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Friday, August 21, 2009

What I Thought I Knew Meets My "Morally-Tinted Glasses"

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Last month, Melissa over at One Librarian's Book Reviews asked, "Do you find yourself viewing books through morally-tinted glasses? Do you think this detracts from your enjoyment of certain types of stories (those that grate against your personal beliefs)?" These questions kept rolling around in my mind as I read What I Thought I Knew, a memoir by Alice Eve Cohen. The truth is, there are several issues in her book that I find morally reprehensible. Because of this, I wondered if I could evaluate it fairly - not only am I "grading" her book here, but I'm also judging it against five other memoirs to determine which Elle magazine will deem best non-fiction book of 2009. This is the conclusion I came to: No matter a book's subject, I can judge its merits fairly when it comes to writing, editing, plot construction, character development, originality, etc. Of course, the best books are not always those with the best editing, or the most exciting plot - for me, the greatest are those that capture me and proceed to thrill my heart and soul. Connection is key, but when it comes to that, my "morally-tinted glasses" can sometimes be problematic. I, like all of you, approach every book I read carrying my own moral, religious, and political ideas, as well as the breadth of my personal experience - no matter how open-minded I tell myself to be, all of these things color how I view a book. This is especially true in the case of Cohen's book. Technically, it's well-written; truthfully, it turned my stomach.

In 1999, Cohen is finally happy. After battling infertility, enduring a divorce, fighting for custody of her 3-year-old adopted daughter, struggling as a single parent, and trying to make enough money to pay the bills, she's finally feeling some of her burdens lifting. She's engaged to a man 10 years her junior - Michael's her own personal fountain of youth. He's kind, creative, in love with both her and her daughter. At 44, she's found success in both her personal and professional lives; there's no reason to believe her future will be anything but bright. In the back of her mind, though, lurks her Jewish mother who constantly warned against tempting the Evil Eye by enjoying too much happiness. Turns out, her mother knew what she was talking about.

Cohen's joy drains as illness takes over. She's nauseated, sore, and completely exhausted. Any woman who's ever been pregnant recognizes these sypmtoms for what they are, except that Cohen is infertile. Because of a Bicornuate uterus, she can't get pregnant. Her doctors search for a diagnosis, offering everything from early menopause to "middle-aged loss of muscle tone" (14) to a bladder disorder. Finally, an emergency CAT scan reveals the truth: she's 6 months pregnant. Considering her advanced age, plus the fact that she's taken estrogen for years, received no prenatal monitoring, and unknowingly put her baby at risk, she's not surprised to find that the fetus is not developing normally. Terrified, Cohen considers abortion, suicide, adoption. She wrestles with herself over the ramifications of "killing ... what might be a viable baby" (55), of dealing with a preemie or a special needs child, of not raising her own baby, and of bringing to life a child she already detests. "I try every day," she writes, "to want a baby" (66).

The pregnancy ends in an unexpected way, which throws everything into a completely different light. Suffering from severe post-partum depression and an "unforgivable ambivalence" (135), Cohen makes her way blindly through this confusing, new landscape. Doubting herself, despising herself, and ultimately learning to trust herself, Alice Eve Cohen comes to revise everything she thought she knew.

Like Cohen, I possess a malformed uterus; I've dealt with infertility; I've worried over raising a premature or special needs child; I've hated myself for providing an inadequate incubator for the fetus growing inside me; and my life has been changed by adoption. Considering all that we have in common, I should have found in Cohen a bosom buddy. Maybe our differences are just too glaring: she's a liberal agnostic from New York, I'm a conservative Mormon from the west. I abhor abortion, and find the whole idea of wrongful life lawsuits (which comes into play in What I Thought I Knew) repugnant on so many levels. While I admire Cohen's courage (it takes a lot of guts to admit you hated your baby on sight), to me she came off mostly as a selfish whiner. I know that's harsh and will probably earn me an angry comment or two, but that's how I feel. I've been told I don't understand depression and chemical imbalances, and that's probably true - I've always been a happy, positive person who tends to believe that if I can deal with the crap of life without complaining, so can you. So, while I didn't enjoy this book (in fact, much of it made me sick to my stomach), I can at least appreciate the fact that it helped me empathize with another woman's heartbreak. I'm sure there are hundreds of women out there who will find that Cohen says everything they've thought and felt. I am not one of those women. But, I can admit that this book made me think. It's haunted me since I put it down. Do I recommend it? I don't know.

Technically speaking, What I Thought I Knew is well-written. Not beautifully, not brilliantly, not lushly. In fact, it's very stark and unsentimental. Honest. It's also choppy and frenzied in places. The story's engrossing, if not engaging. Cohen describes herself and her circle of family, friends, and associates in ways that make them interesting, human and sympathetic. It's an affecting story, but not necessarily a touching one. Does that make sense?

I think what I'm trying to say is this: What I Thought I Knew by Alice Eve Cohen is technically well-written, but I wouldn't call it enjoyable. Many will connect with this novel (see Melissa's review, for instance). I didn't. If it were possible to remove my "morally-tinted glasses" or if I wasn't the person I am, maybe I would have liked it better, but it isn't and I'm not. The most I can do is admit my prejudices and move on.

(Note: If you're interested in reading more about wrongful life lawsuits, try Jodi Picoult's novel Handle With Care, reviewed here.)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language, sexual content, and adult situations.


  1. I enjoyed this thought-provoking, honest post. None of us is objective -- as you pointed out. Religious beliefs, personal convictions, feelings and experiences filter everything. I think you're wise to be aware of it and weigh everything carefully before reaching an opinion.

    I have never run across the "wrongful life" issue, but I am sure it would trouble me too. My personal feelings about these issues, plus my own experiences with pregnancy and miscarriage, might make it too difficult for me.

  2. I think reading biographical/autobiographical books that express non-Christian values and standards give us a glimpse into how non-Christians live and why they make the decisions they do. Perhaps understanding the author's decisions and the reasoning behind them will help you one day help someone.

    I too, am someone who is infertile and cannot imagine aborting any baby, no matter the issue. It angers me that the abortion industry markets their service the way they do. I cannot imagine a Planned Parenthood employee saying "congratulations, you are pregnant" since they are really hoping to add to their sales quotient.

  3. This is a FANTASTIC post. If your grade of this book wasn't so low I'd be out getting it right now. I also have a bicornuate uterus and would find it fascinating to read a book on the subject. It sounds like my story turns out better than hers, luckily I haven't fairly normal pregnancies - better than anything I could hope for.

  4. I am pregnant now with an over complicated pregnancy and although I try to stay positive it is really starting to get to me. I do not really want the baby and I feel bad for not wanting it, we are at the doc 5 times a week a different one each day and its starting to be too much. I may pick this up I am sorry you disliked it so much!

  5. This is so weird. I also have a bicornuate uterus, and though I went through hell to have children, I never imagined that there was a novel in it. I haven't even met anyone who had the condition before...

    I, too, appreciate the honesty of your review. There is not an easy moment at the heart of these issues, no matter how you fall personally or politically on the topic.

    x Margie

  6. L.S. - As far as I understand it, wrongful life lawsuits have to do with parents suing for medical malpractice. Basically, the parent(s) are saying that if their doctor(s) had told them their baby would be disabled/deformed/retarded, etc. they would have aborted them. I'm sure it's more complicated than that, but in my mind that's just a horrendous thing, esp. if the child understands that they were not wanted.

    Anonymous - I totally agree.

    Natasha & mstohl - It's more common than we think, apparently :) I know one other person who has it, and she has never been able to have kids. I had 3 preemies - the doctors weren't able to tell me why until my 3rd pregnancy when they did a C-Section. Then there was a big lightbulb moment - AH HA!

    I've never read anything about the condition, except on Wikipedia. According to Cohen, hers was caused by some kind of anti-miscarriage vitamin her mother took when she was pregnant with Cohen. Very, very interesting.

    I actually consider myself lucky that I didn't know about my deformed uterus until my 3rd baby, because I probably wouldn't have even tried to get pregnant had I known. My pregnancies and deliveries were fairly rough, and my kids have had mild developmental delays, but overall, I've been extremely lucky.

    Pam - I'm sure you would completely identify with Cohen. She's very frank, very honest about everything she felt. I'm sure there are mnay women who feel as you do and are terrified to say anything for fear they will be ridiculed or criticized.

    One thing Cohen said is that therapy really helped with her depression. Also, I have to put a plug in for adoption. If a mother's feelings toward her child are that extreme, it's not good for the mother or the baby. I personally know dozens of couples who are desperate for a baby. Adoption's a beautiful thing for mothers who know they can't take care of a child and for couples who would gladly do so if only their bodies would allow it.

    I've always wondered why some women sail through pregnancy while others struggle every day for 9 months and some can't get pregnant no matter what they do. It's not fair. Cohen's experience was so, so different from mine that I just coulnd't relate. That's why I didn't like the book. Your experience with her would probably be totally different.

    Good luck with everything. I hope it all works out.

  7. Really thoughtful and well-written post. I'm still working on recognizing my own personal morally-tinted glasses. Thanks for the honesty!


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