Book Review: Knocked Down by Aileen Weintraub

by Crystal Sands

In her new memoir, Knocked Down, Aileen Weintraub grabs your attention in the very first line. “The house was haunted,” she wrote. The house she is referring to is an old farmhouse that had been in her husband’s family for generations. It was in this farmhouse that Weintraub would spend five months of bed rest assigned to her by her doctors due to a high-risk pregnancy. 

She writes about the farmhouse: “The child inside my belly would be the fourth generation to live here. Unfortunately, it had also been four generations since anyone slapped a coat of paint on the walls or updated the furniture. But I loved the place, an old dairy farm my husband, Chris, had inherited, and we planned to spend the rest of our lives fixing it up and making it our own.”

But there would be detours on this journey, big detours, and in her book, Weintraub uses a brilliant wit and a fantastic humor to take you through those detours. She writes with beautiful and brutal honesty about the isolation of her bed rest assignment she had to endure in order to carry her baby to term. 

It’s the humor that keeps you reading, and this book is a page turner. From a Jewish family, Weintraub falls in love with a non-Jewish man who she met in the produce aisle at the grocery store, and the love story is fantastic. Weintraub describes losing life-long friends because her husband-to-be was not Jewish, but she ultimately chose love and followed her heart anyway. But it’s the differences in personalities of the couple that make this book so much fun for me. The author’s husband is more reserved, raised in a family that keeps emotions in check, and Weintraub is fantastically brimming with drama and emotion. She is a writer, after all.

From the heartbreaking moment she learns that her pregnancy was at risk, Weintraub takes us on her powerful journey into rest and isolation in the old farmhouse that is in every way possible different from the life she has been used to. To make matters even more difficult for her, her new husband, Chris, has purchased a tractor company, which requires long hours and a lot of stressful work. As he’s working hard to keep the new family afloat financially, the author is left home alone in the old farmhouse, listening to coyotes, making friends with the people who deliver the mail, and hanging out with a dog who is not like the usual dog (I’ve had one of these dogs myself and could identify with the fact that her dog did not do much to bring her comfort).

One of my favorite stories is when they first move into the farmhouse. Weintraub is supposed to be planting seeds but doesn’t really know how and just sprinkles seeds everywhere and hopes her husband doesn’t notice. Seeds, being what they are, come up anyway. But Weintraub’s humor makes the whole scene just laugh-out-loud good.

Later in the book, I love the part where she decides to get a deck chair and matching umbrella for her to spend time outside while she is forced to rest. Her plan is to be able to observe the nature on their old farm. She writes: “I’d commiserate with the robin who was building a nest in the lilac tree that overhung the deck railing. I’d tell her to take one last flight of freedom before settling down to lay on those eggs.”

It is this connection among mothers that makes this memoir so powerful. From bedrest to difficult deliveries to fertility issues to miscarriage, the more I read about and talk to women about their experiences, the more I find that we are quick to blame ourselves within a society and medical system that is structured to help us blame ourselves. We have the idea that pregnancy and childbirth works well for other women. We read about how important it is for things to be “natural” in childbirth, about the women for whom everything goes smoothly and beautifully–and then the baby latches on to nurse in a birthing moment of perfection. But what about the rest of us? What if things don’t go so smoothly for us? Far too often, we feel like failures as women.

Weintraub says, “I’d failed to accomplish what most other women seemed to do naturally, and now I had to confess this to world.”

Although I was not on bed rest, I had an extremely difficult pregnancy and birth with my first child. I was in pretty bad shape. My daughter nearly died. My doctor passively blamed me, and after the birth, I was told by a male member of my family that I probably had so many problems with childbirth because I was “too uptight.” Later, I would find out that my half sister had a similar and even more difficult childbirth when she tried to have a natural birth. Learning about our shared experience was life changing for me. For years, I had believed down deep that the whole thing had been my fault.

Women need these stories. We also need to change the way we talk about these stories. Weintraub has now published several articles about her experience in coordination with the launch of her book, and in doing so, she is helping to change the conversation, change the language, and educate the public about issues related to difficult pregnancies. She is empowering us.

In 1892, an author named Charlotte Perkins Gilman published a short story called “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Although the story was fiction, it was based upon the author’s experience being assigned bed rest to deal with postpartum depression. Later, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in an essay entitled “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper” explained that she wrote the story to educate and to try to improve the conditions of women’s healthcare.

Today, women continue to struggle with our healthcare. Just getting someone to listen is challenging enough, but the shame associated with any kind of pregnancy-related issues adds a whole layer of struggle to our experiences. Weintraub’s memoir, on the surface, is funny and charming and tells the story of a woman stuck in a haunted farmhouse trying to save the baby in her belly, but underneath, it is doing the important work of changing the conversation and adding significantly to the literature about women’s bodies, women’s health, and women’s lives.

In her opening chapter, Weintraub writes: “Now, here I was in bed, a commitment phobic Brooklyn girl stuck in a haunted farmhouse for the next five months with my husband gone most of the day and no one around to hear me scream. So that’s what I did. I threw my head back on the pillow and let out a bloodcurdling howl of rage and fear and sadness that reverberated down to the deepest part of my core and filled the room, bouncing off the old windowpanes.” When I read these words, my mind immediately went to “The Yellow Wallpaper” that I have been teaching to college students for nearly 25 years. I thought to myself, this memoir is going to do some good in the world.

Read this book because it’s enjoyable and well written. Share this book with others because it’s important.

Knocked Down is available from University of Nebraska Press.

photos courtesy of Aileen Weintraub