Book Review: Get Me Out

Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank, by Randi Hunter Epstein

review by Shelby Burns

There are too few times when I read a book and realize I will miss the voice of the author in my head when I’m done. It’s like I’ve lost a good friend. I will miss this book and I will miss Randi Hutter Epstein.

This improbable page turner is a survey of women’s reproductive history in America over the last few centuries. It’s an amazing journey. The relevance of the book is found in how women’s issues, reproductive knowledge and rights mirror the changing social mores and values of the country. Can you believe, there was actually a time when feminists championed general anesthesia during labor as a woman’s right and the doctors who denied it were sadistic? It was the culmination of doctor distrust, access to information and a new generation of women who insisted on being heard and were learning how to use the media. It’s a tempest and there are many to be found on these pages.

The great fun of the book is found in Dr. Epstein’s writing style and the richness of her research. While she sings the praises of the amazing ovum, the largest and most complicated single cell in the human body, she unrelentingly reveals the less than impressive performance of the sperm. Here’s one of my favorite passages:

“From a woman’s perspective, a successful marriage of sperm and egg is like dating on a microscopic scale. There are so many losers out there. Most eligible sperm are inept. Some straggle. Some go the wrong way. They’re all slow.” It’s light, it’s witty, and it’s a pleasure to read an historic, medical, health, social history with this much cheeky comedy. All oxymoronic to my mind.

From a woman’s perspective, a successful marriage of sperm and egg is like dating on a microscopic scale. There are so many losers out there.

She starts Get Me Out with Adam and Eve and quickly progresses to the 17th and 18th centuries. You’ll learn about the rise of male obstetricians and the fall of female midwives. There is a must read section on the contribution - most likely unwilling and hideously painful - of slave women to life saving advances in obstetrics.

Dr. Epstein has included the development of the first maternity wards and the advent of twilight (etherized) birthing. There is an excellent chapter on DES and how that horrific episode in medical bumbling unfolded. There is a section on the C-section (no, not named after Emperor Caesar -- and neither is the Caesar salad I also learned from her fabulous footnotes) and some shocking statistics on the percentage increases in this type of surgical delivery just over the last fifty years.

She includes a small part on the Freebirthers, women who espoused no medical help or intervention during delivery at all. Then she explores more contemporary trends in birth including the multi dimensional sonogram viewing rooms in shopping centers, replete with “Having my Baby” background music to sperm shopping and egg freezing.

Again the footnotes included in the body of the book are occasionally supporting stories, sometimes funny anecdotes and often times have nothing to do with the subject matter at all, but are of such interest that they had to be included, as in the Caesar salad bit mentioned above.

Nowhere does she pass judgment, but you do know Dr. Epstein’s opinion by the time you finish a chapter. It’s not hard to fall in love with this book. It’s personal and historical. I learned as much about my own body as I did about the medical practice at the turn of the century. How many books can do that? Like I said, I will miss her.


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