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.

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