By Svetlana Satchkova
Anna Starobinets is a Russian journalist, novelist, screenwriter, and children’s book author. Her only book of non-fiction, Look at Him, is coming out in September from Slavica Publishers in Katherine E. Young’s translation. It was originally published in Russia in 2017 and caused an extraordinary public discussion. In Look at Him, Starobinets describes how, in 2012, she found out that the baby she was carrying had a congenital condition incompatible with life, and how, following a dehumanizing experience with the medical system in her own country, she had to travel to Germany to terminate her pregnancy and to receive grief counseling – a thing practically unheard of in Russia at the time.
The incredible outpouring of outrage and vicious criticism that followed the book’s publication is perhaps explained by the fact that it was the first of its kind: in Russia, it’s still the norm to keep silent about one’s grief. I spoke with Anna about her book in order to better understand why it had created such a scandal and what changes in medical practices it had helped bring about.
When did you come up with the idea of writing this book?
The thought first occurred to me when I spoke to a psychologist in Berlin and I saw all the books she had on her shelves about losing a child, in many different languages. I guessed that there were no books of this kind in Russian, which later proved to be true. After I terminated my pregnancy, I felt a need to absorb somebody else’s experience that was similar to mine, so I read a couple of books in English, but, even though my English is pretty good, there’s still an invisible wall between me and a text in this language. That’s when I started seriously thinking about writing about my own experience – I felt that it was my social mission. After the book came out, the most benign criticism I received was that I’d written it in order to sublimate my suffering and to dump it onto other people. I have no idea if there’s any truth to this accusation: you never know where the subconscious is concerned. But I can tell you that that was not my conscious goal. I felt that I had a duty to change the world using the only power I had – the power of the written word. My overarching goal was to break the silence, and I also had some smaller goals. For example, I wanted the doctors who had behaved unprofessionally towards me to stop working with women. That’s why I decided to use their real names.
Have these micro goals been accomplished?
Partially. One doctor I’d written about left his job. I don’t know if my book was the reason, but I know for certain that his reputation suffered. The clinic he’d worked in also organized a training session for their staff with the purpose of teaching them how to deliver bad news to pregnant women. I know that the director of one large private clinic in Moscow made all the obstetricians and gynecologists on his staff read my book. Also, some time later, a hospice was founded in Moscow for women who are pregnant with babies with congenital conditions. There, the women can receive medical help, no matter what decision they ultimately make.
I feel that we have to explain to American readers why everything that has to do with obstetrics and gynecology in Russia carries so much violence towards women. What are your thoughts on that?
There are historical reasons for that. In the USSR, a spartan outlook on life was widespread and almost official: only the strongest were supposed to survive. If you were weak, you couldn’t be a part of the great Soviet system. If you were in pain, you had to keep a low profile. This spartan ideology was curiously fused with even more ancient concepts. For instance, childbirth was considered to be a punishment for pleasure: if you’d been with a man, you had to bear the consequences. A woman in labor wasn’t supposed to cry out in pain and ask for special treatment, more so because this whole sphere was viewed as obscene and dirty, connected to blood and slime. All of that had come from the depths of a conservative peasant mentality. A lot of traditional cultures hold similar views, but in developed countries these have been replaced by modern-day values.
In Look at Him, you write about coming to a state women’s clinic in Moscow together with your husband for a consultation and him not being allowed inside. Why do you think men are barred from entering these clinics in Russia?
This, of course, is true only of state clinics [vs. privately funded – PL] that are still under the influence of old Soviet traditions. It was believed that no woman who had any sense would want her man to see her under those indecent circumstances where she gave birth or underwent a gynecological checkup. And if, for some reason, her man would actually want to be there with her, he’d embarrass all the other women, because he’d see them in this awkward indelicate situation: he’d know that, in a couple of minutes, they’d go in and spread their legs in front of a doctor. Presumably, men were and are barred from the clinics to protect the women.
As a result, Russian men are often separated from women’s experiences. When a woman loses a baby, her own husband often tells her to forget about it as soon as possible. Why do you think most well-wishers in Russia are so bent on making you forget about your loss instead of live through it?
Because we still lack the language to talk about it, and most people, medical professionals included, don’t realize that to talk about your pain is much more therapeutic than to keep silent about it. Paradoxically, when they tell you to forget, they are being helpful. If you don’t talk about it, they believe, the thing will just disappear. For example, my relatives told my 8-year-old daughter not to talk to me about the baby I’d lost, and I was stunned by her silence. I kept wondering if she didn’t care about what happened, and then I found out that she was trying to protect me.
What are your views on psychotherapy? There’s still a lot of prejudice against it in Russia.
Speaking abstractly, I’m all for it, of course. But I’ve encountered a huge number of ignorant and unprofessional psychotherapists in Russia. Finally, I got lucky – I did meet a great psychologist after a long while. The thing is, there isn’t a system in place that certifies therapists and makes sure that if somebody shows you a psychotherapist’s diploma, they are adequately trained to treat you. Anyone in Russia can take a three-month course, call themselves a therapist, and start taking clients.
Let’s talk about the scandal your book caused. How did it develop?
First of all, no publisher wanted to publish my book: they were scared of the subject matter. When it did finally find a home, I was worried that people wouldn’t buy it and that my work would turn out to have been for nothing. When Look at Him was ready to come out, journalists became very interested in it, and fragments of it appeared in various media outlets. I began to read the comments, and my hair stood up! There was so much hate: people were insulting me, saying that I was a disgrace to my country and that I should go and live in Germany if I liked it so much. The commenters also said that our doctors were not overly emotional, but that they had hearts of gold, and that I was demonstrating my dirty bloody underwear. I was shocked. I’d been preparing for a backlash from the medical community, but I’d thought that regular people, especially women, would be on my side because we were all patients, we all had similar experiences with our medical system. It turned out that I’d been mistaken: regular women were my most violent haters, and those who’d lost their children were especially vicious. In the public space, at least: privately, I received hundreds of messages where other women shared their own stories and thanked me for writing about what nobody else wanted to address.
What happened after the book came out?
It sold out in a month, and additional copies had to be printed. Most journalists reacted positively to it, but I would say that fifty percent of regular readers reacted negatively. Then the book was nominated for the National Bestseller award. I knew the people who worked on the committee and was on friendly terms with them: I’d been on the jury several times over the years, and we’d met at various literary events. Those people were outraged by my book too. When it was shortlisted, the judges who were supposed to make the selection among the books on the shortlist violated ethical norms by lashing out against me publicly. Which is ironic, because the book is about ethics, among other things. For example, Aglaya Toporova who is a journalist and who’d lost a three-year-old daughter, wrote a review of my book (you can still see it on the National Bestseller website) where she called my baby a fragment of my body and my book socially dangerous. What most of these people held against me was that I was, in their opinion, trying to capitalize on my grief.
Here, I have to explain to the American audience that the money one makes in Russia as a writer is laughable, and these people knew it perfectly well because they were part of the book industry. At first, I didn’t understand what they meant, but soon it dawned on me: they meant that I was trying to become famous by demonstrating my dirty underwear. The bottom line was that I lost a lot of friends after the book had come out. Fun fact: I live in the same building with a family of writers, and we used to be very friendly. Now, they behave as though I don’t exist.
How did you feel while all of that was going on?
It hurt a great deal, of course – I’m a live human being. But I’d accomplished my goal, and that made me feel better. The public discussion I’d been hoping to start not only happened, but turned out to be huge. My book was everywhere. I remember, someone said during that time that if you turned on the tap at home, Anna Starobinets and her book would start pouring out.
Did the doctors you’d mentioned in the book try to reach out to you?
Their friends and acquaintances did. They tried to shame me: how dare I tarnish the image of those great people? A lady from the clinic called me about Dr. Demidov, who’d brought fifteen students into the examination room without my consent, while I was lying there naked with my legs spread out, and proceeded to talk to them about the “interesting pathology” as though I wasn’t there at all. The lady said that I’d lied in my book. I said, okay, what did I say that wasn’t true? That Demidov hadn’t brought the students into the room? She said that she didn’t doubt that he had, but that I’d written that I had to buy plastic overshoes while those were free of charge at their clinic! I just laughed. I asked her if she wanted an official retraction where I’d say that the clinic confirmed all the facts except for overshoes, and she said no.
Did you get any positive feedback?
There appeared a couple of publications by medical professionals who thanked me for my book and said that everything I’d described in it was true and needed to be changed. And, as I’ve mentioned, I received a lot of personal messages with words of support from women who’d experienced something similar to what I’d gone through. But the overall situation still seemed to me sort of crazy, because the medical community reacted mostly positively, and most of the regular readers were scandalized.
I know that Look at Him has been made into a theater production. Tell me about that.
Roman Kaganovich, a young theater director from Saint Petersburg, wrote to me and said that he’d read the book and that it had changed his outlook on life. He wanted to adapt it for the stage, and the idea seemed plain crazy to me, but I liked him so much that I agreed. In a few months, I came to see the production and was absolutely blown away by it. It was incredible: the actors sang and danced, and the show was not only poignant, but also very funny – I would say it had elements of burlesque. It turned out to be very entertaining and, at the same time, very true to the spirit of my book. It was about personal grief and the Kafkian absurdity of our medical system. Roman said that during the very first performances the audience had been silent the whole time, and he realized that people had been afraid to laugh because the theme was so serious. So, he started saying before every performance that it was okay to laugh – and people started laughing.
Do you think you’ll write any more non-fiction?
I won’t. When I started writing Look at Him, I did it knowing that it would be my only non-fiction book.
First of all, I’m an active Facebook user, and I post on my page whenever I feel like sharing something of my life. Secondly, I love to make up my own stories and to create my own reality – I do it not just for the money, but because it brings me joy. For me, a book of non-fiction isn’t a creative act, but rather community service. I write speculative fiction and horror fiction for adults, and I’ve been writing a lot for children. I have a very popular children’s book series that’s called Beastly Crime Chronicles and that’s been translated into several languages. These are crime mysteries that take place in a forest, and all the characters are animals. There are two detectives: a middle-aged Chief Badger and his assistant Badgercat, who’s undergoing a personal identity crisis. This is my most successful project to date: it’s being made into a cartoon and a show for the stage.
You also write for film and TV. How do you manage to do so many things at once?
I have catastrophically little time: I work a lot. I have two kids; my daughter is a teenager, so she doesn’t care about spending time with me, but my son is five, and he really misses me. But I love writing – it’s the only thing I know how to do. Screenwriting is basically the same thing – you’re creating a story. It differs from fiction writing only in some technical aspects.
I read your Facebook on a regular basis, and I remember reading about a trip you made to China because you needed some material for a novel. What was that about?
I’m writing a novel for adults, and it takes place in 1945 in Manchuria. I’d tried to research online, of course: I didn’t want to go to China at first because I had to spend my own money, and the trip took a lot of time and effort. But I finally realized that I had to go there because I couldn’t feel what I was writing about. I had a feeling that I was writing while wearing thick rubber gloves, and that nothing would change if I didn’t go there.
Why didn’t you just change the place?
I couldn’t because there’s a story behind this novel. In 2008, my husband Alexander Garros [Alexander Garros died in 2017 – PL] and I wrote a script for Russian Channel Two. It was a 20-episode fantastic series that took place in Manchuria in 1945, with demons and werefoxes – a mix of historical truth and mythology. For two years, we lived off the money they’d paid us, but they never actually produced it because the 2008 crisis happened, and the story was really expensive to make. They thought of it as the Russian Game of Thrones. To this day, it hasn’t been produced, and possibly never will be. This gnawed at me for years because I really liked the story and I wanted it to be realized in some way, so I started to talk the producers into giving me the right to write it in the form of a novel. It took a long time, but finally they gave in. This is really ironic because when you’re a writer, the most money you can hope to make is when you sell the screen rights to your novel, and in this case it’s already happened. So, I’m only doing it because I want to tell the story. When you’re writing for the screen, however, you don’t really need a lot of details, but with a novel, you need to dive into the atmosphere. I couldn’t travel back in time to 1945, obviously, but I needed at least something – to see the landscapes, the faces that populated the land, to smell the smells, things like that. Sometimes I teach creative writing to teenagers, and I always tell them the same thing: write what you know, otherwise it won’t sound true. This is especially important in science fiction or fantasy. To make the reader believe you, you need to be true to life in every possible detail, then they’ll believe in werefoxes and demons, too.
This interview was conducted in Russian and translated by the interviewer Svetlana Satchkova.
Anna Starobinets is a writer and scriptwriter. She writes horror and supernatural fiction for adults, and also fairy tales and detective stories for children. Awarded with several Russian and European literature prizes, her books have been translated into many world languages.
Her website is: https://starobinets.ru/eng/
Svetlana Satchkova is a writer and journalist from Moscow, Russia, who currently lives in New York City and is working on her MFA at Brooklyn College. Her new novel People and Birds is coming out from Eksmo in September.