Interview'These are not just my scars, they are America’s scars'

Photojournalist dodges death to build herself back up after her body breaks down

In ‘Ladyparts,’ Deborah Copaken laughs and cries through a decade of medical scares, divorce, financial struggles and sexual harassment in an America that routinely fails women

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Deborah Copaken undergoing sound bowl therapy in Kathmandu, July 2017 (Stephen Douglas Alexander)
Deborah Copaken undergoing sound bowl therapy in Kathmandu, July 2017 (Stephen Douglas Alexander)

On the July Fourth weekend, 2017, author Deborah Copaken‘s daughter returned home to New York from a Birthright Israel trip to find her mother bleeding profusely on the bathroom floor.

Three weeks after having her cervix surgically removed in a  tracheloectomy procedure, plum-size, slimy pieces of tissue — huge blood clots — were shooting out of Copaken’s vagina. It was clear she needed immediate medical attention, but she refused to allow her daughter to call an ambulance.

A single mother let go from her job, living on savings, and paying thousands of dollars a month out of pocket to maintain health insurance coverage, Copaken preferred bleeding out and dying over incurring additional expenses.

Copaken wanted to take the subway to the hospital. She ultimately acquiesced to her daughter’s calling an Uber, but insisted on an UberPool, which is half the price.

Copaken recounts this frightening experience of vaginal cuff dehiscence at the outset of her new memoir, “Ladyparts,” published August 3.

The New York Times bestselling author uses a heavy dose of dark humor in describing the event, but admitted with utmost seriousness in a recent interview with The Times of Israel, “If my daughter hadn’t come home from Israel just then, I’d be dead.” 

‘Ladyparts’ by Deborah Copaken (Random House)

“Ladyparts” is an engrossing chronicle of Copaken’s life over the last decade as she struggled with multiple serious medical issues while ending her marriage, assuming full responsibility for her three children, and reentering the dating scene after 20 years.

Copaken uses the various body parts that either broke down or were excised from her body — vagina, uterus, breast, heart, brain and lungs  —  to build a skeleton for the memoir. She fleshes out the structure with the life events that paralleled these health scares, including Postural tachycardia syndrome (PoTS) resulting from long-haul Covid.

Copaken, 55, recalled observing the scars covering her body and realizing their value as metaphors of more than personal meaning. Her memoir would be not only the story of her own body, but also that of a diseased body politic.

“I was looking down at my scars and I was thinking, these are not just my scars, they are America’s scars,” she said. 

Photo of Deborah Copaken on her 46th birthday taken by the late writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron, March 11, 2012, (c) Nora Ephron

Notwithstanding the impressive tale of how Copaken managed to keep it all together while her body fell apart, “Ladyparts” is crucially about the larger picture of how American society fails women in myriad ways.

The well-connected Copaken has a Harvard degree, an Emmy Award, and friends who are household names. She has had professional successes in journalism, photography, news producing, and book and TV writing. Yet, these did little, if anything, to protect her from losing her foothold in the middle class.

Copaken is also no different from all  other women victimized by sexual harassment, and who suffer the serious consequences of sexism in health and medical research.

In the following conversation (edited for brevity and clarity), The Times of Israel asked the outspoken Copaken about memoir writing, dating and sex over 50, and whether or not she is hopeful for the next generation of women.

You describe your medical conditions in graphic detail in this memoir. 

A friend of mine once said to me, “Don’t speak about your blood clots at a party, that’s gross.” And I listened to her and apologized. And then I realized — what the fuck — we have to start talking about these blood clots now because hiding this shit isn’t getting us any anywhere. It’s killing us. 

Blood clot, vaginal cuff dehiscence, July 3, 2017, (c) Deborah Copaken

“Ladyparts” is full of wit, humor and outrage. But there is a lot of sadness there too. Can you say more about that?

My mentor and surrogate mother Nora Ephron taught me, if you slip on a banana peel, others laugh at you. If you talk about slipping on a banana peel, it’s your laugh. In other words, it’s best to treat trauma with humor and laughter and a bit of lightness.

But it was just one thing after another. There is a scene in the book where my sadness is so profound I collapse on the steps in my building and can’t get to the front door of my apartment. I am lying there for an hour, and then when I finally get in the door, I go to my little writing office and I was ready to die. I wanted to throw myself out the window and die.

You mention seeing a therapist, which was thankfully covered by  your health insurance at some point. Where would you be without this psychological care?

Dead. I think I would not have been able to cope with the situational depression I had. My depression is not chemical. Shit goes wrong that really has American themes to it, like losing healthcare, being fired from jobs willy-nilly, COBRA payments, college tuition payments, babysitter costs. All the things we have to deal with in the US, and no other developed country in the world has to deal with. I don’t think I would have made it. There were several times when having access to a shrink I know kept me alive. 

Deborah Copaken, (Leo Copaken Kogan)

You are very critical of the United States, so why stay?

In [my first memoir] “Shutterbabe,” which I wrote 20 years ago, I wrote about the insanity of the childcare system in the US — the cost and lack of place to put your kid while you are at work… I have been screaming about America’s lack of social policies for my entire adult life, since returning from Paris and Moscow in 1992. Now I’m adding the healthcare insanity on top of that.

I’m in the US because I was born here and this is my home, and I’d like to make it work… I seriously looked into the Lithuanian right of return to get an EU passport, because maybe if I can move back to Paris I can deal with my health issues… My thought was that if [former US president Donald] Trump was elected again, I would make some very thoughtful decisions about possibly moving out of this country. I wasn’t exactly sure where, but Israel was one of the possibilities.

Petechiae on Deborah Copaken’s legs, 2015, (c) Deborah Copaken

You don’t hide your contempt for the behavior of others, including your ex-husband, who you discovered late in your marriage is on the autistic spectrum. Do you worry about hurting him or others?

I’m going to give you two answers to that question: Yes, I worry about it; and no, I can’t worry about it.

I think about the Anne Lamott quote: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

You are allowed to use the material of your life. If you are a memoirist, your life is your clay… I feel that if I swept my marital issues under the rug, it would not be of any help to anyone… If you are putting a memoir out there in the world, leaving out shit is a lie of omission. Truth is more important to me than anything else.

Even if it ruins relationships?

I do mind ruining relationships. This is going to sound highfalutin, but I feel that there is a higher cause here of truth and of telling difficult stories. If I ruin relationships in so doing, then I am ultimately helping more people out there to see the truths of their lives. 

I take to heart [the Jewish concept of] Tikkum Olam. My writing is my way of repairing the world, because I don’t know how to code or how to be a politician, and I’m bad at math and I could never pass chemistry. 

Holter heart monitor selfie, 2016, (c) Deborah Copaken

Every path results in collateral damage. At the same time, I don’t think that my relationship with my ex-husband will be harmed by this because we’ve talked about it, and I’ve written about this stuff already. He is a loving man who never meant harm. He is simply a person with a brain that is different from mine that creates a lack of empathy. I hope what I did is instead of taking people down is show humans who are flawed but full of love and lovable. 

You write all about your dating and sex life as a newly divorced woman in her 50s. Why did you feel it was important to include this?

I wasn’t going to not discuss sex in a book called “Ladyparts,” which is a vagina. 

I am a human body that has human body needs. When you are going through a divorce you are suddenly celibate. For me it was the first time in my life, and I was getting unhealthy. I was desperate for sex. I had to seek it out. There were some really comical aspects of that, like having to wear the holter monitor when my heart was on the fritz and someone was asking me for a naked selfie. 

You have been sexually harassed in your professional life, including a case involving a high-profile individual. Do you have hope that in the #MeToo era, things will be better for your daughter’s generation?

No. Men in positions of power will always abuse that power. They’re getting caught for it more and more, but I also think that there is an exhaustion in the #MeToo era right now. There is always yet another story about another abusive boss. 

This whole book is about abuse of power in every way. It’s about scientific abuse of power, sexual abuse of power, corporations abusing their power. This is what it is about to be a female body in the world, and it still fucking sucks.

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