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Nina Collins
August 10, 2021

Author Q&A: Deborah Copaken

A unique and candid book with a fantastic title and cover, totally speaking to our demographic.

I was shocked to learn that only 20% of OB/Gyn residents get any formal training in menopausal medicine.

Deb Copaken is a longtime Woolfer (and now Reveler!) and a bestselling member of the NY literary scene. She’s perhaps best known for her 2001 memoir Shutterbabe, in which she chronicled her work and love adventures as a twentysomething war photographer traveling the world. There were great books in between, a killer article she wrote about trying to get a job at The Container Store when she’d hit upon hard times, and a series of fantastic articles in The Atlantic.

Now Deb returns with Ladyparts, another memoir, this time from a 50-ish woman who is reflecting on a decade of personal traumas by examining the malfunctioning body parts associated with each new upheaval. It’s a book that uses the suffering of the female body as a metaphor to highlight a range of issues: the abuse of the patriarchy, middle-age irrelevance, anti-feminist corporate policies, income inequality; female sexual harassment; and the many complications of the American unemployment system. 

A unique and candid book with a fantastic title and cover, totally speaking to our demographic. Here’s a conversation I had with Deb about her latest work:

You are always so brave in your writing. How hard is it on you personally to expose yourself so much? How do you deal with the inevitable backlash and why do you feel it’s so necessary to be so candid?

One of the great parts of getting older is you truly have no fucks left to give. When Shutterbabe came out twenty years ago, and I was called a slut in a national magazine, 34-year-old me curled up in a ball, wept, and was depressed for weeks. Years, even! On my pub date for Ladyparts, after reading a gratuitously sexist review in the New York Times by its gender editor––after reading it, a feminist philosophy professor reached out over email to say, “Internalized misogyny is a helluva drug”––I signed on to my 7-minute-workout zoom with a bunch of middle-aged ladywriter friends (join us, Nina!), all of whom have been meeting daily since the pandemic began. I had a good cry with them. And then seven minutes later, after a few jumping jacks and planks, I was fine. Because look: I know my worth. I know my book’s worth. More importantly, I know the worth of truth in writing. I wrote the book I not only needed to write personally, I felt obligated––in a tikkun olam kind of way––to write it for all of us going through midlife in a female body. Why is it necessary for me to be so candid? Because a lack of information nearly killed me. And it could kill you, too. Or, as I write in the book, “Our ignorance, avoidance, and silencing of all discussions of female-associated viscera is not polite. It’s killing us.”

This book is full of some pretty gory medical detail. There are conditions here I never even knew existed! I think for a lot of women gynecological histories are messy and women’s midlife health even messier.  It’s refreshing to see someone coming clean with the details. How are you feeling physically now, and what’s your routine healthcare maintenance like?

Ladyparts-wise, I’m doing great. But only because I did my research––both for the book and for myself––and found a doctor in New York who specializes in menopausal medicine. (Dr. Molly McBride, who is amazing.) I was shocked to learn that only 20% of OB/Gyn residents get any formal training in menopausal medicine. That’s not 20% of all residents, that’s 20% of residents whose sole area of study is the uterus! Dr. McBride, who is exactly my age, told me she had to teach herself by reading every study she could find and going to every conference, on her own dime, to be up to date on the latest information. When I went to see her, I was suffering through mental fog, recurring UTIs, hot flashes, sleepless nights, you know, the whole menopausal nine yards. She put me on a small daily dose of Divigel––an estradiol gel you rub into your thigh––and it has changed my life. I feel, for lack of a better word, like myself again. I have not had a single UTI in over a year (I used to be on a prophylactic dose of Nitrofurantoin, an antibiotic, my UTIs were so bad); sex is never painful; my brain fog has lifted; I sleep at night; and I no longer have any hot flashes. These are quality of life issues we need to discuss and, more important, treat. Meanwhile, I still have long-haul Covid and was hospitalized two weeks ago with a POTS-triggered panic attack that had my heart racing at 176 beats per minute for nearly seven hours, until they pumped me full with Lorazepam. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t speak, it was...scary.

Divorce was one of the many traumas you experienced in mid-life, something that at least half of us relate to. Now that you are eight years away from the immediacy of that loss, how does the break-up of your marriage play into your growth as a woman?

No one in my family had ever gotten divorced except my Great Aunt Ruth, who divorced her husband seven days after the wedding, when he decided to bring his mother on their honeymoon. My family did not support it. Many of my friends were shocked. “But you guys seemed so good together!” But marriages take place off screen, right? Both my ex and I were good at putting on a good face to the world, but that face, like a smile for a school photo, became too difficult to sustain. I was, essentially, living a lie. And for a woman who believes in the transformational power of truth, this was a heavy, daily toll on my psyche. Leaving that marriage allowed me to be free of the artifice. It showed me who I was, what I was capable of doing. It showed me who my true friends were. It eventually brought me into a relationship with a man who sees and senses my needs and reacts accordingly. Who loves me for me. Who brings me coffee in bed. I am no longer living a lie or having to keep the secret of the trauma I’d been living through daily. Even better? My ex and I now get along. I love his new girlfriend, as do my kids. Last week, when my partner and I were throwing a goodbye dinner for my daughter before she left for medical school, it was his idea to invite my ex to join in the festivities. In fact, I’m able to finally feel something resembling love for my ex again, despite what we went through as a married couple, and to remember what brought us together. We were terrible roommates and even worse partners to one another. I am now living in truth, and that has been transformational. And yes, as difficult as the journey was from there to here––divorce is hard! let’s not sugarcoat it––it was 100% worth it.  

As a woman fully in middle age, would you say you experience ageism on a regular basis? If so, how? And do you think this is changing in our society at all?

Let me be frank. I am an Emmy-winning, Golden Globe-nominated, New York Times bestselling writer who cannot, for the life of me, find a fulltime job with health benefits. I lost my Silicon Valley writing job to Covid layoffs last May, 2020. I’m still on unemployment. And until Biden gave COBRA relief in April, I was still paying outrageous COBRA fees. I have sent out hundreds––at this point, maybe even a thousand––resumes, to no avail. At one point, for example, the Washington Post had a ton of new job listings on their job board, positions I could have happily, easily, and skillfully filled. I applied for all of them. Never received even one email back. Not one! I heard they hired a bunch of young writers, who are presumably less expensive to hire, but let’s not forget that Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. If he can afford to fly in a penis rocket, I have to presume he can afford to pay the salaries of more seasoned writers with vaginas. TV writing jobs have statistically and traditionally gone to white males, although that is changing, but try getting your foot in that door as a middle-aged woman, and they will laugh-track you right out of Hollywood. When I tried selling Ladyparts in an earlier incarnation, my agent Lisa Leshne was told, over and over again, that while editorial loved the writing, marketing did not see a compelling reason to publish a middle-aged woman’s memoir. A male editor, Mark Warren, finally bought it, after a bidding war with, yes, another male editor. I was let go from a job in a PR firm for “not being a good fit” with the rest of the (younger) team. Which is corporate code for “old.” I could fill this space with hundreds of other examples, but I won’t bore you. All this to say, yes, ageism is real, internalized misogyny is real, women are too often terrible to other women in the workplace, because of the stiff competition for jobs, and we need to start talking about all of this plus our bodies, our blood, our workplace harassments, salary inequities, tone policing, childcare costs, healthcare costs, lack of paid leave, the divorce racket, middle class poverty, and every other topic I discuss in the book because they are all inextricable from one another and dangerous to our health and well-being. I just sold Ladyparts as a TV series to CBS Productions. If we can actually get that show off the ground and sold to a streaming service––meaning, if those holding the Hollywood purse strings actually see a place for a show about middle-aged ladyparts and the parts that those of us with uteri have been forced to play in our still-sexist, deeply misogynist, ageist society––then I feel as if I will not only have beaten the ageism trap, I will have a platform with which to uncover it.

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