The case for home birth

My decision more than two years ago to plan a home birth was a pivotal ideological and political choice. The actual labor was by far the most arduous experience I have ever put my body and mind through—and yet I emerged victorious on the other side cradling in my arms a precious son who had arrived when he was ready to greet the world. Although I acknowledge that not all women are candidates for home birth, I remain staunchly opposed to the societal encouragement of intervention-heavy hospital births. Birthing in the United States is regularly and systematically yanked out of women’s hands and thrust into the precarious grip of the medical establishment. Women are not readily encouraged to realize (and fight for!) their own vision of their own birthing experience. Instead, this great power, one that differentiates us from our male counterparts and unites us with the female population of much of the animal kingdom, is “managed,” “handled,” “messed with” and all too often relinquished. Saraswathi Vedam ’78 (“The Midwife,” Spring 2010) is a true inspiration and a very sane breath of fresh air in an environment that sometimes feels rather crazy. I am so proud to share an alma mater with this incredible woman.

Hilary M. North ’97
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Living a life of integrity, purpose and meaning has always been a goal of mine, and it was with joy that I read the Spring 2010 article highlighting the work of midwife Saraswathi Vedam in which she expresses all three. The quality of independent thinking evident in her life, and the practical and good results reported about her practice are what I associate with the Amherst community and are why I am thrilled that my daughter is a part of the Class of 2010.

I had the privilege of watching my mother give birth beautifully at our home to my sister, and I had the privilege of birthing my two children in a peaceful and loving environment the same way. What a wonderful legacy I had, and what a wonderful legacy Vedam is evidently giving to so many.

Kristin Powell Bennett P’10
Arcadia, Calif.

Say it ain’t so, Joe

Joe Stiglitz ’64 describes that the “right lesson” for developing-world countries to take from observing “America’s economic and social system” would be to create their own “strong state[s] administer[ing] effective regulations” and curbing “the power of special interests” (“A Loss of Faith,” Spring 2010).

However, Stiglitz then describes the current regime in Washington as one in which the government itself has become, with its cronies, the very same “special interests” whose powers he emphasizes should be curbed. Yet they will not be curbed because of “continued redistributions of wealth to the top of the pyramid.” Stiglitz then additionally highlights “a fundamental problem of political accountability in the American system of democracy.”

Say it ain’t so, Joe. You have justified the Tea Partiers.

John Witwer ’62
Evergreen, Colo.

Not so simple

Your recent article on two Amherst graduates fighting for habeas rights for detainees (“High on Habeas,” Spring 2010) could have been conceptually much stronger if author Roger Williams had gone further than his Random House Dictionary of the English Language for a discussion of what habeas corpus really means. Since he didn’t, what we really have been given is little more than a shallow human interest story, when we could have had a rich and challenging look into the complexities facing countries grounded in Enlightenment philosophy when attempting to deal with the rest of the world. Williams refers in an almost offhand way to habeas as an “American judicial concept,” when in fact it was considered by the Founding Fathers to be one of the fundamental “unalienable” rights of human beings (that means a priori government) whose origins go back as far as the Magna Carta. Alumni educated in institutions as great as Amherst College deserve a more well-developed theoretical argument when stories are being told about policies as potentially radical as the Bush Administration’s redefinition of human rights and those brave and persistent alumni who are fighting for the preservation of those same rights.

John Watkins ’79
Oakland, Calif.

The Olympics and the Nazis

I do not question that Professor Guttmann is a recognized expert on the history of sports (“Odd how things end up,” My Life, Winter 2010). I have a very strong disagreement, which I have expressed to him personally, with his support, covering up, explaining away and, at times, seeming hero worship of Avery Brundage, former head of the United States and International Olympic Committee. Brundage was a known and vocal fan of and cheerleader for Adolf Hitler as well as a virulent anti-Semite. In order not to embarrass Hitler, Brundage made it impossible for the Jewish athletes to make the 1936 Olympic team.

It is interesting to note that the March 15, 2010, New Yorker magazine, in a discussion of the 1936 Olympics and Nazi Germany, reports that the American athletes were urged to boycott because of the Nazis. It states: “Avery Brundage, the longtime and now famously retrograde head of the United States Olympic Committee, insisted that the Americans and others attend.” Brundage himself participated in the track events in one of the Olympics and, when he saw that he was getting soundly trounced, withdrew for a supposedly pulled muscle.

As an Olympic medal winner during the Munich Massacre and as a Jew, I have no patience or respect for the likes of Avery Brundage or his supporters, even if one is a professor at Amherst.

Donald S. Cohan ’51
Plymouth Meeting, Pa.

Professor Allen Guttmann responds: I am sorry to have tried Mr. Cohan’s patience and to have forfeited his respect, but I put five years of research and a great deal of thought into my 1984 biography of Avery Brundage. I tried very hard to weigh pluses and minuses and to offer a nuanced and balanced characterization of the man and of his controversial career as a sports administrator.

Brundage was in many ways a repugnant man. He was, before the 1936 Olympics, “politely” anti-Semitic, as were most of his contemporaries.

He was for a time, after the extremely bitter boycott controversy, virulently anti-Semitic. I point this out in my book. But Brundage was not a “vocal fan of and cheerleader for Adolf Hitler.” I do not understand how an even moderately careful reader of my book can see it as hero worship or as a cover-up.

Thank you, Prof. Guttmann

Thank you very much for the article in the Winter 2010 issue on Prof. Allen Guttmann. Many teachers at Amherst, including Henry Steele Commager, John William Ward, John Petropoulos and Leo Marx, helped me greatly, and their influence assisted me in achieving my career. But the most important influence was Allen Guttmann. He not only assisted me in learning rigorous principles of scholarly analysis and writing, but, most importantly, gave me friendship. When I was at Amherst, from 1966 to 1970, the campus climate, especially among students, was extremely hostile to sexual/gender minority people, and for me, a young gay man struggling to accept his identity, Allen’s kindness and generosity then and in later years literally saved my life. Today (June 5) is the 40th anniversary of my graduation from Amherst, and for every day of those 40 years I have been grateful to Allen Guttmann.

Eric Patterson ’70
Geneva, N.Y.

Seeking material on John William Ward

I am working on a book tentatively titled John William Ward: An American Study. I would very much like to hear from anyone willing to share information, memories, letters or other material. Please contact me c/o the English Department, Amherst College, Box 2234, Amherst, Mass., 01002 or at

Kim Townsend
The writer is the Class of 1959 Professor of English, emeritus.

Corrections to the Spring 2010 magazine: Because of an editing error, “A Loss of Faith” incorrectly stated the date of the Leh­man Brothers collapse. The collapse was on Sept. 15, 2008.

Also because of an editing error, “The producer” (Amherst Creates) mischaracterized Jim Rooney ’60’s work on Alison Krauss’s first album. He engineered that album.

The Short Takes column inaccurately described My Name Was Five: A Novel of the Second World War, by Heinz Kohler, Willard Long Thorp Professor of Economics, Emeritus. The book is not a fictional story but rather “an autobiographical account of the Holocaust, World War II and its consequences that has been cast in novelistic form,” Kohler writes. The pilot in the book is not a German but a German-born American. More information is available at



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