Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Read This Book: What I Thought I Knew





I admit I'm drawn to books about medical mysteries. Maybe it's because for one terrifying year, I had one of my own (but that's another story altogether). Alice Eve Cohen's What I thought I Knew isn't so much a mystery as it is a journey about everything going wildly wrong. Her memoir is as funny as it is shocking, and I'm thrilled she agreed to answer my questions. (Thank you, Alice.)

The book begins with a shocker. You've been told you have a tumor, given all kinds of tests, only to discover that you are 6 months pregnant. I can't get my mind around the fact that this happened in New York City, home of the best doctors in the world. How could this be?

I think there were several doctors who were equally blinded. When my gynecologist did an internal exam, I told her all my symptoms, and she dismissed them--as did the gastroenterologist. I was examined multiple times over six months and I had a number of sonograms. I think it's like the ancient tale of the six blind men and the elephant. Each man examined one single part of the elephant without being aware of the big picture, and none could identify it as an elephant. Like the blind men, my doctors were examining me through the lens of their particular specialty, and were thus blind to the big picture: my gynecologist saw me as an infertile DES daughter and she never considered pregnancy. The gastroenterologist saw me only as a person with stomach problems, and so on. I sued my gynecologist because she made such huge errors, with such profound consequences. But at the same time, I don't think she or any of these doctors was a total moron.

How do you feel now about doctors?

That's a hard question. When I'm choosing doctors for my daughter, I use my parental intuition. I'm constantly weighing various options and wondering, when a doctor tells me something, is this the whole picture? I'm not a passive patient. I ask a lot of questions. I never wanted to repeat the 1950s experience my mother had when she was given DES to prevent miscarriage: the drug, routinely promoted as "the pregnancy vitamin," proved to be both ineffective and carcinogenic. You have to make sure the doctor is listening to you, taking your concerns seriously, and not looking at you as a bunch of statistics. I thought I'd learned that lesson well. I thought that an educated approach would protect me from this kind of medical malpractice. But everybody in our health care system is vulnerable.

Were you writing this as this was going on? And did the book change as events changed?

I was so not writing this book while the events were taking place! I was trying to survive. I was taking copious notes for a lawsuit and to keep track of medical issues. Part of my great sadness at the time was that I thought, " okay, I have no will to write anymore, no motivation. I'm too depressed, I have no more creativity. I just need to devout all of my attention to making sure my daughter's life has the best possible outcome." I had just completed an MFA program and had almost finished a novel, and then everything came to a grinding halt. I barely wrote anything for seven years.

One day, though, seven years to the day after I was sent for an emergency CAT scan, I walked to the part of Central Park where I walked that day seven years earlier. It was a brilliant sunny September day, just as it had been seven years before. It triggered memories. I went home and started to write. It was as if I had been asleep and just woke up.

What made you decide to structure the memoir the way you did?

For the first 6 months, I wrote with a kind of stream of consciousness. I didn't know at first that it would be a book. I thought it might be a collection of essays. I experimented with ways to capture the "what I know" lists--which were my way of reassuring myself, in my most desperately confused moments, of the things I could count on, good or bad, the things I believed I knew, that I could hang my hat on, while the earth was giving way beneath my feet. I have to give credit to Microsoft word for the numbers formatting. Numbering the "what I know" lists heightened and stylized them; they became a repeated musical motif, with variations. These sections helped structure the storytelling by punctuating turning points.

After going through such an extraordinary experience, do you worry that the other shoe is going to drop or are you hopeful?

I do feel hopeful, though I do look over my shoulder to see if the Evil Eye is hiding in the shadows. There are reasons why there are these folkloric superstitions about the Evil Eye and other manifestations of fear and foreboding in every culture, because that's what life is like. Incredible joy one moment and then someone dies; shit hits the fan, and then things are great again. I don't know if I will ever extricate myself from what seems to be an ingrained fear that something terrible might happen, but I am enjoying this exciting year.

What are you working on now?

I've begun writing a new book. It's too early to talk about, except to say that it is a memoir. I'm also working on a couple of children's books--a picture book and a middle grade novel. And I'm delighted to report that What I Thought I Knew is going to be a movie, penned by screenwriter Katie Ford whose film and TV credits include Miss Congeniality, Desperate Housewives, and Lifetime's Prayers for Bobby.

What's your daily life like?

This fall has been mostly about my daughter's middle school application process. I pick up my daughter three days a week and hang out with her, and the other two days, she has a sitter. I have two places where I write. I wrote this book at a tiny wooden desk by the living room window. Now I divide my writing time between my home office and the Writers Room, a workspace in Greenwich Village. I'm not the most methodical writer so I don't have a set schedule, though mornings are my peak writing time.

What didn't I ask that I should have?

Does the book have humor? Yes, yes, and yes! Did you win any prizes? Yes! I just won the Elle's Lettres Grand Prix for the Best Nonfiction Book of the Year.



3 comments:

Jenny said...

Great Q&As. I loved What I Thought I Knew - so terrifying and funny and well-written.

mabel said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

Lucy

http://maternitymotherhood.net

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