, or landmarks, clearly defined paths’ (p. 60). Her response to this is to press her grief into chronologically linear form; she is aware that the non-linear literary narrative is ‘all the fashion’, but for her this signals only mental disintegration (p. 89). Actively rejecting the use of luscious sentences or precisely tuned phrases, she explains that the style must fit the subject matter; it would be an insult to offer her dead daughter ‘mere literature’ (p. 41). Writing is a psychologically complex undertaking, an act of love and a way of ‘raising the dead’, but also a technique for imposing order on her loss and allowing for its compartmentalisation: a book ‘has boundaries, edges, it comes to an end. You can open it when you want – and shut it again’ (p. 326).

Many reviews – including The Lancet’s (Boynton 2016) – have focussed on Dead Babies and Seaside Towns primarily as a stillbirth memoir (and thus of practical value to midwives, obstetricians and other health professionals, or scholars interested in experiences of pregnancy loss); it would, however, make an equally informative text for researchers interested in the emotional and ethical complexities of assisted reproduction. The author experiences IVF as invasive – ‘like rape’ (p. 146) – and illogical: lying in a hospital bed, numb with drugs, she recognises the absurdity of ‘a woman who is perfectly healthy but who has chosen to make herself ill in the pursuit of something she can’t have’ (p. 149). Jolly clearly feels that she was coerced into a procedure that had little chance of success; she accuses the doctors at the private fertility clinic of exercising ‘power without responsibility’ (p. 153), and argues that the industry should be better regulated to protect potential clients who are, in her experience, often gullible, desperate, and vulnerable to exploitation.

The difficult subject of international surrogacy is dealt with sensitively and intelligently. Jolly attempts to understand the various issues at stake for the different parties involved, including the egg donor, the gestational carrier, herself and her husband (the ‘Intended Parents’) and finally, the hoped-for future child. She attends conferences organised by the Donor Conception Network and browses websites for surrogates, discovering that the reasons for undertaking this particular form of reproductive labour are multifaceted and highly individual. Commercial surrogacy is currently banned in the UK, so the couple hire a surrogate mother based in America. They choose the States (‘where we hope people are less likely to do things just for money’) so as to avoid the ‘moral complexity of India or the Ukraine’; whilst the surrogate’s motives are accounted for primarily (although not exclusively) in altruistic terms, Jolly remains uncomfortably aware that this is ‘something poor women do for rich women’ (p. 276).

She ultimately chooses to define surrogacy in feminist terms as a process through which ‘women are genuinely trying to help other women overcome the pain of infertility’, although in the final analysis she is equivocal as to whether or not commercial surrogacy should be made legal in the UK, suggesting that since, like ‘abortion, mercy killing, prostitution’, surrogacy ‘will happen anyway […] why not create a proper legal framework to safeguard all those involved?’ (p. 405). This ambiguity notwithstanding, the contextualisation of surrogacy in relation to a lived experience of infant loss and infertility means that Dead Babies and Seaside Towns has much to offer public debates about the ethical and legal complexities of this highly emotive issue.

The Lancet has recently identified stillbirth as the last great taboo in women’s and children’s health. Globally, 2.6 million women per year experience the death of their babies in stillbirth in the last trimester of pregnancy or during labour. In the UK alone, seventeen babies are stillborn every day; according to the RCOG’s Each Baby Counts Campaign up to half these could be prevented with improved antenatal or intrapartum care. The Lancet identifies ‘the stigma that impedes women’s voices’ as one pervasive barrier to stillbirth prevention (Froen et. al. 2016: 575); memoirs such as Dead Babies and Seaside Towns can perform an important function in ensuring that women’s stories are listened to, acknowledged, and learned from.

The text itself is largely silent on the question of why stillbirth and miscarriage remain uncomfortable, unspoken topics. My own hypothesis is that these are still conceptualised primarily as female experiences, and thus classified as of specialist or limited interest only. The author is to some extent complicit in this; her own husband is an enigmatic figure in the text, and in over four-hundred pages of writing only two other bereaved fathers are mentioned in any detail. The first is a twenty-two year old called Dave who the author exchanges messages with on a web-forum late one night. Dave’s son was stillborn three months ago; he works in the catering industry and has to hide behind the bins because he can’t stop crying. His grief is unrecognised by his family: his mother-in-law tells him not to waste his time visiting his child’s grave; his wife wants to try for another baby, but Dave cannot bear the thought of replacing his son. The second is an unnamed man attending a support session, ‘a blokey guy in a denim jacket, trainers, a crew cut and an earing’. Still in shock, he tells his story ‘like a man rehearsing a stand-up comedy routine’ (p. 247); although the group respond with dignity and compassion, it is clear that he is out of place in a realm dominated by women.

I suspect that Jolly’s memoir will be consigned to the category of ‘chick-lit’, and sadly, will possibly not find a large readership outside of a narrow demographic of people who already have first hand experience of the events that she writes about. If this happens it will be a great shame; Dead Babies and Seaside Towns enriches the discussion of stillbirth generated by The Lancet’s Stillbirths Series earlier this year, and offers an invaluable opportunity for readers to engage with pressing debates regarding surrogacy and other forms of assisted reproduction.

Reviewed by Dr Fiona Johnstone, a postdoctoral research associate in Art History at Birkbeck, University of London, and an Associate Lecturer in Cultural Studies at Central St Martins. She is currently working on two books, a monograph AIDS and Representation: Portraits and Self-Portraits during the AIDS Crisis, and an edited volume Anti-Portraiture: Beyond the Limits of the Portrait, both under contract with I.B. Tauris. Her interest in literary representations of stillbirth and infant death was prompted by the loss of her second child, Orla, in 2014.

Correspondence to Dr Fiona Johnstone.

You can follow Fiona on Twitter (@DrFiJohnstone) and view her academic profile here


Works Cited

Boynton, Petra. 2016. “Stories of Stillbirth.” The Lancet, Stillbirths Series, 387 (February): 525.

Froen, Frederik J, et. al. 2016. “Stillbirths: Progresss and Unfinished Business.” The Lancet, Stillbirths Series (1), 387 (January): 574–86.

Heazell, Alexander EP, et. al. 2016. “Series: Stillbirths: Economic and Psychosocial Consequences.” The Lancet, Stillbirths Series (3), 387 (January): 604–16.

Heineman, Elizabeth. 2014. Ghostbelly. New York: The Feminist Press.

Jolly, Alice. 2015. Dead Babies and Seaside Towns. London: Unbound.

McCracken, Elizabeth. 2009. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. London: Jonathan Cape.

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