Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Review: What I Thought I Knew by Alice Eve Cohen plus a Q&A with the author

When I decided to have children, I didn't do much soul searching, much questioning of whether I would be a good mother, what sorts of genetic or environmental issues I would be passing along to those as yet unborn. Of course, both my husband and I were young, educated, and healthy so we were a good risk for reproduction. The fact that I fell pregnant easily just seemed to reinforce our somewhat unthinking decision to form a larger family. But what if I had not been young? Or what if I couldn't get pregnant? What if, finally being pregnant, I was 44 and had been told I was infertile, I didn't discover my condition until I was 6 months pregnant, and my fiance and I were uninsured artists living without so that we could do that which fed our souls? That in essence is the situation in which Alice Eve Cohen found herself. This book is the searingly honest, revealing memoir of a 3 month pregnancy, the medical incompetence, the emotional struggle, the questioning, and the grace that characterized her pregnancy.

Cohen was told that due to a misshapen uterus she was infertile so she and her first husband adopted a lovely daughter. Years later at age 44, she is happy as the mother to her daughter; she feels fulfilled in her job teaching acting and performing her own plays; and she is thriving in her relationship with her fiance. But then niggling health concerns start popping up and doctors have no answers for her. It could be her age. It could be the hormones she's taking. Whatever it is, the answer isn't yielding to any of the tests she undergoes, until finally, a bombshell. She's pregnant. 6 months pregnant.

As Cohen cycles through disbelief to acceptance, she chronicles the emotional roller coaster as well. What choices does she have with this late term news? How does her lack of pre-natal care affect her decision about the outcome of her pregnancy? What kind of weight does fiance Michael's feelings on this unexpected pregnancy have? How can she possibly wrap her head around the place she finds herself? Fiercely honest about her reactions and her decisions, Cohen does not whitewash anything in order to show herself in a better light. This pregnancy is no wished for miracle. It is a catastrophe that could beget more catastophe. Her decision to pursue a late term abortion or to carry the baby to term will have an irreversible and permanent impact on her life no matter which choice she makes.

Alongside her own complicated emotional state, Cohen also details the medical malpractice that left her in the dark for 6 months, submitting to tests and drugs that are harmful to fetuses. She examines the mistakes made and the probable outcome of those mistakes. She faces the plight of the self-insured, needing expensive, uncovered, out of network medical care and is turned down by doctor after doctor. She and her unborn baby are a walking liability to any and all doctors. As she navigates through the medical morass that the pregnancy becomes, she continually writes lists of what she knows to date. The repetitious nature of these lists, with additions and corrections as needed, throughout the memoir give them a sort of talismanic feeling. They serve to anchor Cohen to the facts as she thought she knew them. Pregnancy worry beads, if you will.

The writing here is gorgeous. There are times that Cohen seems emotionally inaccesible to the reader but she was so frozen herself that this reserve serves to reinforce the truth of her own feelings. Her internal debate is honest, agonizing, and unsparing and it's a privilege to be invited into something so personal and emotional. Her background as an actor is clear here, with each chapter its own contained act and scene. I highly recommend this deeply moving, intelligent, and thoughtful memoir.

After reading the memoir, I was lucky enough to be able to ask Cohen some questions and she was kind enough to answer.

What are you reading right now?
I’m in the middle of a fantastic YA novel called, Going Bovine, by Libba Bray—a trippy, profound, surreal, hilarious and heartbreaking coming of age story. Other books on my bedside table are:

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss
Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris
Love Letters: An Anthology of Passion
The Three-Dog Life, by Abigail Thomas
A Little History of the World, by E.H. Gombrich
Angels and Ages, by Adam Gopnik
The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll be Dead, by David Shields
A Natural History of the Senses, by Diane Ackerman
The Center of the Universe, by Nancy Bachrach
Perfection, by Julie Metz
Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann
Where I’m Calling From, by William Carver
The Book of Questions, by Pablo Neruda
The Snowy Day, by Jack Keats
Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak
Zagat New York City Restaurant Guide

I love that you have so many books on your bedside table. Mine is equally precariously overloaded, I might add. And you've inspired me to dig out my kids' copy of Where the Wild Things Are to put on my nightstand too. Everyone should have at least a glimpse of a wild rumpus before bed.

What was your favourite book when you were a child?

Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White

I worried about Fern's dad and that ax but sure did love Wilbur and Charlotte. My boys should be forever grateful that I didn't give them Wilbur as a part of their names.

What book would you most want to read again for the first time?

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

This one seems like such a love it or hate it choice. I never quite know how to defend it to the passionate haters but I remember being fairly blown away by it myself.

How did you get started writing?

I wrote stories as a child—most of them involved talking animals—and I made up plays and puppet shows that I performed for neighborhood kids in our back yard. Studying playwriting in college and getting an MFA in fiction were tremendously valuable. It’s all part of who I am as a writer now.

If you heard someone describing your book to a friend out in public, how would you most like to hear them describe them/it?

“I love WHAT I THOUGHT I KNEW, and I’m about to publish Alice’s newest book.” Or… “An incredibly funny, deeply moving, thrilling and suspenseful book that’s impossible to put down.”

I love the first line. And have to say that I agree with the way you've described the book in the second line.

What's the coolest thing that's happened to you since becoming a published author?

I have to say, seeing my book in print was thrilling!

I can't even begin to imagine.

What was the first thing you did when you heard that you were going to be published?

I asked my husband to read my book immediately, so he could vet the parts I’d written about him, before it was too late for me to make any changes.

I let my husband vet the Christmas letter since I tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Since only our friends and family see it, I can see how it would be even more important to have your husband vet what you are going to show the entire world!

Tell us three interesting or offbeat but true things about yourself.

In what must have been a previous life, I was part of a band called Music for Homemade Instruments. We built instruments from found objects—pots and pans, cardboard tubes, conduit pipes, you name it—and performed anywhere we were invited to play, including street fairs, roof tops, and The Smithsonian Institution.

In another previous life, I wrote for the Nickelodeon television show, Are You Afraid of the Dark?—sort of a Twilight Zone scary show for kids. I didn’t tell the producer that I’m a total wimp, that I’m utterly petrified of horror in any medium, and that the Are You Afraid of the Dark episodes he asked me to watch terrified me. My first published book was an Are You Afraid of the Dark? novel. Until my memoir was published last year, Amazon classified me as a “children’s horror writer.”

In my present life, I’m a card-carrying member of the United Auto Workers, which is very strange, since I don't own a car and barely know how change a tire. But the UAW unionized the part-time faculty at The New School, where I teach playwriting and solo theatre. So if you want your car to learn how to write plays and perform monologues, just call on me!

I was never able to watch the Are You Afraid of the Dark? episodes my kids watched because I am a colossal wimp. So if I ever caught any of the episodes you wrote, I will just say, "Thanks for terrorizing me."

If you couldn’t be an author, what profession would you choose and why?

I’d like to be Jon Stewart, (the comedian and “fake news” host of The Daily Show). He’s so funny, smart, adorable, and influential, and he uses comedy to make people think—a winning combination. If, for some reason, this career goal doesn’t work out for me, I’d enjoy being a National Park ranger.

Those are two very different choices!

What’s the hardest thing about writing, besides having to answer goofy interview questions like these?

Financial uncertainty—it goes with the territory.

Are you working on something new now? If so, give us a teaser for it.

I’m writing a new memoir—(working title, My Left Eye)—which is in some ways a sequel to What I Thought I Knew. Set several years after the events of What I Thought I Knew, my new book is about a year from hell, a family odyssey that turned our world upside-down. A story of three generations of mothers and daughters, I peel away the onion skin, traveling back and forth in time to explore resonances between my family’s tumultuous year and events from my childhood.

It sounds fantastic and I look forward to reading it when it comes out.

Thanks to Alice Eve Cohen for humoring me and answering these questions.

Thanks also to Lisa at Book Sparks for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. Nice interview! I also thought What I Thought I Knew was a fantastic memoir and will look forward to reading the next.

  2. Kristen, Thank you for your wonderful review - I'm very grateful! And I thoroughly enjoyed the Q & A.
    Mary - so glad you enjoyed the book.

  3. This books sounds great! And thanks for the Q&A - I enjoyed reading the author's answers. It really read like a dialogue - not stilted like many Q&A's!

  4. I can't wait for my copy of this book to arrive! Really enjoyed the interview; Charlotte's Web was one of my favourite books as a child too, the movie makes me cry too. Love Where the Wild Things Are.


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