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A frank, witty, and dazzlingly written memoir of one woman trying to keep it together while her body falls apart—from the“brilliant mind” (Michaela Coel, creator of I May Destroy You) behindShutterbabe
“The most laugh-out-loud story of resilience you’ll ever read and an essential road map for the importance of narrative as a tool of healing.”—Lori Gottlieb, bestselling author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone
I’m crawling around on the bathroom floor, picking up pieces of myself. These pieces are not a metaphor. They are actual pieces.
Twenty years after her iconic memoir Shutterbabe, Deborah Copaken is at her darkly comedic nadir: battered, broke, divorcing, dissected, and dying—literally—on sexism’s battlefield as she scoops up what she believes to be her internal organs into a glass container before heading off to the hospital . . . in an UberPool. Ladyparts is Copaken’s irreverent inventory of both the female body and the body politic of womanhood in America, the story of one woman brought to her knees by the one-two-twelve punch of divorce, solo motherhood, healthcare Frogger, unaffordable childcare, shady landlords, her father’s death, college tuitions, sexual harassment, corporate indifference, ageism, sexism, and plain old bad luck. Plus seven serious illnesses, one atop the other, which provide the book’s narrative skeleton: vagina, uterus, breast, heart, cervix, brain, and lungs. Copaken bounces back from each bum body part, finds workarounds for every setback—she transforms her home into a commune to pay rent, sells her soul for health insurance, turns FBI informant when her sexual harasser gets a presidential appointment—but in her slippery struggle to survive a steep plunge off the middle-class ladder, she is suddenly awoken to what it means to have no safety net.
Side-splittingly funny one minute, a freak horror show the next, quintessentially American throughout, Ladyparts is an era-defining memoir.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Ladyparts
July 2, 2017
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.
I am bleeding out. But my brain, starved of blood and in shock at the sight of so much of it, cannot process this information. Instead, I’ve become convinced that the ordnance sliding around my bathroom floor are my internal organs, which I must rescue so someone can put them back inside me.
I head to the kitchen to hunt for Tupperware. Not just any Tupperware. The glass kind. Heaven forbid my liver and kidney should come into contact with BPAs. It does not occur to me, in my befuddled state, that had my internal organs actually fallen from my body, I would not have the pulse with which to rummage in my kitchen cabinet in search of a container to store them.
It is Saturday night—no, now Sunday morning, just after midnight—of the July Fourth weekend, 2017. Pads and underwear have become useless against these pyrotechnics, so it’s just me and my bathrobe, hemorrhaging. Outside, bootleg fireworks are erupting into the sky. Inside, gravity has forced another palm-sized chunk to plunge—splat!—onto the kitchen floor. And the rocket’s red glare, indeed: Happy Independence Day to me! (Added bonus, I’m mid-divorce.) I scoop up the large mass and put it in the glass container with the others.
With the blobs now safely stored in carcinogen-free glass on the top shelf of my fridge—I’ve seen enough medical procedurals to know about the importance, when transporting human organs, of picnic coolers—I call the answering service for my surgeon, who three weeks earlier had removed my cervix. This post-op emergency, which I’m not yet prepared to call an emergency, is unusual. In fact, of all trachelectomies—that’s the clinical name for cervix removal—performed in the U.S., only a small percentage result in “vaginal cuff dehiscence”: the clinical name for uh-oh, the stitches where they sewed up the top of your vaginal canal have come undone, and now you’re a blood clot howitzer.
I am twelve hours, without medical intervention, from my own death. Possibly less.
At this point, however, I know none of this. Neither the number of hours I have left nor the technical name for what’s happening. I just know I’m exhausted and bleeding profusely. That I’m still deep in the weeds of recovering from major surgery. That I’d already gone to the emergency room near family court six days after surgery, after nearly passing out from pain while representing myself at a custody hearing, but the hospital had sent me home, saying everything looked fine.
I am loath to cry wolf again. But my apartment looks like a crime scene. So I’m crying medium-sized dog, possibly rabid. Alas, no one from the hospital is calling me back, so I’m crying into the void anyway. I call the answering service again. I text them a photo of one of the masses in the palm of my hand for size context. Nada.
I feel like medicine’s needy girlfriend, ghosted by the hospital.
It has now magically jumped from midnight to 1:30 in the morning. Like a Truffaut film. Qu’est-ce que c’est, degueulasse? What is disgusting? I mean, for starters, the bathroom floor.
Part of me can’t help but wonder if all of these bloody missiles are, in fact, metaphor: the expulsion of decades of marital sludge. But while I am grateful for my escape from a toxic, lonely marriage, I’ve recently been as alone as I’ve ever been, as lonely as I’ve ever felt. My eldest has been living with his girlfriend in Bangkok, where he’s teaching English. My youngest is away at summer camp. My middle one has been in the Middle East, so I’ve been walking the dog and doing the dishes and taking out the trash and lugging laundry back and forth from the communal laundry room in the basement on my own.
None of these tasks are on the list of acceptable activities on the hospital handout they give you when they kick you out the morning after surgery and tell you to rest. But having been recently downsized, I can’t afford the added cost of a home health aide. Or, frankly, food or shelter. Aside from the few freelance gigs I’ve been able to cobble together from bed, I now have zero income combined with an extra $2,314.20 a month in COBRA fees, which has always struck me as one of the more insulting cosmic ironies of losing a job in America: Bye! Have a nice life! Here’s zero months of severance plus an extra rent’s worth of healthcare costs.
The rest of the night becomes fuzzy, as I slip in and out of consciousness, so I’ll just mention the scenes I do remember in the order I think they occurred. This is not me trying to sound postmodern. It’s just the jump-cut way in which I recall them, devoid of the normal transitions that streamline a narrative.
“Hey, sweetie, sorry to wake you . . .” I finally wake my sleeping daughter, feeling guilty about so doing. She’s just arrived home from Tel Aviv, after many layovers and no sleep. Birthright wasn’t around when I was her age, so my first trip to Israel was also my first assignment as a photojournalist, to cover the first intifada. Rocks and CNN trucks. The boys would always wait around for the trucks to show up before throwing their rocks. McLuhan was right. The medium is always the message. What are these blobs trying to transmit to me?
“I think my kidney fell out,” I say to my daughter, clutching my mystery masses, “so I might have to go to the hospital. But you stay here with Lucas and walk him in the morning.” Lucas is our dog. Like all dogs, he hates fireworks. To self-soothe, he’s been sitting on my face.
My daughter’s bleary eyes widen. She is staring at the contents of my Tupperware container.
The crack of fireworks. Technicolor bursts outside the window. The dog barks. The world spins.
“Mom! Oh my god! That’s not your kidney. If it were your kidney, you’d be dead.” She examines the blobs, unsqueamish. She’s premed, studying neuroscience. “I think they’re giant blood clots,” she says. “We have to get you to the hospital. Now.”
“I’m tired. And no one’s calling me back. Maybe we should wait until tomorrow.”
She gets up and notes the pools of blood on the bathroom floor. In my bed. Down the hallway. In the kitchen near the refrigerator. I did my best to clean up the mess until I ran out of paper towels. “Are you kidding? Let’s go. I’m calling 911.”
“No! Absolutely not. We can’t afford it.” I’m currently living off the remains of my meager 401K, facing a huge tax penalty for its early withdrawal. After months of illness followed by major surgery with copays and monthly COBRA fees, I have just under $3,000 in cash reserves left and zero credit cards. I’ve read too many cautionary tales of surprise bills as high as $8,000 for ambulance transport. I’m hemorrhaging enough already.
“Fine,” she says, “call an Uber.”
I remain firm. “No. I’ll take the subway. And you’re not coming with me. You have to stay here with the dog.”
She doesn’t listen. I am being pulled outside by the arm.
Streetlamps. Darkness. I smell pot.
“No one says pot anymore,” says my daughter. “It’s weed. Call an Uber. Now!” The numbers 1:43 a.m. atop the smiles of my three sun-kissed children on the face of my phone. I search for the white U inside the little black square, remembering that 143, according to Mr. Rogers, equals I love you. Funny how that stuff stays. I=1; love=4; you=3. It took me a while to figure out the code.
“I love you,” I tell my daughter. UberPool is half the price of UberX, so I choose that. Your driver will be Faraj. How many other passengers could Faraj possibly have at 1:43 in the morning? None, as it will turn out. If I live, I can use the money I’ll save to replenish our supply of paper towels.
My daughter squeezes my hand. “I love you, too.”
More fireworks. It feels like we’re in a movie. I’d rather be in bed.
My daughter to the driver: “Yes, it’s an emergency!”
Warm blood. Lots of it. Under me. On the seat of the Uber, down my legs, pooling in my shoes. An uber pool in an UberPool. I feel awful for the mess my body has unleashed. An apology to Faraj.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “Just go. God bless.” Two decades earlier, when my water had broken all over the floor of a taxi, the driver had spoken those exact words. Don’t worry. Just go. God bless.
Deborah Copaken is the New York Times bestselling author of several books, including Shutterbabe, The Red Book, andBetween Here and April. A contributing writer at The Atlantic, and she was also a TV writer on Emily in Paris, a performer (The Moth, etc.), and an Emmy Award-winning news producer and photojournalist. Her photographs have appeared in Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian, Financial Times, The Observer, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, Slate, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Paris Match, among other publications. Her column, “When Cupid Is a Prying Journalist,” was adapted for the Modern Love streaming series. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.