'Unspoken': One Rutland Couple's Struggle To Have Children Inspires A Short Film

Apr 19, 2017

A short film based on a Rutland couple's struggles with pregnancy will premiere this week on Vermont Public Television. 

One in eight couples has trouble getting pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rutland resident Sandra Stillman Gartner understands that only too well.

She suffered several miscarriages before her daughter Rebecca Adele was born in 1978. But the baby came too soon, and Sandra and her husband Allen had to make the agonizing decision to take their tiny child off life support. 

To deal with her grief and the turmoil it caused in her marriage, Stillman Gartner, a freelance writer and actress, wrote about what happened.  

Her story, “Exploding the Baby Myth,” first appeared in Lady’s Circle Magazine in the 1980s. Now it's been adapted into a short film called Unspoken.

While Stillman Gartner says seeing the film brings back a lot of painful memories, she says being able to share her story is also cathartic.

Almost 40 years after the premature birth of their daughter Rebecca, the only mementos Sandra and Allen have is a small Polaroid picture taken by a nurse and the child’s tiny hospital bracelet.

Coming home without their baby was heartbreaking and lonely. Stillman Gartner says it felt like a shade came down upon her.

“It still can feel that way,” she admits.

Today, she says, it's easier to find support on the Internet and social media.

“But back then, people didn’t talk about things the way they do now,” says Stillman Gartner. "It was much more hush-hush, we’re not going to acknowledge the loss that a woman has sometimes. There weren’t the support groups out there and it was a very isolating experience.”

Sandra and her husband Allen had to decide whether to keep trying, and how important it was for each of them to have children. Allen was wary of more heartache, Sandra says, which created a wedge in their marriage.

But they persevered.

None of Sandra's pregnancies was easy, she says, but eventually the couple had three children: Jennie, Jeremy and Emily, who are all now grown. 

Sandra and Allen Gartner pose with their children Emily, lower left, Jennie and Jeremy.
Credit Courtesy

Stillman Gartner says writing about her experience helped her come to grips with her emotions and grief. 

“A lot of women feel like you get pregnant and nine months later after you come off the tennis court and you have your child. And it’s not always that way,” she says. “And I felt like I wanted to share my experience of what I had been through with the miscarriages and losing a premature child. And with Jennie, I had to be in bed for seven months.”

She was surprised by the response she got  from women who told her they too had struggled, often silently, to become parents.

Filmmaker Tamara Rabil owns Wild Angel Films, a Florida-based production company that explores what Rabil calls the imperfect journey of parenthood.

“I’m a parent of three,” says Rabil. “I know how hard this job is.”

Rabil met Stillman Gartner at a Vermont film festival a few years ago, and the two women began collaborating on a film version of Sandra’s magazine article. 

Unspoken is a fictionalized and streamlined adaptation with minimal dialog. It was shot entirely in Rutland.

Rabil says so many couples today are waiting to have children or are relying on in vitro fertilization or other procedures, which can be fraught with complications.

So Rabil says Gartner’s story of perseverance still resonates. “Because it happened so long ago, it makes it even more valuable to me and more important to the viewer. Because now, mothers today, we have IVI [intravaginal insemination], we have IVF.  Sandy didn’t have that, says Rabil. “All she had was her will and determination.”

Rabil says the title of the film, Unspoken, came after a couple she had known several years came to an early screening of the film. She says they surprised her by admitting they too had gone through miscarriages before their daughter was born. 

“And they said basically for six to nine months after they had the two miscarriages, they didn’t speak to each other about the miscarriages themselves, within their marriage!" Rabil says. "They just tried to pretend that it didn’t happen.”

While Unspoken is an artistic adaptation, Sandra Stillman Gartner says the film remains true to her story.

For her, sharing that story was cathartic and healing, and she hopes it may help other parents as well.

Unspoken has been shown at a number of  film festivals across the country. It will air Thursday, April 20 at 8:30 p.m., Friday, April 21 at 2:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m., and Sunday, April 23 at 1:30 p.m. on Vermont Public Television.