Yona Zeldis McDonough: Caroline, did you find that part of your trial with doctors had to do with the fact that as a woman, they just didn’t believe you as much as say, they might a man?
Caroline Leavitt: Absolutely true. I was told over and over that it must be in my mind or “I’ve never had a patient react the way you have.” Most of the doctors I saw were men (not by choice, it just happened), but the women I went to were even worse sometimes, and I felt that when I asked questions, they were threatened. One of my doctors (my husband saw her, too) was actually angry when I brought in research papers because she said I couldn’t possibly understand them. She had never said that to my husband when he brought up research. We both stopped seeing her!
I had doctors suggest over and over that this inability to breathe was primarily a woman’s problem (no, it isn’t!) and I needed psychiatric care for it. While I did need help with the anxiety it produced, it’s important to remember that the anxiety came from the disorder—not the other way around, as the doctors said! I actually heard, “women are more anxious than men,” and I felt as if doctors were patting me on the head.
But good came out of this because I began to insist on being my own advocate. I kept pushing for answers. I refused the tests and treatments that I had researched. When I discovered things that helped me, I didn’t feel anymore that I had to justify them to the doctors. I became a “difficult” patient, but I began to feel better because of it.
YZM: So much of your essay is about finding your own voice. You had a unique sort of Jewish upbringing, where your parents did not celebrate Jewish holidays, yet they insisted you learn about Jewish culture. What did that do for your voice as a Jewish woman?
CL: In the beginning, it made me yearn. I grew up in the only Jewish family in a Christian enclave, and I had friends call me weeping because their parents didn’t want them to be friends with a Jew. Kids would run up and put their hands in my hair to try and find my horns! I had one teacher in sixth grade who tried to balance things and she said one day, “Now we will hear the story of Hanukah from our Jewish friend.” I stood up and talked about the holiday and when I was done, the teacher said, “Who found that interesting?” And only one person raised their hand! It made me angry.
But I’ve learned to speak up. The funny thing now is I’ve just sold a novel that has a character who left her Hassidic community (my grandfather was an orthodox rabbi) when she got pregnant from an outsider, and I talked to a lot of women who had left their communities, and I asked them all, “What is the one thing you miss?” And they all said, “That sense of community, that feeling of belonging.”
As a Jewish woman, I’ve come to realize that we can create our OWN community by owning our own beliefs. I’m so proud to be Jewish and I own all of my strong beliefs. When my husband and I had a son, we had him learn about his culture, and the proudest moment of my life was when he had his Bar Mitzvah. It was so meaningful to me and I cried—but they were happy tears. I felt like I was handing something important down through the generations
YZM: You have strong beliefs in God and Judaism which are outside the norm, but you also have strong beliefs in terms of healing. Can you expand on that?
CL: While I was journeying from doctor to doctor, I began to realize that doctors are not Gods. Just in religion, I don’t feel there is one way to do anything. Instead, I began to listen to them to consider medical help as consultants. They gave me advice expecting me to do as they said, but I would go home and research and then make my own decisions.
From my research, I’ve discovered that illness has a DNA component, just as health does. What works for one person may not work for another because of your makeup. I researched online and discovered that just taking magnesium would relax me and my vocal cords and when I told doctors, they rolled their eyes! But I’ve also learned in the power of the mind and belief. Doctors have accused me of using placebos, telling me that magnesium doesn’t work, that whatever I am doing doesn’t work, but my feeling is a. so what? If I believe something works and it does, what does it matter? Why is placebo a dirty word? And b. It has worked.
I went to everyone, shamans, mystics, psychic healers as well as voice doctors, ENT, Cardiologists, and more, and in the end, I came to realize that I was the one in control of my own healing.
I have not taken an asthma drug or steroid in over a year. I have not been to the ER in 8 months or to a doctor. I quit them cold turkey. I have no had real episodes of not breathing for 8 months, and when I do, it’s so slight that I can take care of it with magnesium or sometimes baking soda in water, or at worst, a tiny dose of Klonopin relaxes the muscles. I have a really strong feeling that I am going to be even better, despite doctors telling me this is something to manage not to cure—but how can they say that when they don’t’ have a definitive answer about what it is?
But me, well, I have great hope. I saw myself getting better after five years of misery, and I intend to get even better still.
YZM: What about you, Hallie? How did your essay—about a friend’s communication with her dead brother—tap into your own religious upbringing and beliefs?
Hallie Ephron: I grew up knowing I was Jewish. My grandparents, who’d fled Russia early in the early 1900s, all spoke Yiddish. My parents were old-school leftists, New York City intellectuals who’d worn black armbands and marched for Sacco and Vanzetti. My dad said he was agnostic and my mother an atheist. They worked together as Hollywood screenwriters.
Though I was profoundly aware of being a Jew, formal religion was never part of my upbringing. There was discussion and arguing daily at the family dinner table, a Christmas tree at Christmas, and potato pancakes and noodle pudding year ’round. More than anything, I grew up questioning dogmas, religious or otherwise and believing in free speech and human rights. I dismissed any notion of an afterlife as wishful thinking. But when a dear friend shared what sounded like a genuine experience talking to her dead brother, I had no belief system to square that with. Isn’t that the essence of a mystery–the struggle to explain something that belies explanation?
YZM: Let’s talk about your mother, who was a screenwriter yet not a feminist; why do you describe her that way? Did her world view shape your own?
HE: Phoebe Ephron was complicated. Brilliant, funny, beautiful. But she was very much alone. She was a playwright and Hollywood screenwriter (in partnership with my dad) at a time when you could count the women doing that on one hand. She had virtually no women friends. A New York Times interviewer quoted her in a 1958 interview just before her play, “Howie,” was about to open: “I’ll kill you if you describe me coming out of the kitchen with flour on my hands and sitting down and writing funny lines. I don’t go in the kitchen very often except for ice cubes for a drink. We have a cook and a nurse for the children. I’ve been a full-time screenwriter since 1948 and I put in a full day in the office.”
She nurtured us, her four daughters, with books–stories with strong female characters like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and Anne of Green Gables and Jo March. She wanted us to go to an Ivy League college (she went to Hunter) and succeed in a man’s world. So she was aghast when I announced that I wanted to be, of all things, a teacher. I didn’t start to write until I was forty. She’d died decades earlier. Though I didn’t take the direct path she’d have chosen for me, she taught me to believe in myself, to set the bar high, and offer no excuses if I didn’t reach the goal.