Ms. Thomas created and writes Call the Midwife, now in its 6th season airing on PBS.
I have no scientific studies to back me up nor am I credentialed in any form of psychology, but I believe that the most effective way to change a culture is through arts and entertainment. And within the arts and entertainment world, TV is the most likely to reach the most people.
I know you're thinking not PBS, you won't. And that's probably true. BUT Downton Abbey certainly did reach a huge audience. The first five seasons of Call the Midwife are available on Netflix with the sixth season most likely to be available on Netflix early next year, so it is easily available to a vast audience. By-the-bye, if you're interested in watching now but have missed the first five seasons, you could catch up on Netflix then watch the sixth on PBS online.
Call the Midwife is set in Poplar, a fictional district in London's East End. My first knowledge of the East End was from The People of the Abyss, Jack London's nonfiction account of the year he lived there -- 1902. The conditions then were like those in the worst of America's ghettos. Poverty, disease, violence, alcoholism, drugs, lack of education, substandard housing and/or homelessness.
By the late 1950's when Call the Midwife starts, poverty and all its attendant ills still thrived there and the people were dependent on charitable organizations for many services, including medical care. The first season recounts the experiences of Jenny Lee, a newly trained midwife based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, a real midwife who worked with an Anglican nursing order of nuns.
The characters are about evenly split between the sisters of Nonnatus House convent and the trained midwives who work for them. Most of the deliveries are made in the local women's homes, but over the years Nonnatus did open a small maternity hospital in Poplar.
Okay, with all this history of the mythical Nonnatus House, this is what I wanted to talk about.
We are buffeted and pummeled and generally knocked about by strident would-be tyrants who think they can convert us to their point of view with angry voices and defamatory pronouncements against their critics.
Someone once told me "the louder the voice, the weaker the argument."
In Season 6, Episode 3, Ms. Thomas has written what is, in my opinion the perfect example of this truth. There are no car chase scenes. No explosions. No gun, knife, or profane verbal fights. But the tension is palpable. And all the conflict any writing instructor asks for -- internal, interpersonal, and external.
Sister Ursula, the new autocratic Sister in Charge of Nonnatus House, continues to make changes in the way things are done there including plans to send Sister Monica Joan to the Mother House because she has dementia and, after all everyone must earn their position at Nonnatus House. Sister Julienne who has always effectively run Nonnatus House with understanding and tolerance is hobbled by her vow of obedience and will not question Sister Ursula's tyranny. Humanity vs. efficiency.
A young, part-Chinese, first time mother has to deal with her overbearing Chinese mother-in-law. Cultural traditions clash.
And the Maternity Home is being inspected by a government bureaucrat working with the Health Ministry to close neighborhood maternity homes in favor of larger hospitals. Better care vs. cost effectiveness.
Sister Ursula has mandated that each midwife is to take no more than 20 minutes with each patient so they can see more patients. Mrs. Chen wants her daughter-in-law kept in a stifling, closed room both before and after the baby is born without regard for the young woman's comfort. The bureaucrat is courteous but unimpressed with the maternity home's clean, professional, accessible facilities noting "all this for only four beds." The District Doctor explains that the people in the neighborhood have no transportation other than the bus to get to a hospital or doctor's visits, so maternity care in their own home or a local maternity home are their only reasonable options.
Sister Ursula's enforced time limitation causes one of the midwives to fail to pursue the new mother's and baby's discomfort and fairly mild symptoms. Mrs. Chen's insistence on keeping the room closed tight and the heater on, causes the baby to lose consciousness due to carbon monoxide poisoning. At which point she grabs up the baby and runs to the maternity home for help.
Where the government inspection is interrupted by the emergency and observes the prompt, effective solution of sending the baby and mother-in-law by ambulance to a regular hospital and the doctor and a midwife decamp to the substandard home to care for the new mother.
-- My down and dirty description of the action doesn't begin to convey the tension that I felt while all this was going on. Ms. Thomas' writing in no way spoonfed the audience or belabored explanations. She trusted us to recognize what was going on. To understand. --
The rest of the inspection is done with the bureaucrat accompanied by our beloved, but no-nonsense, plainspoken Nurse Phyllis. He's convinced that the maternity home should not be shut down yet, but, not unsympathetically notes that the shut down is inevitable sometime within the next several years. Times are changing.
Then Nurse Phyllis explains to Sister Ursula that her time limitation was unrealistic and led to the midwife not recognizing the dangerous situation of the Chen family.
The baby and new mother survive and Mrs. Chen explains that she was pregnant when she and the rest of her family had to flee during the Japanese invasion of their city. She had her baby on the road and had no way to keep it dry and warm. It died. She had only been trying to protect her grandchild.
-- By now I was in tears. Not just because Mrs. Chen had had her baby and lost it because she was driven from her home by war, but because women all over the world are still having babies and losing them because of war. --
Sister Julienne listens nonjudgmentally to Sister Ursula and joins her in prayer. Sister Ursula sees the error of her ways, apologizes to Sister Julienne, and leaves to return to the Mother House. Sister Monica Joan gives her a sweet and advises that too much penitence is prideful and even a penitent must eat. And Nurse Phyllis offers to drive her to the station. All to show that Sister Ursula is completely forgiven by those at Nonnatus House.
Humanity vs. efficiency. Cultural traditions clash. Better care vs. cost effectiveness.
And this is a heartfelt thank you to Ms. Thomas for her showing us how.