Mother Substance

by on Apr.12, 2011

Joyelle’s postabout the Sublime as Deformation Zone, (along with lots of what’s been going on here lately, e.g. necropastoral, ambient shame, etc) really resonates with my current project, which revolves around—& constellates from—the nonsteroidal synthetic estrogen Diethylstilbestrol (DES) that was prescribed to pregnant women through the mid-1970s under the false presumption that it would reduce the risk of miscarriage (not to mention “render normal gestation even more normal” and “make healthy babies even healthier.”)

A typical dose for pregnant women was equivalent to an intake of 700 birth control pills a day. DES was also used as a food supplement for cows, chickens, and other corporately farmed livestock–not only did it fatten the meat, but, conveniently, it chemically castrated the males. Notably, the FDA banned its use in chickens close to 20 years before banning its use in humans. Shortly after the initial synthesis of DES, male lab workers handling this “mother substance” (as it was christened by its discoverer, Charles Dodds, who had synthesized DES from a coal-tar derivative in 1938 at the University of London) began to grow breasts and become impotent (which Big Pharma fixed by hiring only female lab workers.) Dodds had intentionally forfeited his patent from the start, aware that the Nazis were conducting hormone research as part of their eugenics program, and wanting to protect against experimentation on women. He never expected DES would be used for healthy women, and (like Oppenheimer) he agonized over and regretted how the PCPs (patriarchal capitalist pigs) commandeered his discovery.  Nevertheless, Dodds was knighted in honor of his contribution to science, and served as Master of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries where his achievements were endowed with a stained glass window representing his “coat of arms.” Crowning this armor, emerging like Athena sprung from the head of Zeus, is a woman holding an open book revealing the formula for DES.

Permission granted by the Apothecaries Society: Photo courtesy of Caitlin McCarthy.

Permission granted by the Apothecaries Society: Photo courtesy of Caitlin McCarthy.

DES Daughters (female offspring of women who took the drug) became victims of the first transplacental carcinogen known to humans, sometimes developing a rare form of vaginal clear cell carcinoma—requiring the removal of their entire genital tract & all reproductive organs—as young as age 14. Potential cancer of the vagina, uterus, cervix, vulva, breasts, and ovaries perpetually haunts all DES Daughters since the carcinogenic medium installed during in utero chemical exposure can have a decades-long latency. Additionally, these daughters (I’m one of them) experience a variety of teratogenic effects resulting from their prenatal exposure: t-shaped, septated, mottled, and smaller-than-normal uteri; cervical hoods, adenosis, and other cervical deformations; increased miscarriage, infertility, preterm labor & ectopic pregnancy; increased risk for auto-immune disease; endometriosis and other nondiagnosable/untreatable (defaced) menstrual disorders, etc.

a DES uterus

It’s like we have 3 parents really, one of them synthetic: splitting & surging—as physical matter becoming a fetal body—alongside all the other “natural” stuff. Hybrid body, part “machine” (pharmaceutical), part organism. This indeed is sublime parentage, producing endocrinological disruption/dys-circuitry, an interior/invisible performance of cyborg femininity, plastic sensations at the meat core, non-alive therefore non-dying, embodied monstrosity. My uterus is just barely recognizable as a uterus; ultrasound techs are always shocked to discover that I managed to grow a baby in that thing. It’s a sublime uterus, dreadful & captivating & incomprehensible. Imagine the horror of those DES daughters who required removal of their vaginas. How do you remove a hole?

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Joyelle McSweeney

    Sarah, thanks for this, I’m moved and shocked. I’m also shocked by how closely the ‘deformation zone’ of the DES uterus maps up with the deformational sublime I was thinking my way through in the last post. So much to think about here, can’t wait to read your project. JM

  2. Ash Smith

    This is an amazing post, Sarah.

  3. David Wolach

    Agreed, Ash. Moving, indeed. Perhaps because I’m reading it at this moment, but your testimony here–a narrative that in part, it seems, seeks to complicate itself while articulating an oppressive covering and ensuing “normalization”–resonates for me with “Monster Terrorist Fag” by Puar and Rai. Your post radicalizes against its inverse, and so we who are participants here: it pushes against the cis-oriented marketplace of extracting narratives through interrogation and normalizing discourses as the surplus value for trading in marginalization (subjective testimony of what has been done to one, making this public document, or radical narrative “for us,” pushes against mechanisms of extraction and normalization). From Puar and Rai:

    “…we have seen how docile patriots…contribute to their own normalization and the quarantining of those they narrate themselves against.”

    Your testimony here–and your complicating narratives of the body, the affective narrative which is, Sarah, so deeply moving–pushes back against complicity and docility in re the “normal” body and surrounding cis-gendered abjecting discourses. Thank you.