Film’In Utero’

Last night I went to see a film ‘In Utero’ ( which is part of the Transitions Festival in Adelaide.   I was expecting it to be about the development of the embryo in utero, and I was hoping I might find some resources to support what people who lost their mothers at birth, know in their very being.   I studied Embryology when I was a medical student in the 60’s, and in those days it was all about the development of the physical structure of skeletal framework and musculature and organs from different layers of the fertilised egg.  Since then electronic microscopes, new imaging procedures, and the studies of neuroscience have shown us so much more about this development.   The write up for the film led me to believe I would learn so much more, and the film did show more than I learnt in the 60’s, but not more than I have followed in the new developments in medical science since I was a student.  But it gave me the voices of more people than I knew who support the same understanding of the enduring effects into adulthood of life in the womb.

The organisers of the event invited Ian Gibbins, a retired embryologist and neuroscientist Professor from Flinders University to address the audience before the film, and he invited people to speak to him afterwards.  He said he thought some of the views expressed were controversial, and some were not supported by science!

There were a number of psychiatrists speaking from their learnings in understanding the ‘self’ and their experiences of working with many troubled clients.  Gabor Mate was one of the voices I detected before we ever saw his face; that was unexpected and excited me. I know his work addresses intergenerational trauma and early childhood experiences of trauma and he has an understanding of the biochemistry of addiction informed through education and his own early experiences.

Other expert speakers used archetypes and mythology to describe the journeys of some clients as being birth, or return to womb experiences.  They talked about modern superheroes, Alice in Wonderland, The Little Mermaid and the film the Matrix and gave explanations of the hero’s journey and the internal battles being about birth, and the battle for control between mothers and children.  Perhaps these stories are useful to some clients, but they are a bit hard to sell to scientists who rely on what they can see in microscopes or medical imaging.  So I thought perhaps this was what Gibbins may have trouble accepting.  It did not convince me, but at least I remain open to the idea that it might help the therapists using these stories, and one would hope, some of their clients.  After all, I eventually made peace with my own past through the use of story that included mythology.

There was talk about ‘imprinted memory’, as opposed to ‘conscious memory’ and one psychiatrist did the analysis of ‘The Matrix’ in terms of each person not understanding he is plugged into his own ‘imprint’.  For Neil the moment of unplugging from his imprint is the moment of facing his initial trauma, and the fear of it makes him want to be numb again, to replug – and he wants his fake life back.  His fake life is the one he is living as he represses the implicit memories that are trying to break through.  While I really never have managed to watch the Matrix right through (I avoid scenes of violence and loud noises – which I sometimes think may be related to my mother being involved in a car crash while she was pregnant with me), I suspect this may be some sort of explanation of the young happy adoptees who eventually face the breakthrough of ‘implicit memories’ of the real early influences in their lives, and those who continue to maintain adoption has no impact on them, while they act out the anger of the early traumatic loss and stress.

I did not let that analysis detract from the main message of the film; that how we as societies treat pregnant and  birthing women affects the life time of the developing human, and determines what sort of society we become; that world ecology begins with womb ecology.

I was disappointed that I did not learn much that I had not known before coming to the film, but I had the names of authors of some interesting sounding books, and those resources are here ( for those who want to follow them up.

After the film I approached Gibbins.  There was no one else approaching him so I went for it.  I said I enjoyed the film, although there was nothing new in it for me.  But I was disappointed that the issue of separating mother and child at birth such as is done in surrogacy arrangements and adoptions was not addressed.  I would like to know of any research he knows about around the issues of this separation.  He began the sort of diatribe I remember using when I was a secondary student and faced with a question I could not answer.  I just threw in everything I could that was related to the topic and hoped the examiner would find something in there to give me some marks.  But I expected something more from a University Professor, even just the honesty that it has never concerned him would have sufficed.

Every now and again during a long ‘lecture’ he addressed me and said he was getting around to the answer.  By now about a dozen other people had gathered around, but were not saying anything.  I waited a while, a few other comments were made and they seemed to support the connection of mother and child, and the evidence that there is learning in the womb.   I tried to bring him back to the question, and asked about imaging in neuroscience that shows the brain activity that indicates a reduced production of dopamine and other neurotransmitters, but by this time he was digging his heels in; there was no evidence of learning in the womb.  Babies might hear, but don’t learn.  According to him all learning is after birth and is social:  most chemicals including cortisol do not cross the placental barrier.  He almost said exactly what I learned in the 60’s – that nothing crosses the barrier except oxygen and other gaseous exchanges.  He did say there was no evidence that cortisol crosses the placenta (therefore the embryo/baby would not be stressed by the experiences of the mother yet the evidence for this was the premise of the film).  He proffered as proof of his oppositional  statement that if you want to give a chemical to an embryo, injecting it into the mother was not sufficient to get it to the baby – it’s been tried and it just doesn’t work.  I didn’t want to engage in a long argument here – the theatre staff wanted us to finish up, but I would like to suggest that injecting a ‘foreign chemical’ into the mother, which her system may want to excrete quickly, is not in any way comparable to the mother’s normal hormonal and chemical responses to stress in her environment.

A few other people spoke to me afterwards.  A man asked me if I had heard of ‘Breath Work’.  He is a ‘Breath Worker’.  He knows people re-experience early life experiences in therapy.  Yes, I knew that – there is a long history of techniques that connect people to their own ‘implicit memories’ I could agree (though of course this can be dangerous for a client who is not prepared, and with a therapist who does not have a lot of experience and knowledge of what he is working with).  But this man seemed to understand.  I made a statement about what we know from isolating babies in humidi-cribs, and how their survival was better if their mothers were present with them, and a woman said she had been in a humidi-crib in those days of isolation, and I asked if she experienced depression or grief at the loss of her mother at that time.  She nodded and looked distressed.  I said we know better now.

We know these things because we listen to people’s experiences.  Experiences are data when gathered together and can inform research projects to give us more insights and new theories to test.  Why do we have a society that generally does not want to gather this information?  Whatever has already been done is ignored as if there is some powerful force trying to keep control of the way things are done at present, by people too afraid to face their imprints.  Or is it just plain greed by people who can profit from continuation of the way things are working for them?

Spurred on by the obvious support I had from those who were lingering, I had the final say before I left.  I suggested to Gibbins that he has a look at last week’s episode of ‘Insight’ and ask himself what it is that drives people who say they have had good adoptive parents to always feel ‘different’ , and to want to find their birth families to understand themselves.  His thesis of – it’s all social learning after birth depending on how good or bad the parenting is for the child, does not hold up.  He said he sometimes wonders how he would feel if his mother told him there was a secret and he was not related to his parents.  I had a quick answer for that – Coming from the privileged position of knowing your parents, you cannot conceive the situation of those without that privilege.  There were approving nods among the lingerers, and I had the feeling I was not the only one removed from ancestry.  And I left wondering how much involvement he has had with the surrogacy movement supporting the ‘blank slate theory’, or whether his experience as a man make him completely unable to conceive of the possibility of a strong connection between mother and child that is not broken by the birthing process, and  cutting of the umbilical cord.

Great film.  Poor quality discussion afterwards.  Enough to get  me to return to writing for my blog which has not happened for a long while.


About sofie gregory

I'm an adoptee; co-founder of the group IdentityRites - peer support and advocacy for adoptees.
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