Written On the BodyFor Deborah Copaken, Biology Is a Battlefield

Deborah Copaken, author of Ladyparts: A Memoir (Photo credit: Penguin Random House)

Deborah Copaken’s first memoir, published 20 years ago, tells the story of her life as a twentysomething photojournalist in war zones and sites of civil unrest. So it’s not surprising that the first chapter of her new book, Ladyparts, starts with a matter-of-fact description of a war zone closer to home: Her own body. “I’m crawling around on the bathroom floor, picking up pieces of myself. These pieces are not metaphors… 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.”

This gory introduction is just one of a cascade of medical procedures, interventions, and indignities that structure Ladyparts, a memoir told through the sites of Copaken’s body that have experienced pain and disease: uterus, cervix, vagina, brain, heart, lungs, breast. The book is not simply a litany of the painful and unforeseen things that can happen to bodies assigned female at birth, but about the repercussions of systems—institutional, social, economic—that have always treated those bodies as inherently less valuable than men’s. As Copaken writes, “Wars don’t have to be sparked by a gun-toting aggressor to be fatal, demoralizing, inhumane. Neglect and willful ignorance of the bodily mechanics of half the earth’s population are equally destructive.”

The body part that anchors Ladyparts, however, is Copaken’s mouth. It’s a memoir about the struggle to be heard, and the constant internal negotiations that those with female bodies perform in weighing the costs of speaking up and those of remaining silent. When a man who sexually harassed her is nominated for a job in the Trump White House, for instance, Copaken is faced with the prospect of going public with her accusations. When a young, male doctor refuses to listen to Copaken telling him she needs a particular antibiotic to quell her chronic urinary-tract infections, it sets off a frustrating back and forth that ends up exposing her to COVID-19.

That said, at 480 pages, Ladyparts has plenty of room for the lighter sides of Copaken’s life during bodily wartime, from online dating and rekindling old flames to TV writing and lunches with the late Nora Ephron, who befriended Copaken after reading Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War. But what will likely linger for readers—particularly those inhabiting female bodies—is its stark illustration of sickness and disease that, when up against American systems of healthcare, insurance, and employment, compound the pain and prolong the suffering. Bitch recently called up Copaken for some insight on the whole of her parts.  

I’m not sure I’ve highlighted so many sentences in a book since college. There’s so much about it that feels very immediate. Was it difficult to write about things that you’re still feeling the repercussions of?

When I wrote Shutterbabe, I made a deliberate decision to write it in the present tense; I felt like the present tense was what I needed to do to relive those years. The reliving of those years is an important part of [memoir], not just for the reader but for the writer. I need to go through this again, 10 years out and an older adult, not only to tell the story but to process it for myself. 

A lot of what I [wrote] about in both books is trauma. Shuttterbabe was the first processing; Ladyparts was the second. I had already cried about these things, I had already experienced them, I had already talked about them with a caring professional. There was retriggering of the trauma: Part of the book was written after I got COVID, and after I was diagnosed with something called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). POTS is a stress-related [condition] that can be triggered by walking uphill, but can [also] be triggered if you get stressed out by something. So I did have to stop a lot of times while writing the book. But luckily I was employed at other jobs at the time. This book was all written in the early-early morning hours, the oneiric hours—you’ve just woken up from a dream state, so you’re going into this other dream state of writing and you’re allowing that dream state to seep into the writing. But by the end chapter I was living as I was writing. I handed in the book in early March 2020, and the last chapter was “Brain,” and I was like “Okay, I’m done with my book!” and literally that day came down with COVID. The final scene, of  Fourth of July [in 2020], was written within days of living it. 

Each section of the book is organized by body parts. And each one of those sections use your personal experiences to highlight the huge gaps in medical and physiological information and research about women’s health. What were the most striking revelations for you?

A statistic that floored me is that only about 20 percent of residents in gynecology get any formal training in menopausal medicine. Only 16 percent of the residents have any experience with a clinic that deals with menopausal medicine. My [own] gynecologist, who’s my age, 55, had to teach herself. An amazing urologist named Rachel Rubin reached out to me after I wrote a piece in The Atlantic about estrogen and Alzheimer’s, in which I mentioned something about having chronic UTIs. [Dr. Rubin] said “You can cure all your chronic UTIs with a tiny bit of vaginal estrogen every day.” I went to a menopausal-medicine expert [in New York City], and she put me on the tiniest dose of Divagel, the smallest dose you can have. I’ve had chronic UTIs my entire adult life—they’re gone. They’re fucking gone. And nobody is telling us this.

[And] I recently read a great book by a British author, Caroline Criado-Perez, that’s about the [gender] data gap. One of the things she notes is that Viagra was found to completely alleviate period cramps for up to four hours with no side effects whatsoever. But when the man who discovered this tried to get funding from the National Institutes of Health, he was rejected twice because the men holding the purse strings said “Well, we don’t see dysmenorrhea as a major problem.”

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It’s important to have books out there that are explanatory and data-driven, but it’s also necessary to see writers be angry about how much information has been withheld or never adequately studied. I anticipate people saying that Ladyparts is too angry.

I’m 100 percent waiting for that. But I’m not looking for sympathy or empathy here. What I realized at a certain point while writing the book is that I have now experienced nearly all the things that can go wrong with the female body. And it felt like [I could] just crawl into a hole and rebuild my life, or I could take what feels like a big risk. I want to use my body as a megaphone, like “Hey, this happened to me, and if it happened to me it’s probably happened to others; let’s pay attention!” There is a big part of me that didn’t want to publish this book. And there’s another part of me that grew up Jewish, steeped in the tenets of tikkun olam, that thought, This is your job. These things happened to you, and it’s your duty to write about them

Much of what you wrote in Shutterbabe was sexual harassment and assault and the diminishment of women in “male” fields like yours, photojournalism—things that people really weren’t talking about in the same way we do now. Do you think the book would have a different reception if it came out today?

Had it come out today, things [like] the Talk magazine piece where the author wrote “I ask her if she’s worried if her frankness will get her labeled a slut”—I don’t think you could publish stuff like that these days without Twitter going crazy, quote-tweeting [the reviewer], and going How dare she? A lot of bad has come from Twitter, but also a lot of good in terms of disnormalization—I know that’s not a word—of misogyny and hidden sexism in [women’s] writing. It’s a difficult line to walk, and back when Shutterbabe came out a lot of people didn’t even try. At least now there’s some understanding that you can’t just slam someone with misogynistic terms anymore. There’s one part in the book where I write about the response in the New York Times, in Motherlode, to a story [I wrote] about getting rejected from a job at The Container Store. The [columnist] asked, “Do you identify with her? Or do you dismiss her?” Like those are the only two options. But I feel like with 20 years of life experience at least I will be better equipped to handle the inevitable criticism. 

Ladyparts: A Memoir by Deborah Copaken (Photo credit: Penguin Random House)

Do younger writers ever ask you for advice on this kind of thing, on how much to disclose, or whether they should?

That happens, because my daughter has a lot of friends who are budding writers. So I know a bunch of 24-year-olds who are trying to get into writing in various ways. One of them sent me her short story, which was about a Tinder date gone wrong. It’s a beautiful short story. I gave her recommendations on where to send it. I helped her edit it. [It was] this intimate story, but I thought it was powerful because she was the protagonist—yes, these horrible things happened to her, but she was standing up tall. Nora Ephron [wrote] about this perfectly: If you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. If you tell the story of slipping on a banana peel, you’re the hero.

You’re lucky to have had someone, even for a relatively short time, who was so sure of the advice that she gave you. 

I would say [Nora] was right 97 percent of the time. And the 3 percent she wasn’t provided an interesting opportunity for me to fight back against my hero. And it’s not easy to say to your hero, “You’re wrong, and I’m going to tell you why you’re wrong.” Women are not used to telling each other they’re wrong. Men will push against each other all the time, but women are more conflict-averse. We want to tell everybody that everything’s fine, don’t worry, everything’s good.

When [Nora] said to me “Your husband doesn’t have Asperger’s,” that provided an opportunity for me to explain what I hadn’t explained [before]. That absence of information [was] on me: I didn’t tell her everything because I was afraid that if I did tell her what I was really experiencing in my marriage—well, first of all, we wouldn’t have had time to get to anything else; our lunches were short. But also, I was ashamed. I was ashamed at what I was putting up with. I didn’t want my hero to know that I was putting up with things no woman should put up with.

When I first saw the cover of Ladyparts, it was a woman lying on the ground. I mean, there were lots of silly covers—there was, like, a DivaCup with flowers in it. [But] the first cover they showed me was a woman lying on the ground, and I was like, No. No, I am not lying on the ground. I actually took photos of myself standing tall and was like, “Just use this as an outline.” I think there’s a difference between self-disclosure [that’s] “Oh, woe is me; pity me” and self-disclosure in the name of social change. The impetus behind every one of the words [in this book] wasn’t sympathy or empathy; it’s How do we shake shit up and change it?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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by Andi Zeisler
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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.