WHAT I THOUGHT I KNEW is a great title. What does it mean?
A: At pivotal moments throughout the memoir, there are short sections titled “What I Know.” In the book, whenever I try to make sense of overwhelming and mystifying events, I make a list of everything I know. But time after time, I find out that the “What I Know” list I’ve come up with is utterly wrong. With twenty-twenty hindsight I realize that what I thought I knew was based on long-held false assumptions. At the end of the book I finally get it right.
Your story is incredible. At age 44, when you thought you couldn’t bear children you discovered you were 6 months pregnant. What were some of your concerns about finding out you were pregnant when you were so far along?
The first six months of my pregnancy were a disaster, in terms of prenatal care and lack thereof. I had been diagnosed as infertile many years earlier, and told never to attempt pregnancy with fertility treatment, as I could never carry a baby past six months. When I started to feel sick, doctors attributed my ailments to early menopause and other conditions related to aging. Six months, numerous x-rays, CAT scans, prescription hormones, and a slew of doctors later, I was raced to an emergency CAT scan for a large abdominal tumor—which turned out not to be a tumor at all. I was 6 months pregnant.
My first reaction was shock, followed by the fear that I would deliver the baby prematurely, which would result in severe disability. I was terrified that I had already injured the fetus by subjecting it to so many terrible risks.
There’s a great deal of humor in your book. Given the immense challenges you faced, how were you able to mine so much comedy?
The comedy in my memoir helped me to write the book. It made me laugh and enabled me to maintain perspective. I want the humor to welcome readers into the story.
My approach to storytelling is to infuse as much humor into the writing as possible. My preferred survival mechanism is to find humor even in the most painful situations. I look for the story value in scary moments, for the absurdity in intolerable predicaments. I take great pleasure in self-mockery. Humor is an appealing unspoken contract with the reader. Audiences will shut down when offered a journey of unmitigated bleakness; they will join you as a partner if you pave the road with humor.
You are in the unique position of having adopted a child and then having one biologically. How are the experiences different? How are they the same?
As every parent knows, raising a child is infinitely complex. Adoption contributes a layer of complexity to the parenting equation, but there are countless other variables. Each of my daughters came into the world with a unique prenatal resume: Julia’s back-story includes adoption; Eliana’s back-story… well, hers is the inciting incident of my book. Julia, now 18 years old, has always had very positive feelings about her adoption. This spring, her adoption story came full cycle when she found her biological mother and visited with her for several days.
My daughters have both asked me about the relative merits of adoption and biological parenthood. In response, I sing the praises of motherhood—by any method—but readily admit that physically it’s a hell-of-a lot harder to give birth at age 45 than to adopt.
Ultimately, adoption doesn’t change how or how much you love your child. Here’s an excerpt from my book on the subject. This is the “What I Know” list where I finally get it right:
“I love both my daughters.
The one who was planned for, researched, fought for, hard-won, rehearsed for, competed for, and paid for on the not-for-profit Spence Chapin Adoption Agency’s sliding scale.
I love the one who arrived unannounced and impossibly.
I love the one who was adopted, whose birth I observed from a comfortable and pain-free distance.
I love the one who I gave birth to at age forty-five, after forty-seven awful hours of labor.
I love the one whose birth-mother didn’t know about her, until she was 6 months pregnant.
I love the one I didn’t know about, until I was 6 months pregnant.
I love the one who is off-the-charts tall and the one who’s off-the-charts short.
I love the dark-haired one and the fair-haired one.
I love the symmetrical one and the asymmetrical one.
I love the one I desperately wanted, and the one I desperately didn’t want.”
When reading WHAT I THOUGHT I KNEW the reader can feel your anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. It’s dramatic. You are a playwright and a solo theater artist. How did this background help you shape the writing and storytelling in the book?
Structurally, my book is deeply influenced by my theatre writing. It’s written in three acts, with an epilogue. Each act is divided into scenes. The action of the scenes is revealed through dialogue, and the reflective narrative throughout the book is akin to solo theatre monologue. The three-act structure gave me a container in which to shape my unruly collection of experiences, thoughts, and feelings into a coherent whole. The dramatic structure also helped me figure out the where my story began and ended—which eluded me for a long time.
My book begins, “Scene 1: Stage Fright. This was going to be a solo show…” I originally thought I would write this story as a solo theatre piece, but I quickly discovered that I wasn’t ready to contemplate performing this story for an audience. It was too raw, too frightening. At that time, three years ago, I could barely talk about the story, no less perform it. Writing a book allowed me to work through my very personal struggle with the material, by removing the terrifying prospect of performing it.
I found it ironic and amusing when my publisher recently asked me to perform a portion of the book for a promotional video. “Um… excuse me, but did you happen to read the first page?” I asked. Luckily, I’d gotten over my stage fright and I found it immensely pleasurable to perform the story for an audience. In fact, I’m now revisiting the idea of creating a solo theatre piece about this story.
Can you describe your writing process for this book?
It took me a couple of years to regain my emotional footing after my unexpected and traumatic pregnancy. It took me much longer to write about it. I tried several times to start writing the story, but couldn’t, and soon stopped writing completely. “This is the story you have to write, and you know it, Alice,” said my bullying subconscious. “Until you figure out how to write it, I won’t permit you to write anything.”
One day, quite unexpectedly, I started writing again—in absolute secrecy. I spent a year writing with a frenzied urgency, as if under a spell. I had to finish writing the story, or else—I didn’t know what else, but I was sure something bad would happen if I didn’t finish it. I became uncharacteristically superstitious: I was afraid that if I stopped writing for even a day, or if I told anybody I was writing this story, the spell would be broken, and I’d be cursed again with that same demonic and depressing stranglehold of writers block. For a year I didn’t even tell my husband that I was writing the book. That early writing process was something I needed to do for myself, in order to make sense of what had happened, so much of which was still deeply troubling to me. Then I was able to edit, rewrite, and turn it into a book.
This book hits upon real hot button issues including medical and legal. Obviously you can’t go into the specifics of the case, but you reveal in the book that a wrongful life lawsuit was brought. What does this mean?
“Wrongful life” refers to a class of legal cases in which the birth itself is a result of the medical malpractice. You can only sue for wrongful life if the baby has a sickness or disability that will result in expenses over and above the cost of raising a healthy child. Damages are limited to the additional and extraordinary expenses of raising a child with special needs. In the book, I talk about pursuing a wrongful life lawsuit. For legal reasons, I can’t discuss any details about the case or its outcome.
With regard to “hot button” medical issues, I’d be thrilled if the absurd and nightmarish health insurance frustrations I describe in the book could contribute to the current national debate about healthcare, and help to underscore the need for universal health insurance coverage.
Psychologically you experienced pregnancy in a condensed timeframe. Most people plan for their pregnancy and have nine months to mentally come to terms with how their lives will change. You didn’t have that. You had 3 months for your emotions to run the gamut of joy and fear. In WHAT I THOUGHT I KNEW you reveal that raw emotion. What was it like?
Short answer—I don’t recommend it. Nine months of preparation sounds positively luxurious, but with both my daughters I’ve had very little prep time: two months to prepare for Julia’s adoption; three months to prepare for Eliana’s birth. Since I was on bed rest for those three months I had lots of time lying in bed on my left side to think, fantasize, worry, obsess, hope, rage, dream. Act II of my book draws from those highly saturated three months of pregnancy.
What do you want people to take away from reading WHAT I THOUGHT I KNEW?
WHAT I THOUGHT I KNEW invites readers to observe my pitfalls, fears and triumphs, my stumbling and imperfect attempts to do the right thing. It is a rocky journey that ends at last in a soft, safe landing; a nightmare that ultimately becomes a love story. Perhaps my tale will bring comfort to readers as they reflect on their life trials and their own best efforts to do what is right.
I hope readers will enjoy the book as an exciting and moving story filled with suspense, surprise twists, vivid characters, and unexpected humor. I’ve been told it’s a page-turner, which delights me. (Spoiler alert—it has a happy ending.) I also hope it invites discussion about the topical issues embedded in the events of the book—including the problems with our country’s health care system, and the national dialogue about abortion rights.
As this is a memoir, I’ve written as honestly and candidly as I can about my personal odyssey and about the complexities of motherhood. In my story, there were times when I didn’t recognize myself, times that I feared for my daughter’s life and for my own. Somehow, my family, my marriage, my children and I all survived and thrived, despite (and maybe because of) the storm we weathered together.
I imagine that the book will speak to anybody who has been through difficult times—which of course includes just about everyone. For years, I was unable to talk about my experience. Since writing the book, I have felt hugely relieved, and deeply gratified that readers enjoy and relate to it.
This happened about 9 years ago. How is the baby today?
The “baby” is nine years old and she’s great. Eliana is phenomenally smart, she has a wonderful, quirky sense of humor, and she’s an awesome fiction writer. She loves animals, donates much of her allowance to World Wildlife Fund, and can’t wait to go back to sleep-away camp, where she has learned to take care of llamas and a variety of barnyard animals. The extra thrill this summer is that her big sister Julia will be a counselor and lifeguard at the same camp. Eliana is finishing up a long and arduous leg-lengthening procedure, the first of two; the second one will be in a few years. She had surgery in November, and she’ll be recovered just in time for camp in August.
What have you learned from putting your story on paper?
“There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.” Zora Neale Hurston
I chose this quote as the epigraph to my book. Telling stories makes us human. Hurston’s quote has special resonance for stories that are particular to the domain of women. “Bearing an untold story inside of you” evokes the image of a woman’s story as a metaphoric pregnancy. I concur that it is agony to bear an untold story inside of you, and I’ve learned that sharing a story is powerful medicine.