When Aileen Weintraub was diagnosed with an “incompetent cervix,” she was newly married and had just moved into a ramshackle farmhouse in the Hudson Valley. Far from her Brooklyn roots and miles from a decent bagel, she found herself pretty much alone, ordered to stay put on a pull-out couch, and left to agonize over whether she and her unborn child would make it to her due date. Of course, her husband was around, but he’d just bought a new business—one that wasn’t in the good shape he’d believed it to be—which meant long hours and mountains of stress. Basically, things were a hot mess.
Thus begins Weintraub’s newest release, Knocked Down: A High-Risk Memoir, a tale of renewal, grief, self-acceptance, and love. The author is learning about who she is in this new home, far from the Jewish culture within which she was raised, and about who she’ll be as a mother. She’s figuring out how to overcome rocky times in her marriage, and how to make sense of her complicated relationship with her late father. This is a book about family in all its kaleidoscopic iterations.
If you’re thinking that these pages would be filled with drama and turmoil, you’re not wrong. Or not totally wrong. There are plenty of twists and turns along the way—the maddening medical rigmarole alone is enough to make anyone scream—but the surprising thing about this memoir is how funny it is. Weintraub’s literary voice is sarcastic in a great way, whether she’s describing the different branches of Judaism in terms of how they view bacon or commenting on the shade of lipstick her doctor is wearing.
The author’s sense of humor is clear from the beginning of the book. “This is a true story,” the opening page reads, “even the parts where you will undoubtedly shake your head and say, ‘No way, did that really happen?”’ It’s true. There are plenty of moments when I found myself talking out loud to the characters, saying exactly those words. “Our family does have a really good sense of humor,” Weintraub told me in an interview. “We appreciate sarcasm, and we’re always giving little digs to each other, but all in jest. I think that’s something that comes out in my writing. I try to pepper difficult topics with humor, because even in grief and trauma you can find pockets of happiness and something to laugh at.”
The combination of heartache and humor is deftly handled, as is the braiding of many themes that could each easily have been their own memoir. This intertwining of narratives is intentional—they inform one another in crucial ways. Weintraub’s coming to terms with her father’s mental health challenges sheds light on her own struggles with depression while on bed rest. Her Jewish upbringing clashes with her non-Jewish husband’s family culture, which impacts the way she handles her marital friction. According to the author, the choice to connect these stories happened organically. “This is life,” she said. “Life doesn’t happen in neat bits, where you’re grieving someone, and then you’re on bed rest, and then you have difficulties in your marriage, and so on. These things all happen. Often at the same time.”
She’s right, of course. Life is often a messy escapade, and we rarely have the luxury of dealing with one gut punch before the next one is there to knock us on our keisters again (which just makes the title of the memoir, Knocked Down, all the more apt). But it’s so much more than just a story about someone whose life has gotten out of hand. By invoking the totality of the mess of those months, Weintraub is saying that being knocked down isn’t only a bad thing. It can also be a moment of metamorphosis.
Throughout it all, we are graced with a colorful cast of characters. From Weintraub’s own mother (whose blurb for the book is priceless) to her wise-cracking friend Watson, each person we encounter is as vivid as technicolor. Having read about them, I felt as though I would certainly recognize each one if I passed them on the street.
“I’m hearing from early readers that so much of the book is relatable,” Weintraub told me when I chatted with her about this review. “I mean, having a mother who brings a suitcase full of meat and bleach through Port Authority to make me meatballs and clean my house is so relatable. For many mothers, especially Jewish mothers, that’s how they show love and help the person they love the most. It was amazing to watch my mom really be there for me.”
Beyond being just relatable, this memoir is important. So many narratives about pregnancy focus on how pregnant people glow, or how strong and heroic they are, or how magical it all is. All of this is true. As a mother myself, I don’t get mad when someone tells me I’m an awesome, strong person, or that creating a human life in my body was magical. I do, however, take exception to the idea that this is the whole story of being a parent. Knocked Down challenges that perception by taking the medical system to task for its use of archaic terms like “incompetent cervix,” “barren,” and “hostile uterus”—terms that are, at best, unclear and, at worst, offensive and harmful—and for the lack of communication around a patient’s options when faced with complex situations.
Since her high-risk pregnancy, Weintraub has become an advocate for pregnant people to get the information and communication they deserve. Knocked Down is also important because it calls into question the presumption that women who are prescribed bed rest can just drop everything and sit on a couch for five months. In fact, this restriction ripples out into the rest of a person’s life. It has emotional, financial, and relational impact. Doctors, nurses, and everyone else should be listening up and taking the potential repercussions very seriously.
The truth is, we can never know what tomorrow will bring. Even the best prepared will be knocked to the ground, bewildered by what life brings. The wisdom of this memoir is in the striving for acceptance of all life’s travails for what they are, as they come. The darkest of times may seem endless, but with humor and the love of a (quirky) family, this book shows that we can make it through.