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Reel Life: nursing the serpent

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"Medicine runs in my family," says Barbara Bird, a 50-year-old former nurse turned documentary filmmaker. "My mother is a nurse. My great-grandmother was a nurse. My dad is a doctor. My grandfather was a doctor. The whole family was medical."

And medicated too, she points out in Handmaidens, her video revealing the dark side of nursing. "I grew up in an alcoholic family," says Bird, who claims that 83 percent of nurses come from alcoholic families. "It's a way of medicating the pain."

Bird's documentary dispels what she recalls as her storybook image of nurses: "They were beautiful, they were serene, they were clean women in control." Like many of the women she interviewed, Bird saw nursing as a natural outgrowth of the healing role she played in her fractured family. "I wasn't able to hold my family together so I went into the business of taking care of other people and got paid for it," she says.

When Bird graduated from nursing school at the University of Michigan in 1967, she recited the Florence Nightingale pledge, which includes the line: "I will abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous, and will not take or knowingly administer harmful drugs." Yet Bird says that nurses, trying to cope with on-the-job stress, run an exceptionally high risk of becoming narcotic addicts. The video suggests the hospital workplace mirrors the dysfunctional family, with male authority figures abusing their female underlings.

Bird now teaches video at Loyola University and is working on a new documentary titled Family Values. "It's about this veneer of niceness and what lies beneath," she says. Her career change may have created a new path for her family to follow. Her three children worked on Handmaidens, but none have entered the medical field. "I'm the first generation to go into recovery," says Bird, who quit drinking and nursing back in 1989. "That's what kind of scares me--I got out and then I got better."

Handmaidens will be shown at 3 on Sunday at Randolph Street Gallery, 756 N. Milwaukee, in a program of videos called "Working Girls," part of the 15th annual Women in the Director's Chair International Film & Video Festival. Admission is $6 (festival passes cost $30). For more on the festival, see the sidebar in the Section Two movie listings or call 281-4988.

--Bill Stamets

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.

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