CW: sexual assault
Two hours northeast of Las Vegas is the sleepy town of Pioche, Nevada. Hidden deep in the arid desert, this unincorporated township fell prey to the ethos of time. In its heyday and due to its forlorn location, it endured a reputation of being one of the most lawless towns in the Old West. This included a blind-sided massacre wrought by two hired gunmen who killed a miner over the befuddled ownership of the town with a $5,000 reward. Nearly 60% of homicides reported in Nevada between the years of 1871 and ’72 took place in Pioche, commemorated by Boot Hill, now a landmark of the city.
Pioche’s dry climate, due to its close proximity to the mountains, makes it chillier during the summer, while the fall and winter sees an influx of wet and cold spells, only punctuated by an erratic snowfall.
The town’s attractions include its, “Million Dollar Courthouse,” a civil establishment whose building budget far exceeded its means by nearly $1 million USD. Then there is the old Mountain View Hotel, where it is said that the 31st President of the United States, Herbert Hoover stayed during his inaugural year.
But perhaps, most infamously, Pioche’s claim to fame is that of Dr. Quincy Fortier, a fertility doctor who inseminated his own patients with his own sperm for well over 40 years.
In the 2020 HBO documentary, Baby God, retired police officer Wendi Babst, and her half-brother, researcher Brad Gulko, explore the gnarled DNA spiral that is their father’s twisted proclivity for inseminating thousands of unknowing women. Dr. Fortier’s colleagues in the field admit that using their own sperm on patients was not uncommon practice at the time.
The film itself, set against the dry, lavender skies and the long, drowsy desert walls of upper Nevada, offers a bizarre inspection of the nature of procreation. Wendi Babst reflects on herself in relation to her father and how she was made.
She yearningly wants not to be seen as a monster as she views her father. It’s a complicated inspection of her soul and ego, one that is painful to watch, but also impossible to look away from.
Meanwhile, one of her several half-brothers who lives deep in the winter wilderness, takes a dissociative approach, by saying his DNA is, “merely raw material,” while also recounting a harrowing tale of his mother’s lawless conception of him.
Hannah Olson’s Baby God offers a strange glimpse into the twisted mirror of progeny at the hands of a narcissistic tyrant, who arguably only wanted to tattoo his DNA onto the world recklessly. It is strange to see all of his survivors with the same hooked nose, the same arctic blue eyes, staring into the void, questioning the where and why of their existence and how to best answer the unanswerable question; to bear the sins of a man who felt no remorse for his actions.
Perhaps the best answer to this is not found in words, but in one of his adopted daughter’s facial expressions; her chin quivers when asked if she endured any sexual molestation at the abuse of her father. Her upper brow twitches for a few seconds, a wrinkle appears before the left-side of her lip, her chin quivers once more and then stops—“no,” she answers. The absence of truth offers her respite, at least for now.
Abigail Sheaffer is a featured columnist at Cinema in Paradise.