11.08.10

The Strange Bush Fetus Secret

George W. Bush reveals his mother showed him a fetus in a jar after her miscarriage. Casey Schwartz talks to shrinks about Barbara's unusual behavior.

Undoubtedly the most startling moment in Matt Lauer's conversation with George W. Bush came in the first five minutes of the interview, when Bush recounted his mother's miscarriage—and how she had showed him the fetus in a jar.

"She says to her teenage kid, 'Here's a fetus,'" Bush recounted to Lauer, referring to himself in the third person. "There's no question that it affected me," Bush added.

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During a mostly friendly back-and-forth on the younger Bush's time in office, it was a bizarre revelation, and Lauer quickly steered the former president to the more policy-related question of what bearing the episode might have had on his pro-life position while the oddity of the story itself was left unexplored.

The episode helped him bond with his mother, Bush insisted on NBC's Today show Monday. In his memoir, Decision Points, which Lauer read from, Bush wrote: "I never expected to see the remains of the fetus, which she had saved in a jar to bring to the hospital."

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Bush's recounting of the incident was brief, and Lauer did not press for logistics, leaving some questions unanswered, including who put the fetus in a jar? Where is it now? And why did Barbara decide to preserve her unborn child in a jar—and then show her son?

Bush reportedly got permission from his mother before writing about the horrifying event in his autobiography, which comes out today. "The purpose of this story was really to show how my mom and I developed a relationship," he told Lauer.

While the event may seem unusual, parents faced with the loss of an unborn child find different ways of grieving, psychologists say. Conservative Republican Senator Rick Santorum, for one, was vocal about the way in which he and his wife, Karen, dealt with the miscarriage of their son, Gabriel, 20 weeks into Karen's pregnancy.

"Upon their son's death, Rick and Karen Santorum opted not to bring his body to a funeral home. Instead, they bundled him in a blanket and drove him to Karen's parents' home in Pittsburgh. There, they spent several hours kissing and cuddling Gabriel with his three siblings, ages 6, 4 and 1 1/2. They took photos, sang lullabies in his ear and held a private Mass," The Washington Post reported in 2005.

Stacey J. McLaughlin, a Florida psychologist and the author of Surviving Miscarriage: You Are Not Alone, says that she has seen a variety of responses to the death of an unborn child. "The biggest thing now is for parents of, for example, a stillborn baby to call in a videographer or take some of the baby's hair, if the baby had hair. "

Still, there is an important distinction between the rituals of remembrance that Dr. McLaughlin describes, and the response of Barbara Bush, experts say.

"You don't save a fetus in a jar—you just don't do that," says Justin Frank, a psychoanalyst based in Washington D.C. and a Daily Beast contributor. "I would consider that to be the behavior of an extremely depressed person. Probably also extremely angry… because I think she's saying—essentially—that she has had to suffer."

In one murder case of a few years ago, keeping a miscarried fetus in a jar was even used as evidence of mental instability. The defense of Cesar Rodriquez, accused of murdering his 7-year old stepdaughter, Nixzmary Brown, argued that the girl's mother was in fact responsible for her death, and, among the evidence, presented the fact that she kept a miscarried fetus in a jar on the dresser.

Dr. Robert Gangi, a New York City psychologist specializing in bereavement, was also struck by Barbara Bush's decision to show a dead fetus to her son. "In general, parents would look to shield the siblings from that sort of a thing," he said, adding that "the plain trauma of seeing a fetus in a jar" would be "a pretty significant experience."

But on Monday, Bush seemed to gloss over some of the more disturbing, even mind-bending aspects of the story, such as the fact that he, as a younger man, had had to drive his mother to the hospital, only to be shown the results of her miscarriage.

"She says to her teenage kid, 'Here's a fetus,'" Bush recounted to Lauer.

Frank, who authored Bush on the Couch, says he believes the episode should be seen in the context of another death in the Bush family—that of George W's younger sister, Robin, who died of leukemia when Bush was 7 and she 4.

Robin was the light of everyone's life, the doted-upon, favored daughter. When she died, "there was never any discussion of that in the family," says Frank. "Maybe this is a displacement of his wish to talk about his dead sister, who he never really got a chance to mourn."

Casey Schwartz is a graduate of Brown University and has a master's in psychodynamic neuroscience from University College London. She has previously written for The New York Sun and ABC News. She's working on a book about the brain world.