A Review of Knocked Down: A High-Risk Memoir by Aileen Weintraub
March 11, 2022 § 3 Comments
By Jennifer Lang
Last Saturday, I stretched out on my L-shaped sienna red sofa with a cup of Earl Grey and almond milk and read, and read, and read. I read before breakfast, after lunch, before dinner. I read from page 1 until page 293, from beginning to end.
From the first chapter of Aileen Weintraub’s debut memoir Knocked Down, we understand the stakes are high. A city girl from Brooklyn married to a country boy, she is living in his family’s old farmhouse, pregnant and faced with the prospect of full bed rest, home alone most of the day, craving a conversation with the one person who can get her through this time except he isn’t available. Only three pages in and I needed to know: would she and the baby survive the next five months? Who would take care of her? Who was that mysterious person she longed for?
If I had to pick one thing that made me continuously want to turn the page, it was Weintraub’s wicked sense of humor. She pokes fun at herself, at her parents, at her doctors, at her fibroids, at her cervix, at her uterus. In chapter 5, Monsters, and 18 weeks pregnant, Weintraub schedules an emergency appointment due to intense pelvic pain. “The term incompetent cervix was bandied about; as if I didn’t have enough self-esteem issues, now my cervix was incompetent. That was like five more years of therapy right there…All we need to do is throw in hostile uterus, another offensive medical terms, and between the two, we’d have the workings of a perfectly dysfunctional marriage.” As she refers to real and made-up medical jargon, we wonder if she’s using these body parts as foreshadow or metaphor.
In the next chapter, Mr. Produce Man, Weintraub recounts the parental pressure to get married, which she claims started at age four, and the direness of dating. Still single, she moved to a small town in the Hudson Valley, where she worked on a memoir called The Ten-Second Seduction: “The premise was that when you meet a man, you know within ten seconds whether or not you must absolutely see that person again… naked…Every chapter would be named after a single identifying characteristic of a man I had dated… for example, Mr. Spirituality… Dr. Broccoli… Motorcycle Man… Military Man… Green Underwear Guy.” Until, finally, she meets the one: Mr. Produce Man.
But the humor only goes so far to reveal the truth: buried pain and deep loss. Weintraub shares all of it. We know from the second chapter, A GORE-TEX Primer, she has a defect that her family won’t let her forget and that will come back to bite her no matter how hard she fights it; she’s a quitter. First Brownies then Hebrew school then college in Arizona and most recently, her job in a children’s publishing company in Manhattan. But her parents, primarily her father, cannot hide their disappointment or judgment. To figure out her next move, she escapes to Alaska, where two older Canadian men offer to suspend her “over a deep, plummeting crevasse so I could peer into oblivion” at which point she has an epiphany that sets the stage for so much of what follows. There she sees “both the permanent and the temporary, the sharp edges, the sacredness of it all… After Alaska, I began looking for a way out of my comfort zone and back into the sense of reverence I had felt on that glacier. Perhaps there was a life for me beyond the city.” Upon her return, she enrolls in AmeriCorps, packs again, and heads into the wilderness. But her father’s unexpected surgery makes her worry. A premonition or pull brings her back. The man she considers her best friend dies, making her doubt everything she ever imagined and planned, hoped and dreamed.
While the funny and witty come and go, the conflict and struggles simmer and rumble. We learn that her mother, brother, and she were observant, Conservative-affiliated Jews at her mother’s insistence, while her father, raised Reform, only begrudgingly went along. She uses bacon to show their differences: “Reformed—eat bacon and love it; Conservative—eat bacon only in diners; Orthodox—never touch bacon but secretly wonder what it tastes like; Ultra-Orthodox—no way…; and Chassidic—what is this bacon of which you speak?”
We learn that she and her only sibling had never gotten along well, but that after their father passes, her brother is one of the only people left she can still count as family. That her father wasn’t as emotionally strong and unconditionally loving as she always thought. That her mother stuck by him while he battled with crippling depression and irrational fear and off-and-on joblessness. We learn that her best friend Rachel, an Orthodox Jew, cuts off all ties after Weintraub’s relationship with the non-Jewish Produce Man becomes serious.
Twenty weeks in bed brings out Weintraub’s strengths and weaknesses. She becomes as resourceful as she can from a prone position, trying to work and help alleviate the financial burden on her husband, trying to work and help manage his store. She also becomes needy in ways she cannot control which puts such a strain on their relationship, making her question herself: can she stay—or should she quit? Making me read until I reach the end and find the answers.
Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jennifer Lang lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio and hunts for a special home for her unconventional memoir-in-vignettes. “Crossroads: neither here nor there” is a finalist in Chestnut Review’s Prose Chapbook Competition. Her essays have appeared in the Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Consequence, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, Jennifer holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as Assistant Editor for Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. When not at her desk, she is often on her yoga mat: practicing since 1995, teaching since 2003.