What Susan Bell thinks of ‘what i thought i knew’

2000_regIn this blog entry, Susan Bell, author of DES Daughters, now available from Temple University Press reviews the new book, what i thought i knew by Alice Eve Cohen.

Alice Cohen is a DES daughter. what i thought i knew is a memoir about Cohen’s experiences of becoming a mother after DES. Although Cohen decenters DES, its effects are everywhere in this book. Cohen was exposed to the synthetic estrogen DES (diethylstilbestrol) before she was born when her mother took it during pregnancy. Alice’s mother told her she was a DES daughter when she was a college student; her mother took Alice to her own gynecologist for the exam. After Alice had trouble conceiving and consulted with a fertility doctor, the doctor told her that although she could get pregnant with fertility drugs, he strongly advised against it. Alice followed this advice and adopted a daughter. Years later – when she was 44 – she became pregnant, a condition that was missed (and misdiagnosed) by her physicians. They thought she had a malignant tumor in her uterus.

Like many other DES daughters, Cohen’s story is harrowing, filled with unexpected twists and turns, and she has had to make decisions without a map. These “facts” set the tone and form the basis for understanding the shape and outcome of her story.

This DES daughter story begins on Friday, the eve of the Jewish New Year, September 10, 1999, when after an emergency CAT scan Alice learned she had been pregnant for six months and it ends on Yom Kippur 2006 which she marks with her daughter – “just the two of us” in Central Park. The last words in the book are the English translation of her daughter’s name: “My god has answered me.”

Alice Eve Cohen is a story-teller, performer, and teacher. All of these identities combine here, where she deftly intertwines the discourses of theater and religion into a gripping account, divided into acts and scenes. Cohen chooses to write instead of perform her story because “In a book I am just as naked, lit under as unforgiving a spotlight, but I’m willing to divulge these secrets for one reader at a time…” A solo theater course she continued to teach at the New School during her pregnancy comprises several chapters, providing a metacommentary about autobiographical story writing and storytelling.

The lower case letters in the title (what i thought i knew) beg readers to think about knowing, not knowing, and the humbling experience of finding out just how much uncertainty there is in both embodied knowing and in biomedicine. Cohen interweaves multiple topics, including the consequences of prenatal exposure to synthetic estrogens, motherhood, adoption, unwanted pregnancy and abortion, low birth weight, parenting children with a disability, mothers and daughters, Jewish women, and access to medical care. The details are unique, but the storyline is hauntingly familiar to anyone knowledgeable about DES. Cohen writes her spellbinding story ironically, angrily, and humorously. Although readers engage with it one by one, they are drawn into its shared discourse of mothering, worries about producing less-than-perfect babies, and the ethic of protecting our daughters whatever it costs us.

Those who haven’t heard of DES will want to look elsewhere to fill in the details. Readers looking for an academic study of medicalized reproduction will be disappointed. But anyone interested in losing themselves in a compelling story will be thoroughly satisfied and deeply moved.

Susan E. Bell is the A. Myrick Freeman Professor of Social Sciences Department of Sociology and Anthropology Bowdoin College.

Sizing it up

1986_regGarrett Delavan, author of The Teacher’s Attention, explains what prompted him to write a book about class size—and why smaller is better.

When I set out to write The Teacher’s Attention I’d been teaching for about six years in a second-chance high school. I was always amazed when teachers from other schools said how difficult that must be and how they admired me. I loved my job and couldn’t believe I got paid to hang out with these amazing young people.

But that got me thinking about why some classes were harder than others and why these other teachers thought my job was so much harder. I figured out that the difference was class size, which varied immensely in my school. These were frustrating (and frustrated) kids when my classes were large, which is the only size the teachers at the traditional schools ever got.

So I started out looking to read a book—not write one—about why small classes are better than big, and to explain why most everyone you talk to finds this obvious. It might also be a book that would then try to change the reader’s mind about the other thing most everyone thinks needs no further discussion: They’re too expensive. It turned out the books out there on class size focused primarily on test scores (and grades K-3) and not the positive relationships that make teaching more enjoyable and compulsory schooling more ethical.

Eventually my research led me to include school size and the length of time teachers and students stay together as just as important factors for cultivating mentoring relationships. I decided to opt out of the myth that our schools are academic failures (on average) and focus instead on school’s participation in American childrearing and racial injustice. What the book became was a school reform proposal that disputes the need for better average test scores and argues instead for a straightforward path to raising better-mentored kids and equalizing achievement.

While the book was in its final edits, I moved to a traditional middle school to gain more perspective on the system I’m criticizing. Yesterday I was at work getting set up in our new building and several teachers remarked with laughter that the new computer lab had only 30 computers. “What do we do with the rest of the class?” Last year I had to add two more desks to the thirty-six I started with. I asked the counselor my numbers this year and none was over thirty. I breathed a sigh of relief. He told me not to sigh yet because there was still a registration day coming up.

I may be ranting and raving this year on A Small Class Size Blog at www.classsize.org/blog.

In memoriam: Eunice Kennedy Shriver

1534_regEdward Shorter, author of The Kennedy Family and the Story of Mental Retardation was interviewed on CBS Evening News August 11 about the work and achievements of the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver. The interview appears at the end of the broadcast.


The Kennedy Family and the Story of Mental Retardation was also mentioned in the obituary for Eunice Kennedy Shriver that appeared in the August 11 New York Times.

Recognized for Rappin’

1987_regHip Hop Underground author Anthony Kwame Harrison reflects upon being an emcee in the Bay Area music scene

It was a magical feeling the first time I was recognized outside the scene as an emcee. “Wasn’t that you rappin’ at the Justice League the other night?” a guy in a yellow jacket yelled to me at the corner of Fifteenth Street and Church.  Then there was the time I managed to talk my way into a deejay booth freestyle cypher going on at a Lower Haight Street hip hop club.  All the other emcees on the mic that night were much more club-hit oriented in their deliveries.  They certainly weren’t fans of more avant-garde rapping styles like mine.  The moment I got on the mic, the deejay, who had had his back to me the entire time, turned around like “who the hell is that?!” After a minute or so some of the other emcees started tapping me on the shoulder to get off.  I got off and immediately exited the booth. Outside one of the regular emcees from the weekly open mic I took part in was waiting. “Thank You!” he said with a clasp of my hand and a quick embrace, “for bringing some flavor to the mic.” In the book these types of stories are kept to a minimum.

Participating in a scene so saturated with racial symbolism and meaning teaches a person a lot about race and ethnicity in the multiracial metropoles of the new America – especially when you pay attention. I’ve always paid attention, and been a little daring in testing race’s boundaries. Hip Hop Underground captures this, and shares the stories from the clubs, house-parties, open mics, record stores, curbsides, and recording studios of an important period in one of the great underground music scenes in America.

For video of emcee Mad Squirrel (aka Anthony Kwame Harrison, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=–QT6aE6CJY

For more information about Hip Hop Underground, visit: http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/1987_reg.html

In memoriam: Jim Johnson, Eagles defensive coordinator

1830_regBy Micah Kleit, Executive Editor, Temple University Press

One of Philly’s greatest sports heroes died last week.  He wasn’t a player on the field, but he made the Eagles one of the best teams in the NFL.  I had the pleasure of meeting Jim Johnson while the Press was putting together The Eagles Encyclopedia, and it was a thrill to talk — however briefly — with the architect of the Eagles’ dominating defense.  Ray Didinger, co-author of The Eagles Encyclopedia, knew Johnson well, and wrote of his passing — and his genius as a defensive coordinator — in his “View from the Hall” column at CSN Philly’s web site.

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