Sunday, July 29, 2018

Babies in incubators were the brainchild of a mysterious immigrant "doctor"--and a sideshow attraction! Dawn Raffel talks about THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. COUNEY

Oh my God, You need to read this fascinating book. The Strange Case of Dr. Couney is the extraordinary tale of how a mysterious immigrant "doctor" became the revolutionary innovator of saving premature babies--by placing them in incubators in World's Fair side shows and on Coney Island and Atlantic City.

Dawn Raffel's illustrated memoir, The Secret Life of Objects, was a Wall Street Journal bestseller. Previous books include a critically acclaimed novel, Carrying the Body, and two story collections— Further Adventures in the Restless Universe and In the Year of Long Division.

Her writing has been published in O, The Oprah Magazine, BOMB, New Philosopher, The San Francisco Chronicle, Conjunctions, Black Book, Open City, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, Arts & Letters, The Quarterly, NOON, and numerous other periodicals and anthologies—most recently The Best Short Fictions 2016 (selected by Stuart Dybek) and The Best Short Fictions 2015 (selected by Robert Olen Butler).

She was a fiction editor for many years, helped launch O, The Oprah Magazine, where she served as Executive Articles Editor for seven years, and subsequently held senior-level "at- large" positions at More magazine and Reader's Digest. In addition, she served as the Center for Fiction's web editor. She has taught in the MFA program at Columbia University, the Center for Fiction, and at Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia; Montreal; and Vilnius, Lithuania.

She currently works as an independent editor for individuals and creative organizations, specializing in memoir, short stories, and narrative nonfiction. She is also a certified yoga instructor and teaches embodied creative writing.

AND most importantly, Dawn lives down the block from me! Our kids went to school together. AND I will be interviewing Dawn at Hoboken's Little City Books in September 27, so check your schedule and COME.

Thank you, Dawn.

I was totally fascinated by your novelbook, which tells the story really of incubators in World’s Fair side shows—and the doctor who began the practice. My jaw dropped open. Where did you come across this incredible story and why did you feel that you just had to write it?

Initially, I planned to write a novel set at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. In doing the research I discovered that the big hit of the fair was a display of live premature infants in incubators—not in the Hall of Science, but out on the midway, right next door to the infamous stripper Sally Rand! Then I learned that the doctor in charge of the incubators wasn’t just doing a one-time show; he had a home base on Coney Island for more than 40 years. That did it for me. I realized that I needed to tell this story, and I needed to tell it as nonfiction. I could not understand how something like this could go one for decades. Was Martin Couney exploiting children or saving their lives? Who would send their baby to a sideshow? Why were there so few incubators in hospitals? To be honest, I had no idea what I was getting myself into in terms of research—as in, hello, 600 end notes.

What surprised you in your research? What particular things changed the plot for you?

There were two big surprises. Martin Couney was famous during his lifetime, and every published account of him—in newspapers and magazines—cited his stellar European medical credentials. More recently, he’d been discussed in peer reviewed medical publications, but always with that same bio. It took quite a while to determine that those often-repeated credentials were a very carefully constructed fabrication. Martin Couney’s story was so well-made that without the Internet and a whole lot of shoe leather, his cover would have never been blown. The fact that he was not a real doctor actually made me more sympathetic to him. If he had really been a physician, with degrees from august institutions and an internship with a world-renowned French doctor, as he claimed, then spending the rest of his life running a sideshow rather than trying to work within the system could be seen as self-serving. The truth is, he had no other recourse—he couldn’t practice in a hospital or publish clinical papers. He could only save these children one at a time, and try to persuade the medical establishment to follow suit.

The other, darker surprise was the chilling effect of the American eugenics movement. Although eugenics never directly targeted preemies, they were called “weaklings” in the medical literature, and in an environment that promoted survival of the fittest and propagation of the “superior,” these tiny lives weren’t valued.  

Dr. Couney is one of the most fascinating people I’ve encountered. While he genuinely cared for his tiny charges, he also made them sideshow attractions. Where do you think was the greater pull?

Martin Couney loved life. He cared about saving lives, and he also delighted in living a very good life himself; he certainly enjoyed making money with a very popular show, and he loved talking to people, with a showman’s flair. Frankly, he was right that the public was not going to pay attention to the plight of preemies unless he entertained them. I don’t think he saw a conflict between saving lives and growing rich, and if he could do an end-run around the IRS, so much the better. In the end, I’d have to say he cared most about saving lives. He never cut corners in the babies’ care, even when he was going broke toward the end of his life. He could have quit and cut his losses; and he also could have cut expenses on things like nursing and nutrition. He did neither. As long as there was a child he could save, he did whatever he had the means to do.

This marvelous book seems different to me than your last incredible books. Did it feel different writing it? And if so, how so?

I think with every book, you have to learn how to write it. This book was indeed very different, because my previous books were fiction (and one memoir). With fiction I will often let the language and the composition lead me into new and surprising places, whereas here I had to stick faithfully to the facts. I felt a responsibility to Martin Couney himself to get this story right, and to all of the people I interviewed, including several of his former patients. I went though four full drafts, plus a fifth one where I re-fact checked everything.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

You mean aside from getting this book out into the world? While writing it, I also became certified as a Bhakti yoga instructor. I’ve always been kind of a poster child for klutziness. But I’ve been teaching creative writing for a long time, and I’ve been looking for a way to help writers develop a more embodied, emotionally sustainable approach to their work. I’m in the process of creating that program. It’s far less about physical flexibility than it is about mental flexibility, stamina, and precision. 

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

You asked great questions! If I may, I will add a note of gratitude to librarians and archivists everywhere, for being the guardians of our history. We tend to think that all information can be found on Google. But while Google is a godsend for research, it’s only a starting point—there is a world of knowledge that is not digitized, and that is carefully maintained by people who are rarely recognized, but who deserve our gratitude and financial support.

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