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The Retrievals Is a Nightmare

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

Susan Burton first heard about the case through a local news story. She was scrolling through her news feed late one Friday night when a report came up that several women were suing the Yale Fertility Center in Connecticut for failing to properly safeguard its fentanyl supply. Between June and October 2020, and possibly longer, a nurse, Donna Monticone, was found to have routinely stolen the painkiller to feed an addiction. She swapped the drug with saline, leaving the women, who were seeking fertility treatment, to fully bear the pain of invasive procedures — as in knife slicing tissue — associated with in vitro fertilization. When the women brought up the agony in the moment, they were often dismissed. It was only after Monticone’s actions were finally discovered that their experiences were institutionally acknowledged, but even then only lightly. Many were simply informed by letters written in bureaucratic language, which noted that their “outcomes were unaffected” by the incident.

The lawsuit tied together several threads that uniquely interested Burton: women’s pain, its dismissal, addiction, and the elite institution that is Yale, where she once attended college. Now a veteran editor at This American Life, Burton has held a long-standing interest in the entanglements between medicine and women’s bodies, in part owing to an aspect of her own personal biography. In 2020, she published a memoir, Empty, where she sorted through a condition she’s lived with and hidden for decades, one in which she alternates between bouts of compulsive eating and self-starving.

While Burton had not gone through fertility treatment herself, she felt a distinct pull to the case. “By Saturday morning, I’d already downloaded every legal document available from PACER about the case and emailed the lawyer representing the patients,” she recalled, speaking to me over Zoom last week. “Within a few months, I started interviewing people, and immediately it became clear the experience of not being listened to was so strong.” The resulting series for Serial Productions, The Retrievals, is simply incredible. (Burton produced the story with Laura Starecheski.) I can’t stop thinking about it.

In presentation, The Retrievals is less of a traditional investigative piece than one might expect. By the time this story reaches us, the hard facts of Monticone’s actions have long been gathered and processed through the legal system; a judge had already levied a sentence. So Burton, who describes the project more as an “emotional investigation,” arrives at the scene looking to parse through the layers of what happened. “I didn’t have one North Star question — that’s not how I operate — but I had a lot of questions,” she said. “I had questions about these experiences of trust and betrayal, of justice and the specific longing towards motherhood.”

Key limitations would shape how the story was ultimately assembled. Morticone wouldn’t speak with Burton, and neither would a representative from Yale. During the reporting, she also interviewed various experts to potentially widen the scope, but in the end, Burton opted to keep a tight focus on the patients within the world of the story. Their interiorities felt like the right subject. “One of my primary interests, in this series and elsewhere, is in stories about women’s bodies,” said Burton. “I’m interested in how a woman’s experience of her body can be determinative or destructive; in how a body can suggest or preclude certain identities.” Most of the interviewees heard in the series are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and The Retrievals primarily plays out as an accounting of how they understand what happened to them.

It would have been so easy for a podcast tackling this story to fixate on the lurid details: Monticone’s addiction, the medical horror of being fully present for the egg retrieval process, the procedural drama of the trial that took place after the nurse’s arrest. Likewise, The Retrievals could also have been structured as a full-throated critique of institutional arrogance, which is on full display not just on the part of the Yale Fertility Center (a brand name if there ever was one), but also with respect to medicine as a profession. Such aspects are still present, of course, and you could very much walk away from The Retrievals with those details under your skin.

But what’s so formalistically intriguing is the way The Retrievals favors a softer touch. Burton functions as an empathetic observer shepherding the tale with discernible distance. The patients are presented as a kind of Greek chorus, with the show’s perspective recognizing them as individuals but frequently rotating through their perspectives to convey a sense of overlapping experiences. This approach is further deepened by Burton’s script, which frequently refers to the subjects in the collective: “The women are seeking fertility treatment for a variety of reasons.” “The women drive to the clinic before work in the morning for blood draws.” “The women are wheeled out to the recovery room.”

The Retrievals broadly continues Serial Productions’ streak in this style. Both The Coldest Case in Laramie and We Were Three deploy a similar aesthetic, with the host-narrators, Kim Barker in the former and Nancy Updike in the latter, in possession of a presence that’s observing from the outside in. “It was a deliberate choice,” said Burton, noting an interest in finding a narrative voice that counterbalanced the intense intimacy of the interview tape while preserving the series’ stylized aesthetic. She expands: “It is sometimes taken for granted that ‘conversational’ is the ‘right’ voice for storytelling in this medium and that narrators should be easy, relatable, first-person personas — reporters with questions on quests. When this is done well, as it is by many of my colleagues and others doing important work in this medium, it has extraordinary power. But doing it that way is a choice, you know? It wasn’t the right choice for me or for this material.”

Since its release, The Retrievals has elicited a strong response for the frank unambiguity of its inquiry. “Burton manages to succeed where many other seasons of Serial have failed,” Lizzie O’Leary wrote in Slate. “There is no hand-wavy meditation on the nature of a crime, or a place, or on humanity and how we all weave narratives to our liking. There is actually a conclusion offered: Women’s pain is not treated equally because women are not treated equally.”

But another striking thing about The Retrievals, to me at least, is how its quiet approach does allow for a somewhat ambiguous mental space where one can mull over murkier territory. The dismissal of women’s pain takes the center stage in this story, but also present at its edges is what feels like thornier subject matter: the sometimes destructive tension between bodily autonomy and motherhood itself. Child-bearing is held to be so sacred that the well-being of the patients are almost rendered to be secondary, even disposable, to the outcome of motherhood, which ultimately would be just one facet of any of the women’s identities. “Some of the Yale Fertility patients did stop the treatments, most kept going, and most who did had babies,” narrates Burton at one point in the series. She adds, with what seems to be a shade of ambivalence: “That’s what matters, right?” Motherhood is a status affording privileges and protection; this comes out most acutely when Monticone ends up being given an overwhelmingly lenient sentence due to her status as a mother. That her actions affected women seeking motherhood is a bitter irony not lost on anybody. Indeed, the ideological nature of motherhood starts to feel like a subject worth reconsidering.

The Retrievals wrapped its five-part run earlier this month, but of course, the story still continues in the real world. Last year, Yale agreed to pay around $308,000 to the Department of Justice to settle allegations of violations of the Controlled Substances Act. The women’s lawsuit remains ongoing. But however their litigation shakes out, there remains the question of what can be done to ensure that something like this can’t ever happen again. For Burton, the burden should always be on the institution, which should work to shift expectations around pain — especially when it comes to women.

That, of course, leads to more questions. “At some point, in a systems way, somebody somewhere is making a decision over drug protocols that determine patient comfort during procedures,” she said to me. “Who are the people making that decision, and why is that decision happening?”

The Retrievals Is a Nightmare