Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Yesterday I picked up What I Thought I Knew by Alice Eve Cohen at the library and, as cliche as it sounds, I have barely been able to put it down.

One of my writing group members heard an interview with the author on NPR and recommended the book to me because I've been working on a short story about a DES daughter. All I knew when I ordered it through ILL was that it's the story of a DES daughter who thought she was infertile but gets pregnant unexpectedly, late in life.

Another pregnancy/new mommy memoir about shock, acceptance and true love, right? Oh, no-ho-ho. It's more of a thriller where with each turn of the page you know something more shocking and horrifying is going to happen. And the blundering incompetence of almost all of the doctors and other professionals Cohen encounters would make it a comedy of errors, if it weren't so, so wrong (her ob/gyn gives her an internal exam at five months pregnant and diagnoses the mysterious hardness of her belly as a symptom of menopause; an emergency CT scan at six months--when the lump in her belly continues to grow in tumor-like fashion--finally reveals the truth). When the baby is born, it is obvious to Cohen and her fiance (but not the doctors) that something is wrong, and when point it out, the specialists run around declaring this diagnosis and cause after that, finally setting on "idiopathic"...of unknown origin.

I already have a suspicion of doctors and the god-like status in which we hold them, and this book further reinforces my skepticism of their knowledge and powers.

Cohen is a writer and performer of one-woman plays, and her succinct and to-the-point writing style adds to the pit-of-stomach dread--what can possibly go wrong next?--that keeps the pages turning as fast as I can read.

An almost-sub-plot of the book is what it means to be "under-insured" (Cohen's insurance company does not consider her pregnancy "high-risk" despite the fact that she is 44 years old, a DES daughter with a bicornuate uterus, and received no prenatal care for the first six months). I would recommend it to that other group of bumbling incompetents known as Congress if I thought it would make any difference in this train wreck known as "Reform" that they're determined to ride.

Cohen does not go into a lot of detail about the devastating legacy of DES on a large scale (to read more about this tragedy of our arrogant medical and chemical industry run amok, see Having Faith by Sandra Steingraber and DES Stories by Margaret Lee Braun), but the shocking parallels between Cohen's mother having been given the "pregnancy vitamin"--an enormous dose of estrogen that was purported to prevent miscarriage--and Cohen's own practitioners missing the obvious signs of pregnancy, while subjecting her to HRT (also estrogen), X-rays and CAT scans is frightening. Have we learned nothing?

The honesty with which Cohen describes her reactions to this earth-shifting event in her life is breathtaking--she takes us with her on a wild ride of emotional upheaval, as she gets amniocentesis (and discovers the baby has two X chromosomes, despite the penis that appears on the ultrasound screen), schedules an appointment with the clinic in Wichita that performs late-term abortions, cancels the appointment, contemplates suicide, makes another appointment with an adoption agency, all the while lying on her left side on a hard futon drinking Gatorade. After the baby is born, her ambivalence grows and it is heartbreaking that no medical professional offers her any kind of counseling or support for this woman who is in a situation that should be an obvious recipe for postpartum depression.

I'm only about halfway through right now (thank goodness for you, because I'm sure I'd have a hard time not giving away the ending) and I can't wait to get the kids in bed tonight so I can find out what happens!


  1. I can't decide if I want to read it or stringently avoid it for the sake of my mental health!

  2. Definitely read it...I snuck in a little more reading time this a.m. and things are starting to look up (she gets PPD treatment, the therapists assigned to the baby seem to know what they're doing), though I'm waiting for another shoe to drop...just make sure you have a good long swath of uninterrupted time in case it infects you like it has me!

  3. no way i can read anything so gripping! i'm all for you giving it away!

  4. OK, I was really fascinated (I know that is not the right word, but it is all that i can think to use) but the subject of DES. I have had your post open for about an hour, and I went off to do some research on this subject.

    Thank you for sharing this book, and this information. I am checking this out at our library tomorrow, and I am interested to see how you like the end of the book.

  5. Good news LSM and Kendra! It has a happy ending. Tuh. Tuh. Tuh.

    Heather--I am also fascinated/ horrified by the subject of DES. The saddest/scariest part is that we have unleashed so many more chemicals into our food, air, water and products that behave in a similar way to DES.


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