Patricia Harman is a mother. She is a wife. She is a midwife. Now, she belongs to an elite group of writers who have written multiple memoirs. After the success of her first memoir, The Blue Cotton Gown, a story of the babies she helped bring into the world, Harman felt a need to tell her own story. Arms Wide Open, her newly released second memoir, is just that.
It is the story of how a young, hippie woman living on a self-sustainable commune, came to be an influential member of the medical community. I reviewed Harman’s book for Hippocampus Magazine last month, and she was nice enough to grant me an interview shortly thereafter. Here is our Q&A:
How different was the process of writing this book, compared to writing The Blue Cotton Gown?
My first memoir, The Blue Cotton Gown, didn’t start off as a memoir. I just wanted to tell the stories of the amazing patients I met in the exam room of the OB/GYN practice I share with my husband. Gradually, I realized I needed to tell more and I began to weave my narrative in with the patient’s. I decided to write Arms Wide Open because readers asked me about references to living in a rural commune in the Blue Cotton Gown. Aha! Thinks I. That could be another book! While The Blue Cotton Gown was written during the days that lived it, Arms Wide Open went back decades into my past. I had the advantage of having some twenty or so journals hidden in a box in the closet, that I’d kept, but not opened, all these years.
The first part of the book deals with your self-sustainable life in Minnesota, and the cabin in which you, Stacy, and Mica lived alone. There were times I would almost cry for you, it sounded and felt so difficult. Would you do it again? What did it teach you?
I currently live in on three acres of land with a vegetable garden, woods, fruit trees, a view of the lake, and all the modern conveniences, but I do sometimes wish we lived more rurally. Though subsisting without electricity, central heat, running water or a bathroom wasn’t fun at times, there was a simplicity and closeness to nature that I miss. I think what I learned from those times is “Moderation in all things.” We thought we could save the world being witnesses for a very pure life on the land, but we were so extreme it didn’t make sense to anyone.
Despite most of the book’s narrative happening at the tail end of the civil unrest of the 60′s and early 70′s, you manage to keep politics out of your story, for the most part. Was this difficult for you? Was that a choice you made consciously?
In the first draft I was more political and I consciously took some of that out; not because I wanted to hide my true beliefs, but because I felt it would date the book. When you finish a manuscript, you don’t know when it will be published. I thought, for example, if I wrote about the presidential election of 2008, the book would seem past tense by 2011. I did mention “the wars in the middle east” and how I felt about them, but that was a safe bet! Ten years from now, they will probably still be fighting. I also made it clear we believe that war isn’t the solution to the division of the world’s precious resources. I tried not to get on a soapbox and be preachy about the environment or to sound like I was giving a lecture.
In Arms Wide Open, you talk a lot about natural childbirth. Do you still embrace that concept so strongly? Why do you think there has been a return to those ideals as of late?
I embrace the idea of natural childbirth more strongly than ever. I don’t think everyone has to have their baby at home, but as much as possible, I would want for women and their partners to experience birth as it was meant to be, a simple, transcendent experience. Technology and medical malpractice lawyers have taken something precious away from us. Birth should be a feminist issue again and I think that is starting, partly because the C/Section rate in the United States is so out of control. 33%. That’s right. 1 out of 3 women now have their baby born by major abdominal surgery. Not the way things should be…..Don’t get me started!
Since you are a politically minded person, I’d love to ask your opinion on healthcare. Are we heading down the right road? Is universal healthcare attainable? And should it be?
The health care system in the US is in very bad shape. This year the Health Insurance Industry has made record profits as patients postpone surgeries because they can’t afford their big deductibles. Then there are the 46 million Americans with no health insurance at all. This, in the richest nation in the world.
We have a summer cottage in Canada and we get to know the locals up there and have learned so much about their national healthcare system. We are definitely supporters of some kind of universal health insurance in the US. It’s the strength of the insurance industry and the pharmaceutical companies that make reform difficult. Their propaganda have the American public so terrified of change, that even if it would benefit them, people vote against it.
Little by little, I believe things will get better. In the recent health care reform bill, just having young adults able to stay on their parent’s insurance plans until they are 26 is a help and there are other benefits to children. They can’t be denied coverage due to pre-existing conditions anymore. The Children’s Health Insurance Program (Chip) was extended and all health insurance plans must now provide immunizations and other preventive care for kids.
Finally, you belong to a small group of writers who have written two or more memoirs, will you do it again? Is there more you’d like to share with your fans?
Currently, I decided to stop milking my own life for stories before readers get sick of me. I’m working on a novel, set in the Great Depression in West Virginia. The heroine is an inexperienced midwife, a former suffragette and union radical, on the run, hiding out in the mountains. I imagine I will write about myself again, someday. I still have all those journals in the box and have had adventures that astound even me.