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The Surprising Comforts of Dead Ringers

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty

In the first episode of Dead Ringers, which stars Rachel Weisz as twin gynecologists, we see the two doctors deliver various babies. A close-up reveals one twin using forceps to pull a protruding baby out of a vagina, while the other twin slices open a woman’s uterus with precision, prying her stomach skin back with forceps and extracting a baby from the patient’s body. Sounds of skin tearing, women laboring in grunts and screams, and splatters of blood dripping from vaginas and C-section lacerations echo throughout. At the end of the scene, we are left examining an enormous gooey pool of blood seeping over the hospital floor and staining the doctors’ white sneakers.

At the first touch of scalpel to stomach, I closed my eyes, shielding myself from the carnage. But as I peeked through my fingers, checking to see if the horror had passed, it dawned on me that despite having a 4-year-old son, I had never watched anyone give birth. During my wife’s delivery, I saw bodily substances I had never imagined: dirt-colored amniotic fluid, pus, and a concerning amount of blood that, just like on Dead Ringers, created a pool on the floor. While I was by my wife’s side for her emergency C-section, smelling burning flesh and hearing the sloshing of suctioned fluids, I remained on the other side of the sheet. I never actually saw the main event.

How was it that I, a woman with extensive fertility and pregnancy experience, hadn’t witnessed childbirth until it was presented to me on a fictional television series? Suddenly, I was concerned with how easy it had been for me to avoid. I rewound the first half of that Dead Ringers episode and watched the entire series wide-eyed. Then an odd shift occurred: The horror I’d thought I wanted to hide from started to feel like comfort.

Dead Ringers introduces the Mantel twins as representatives of competing ideologies. Beverly, the “Pollyanna” twin, wants to create a medical environment where people feel safe and supported in the process of childbirth. Elliot, the cynical one, is more interested in building a lab where she can figure out how to delay menopause (potentially forever), grow babies outside of wombs, and perform fertility experiments on willing participants. Complicated ethical questions in this series are not resolved with simple answers. But the audience isn’t left wondering if fertility, pregnancy, and birthing are gory and hard-core. And while Dead Ringers is certainly graphic, I did not find it disrespectful of people who have birthed or of their bodies. Rather, it is so authentically gruesome I have to wonder if watching this series may inspire people to feel empowered to take more agency over their own bodies in medical settings. And if medical professionals are watching, maybe they’ll gain more empathy for their patients and begin viewing them as people rather than dollar signs.

As I watched the series, my own body and brain were finally starting to settle out from eight months of fertility treatments, which concluded in an eight-and-a-half-week pregnancy, a miscarriage, and a dilation-and-curettage procedure, a technical name for an abortion. Like Beverly, the twin trying to conceive through fertility treatments, I found myself curiously examining the blood clots dispelled from my body and was rattled by the lack of bodily control. Although our fertility processes differed, I was soothed by watching Genevieve, Beverly’s love interest, assert with the conviction of a thousand dykes that she was going to impregnate her girlfriend. While not organically possible, she, like her lesbian foremothers, got it done — in their case, using an at-home sperm insemination. My fertility regimen was less intimate. It included three rounds of intrauterine insemination (IUI is the procedure where they “simply” shoot sperm into your uterus and hope for the best), an egg retrieval involving a barrage of hormone shots and daily pills, and a round of IVF, the one where they surgically place a fertilized egg into the plushest part of your uterus.

The entire process was unexpectedly painful for me — physically and mentally — but because none of the medical professionals around me said anything except “You’re doing great” and “This might pinch,” I assumed I was exaggerating my feelings.

The egg retrieval was particularly haunting. It was recommended to me that since I “tolerated IUI well” I should undergo the egg retrieval sans anesthesia. Looking back, I wonder what tolerated well meant. Maybe it meant I wasn’t crying during the procedure, didn’t wince too obviously, or said “I’m okay” when professionals asked how I was doing midway through their inserting a two-foot-long intrauterine-insemination catheter into my cervix and uterus. Had I seen what it looks like when a patient feels safe enough to ask for their needs to be met, the way some do on Dead Ringers, and for a doctor to be open enough to acknowledge that various pain-management avenues are available, maybe I would have thought more seriously about my options. Or maybe if I’d watched the procedure beforehand, I could have felt more prepared for how much it ended up hurting.

In the surgical room, I lay with my legs open and strapped into stirrups. A thin sheet spread across my lap acted as a vanity blanket. Everyone was in full surgical garb, monitors beeped, and yet I was wide awake. “This will pinch,” the doctor said, thrusting a thin needle through my ovary. I audibly gasped. It was a punchlike puncture, nothing like a pinch. I panicked, knowing he would have to jab the needle through my second ovary. My heart monitor beeped faster. “Are you doing okay?” he asked — as if it mattered. He pushed the miniature vacuum around my ovary, sucking out eggs. Each time he pushed the vacuum to a new egg, I winced. He worked delicately and slowly, and I tried focusing on a constellation of green lights on the ceiling while practicing deep-breathing exercises. I looked at the clock. It had been approximately five minutes, and they estimated the procedure would take 20 in total. I did not want to be awake.

In retrospect, I’m reminded of another sequence from the first episode of Dead Ringers. A Black woman has just given birth, but after realizing there have been complications, her flustered husband asks for swift medical intervention from the nearest doctor. While not a medical professional, he knows something isn’t right with his wife. Beverly, at the mercy of the busy New York hospital and all of its bureaucratic drama, tries to step in — only for another doctor to shoo her away. The woman eventually dies hours after giving birth, and all that remains are her bloody sheets. The hospital moves on, but the Mantel twins can’t.

Watching someone ask a doctor for help only for their complaints to go largely ignored, while they’re being made to feel like the situation was perfectly fine, felt eerily relatable to my own experience with fertility treatments and my wife’s complicated delivery. As devastating as this scene and the everyday reality of it are, it was comforting to see the clear gaslighting and curtness of professionals played out onscreen. Often I have felt as if my questions about treatments and procedures have been brushed off — or worse, I’ve been made to feel as though I should just shut up and listen. The scene was uncomfortable yet validating.

Dead Ringers presents these dark moments as integral to understanding the current health-care system and connects our present-day accepted horrors to the sordid history of the obstetrics-and-gynecology field. A character reminiscent of Dr. J. Marion Sims (the American “father of gynecology”) is introduced, and the audience learns that, in the 19th century, he experimented on and tortured Black enslaved women without their permission, anesthesia, or painkillers. By the time the series introduced this historical information, I did not feel desensitized to the grisly details of childbirth and fertility treatments. Instead, I felt angry that I had no working knowledge of a field that so closely affected my life. I might not have constantly second-guessed myself if I had better understood the history of baked-in silencing and disregard for pain and bodily autonomy.

If I had known the brutal history of fertility treatments and the OB/GYN field, I likely would have felt more empowered to make a different decision about my own body. Watching Dead Ringers didn’t change my medical history, but it did illuminate several harsh facts surrounding fertility, pregnancy, and birthing experiences that mainstream media have largely ignored. If I had known the truth, I might have asked for what I wanted and gotten what I deserved.

The Surprising Comforts of Dead Ringers