What I Thought I Knew: A Memoir

What I Thought I Knew: A Memoir

by Alice Eve Cohen

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"Darkly hilarious...an unexpected bundle of joy."
-O, The Oprah Magazine

Alice Cohen was happy for the first time in years. After a difficult divorce, she had a new love in her life, she was rais­ing a beloved adopted daughter, and her career was blossoming. Then she started experiencing mysterious symptoms. After months of tests, x-rays, and inconclusive diagnoses, Alice underwent a CAT scan that revealed the truth: she was six months pregnant.

At age forty-four, with no prenatal care and no insurance coverage for a high-risk pregnancy, Alice was besieged by opinions from doctors and friends about what was ethical, what was loving, what was right. With the intimacy of a diary and the suspense of a thriller, What I Thought I Knew is a ruefully funny, wickedly candid tale; a story of hope and renewal that turns all of the "knowns" upside down.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101050934
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/09/2009
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 1,023,487
File size: 245 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Alice Eve Cohen is a playwright, solo theater artist, and memoirist. She has written for Nickelodeon and PBS and received fellowships and grants from the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches at The New School in New York City.

Reading Group Guide

At age forty-four, playwright and solo theater artist Alice Eve Cohen was happier than she'd been in a long time. After a difficult divorce and painful custody battle for her adopted daughter, and years of financially challenged single parenthood, she was engaged to Michael, a younger man who inspired her artistically and nourished her emotionally. Her career, too, was blossoming.

Then, as if on cue, her luck seemed to turn, and she started feeling ill. At first, the series of mysterious symptoms — fatigue, depression, insomnia, a hardening in her abdomen — didn't seem to concern her doctors, who assured her it was the onset of menopause and instructed her to continue taking the estrogen she'd been on since being told she was infertile at the age of thirty.

When the symptoms worsened, she was certain that she had a tumor. She returned to the hospital and was finally sent for an emergency CAT scan that revealed the true source of her symptoms: she was actually six months pregnant.

As Cohen and her family grappled with a reality she never thought possible, the revelations that followed posed new and complicated challenges. With no prenatal care, a shoddy freelancer's insurance plan, and a pregnancy that was characterized as high-risk, she was turned away by the very specialists she needed. It was far too late for an abortion — unless she wanted to travel to Kansas and face down a fierce crowd of protestors. At the same time, she was overwhelmed by her child's potential health problems that would likely be caused by the hormones, her advanced maternal age, and other factors. She was, in fact, fairly certain she did not want to have a child, even as her partner, family, and friends urged her to embrace her strange luck. As the days of her pregnancy tick away, she ponders her options and the challenges ahead. The more she knows, the less she understands, and every piece of new knowledge seems to stir the very foundation of her beliefs.

In What I Thought I Knew, Cohen has applied her theatrical sensibility to create a page turning thriller of a memoir. Cohen's journey through a broken healthcare system and the farthest reaches of her own spiritual faith is laden with memorable characters and surprising twists and turns. A powerful story with an endearingly honest heroine, and rich insights into family relationships, What I Thought I Knew is timely, compelling, and utterly unforgettable.


Alice Eve Cohen is a playwright, solo theater artist, and memoirist. She has written for Nickelodeon and PBS and received fellowships and grants from the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches at The New School in New York City.

Q. You mention that this book was originally intended to be a solo stage show but the thought of performing it gave you a kind of writer's block. How is a memoir different from a stage show, and how did writing your story as a memoir free you up?

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, I could barely talk about the story, no less perform it. Performance is so public; my story is so private. Writing the book allowed me to work through my personal struggle with the material by removing the terrifying prospect of performing. The particular intimacy of memoir allowed me to imagine, while writing, that I was sharing my secrets with just one reader at a time.

Structurally, my book is deeply influenced by theater. 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 similar to solo theater 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.

Q. The premise of this book might be summed up in the Yiddish proverb "Man plans, God laughs." Do you think being at least culturally Jewish prepared you for the ironies of your experience?

Whether or not it's a Jewish trait, my preferred survival mechanism is to find humor even in the most painful situations.

Q. Your experience with the healthcare system really seemed to hit some highs (brilliant experts, kindly doctors who extended themselves) and lows (bureaucratic insurance nightmares, malpractice). How did it change your perspective as a patient?

There are good guys and bad guys in my story, from all corners of the healthcare system. My health insurance company was woefully inadequate, and some doctors made idiotic mistakes. But I also encountered brilliant doctors and therapists who were selflessly dedicated to their patients.

My experience has changed my perspective as a patient in a variety of ways, including making me a fervent advocate of healthcare reform. I used to trust my health insurance company, until I discovered that in order to provide adequate medical care for my daughter, we would have to go deeply into debt. I have become more careful about choosing doctors. I ask a lot of questions, and I am likely to seek second and third opinions on medical advice for me and for my family. I admire and trust my current doctors. At a certain point, unless you're a medical expert yourself, you have to trust your doctor. But I emphatically do not trust the health insurance industry, which is so intrinsically flawed that only health care reform can repair it.

Q. So many of the characters you encounter along the way, from the Lamaze coach to Dr. Arborgast, the Russell-Silver specialist, are so vivid. Have you ever incorporated any of these personas into your stage work?

I've adapted portions of What I Thought I Knew for the stage, and I've done a number of performances and theatrical readings. There's a lot of humor in the book, and the comic scenes with larger-than-life characters, such as Dr. Arbogast, are the most fun to perform. Soon after my book came out, Eliana had an appointment with Dr. Arbogast (not her real name), and I worried that she might be angry about my portrait of her. To my happy surprise, when we got to her office, she was holding a copy of my book, which she asked me and Eliana both to sign, and said she thought her scene in the book was hilarious.

Q. This book is filled with extremely candid emotions that other writers might have shied away from. Were you as open in the early drafts or did you come to reveal more of these feelings over time?

From the start, I was writing to figure out what had happened, and the only way I could do that was by being uncompromisingly honest with myself. I didn't know it would be a book. I thought it might be a collection of essays, and I wasn't thinking about publishing. I wrote in secret — not even telling my husband what I was working on — so that I wouldn't be inhibited by the thought of an audience. I experimented with ways to capture my most desperately confused moments. In the later drafts, I think I was able to articulate more complicated emotions, because through the process of writing the book I finally was able to understand what happened.

Q. You've tackled some weighty issues here, from late-term abortion to "wrongful life." What has the response to the book been?

Reviewers and interviewers often highlight the abortion decision and my wrongful life lawsuit, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to be part of the national dialogue about reproductive rights. I'm thrilled at the positive response my book has received in the press, and especially touched by reader responses. Many readers have written to say that they, too, have wrestled with impossibly difficult decisions — including abortion — and they appreciate my giving voice to subjects that are so often kept secret. I received an e-mail from a woman in Wichita, Kansas, who said she "hadn't been involved in Wichita's angry confrontations — on either side of the abortion issue," and that my book gave her "new insights into the heartbreaking decisions that women sometimes face, regardless of the choice they make." It's very fulfilling to know that my book has started discussions, invited reflection, and offered readers a new way of thinking about these issues.

Q. A beautiful theme running throughout your memoir is your connection to your theater students — particularly Dani. Does teaching parallel motherhood, or does your relationship with your students represent another kind of love?

That's such an interesting question. I hadn't thought about it quite in those terms, but the strong bond I had with my students, and my relationship with Dani, are important threads in my memoir. I had just begun to teach solo theater, and I really loved my students. The class was my lifeline during that difficult period of time. There was an intuitive understanding in the room that the stakes were very high: life and death. I was having a baby, Dani was dying, and the students approached their solo pieces as if their lives depended on it. It was a very supportive group, Dani especially. She nurtured everyone's work, while at the same time developing a beautiful dance-theater piece about her terminal cancer. Her kindness and grace in the face of death, her unexpected new reality, inspired me to change my perspective and make some first, halting steps toward accepting my unexpected new reality. I hoped I would be able to embody the kind of courage and generosity of spirit Dani exemplified.

I often think about Dani. I teach playwriting and solo theater at The New School, and I tell my students about Dani and about the April Fools party she threw shortly before her death — her final performance, a celebration of life, and her good-bye.

Q. Of all the advice people give you in the book, one of the most profound statements is "Parenting is all about moving forward and constant, unpredictable change." Has this idea helped you as you continue to raise your daughters?

I've often thought of that wise piece of advice as my daughters have grown up. It's a variation on a theme: "Mom plans, God laughs."

Q. Even though your personal story is extraordinary, readers can relate to that feeling of being blindsided by an unexpected reality that changes everything we took for granted. Do you think these realizations always make us stronger?

I imagine that the book will speak to anybody who's been through difficult times — which includes just about everyone. I'm fortunate that our family crisis and our new understandings that came out of it did ultimately make us stronger. There were times in my journey when 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 (or maybe because of) the storm we weathered together.

However, the new insight that comes from being blindsided by an unexpected reality does not always make us stronger — and this brings me back to healthcare reform. A medical crisis can transform what you once took for granted about yourself and about the world, but the consequences can be devastating, especially when the healthcare system isn't playing fair.

Q. As you condensed your wildly complicated story into What I Thought I Knew, did you find that it made sense in ways it hadn't before? What was your biggest takeaway from writing this book?

Writing the book helped me work through and come to terms with a period in my life so confusing and troubling that I couldn't talk about it for years. In the epigraph, I use a quote from Zora Neale Hurston — "There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you" — which has powerful resonance for me. After bearing this untold story inside me for seven years, I'm glad I found the way to tell it, and grateful that the story finally has an audience.

  • Cohen reveals from the beginning that she is superstitious by nature, that she shouldn't revel in any good fortune or the Evil Eye will smite her with bad luck. Does this way of thinking help or hurt her?
  • By trade, Cohen is a solo performer. Did you encounter any elements of this memoir that seem informed by a theatrical sensibility?
  • Throughout the book, Cohen includes lists of what she knows — or what she thinks she knows. How do these lists help her deal with her situation and what do they tell you as the reader?
  • As an added stressor to her situation, Cohen and her fiancé Michael hit some bumps in their relationship as they debate what to do about the pregnancy. What are their positions and how do they resolve them?
  • In the section titled "Riddles," Cohen explores what it means to be a mother. In your opinion, what qualities make a mother "real"?
  • How does teaching her theater classes help Cohen? What does she teach her students and what do her students teach her?
  • Cohen's journey through this story is filled with surprises. Which event or response to an event surprised you the most?
  • Cohen demythologizes motherhood by revealing that she doesn't exactly bond with Eliana during breastfeeding as she had expected to. How does she ultimately forge a relationship with her?
  • After Eliana is born, Cohen decides to pursue a "wrongful life" malpractice suit against the doctor who misdiagnosed her, at great risk to her unborn baby. How do you feel about the concept of "wrongful life" suits?
  • Cohen, an agnostic, names her baby "Eliana" (Hebrew for "My God has answered me"). What is the role of spirituality in Cohen's journey?
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    What I Thought I Knew: A Memoir 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 40 reviews.
    E_M_13423 More than 1 year ago
    Finally at a forgiving age of 44, life is good, a divorce behind her and ready to be married to a wonderful guy. Alice’s adopted daughter is thriving quite well, and her career is satisfying. A large lump in her stomach is giving her concern, fearing cancer, she visits her GYN and low and behold….she is pregnant. What?! She wasn’t supposed to be able to be pregnant, thought to be impossible, infertile, they said….and so starts this story.
    Crazy-for-Books More than 1 year ago
    My Synopsis: <p> In this startlingly candid memoir, Alice Even Cohen shares her personal journey as a 44 year old "infertile" pregnant woman. From the medical professionals who couldn't figure out what was wrong with her (she was SIX MONTHS into her pregnancy before it was finally discovered that she was pregnant!), to her emotional struggle of whether or not she wanted to have the baby, Ms. Cohen's memoir is deeply touching and fast-paced. <p> My Thoughts: <p> I loved this memoir. I am completely shocked and downright appalled at the medical professionals who failed Ms. Cohen. To read her journey and all the doctors she saw and the tests she went through and no one figured out she was pregnant - it's absolutely unbelievable to me! The circumstances she had to endure and the conversations she had to have during her "medical mystery" and after her diagnosis will make you cringe and cry. <p> I can relate to Alice in many ways, being an infertile woman myself. I can't imagine being set in your life and accepting of your situation, in your mid forties and BAM, suddenly you are pregnant. What a shocking situation it must have been for her! I don't want to examine her thoughts and feelings about the situation because none of us know how we will react when faced with the same circumstances. All I will say is that Ms. Cohen is a brave woman who fought through a very difficult time the best way she knew how and I commend her for that. <p> This memoir is very well-written and short at less than 200 pages so I blew through it in two sittings. Ms. Cohen has a way of capturing the reader's attention at every turn of the page until you know the outcome of her story. I couldn't put the book down.
    debnance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I didn¿t know much about this book before I read it, and I want others to go into it without knowing very much. This I will say: It¿s a true story. It¿s the story of discovering oneself pregnant very unexpectedly. It¿s a ride. I would strongly urge others to read it if you like personal narratives. It¿s thoughtful and emotional. One of my most intense reads this year.
    molloaggie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    The author took me for a rollercoaster of a ride through one of the toughest journeys of her life. It took me a while to adjust to her first person writing style but I couldn't put the book down for a moment. It was great to read a motherhood story with a strong father in the picture. She throws in a lot of sexuality from students, strangers who merely pass through her life, that I found quite distracting and out of touch with the rest of the story.
    Eeekievonkane on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Wow - the memoir format of lists and narrative was so compelling. Story was riviting. Middle age complexity. Amazingly told.
    woodsathome on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I'm a sucker for this type of book - woman who thought she was infertile, knew something was growing in her, shocked the "tumor" was a baby, yada, yada, yada. Here's what kept me hooked everytime I thought I knew where the book was going another twist was around the corner. I didn't always like the author, but I did always enjoy the tale. So much so that I read it in one sitting.
    bobbieharv on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    A very well-written memoir that I sped through: issue after issue kept coming up for her - did she have cancer or was she pregnant or was the baby deformed or was she going to have an abortion or was her husband going to leave her - all done with a sense of perspective that didn't sacrifice her wildly gyrating emotions. Excellent read.
    Sararush on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Here¿s what she thought she knew:That she was in love with her soul mate.That she had a beautiful adopted daughter.At 44 she had finally enabled her dream life style and financial situation. It was medically impossible for her to get pregnant.Only to discover during a medical crisis that she was indeed six months pregnant. Due to her age and pre-natal neglect, her pregnancy is high risk, and she is grossly under insured. The doctors tell her with certainty that her baby will be born with one deformity or another. And that is if she can avoid a likely a pre-mature delivery. It is far too late for a legal abortion, so Cohen has few options in the face of an increasingly frightening pregnancy. As each new piece of worse news filters in, Cohen repeats and repeats what she knows of her situation in a mantra of literary panic. The scarily candid Cohen admits to being not sure if she is capable of loving or raising her surprise baby. She also admits those thoughts are despicable, and yet it is hard to read that a mother could have such thoughts, but it is harder not to feel for her predicament. Cohen¿s emotional story of a mother grappling with guilt and shame on the eve of an inevitable change of life is unforgettable.
    bookwormygirl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    When I first agreed to review this book I thought this would be a serious memoir about one woman's struggles with a pregancy and new baby in her mid-40's. And although it is that, it is also so much more.Alice Eve Cohen's memoir is nothing short of inspirational. With a very brutally honest voice she tells you her story. And what a story it is! I literally read her book in one sitting. Just when Alice Eve Cohen is happiest in life - she is with the man of her dreams, has a wonderful stepdaughter who she loves as her own and is financially stable - she finds out she's 6 months pregnant (at 44). Because of her age and her pre-natal neglect, her pregnancy is considered to be high risk Oh, and did I mention the problems with health insurance... yes, there's also that. Her doctor's tell her that her baby will most likely have some type of deformity and/or problem and that is if she's even able to carry it to full-term. She is also too far advanced in her pregnancy for a legal abortion. What is a woman to do?I must commend Ms. Cohen for telling her story in such a light and witty voice - which more than once brought a smile to my face. She realistically captures the terror, the indecision, the agony, the worry, and the joy too. You don't have to be a mother or a wife or even female to appreciate this book. Highly recommended.
    whitreidtan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    When I decided to have children, I didn't do much soul searching, much questioning of whether I would be a good mother, what sorts of genetic or environmental issues I would be passing along to those as yet unborn. Of course, both my husband and I were young, educated, and healthy so we were a good risk for reproduction. The fact that I fell pregnant easily just seemed to reinforce our somewhat unthinking decision to form a larger family. But what if I had not been young? Or what if I couldn't get pregnant? What if, finally being pregnant, I was 44 and had been told I was infertile, I didn't discover my condition until I was 6 months pregnant, and my fiance and I were uninsured artists living without so that we could do that which fed our souls? That in essence is the situation in which Alice Eve Cohen found herself. This book is the searingly honest, revealing memoir of a 3 month pregnancy, the medical incompetence, the emotional struggle, the questioning, and the grace that characterized her pregnancy. Cohen was told that due to a misshapen uterus she was infertile so she and her first husband adopted a lovely daughter. Years later at age 44, she is happy as the mother to her daughter; she feels fulfilled in her job teaching acting and performing her own plays; and she is thriving in her relationship with her fiance. But then niggling health concerns start popping up and doctors have no answers for her. It could be her age. It could be the hormones she's taking. Whatever it is, the answer isn't yielding to any of the tests she undergoes, until finally, a bombshell. She's pregnant. 6 months pregnant. As Cohen cycles through disbelief to acceptance, she chronicles the emotional roller coaster as well. What choices does she have with this late term news? How does her lack of pre-natal care affect her decision about the outcome of her pregnancy? What kind of weight does fiance Michael's feelings on this unexpected pregnancy have? How can she possibly wrap her head around the place she finds herself? Fiercely honest about her reactions and her decisions, Cohen does not whitewash anything in order to show herself in a better light. This pregnancy is no wished for miracle. It is a catastrophe that could beget more catastophe. Her decision to pursue a late term abortion or to carry the baby to term will have an irreversible and permanent impact on her life no matter which choice she makes. Alongside her own complicated emotional state, Cohen also details the medical malpractice that left her in the dark for 6 months, submitting to tests and drugs that are harmful to fetuses. She examines the mistakes made and the probable outcome of those mistakes. She faces the plight of the self-insured, needing expensive, uncovered, out of network medical care and is turned down by doctor after doctor. She and her unborn baby are a walking liability to any and all doctors. As she navigates through the medical morass that the pregnancy becomes, she continually writes lists of what she knows to date. The repetitious nature of these lists, with additions and corrections as needed, throughout the memoir give them a sort of talismanic feeling. They serve to anchor Cohen to the facts as she thought she knew them. Pregnancy worry beads, if you will. The writing here is gorgeous. There are times that Cohen seems emotionally inaccesible to the reader but she was so frozen herself that this reserve serves to reinforce the truth of her own feelings. Her internal debate is honest, agonizing, and unsparing and it's a privilege to be invited into something so personal and emotional. Her background as an actor is clear here, with each chapter its own contained act and scene. I highly recommend this deeply moving, intelligent, and thoughtful memoir.
    VickiLN More than 1 year ago
    I started reading this book not sure if I’d like it or not. I didn’t know if the author wrote it in a way I would enjoy, because of the sensitive subject. And for the first few pages I still wasn’t sure. But before long, I was hooked. I didn’t want to put it down and read it in two sittings. I would have read it in one if I hadn’t had to stop and do things that had to be done. The writing is terrific, as is the story. And it’s a true story. One that I can’t imagine going through. It is at times happy, and others very deeply sad. It’s full of confusion, worries and very hard decisions. And a lot of happiness and love. The author is very funny at times too. Alice Eve Cohen holds nothing back in this book. She shares her thoughts and feelings through this time with an openness that surprised and touched me. I felt like I was listening to a friend talk. I’ve seen a few negative reviews, saying that the author was self centered and only thinking about herself. I didn’t get that from the book at all. She was devastated that she didn’t know she was pregnant for the first 6 months and so she had been drinking etc. Because of that, her baby was subjected to things that weren’t at all good for him/her, and didn’t get the care needed, like vitamins. She also was told the baby would more than likely have a few devastating health disabilities, due to her age and her own medical conditions. That was the reason she had the thoughts she did. But, she still did whatever the doctors told her to do for the safety of her unborn child. This book was so good. Really really good. The best memoir I’ve ever read. If you haven’t read this book, go get a copy. It’s a quick read that is packed with a very emotional story.
    macjam47 More than 1 year ago
    Alice Eve Cohen’s memoir is honest, deeply moving, and at times humorous.  At age 44, Alice is happy with the way her life is going. Divorced, she has found Mr. Right and is headed down the path to marriage. Her adopted daughter is thriving, and her career as a storyteller and performer is flourishing.  What more could she want? She was settled into the life she wanted when suddenly she started experiencing mysterious symptoms.  After a visit to her gynecologist, the doctor told her she was going through menopause. She had a hard belly and eventually after x-rays and months of other tests, she had a CAT scan. Her diagnosis was a shock. She was six months pregnant, was a DES daughter who would undoubtedly deliver her baby early, and she had no prenatal care up to now.  She had been on medications and there was a possibility the baby would be born with problems.   How could she be pregnant?  All these months the doctors had been telling her she was depressed, menopausal, anemic, preoccupied with the possibility of having cancer, and she was supposedly infertile.  She was high risk and no doctor wanted to take her on as a patient because of the six months she had no prenatal care.   Alice considers all of her options, openly and honestly.  She is genuine and straightforward and doesn't hesitate to describe exactly how difficult it was for her to make the decision she did concerning her baby. It is hard to talk about her story without giving too much away so I will leave it here.  It is a book you won’t want to put down.  I recommend this as a five-star book.  
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Which means you only get to sample the table of contents...
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I have read hundreds of memoirs and I undertand that what makes for a good read is an author who bares their soul but she took it too far. There are somethings that are better left unsaid. A good portion of this book revolves around her contemplating whether or not to end her pregnancy. Her husband had to basically coerce her into not doing so. By putting these thoughts down on paper it was probably cathartic for her but it was potentially at the expense of her childs future mental health. I cant imagine what her daughter is going to go through when she is old enough to read and undertand this book.
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    I read this book almost in one sitting. Her style of writing is so fluid and easy to read, transporting you directly into her head. This book was so real, she doesn't hold back on any emotions from her readers. It was really refreshing.
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