Here are the circumstances of my birth. My mother, who hadn't planned me and in fact was on the pill when I was conceived, didn't realize she was pregnant for four months. Her labor was excruciating, lasting 63 hours, and when the doctor tried to break her water, he found there was none. Only one in three million babies goes without amniotic fluid, but I beat the odds. This of course spelled trouble; it was feared, among other things, I would have no kidneys and would be severely deformed.
Next, I tried to come out sideways, but for some reason the obstetrician forewent a Caesarean, electing instead to spend seven hours turning me before plucking me out with forceps. The last thing the doctor told my mother before she went under anesthesia was that she should "expect a monster."
Nevertheless, there I was in Sigalit's kitchen in the Mill Basin section of Brooklyn, and I didn't like what I was hearing. "What happens to people as they approach a rebirthing session usually reflects their actual birth experience," said Sigalit, my rebirthing therapist, as she served tea. We were waiting for the others in the group session to arrive. "For instance," Sigalit goes on, "I just got a call from a woman down the street who's bringing her husband. He's still in bed and doesn't want to get up, which means as an infant he probably didn't want to leave the womb!"
I snickered, but I wasn't terribly sympathetic. I had worked out my birthing experience--so I hoped--by parking the wrong way on a one-way street and getting a ticket, and I still managed to get there 15 minutes early. "Others are probably delayed because of construction on the Belt Parkway," Sigalit said. "Maybe they got stuck in the birth canal."
An hour later, the latecomers and I were huddled in the basement. Sigalit put on a soft New Age tape, and we opened with meditation "to quiet ourselves and become fully present." Then we said our names, how we were feeling at that moment, and what we hoped to get out of the seminar. Of the 12 gathered, it turned out only five were students; the others were rebirthers (two students failed to show, stillbirths, presumably). Sigalit, I learned, is a drug and alcohol counselor who had come from Israel 13 years ago. She got interested in rebirthing to overcome fears of giving birth herself.
Sigalit's co-leader, Frederico Pina, now informed us that every thought and experience we have is "recorded in our cells." Unfortunately, as much as 97% of the 60,000 to 70,000 thoughts we produce daily are negative. Most we repress to get by. "Negative thoughts are like drops of black ink added to a vase of water," Frederico said. "Each drop makes the water darker and darker. Breathing clears the ink out, like adding a cup of fresh water."
Rebirthing therapy, it turns out, is only incidentally about re-entry into the world. The real point of the exercise is breathing, a lot of it, to flush out our repressed traumas--and the number one trauma is birth. "At birth, we go from this warm, safe place to being pushed into a cold, noisy, bright world," explained Frederico, "where a stranger in a face mask separates us from our mother, turns us upside down, and smacks us on the rear end. No wonder many of us develop an aversion to authority figures."
Frederico and Sigalit took this quite literally. They distributed a four-page, single-spaced list of personality traits that different birth types engender. Children born by Caesarian may feel in adulthood they can't do things for themselves and have a "fear of/fascination with knives." Breech babies live with guilt and a fear of hurting people they love. Late-birth babies are inclined to be tardy grown-ups. An infant that had the cord wrapped around its neck may show a "tendency to sabotage self" and "hate anything around the neck." Infants placed in incubators may develop a "fascination with machines." "Ever wonder why drugs were so big in the '60s?" Frederico asked. "Because after World War II, hospitals started using anesthesia, so a whole generation grew up feeling they had to be numb when they underwent change."
For the group rebirth, Frederico showed us how to inhale and exhale deeply, without pause--"one continuous, circular breath." This we would do for an hour. "Don't worry if you have strange sensations," he said. "You may feel cold or start twitching. That's normal. And don't fight any thoughts or memories, however unpleasant. Release them, and remember you're in a safe place."
Not everyone is entirely safe. A 10-year-old girl died last year during rebirthing therapy intended to help her bond with her adoptive mother. The girl, Candace Newmaker, was wrapped in a blanket with both ends tied to simulate the womb. She screamed more than 50 times that she couldn't breathe, but therapists pushed against her with pillows (labor contractions), urging her to struggle her way out to be "reborn." After the 70-minute videotaped session, the blanket was unwrapped and Candace was found lying in vomit and excrement. She died of asphyxiation at a Denver hospital the next day. The therapist now faces charges of child abuse and Colorado has outlawed the technique.
Frederico and Sigalit assured us they were of the gentle, no-touching school, but I was still a little nervous, I guess. Sigalit had us arrange our blankets so all our heads faced the wall and our feet were in the middle of the room. "When we come to, we'll all be in an alien spacecraft trailing the Hale-Bopp comet," I murmured to the woman next to me. She looked perplexed. Then the lights went out.
Once we had the breathing rhythm down, the sound was otherworldly--eight or nine sets of lungs panting simultaneously in the dark, like a moment out of the "Blair Witch Project" or a really perverse phone call. Huffing and puffing, I thought, how can I sustain this for an hour? What if I hyperventilate? More important, I found, was not to let myself focus on the silliness of the scene. I feared I'd burst out laughing.
Eventually, unexpectedly, my arms and legs began to tingle. Waves of energy swept over me. I felt great. The sound of the others' breathing gradually receded, and I felt light, like I could float up off the floor.
Vivid memories came flooding in. I was in Europe, reliving exhilarating moments from my backpacking trek across Spain a few years ago. First, I was hiking the Pyrenees, taking long strides and gulping tons of fresh air. Then I was crossing the vast wheat fields of the mesata, not another soul for miles, just me and the wheat under a huge blue sky. A woman in the room started crying, but I didn't care. I was far away, having a ball. A cell phone rang, snapping me from my reverie. I ignored it and kept breathing.
Next I was in my high school friend's basement, getting stoned and laughing. A voice whispered, "Breathe, John, breathe. You're alive, you exist!" It was Sigalit, kneeling beside me. "I'm fine, girl," I thought. "Don't worry about me."
When Frederico's voice gently brought us back to earth and I opened my eyes, I felt refreshed. Frederico came over to me. "Did you feel like a monster?" he asked, a little expectantly. I was tempted to tell him I had been through hell there on the floor. I guess I had wanted more out of the experience. Luckily, when Sigalit came up to ask me how things had gone, I answered that it was actually quite pleasant. "I know," she said. How? "It's my job to know."
When I got home, I called my mom, who recalled my birth. "When I came to, I'd fully accepted that you'd be this torn-up freak of a thing," she said, "but you looked like a perfect angel." I thought about rebirthing myself into a wheat field in Spain and into a basement stoner's session. I had beaten the odds again.
To contact John Spalding, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.