“How did I get here?” asks the first voice we hear in “Baby God,” an HBO documentary airing Dec. 2. “How did that happen?”
Existential questions preoccupy “Baby God,” which tells the story of Dr. Quincy Fortier, a Nevada physician who treated thousands of women for more than half a century. Women came to him for gynecological and obstetric care; he gained a reputation for being able to help women get pregnant where others had failed. How he accomplished this — by injecting them with his own sperm without their consent or knowledge — is the crime the movie attempts to solve. The mystery here isn’t whodunit; it’s why, and what does it mean for those left behind?
“Nobody had any solutions until I went to Dr. Fortier,” says Cathy Holm, a young bride when she went to see him. She thought it was strange that her baby, Wendi, didn’t look like anyone on her father’s side of the family. And the child seemed smarter than Cathy expected: “As she grew up I thought, ‘Where’d she get all these brains? She didn’t get ‘em from me!’ ” Wendi Babst, now a retired police detective, decided to get into genealogy; a DNA test revealed dozens of half-siblings.
Wendi remains at the center of “Baby God,” which ripples outward to introduce more of Dr. Fortier’s offspring, people bound together by a hole in the center of their origin stories. Along the way, the documentary urges us to think about the role of biology in identity, the formulation of family, and the terrible toll of secrets. And it interrogates the justifications of midcentury medical received wisdom, when a doctor was seen, as one of the film’s mothers points out, “as almost next to a priest.”
Quincy Fortier was born in 1912 and grew up in Auburn, Mass. “We had three cows. And they were named Faith, Hope, and Charity,” he explains in one of the movie’s nicely deployed archival tapes. “And Faith had one pregnancy, and then we could never get her pregnant again. That’s where I really got first interested in infertility.”
Fortier ended up in Nevada, practicing general medicine at a small rural hospital he founded and ran, as well as at his bustling Women’s Hospital in Las Vegas. Hannah Olson, in her film-directing debut, smartly sketches the landscape of midcentury Vegas, interviewing two of Fortier’s colleagues who made their living treating women, both of whom fondly remember donating their own sperm as medical students (they got $50 a sample for “our goods,” one recalls).
It was a time, Cathy recalls, when marriage, followed immediately by children, was seen as a woman’s natural path. And if a woman needed some help getting pregnant, well, “stuff like that wasn’t really talked about.”
One of the sons Fortier raised, who now figures he has hundreds of siblings, believes that his father’s attitude would probably have been, “I’m just helping out.” A daughter raised by him agreed. “In his mind he provided a biological necessity. To him it was no different than using his own blood.”
The offspring of Fortier’s patients feel differently. Most found out because of dabbling in genealogy, a Pandora’s box of unexpected discoveries (as the filmmakers point out, there will surely be more Fortier children to emerge). Some list the doctor on their family trees as their father; others refuse. Uniformly, they wish they could protect their mothers from the truth.
When they meet up, they compare notes: Who has the shared nose? Who else has an analytical bent? But they also share stories of upset, anger, and confusion. “Dr. Fortier found a way in his own mind to justify doing what he wanted to do,” says offspring Brad Gulko, a PhD in human genomics. “Being the result of that kind of decision, I’m still struggling with that.”
Fortier was impregnating women into his 70s, Wendi points out. He was sued toward the very end of his life, but settled for an undisclosed amount. He died in 2006 at 93. As the documentary twists its way through this gnarled family tree, we learn of other allegations. “My father was crazy,” says the son who grew up with him. “Also a pervert.”
“Baby God” is gently paced but quietly stunning. The questions it raises — about identity and parentage, but also about psychology and medical ethics — resonate long after viewing. There’s a sense of relief among the Fortier offspring, in finding one another after long feeling out of place. “People who don’t share DNA with their parents, and don’t know they don’t share DNA with their parents, may feel that they’re not just different but somehow wrong,” Brad says.
And yet the knowledge sits uncomfortably. For Wendi, it boils down to this: “Do you want to say that your father was a monster? And what does that say about you?”
Premieres on HBO Dec. 2 at 9 p.m.
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.