Memoir Monday: Deborah Copaken LADYPARTS

Awful, hilarious, tragic, heroic

Deborah Copaken’s memoir, LADYPARTS, — as seen through her traumatized and largely invisible body parts — is awful and hilarious and tragic and heroic. A professional and underpaid/uninsuranced New York City writer, a mother, former war photographer, ex-spouse to a louse, and sometime-girlfriend to less awful people, Copaken’s brutally honest take on life keeps us laughing as we scream in indignation. I was immediately a fan as I cringe-read fascinating graphic descriptions like this, which opens the book:

I’m crawling around on the bathroom floor, picking up pieces of myself. These pieces are not metaphor. They are actual pieces. Plum-sized, beet-colored, with the consistency and sheen of chicken liver, three of them have shot out of me like shells from a cannon.

Deborah Copaken, LADYPARTS

That paragraph, described in Jessica Bennett’s review in the New York Times, either made you stop reading (as a friend tells Copaken, ”no one wants to hear about your bleeding vagina at a party”) or made you want to read more, rewarded by phrases like ”….our ladyparts tucked inside like Marie Kondo’d T-shirts in a drawer….” It made me buy the book, despite or maybe especially because of Bennett’s snotty review.

It’s not an easy read. I had to put LADYPARTS down several times. But, I stuck with Copaken, and I’m very glad I did.

A chilling but familiar tally

Three-quarters of the book later, Copaken — lying supine in the nirvana of ringing bowls in Tibet — lays out all the surgeries, biopsies, and multiple violations that have left her body with visible scars and invisible images “‘indelible in the hippocampus,’ as Christine Blasey Ford will later call her assault by Brett Kavanaugh.” It’s a chilling accumulation, but she knows that women will know what she is talking about. And male readers?

Men, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, talk to the women in your midst: your mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, and friends. Ask them for their lists. Theirs might not be as long—being five foot two perhaps makes me an easier target?—but be ready to be appalled by their answers.

Deborah Copaken, LADYPARTS

Genuine self

When one of her New York Times’ MODERN LOVE essays was produced for the Amazon Prime series, Copaken is played by Catherine Keener. Keener’s forthrightness is right in line with Copaken’s, who says this after her meeting with the actress:

..often those of us with ladyparts are told to follow the rules and stay in our lanes, to play the part society dictates instead of being our genuine selves. Or we’re fed corporate pablum telling us to stand tall and lean in. But you don’t get to become Catherine Keener by simply tilting your body toward the burning wreckage. You say fuck your dumb fire and use the shoulder to drive around it.

Deborah Copaken, LADYPARTS

I included that final line in my Amazon review, and immediately got it bounced back by the prissy editor. A dummed down version of my five-star review is up now, along with my less-edited five-star Goodreads review.

A call to action

LADYPARTS is a call to action, and I was able to ask Copaken what actions she’d like us to take. The occasion was a November on-line (“and live, in New York” just like SNL) pop-up book group event with Copaken, hosted by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Here’s Copaken’s answer:

Donate money to research on women’s health. [I’m contacting Congress and the White House to urge more funding for the Office of Research on Women’s Health]; and,

Don’t shush your friends. Talk about blood in a way that normalizes the topic.

Our ignorance, avoidance, and silencing of all discussions of female-associated viscera is not polite. It’s killing us.

Deborah Copaken, LADYPARTS

Experience LADYPARTS for yourself.

Deborah Copaken LADYPARTS
Deborah Copaken LADYPARTS

EMBASSY KID: A MEMOIR. Episode 2: The Mob Comes Roving (Caracas, 1958)

[This is a condensed version of my memoir about my childhood in the Foreign Service during the Cold War. EMBASSY KID is being evaluated for publication by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training]

Episode 1: The Dictator Flies Over Our House

EMBASSY KID: Preface

Episode 2: The Mob Comes Roving

My father lifted an arm and waved at the corner of the living room ceiling as the sound of the Venezuelan president’sairplane faded away. ”Adios, el president.”

Ernest Hamlin Baker, TIME magazine cover 2/28/55
Ernest Hamlin Baker, TIME magazine cover 2/28/55

Our maid Fina let out a short cry, and my mother shot Dad a look. Wit had its time and place, and the early hours flight into exile of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez was neither. “¿Fina, café?” She said. 

The maid headed to the kitchen, mumbling rosary incantations under her breath. My mother followed to check on Susie and me. We were still curled into our sheets. The resiliency of kids. She walked back into the living room and dropped onto the edge of the couch next to Dad, her hands on her knees as if awaiting instructions.

“The telephone investment seems healthier now, eh?” Dad said. The $250 purchase and $24 a month had been prohibitive when we’d arrived in Venezuela.

“Yes,” Mom said. “Do you think we should call Mother and Dad?”

“Well, no need to alarm your folks, I think. Let them keep the Caracas of their visit.”

“I suppose.” Mom sighed. She was grateful that her parents had avoided this mess when they visited two years before. Tonight, Caracas felt like a different place from the easygoing, eternally springtime city she and Dad had fallen in love with.  

Caracas cityscape 1950s
Caracas cityscape 1950s

My father turned on Radio Caracas. Sporadic news bulletins interrupted the familiar rhythms of Venezuelan folk tunes on the nightly program, Música Criolla. Each announcement reflected a still-evolving scenario. That the completely united army had overthrown the regime. That some army rebels, along with other armed forces and civilians, were taking the credit. That there was violence downtown. Excited voices urged citizens to stay at home, to remain calm, to refrain from harming foreigners.

“So, should we be doing something?” my mother said. “What’s the plan?”

Dad turned down the radio and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “We’re to sit tight. Hard to tell what’s going to happen, but better to be here together than to get caught up by a crowd in the street.”

He wasn’t sure how much my mother had heard about the deadly chaos of rampaging mobs in the coup d’état that had brought PJ to power in 1952.  The folks at the Canadian Embassy had approached their American counterparts several months before about consolidating evacuations. That had seemed like a remote possibility, but maybe not anymore. 

Caracas neighborhood 1950s
Caracas neighborhood 1950s

The Embassy was in downtown Caracas, several miles away from Zucatarate, the tree-lined residential neighborhood on the western edge of town where we and several other Embassy families lived. It was time to touch base with one of those colleagues. 

“Let me give Russ a call.” Dad spoke quietly into the receiver as Fina arrived with the coffee. 

“¿Algo mas?” the maid said. 

My mother forced her lips into a smile.“No, gracias, Fina.” 

The maid nodded. “Pues, buenas noches.” Fina returned to her room. 

My mother nodded and took a sip of the strong brew. None of that wimpy American coffee down here. There was so much they truly loved about this place. She took another sip, allowing the liquid heat to relax her back into the sofa. 

Dad hung up the phone and turned the radio back up a bit. “Okay, so maybe there’s something,” 

My mother snapped to high alert.

“We may want to hide the car,” he said.

“Hide the car?”

“They’re looking for PJ’s head honchos. Russ just had a mob in front of their house thinking his diplomatic plates were Venezuelan issue for the regime. Lucky for them, the men headed down the block before Russ shot his gun.”

“His gun?” Mom sat up straighter. “We don’t have a gun.” She paused. “Dad’s hunting gun.” Her father had given his duck-hunting rifle to Dad.

“Well, yes, we have your father’s gun, but no, I don’t think it’s going to come to that.”

The radio crackled as an enthusiastic announcer broke in. “¡Periodistas!” Newspaper editors! He continued in Spanish. “You are finally free. Tell the public that the dictator is gone!”

“Imagine that,” my father said. “An uncensored paper. First time in ten years.”

“The car?” my mother prompted. The diplomatic plates on the Oldsmobile sitting in our driveway a few feet from the street could easily be confused with those issued for the Venezuelan government. “Do you think maybe we should put out the American flag? I mean, we’re the good guys, right?”

My father considered the suggestion. “Well, we know we’re the good guys,” he said, “but I’m not so sure everyone agrees. Better play it safe. Got some Crisco?”

My mother retrieved the blue tub from the refrigerator. Dad scooped out a handful. He opened the front door slowly, paused, and stepped out. The air was still and heavy with the scent of ripe mango. The pop-pop-pop of fireworks echoed from downtown, or was that gunfire? 

My mother huddled in the doorway as Dad took three long strides across the little yard to the Oldsmobile and crouched down to smear the license plate with grease and dirt. Satisfied, he hurried back inside. My mother shut the door and secured the lock. 

Dad turned off the radio. “Let’s try to get some sleep.”

The words were barely out of his mouth when a car careened around our corner, brakes screeching, horn blaring in defiance of Pérez Jiménez’ edict against honking. My mother froze, her eyes wide. Would the Olds’ camouflage work? Would my grandfather’s shotgun be necessary? But the driver and his euphoric passengers flew by cheering and continued toward downtown.

“Like winning the big game,” Dad said, downplaying the anxious moment with a shrug of his shoulders. Another car swept loudly past. “I think all the action’s downtown. Nothing more to do except get that rest. It’s going to be a long day.”

Caracas photo image late 1950s
Caracas photo image late 1950s

Mom looked in on us girls again. Susie and I were still fast asleep, untroubled by the noise and innocent of the drama unfolding around us. Mom wondered if she’d be up to the task of creating a routine in a city that was in chaos. My preschool would be closed, so both us kids would be home, and Mom hoped that Dad would stay home as well. She’d need to watch Fina. Susie and I would absorb her mood without understanding it. Everything needed to be normal.

She climbed back into bed.

“Everyone okay?” Dad said.

“So far.”

They lay still, eyes closed and ears open. Another few cars gunned past. In the distance, car horns bleated off-key against the staccato rhythms of gunfire. The night wore on. 

As dawn made its tentative advance, they heard a whispering from the street, like prairie grass in the summer wind. It grew steadily louder. They crept to the living room window and peered through the glass slats and metal bars. Out of the fading night emerged a parade of men and women, their passage marked by the soft whoosh-whoosh of the alpargata slippers worn by the people that lived in the shacks up the hill. It was like an Easter processional, only instead of the statue of a saint, each person carried a chair or a television or a file cabinet.

“Looters,” my father said. “They’ve broken into the police station.”

Next time from EMBASSY KID: A MEMOIR: How this young Midwestern family — a farm boy and a small town girl, and their two daughters — found themselves in Venezuela

Embassy Kid: Preface

I am completing a memoir about my childhood, which I spent in Latin America, Europe, and Washington DC during my father’s career in the Foreign Service. Here is the preface from Embassy Kid: A Memoir, which I hope to publish within the year.

Jane Kelly Amerson López

Alone in America

I watched the tail lights of the rental car vanish down the elm-lined street on that August afternoon in 1973, taking my parents and my sister back into the Foreign Service landscape without me. I should have been in that backseat, eyes forward, hands folded, as America vanished behind us, the self-contained, four-person unit jetting back into our Real World.  Instead, here I was, stranded alone in America, astonished to find myself broken apart from the family unit with which I’d negotiated 18 years in Latin America, Europe, and the even stranger land of the Washington DC suburbs. 

Most American kids leave home to go to college. My home had just left me. I was an Embassy kid. 

Finding My Way

It would take me the better part of a decade to sort myself out. While my family completed my father’s Foreign Service career abroad, I switched to my middle name and wandered through the United States, accumulating college credits at five institutions, working a series of hourly jobs, and training as a modern dancer, a trajectory that eventually landed me in New York City. There, in the city that felt like all the places in the Real World at once, the nicest man I know called me by my Spanish name and something clicked in my heart. We’ve been married for forty years, during which we’ve created our own real world rich in rewards, the greatest of which is our daughter. We’ve traveled, but America is home.

Third Culture Kid

 It wasn’t always. When I was younger, I struggled to answer the most American of questions: “Where are you from?”  I lived in eight places in six countries on three continents before I was 18, but none of them was home. I was born in Minnesota and my Norwegian ancestry shows in my fair coloring, but I grew up in Latin countries. I was an American kid with the mystique of a diplomatic passport overseas, but I felt like a foreigner in the United States. I sink my roots fast and make friends quickly, but I up-root easily and don’t ever look back. I’m never from here, but I’m also not from there. Neither a true-blue American like my parents, nor a member of any other nation, I’m a Third Culture Kid. 

Archeological Exploration

When I was in second grade in the magical ancient city of Rome, I was sure I’d be an archeologist. Although that idea evaporated when we moved to another part of the world, I realize now that I’ve spent the better part of my adult life sifting like an archeologist through the detritus of my childhood, looking for the evidence of where I was from. 

I wove childhood memories and family anecdotes into stories about my parents, Robert and Nancy Amerson, my sister, Susie, and me. I dove into the journals, letters, and interviews my parents left behind containing their personal observations about a quarter-century with the United States Information Agency. My father’s book about Venezuela, How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship, and the oral histories of other Foreign Service officers who served alongside my father during the Cold War, have allowed me to breathe life into historical events and to recover personal experiences that would otherwise have been lost to time. Finding a way to share these stories has been a thrill, a comfort, and an honor. And reflecting on the impression of these experiences on the Embassy kid that I was and the adult I have become has been a rewarding journey. 

An Homage to My Parents

This book is an homage to my parents, two patriots in the firmament of Embassy people, men and women who, then and now, serve as America’s emissaries abroad, raising their children in foreign lands far from family and friends in order that the world get to know us.

These are the stories of an ordinary American family living through extraordinary times in the service of their country. 

This is where I am from. I am an Embassy kid.

Wildcard Weekend Book Review: “The Beauty in Breaking” by Michele Harper

I have been broken many times. I suspect most people have. In practicing the Japanese art of Kintsukoroi, one repairs broken pottery by filling in the cracks with gold, silver, or platinum. The choice to highlight the breaks with precious metals not only acknowledges them, but also pays tribute to the vessel that has been torn apart by the mutability of life. The previously broken object is considered more beautiful for its imperfections. In life, too, even greater brilliance can be found after the mending.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

In her memoir The Beauty in Breaking, emergency medicine doctor Michele Harper draws on her experiences with patients to slowly address and heal the deeply-seated emotional pain of her traumatic childhood, chaos that landed her in an ER waiting room as a young teen.

All of us had converged in these hallowed halls for a chance to heal our wounds, to offer up our hurt and our pain to be eased.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

That experience led her to the decision that ER medicine would be her life’s work.

Unlike the war zone that was my childhood, I would be in control of that space, providing relief or at least a reprieve to those who called out for help … That would be my offering to the world, to myself.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

Harper offers us multiple opportunities to experience redemption as she reflects on the people in her care. The crushing blow of losing an infant makes way for healing.

After all, only an empty vessel can be filled by grace.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

A young Black man lies dying from a gunshot wound, crying for his mother:

… as he was absolved by the bright lights of the trauma bay.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

A woman in the psychiatric unit reveals an awful secret in a moment that feels like the shattering of a glass house:

We had trod mindfully over the shards and escaped with nonfatal wounds to a new freedom.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

Over and over again, Dr. Harper sees the person, not the patient.

I read this book in the early months of my ongoing recovery from a near-fatal ruptured aneurysm while on vacation in Holland in 2019. I could see myself through Harper’s eyes — a woman lying on an ER gurney bleeding internally to death. I felt her “call down the gods of repose and silence, to take the measure of their power in the moments when I need it most” just as those ER doctors in Amsterdam did in finding and sealing the rupture, snatching me back from death.

It was a short-lived victory. I was in the ICU for another month as my body failed and failed again. But, at every turn, the Amsterdam doctors and nurses not only pulled me back from the brink, they held me and my family up with kindness and compassion. As I emerged from the fog and began to recover my wasted body, my OLVG caregivers continued to treat me as a person, not a patient. They filled my heart as they healed my body.

My story has been refracted a million times over by the coronavirus pandemic as compassionate, exhausted doctors stand between COVID and death around the globe. What a time in which to see the struggle through the eyes of this passionate woman and compelling author.

In life, too, even greater brilliance can be found after the mending.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking
Portraits of hospital workers by Steve Derrick. See his Facebook page here

NOTE: The photographs on this post are portraits of hospital workers by Steve Derrick of Clifton Park, NY, who was featured by CBS News some months back. See his Facebook page here to see more paintings and to learn how to purchase them.