The First Stephani Cook did not die of cancer, she died of necessity. In that sense, her suicide attempt did not fail.
The Second Stephani Cook has just finished breakfast with a former boyfriend and is preparing to go on television in Washington, D.C. She has washed her hair. Will it dry before she gets to the studio? She has been a Seventeen magazine cover girl and a PhD candidate. She is 37, and very attractive. She wears a V-neck suit. The incision from her open-heart surgery shows about four inches.
"If it doesn't dry, it doesn't dry," she says. "I guess I should've brought the hair blower."
What happened to the First Stephani Cook is appalling. Her gynecologist, hearing her complaint of chest pains after the birth of her first child, diagnosed "housewife syndrome." "Trust me, hon," he said. She did. They had an affair, but the pains continued.
New tests showed multiple pulmonary emboli -- clots in her bloodstream. The doctors were unanimous. A hysterectomy would be required to excise thrombosed ovarian veins. She was only 26, and the scar was "larger than advertised." But at least she was cured.
The pains continued. An angiogram showed a shadow in her heart, a clot, perhaps a tumor. We won't know for sure what it is until after the open-heart surgery, the doctors told her. Open-heart surgery? She awoke from the mammoth procedure groggy, her body now deeply incised from neck to crotch. But at least she was cured.
The pains continued. New diagnosis: metastatic gestational choriocarcinoma, a blood cancer that kills most victims within a year. Her chances for survival were pronounced good, simply because she had had the disease for two years before her doctors figured out what it was. Five courses of chemotherapy later -- the primitive, punishing chemotherapy of 10 years ago -- she really was cured.
The pains did not continue. However, none of the surgery was necessary. The cancer could have been identifed initially by a simple urinalysis. It wasn't.
The First Stephani Cook survived the surgery. It was the recovery that killed her. The Second Stephani Cook, the one loping down M Street in Georgetown, is a reincarnation, different and the same in ways beyond expectation.
"I hate it when my nail polish is cracked," she says.
In her senior year at Barnard College she was on the cover of Seventeen, and earned about $40,000 modeling that year. Her mother was a beauty queen at Northwestern, and her father as handsome as a movie star. The man she married has green eyes, and he was quite supportive during her illness. Stuck by her "when it wasn't easy," she admits.
Her parents were also beyond expectation. The beauty queen was an alcoholic. The handsome father molested her as a child. The green-eyed husband, early in their marriage, accused her of being a nymphomaniac.
"Maybe I should've brought the dryer," the Second Stephani Cook says.
She pops into a bookstore a few doors away from the Four Seasons Hotel, where her publishers, Simon and Schuster, have put her up royally. She comes out grinning. Yes, they are stocking her book: "Second Life," the story of Stephani Cook's 10-year-long death and rebirth.
"They paid me a walloping chunk of money to write it," she says with a wry shrug. "They must've thought my story was a natural."
Charlie Rose has his studio audience warmed up. Nearly all of them are women, well made-up and coiffed, whose questions will make them part of the show. Rose strides among them, microphone in hand. Today's guest is Stephani Cook, waiting illuminated on a throne-like chair. Rose introduces her, the medical and personal history grating like fingernails on a blackboard.
Questions for Stephani? His arm holds the microphone out and a woman rises.
You look marvelous, she says (indeed: relaxed, willing). But what was it like after the chemotherapy?
Cook smiles. "Well, I'm 5-8, and I usually weigh about 128 pounds. When I walked out of the hospital the last time I weighed 92 pounds, I was completely bald, and my body was covered with sores. I was hunched over like a baboon because my scars had all grown together."
A sympathetic rustle in the studio (cancer patients, former and potential). Rose's mike reaches out: Didn't she try to sue those doctors for malpractice?
"This was 10 years ago," Cook replies. "A woman who had lost her reproductive organs was then thought to have lost very little . . ." Pause. " . . . I would've liked to hear them tell that to a man."
Rustles of outrage. Question: Is Stephani happy?
"Oh, I've been unhappy at the best of times. I didn't have happiness, I had a series of expectations. I'd always wanted to be perfect, and I'd worked hard at it. As my body broke down, my illusions broke down too. The doctors just kept saying, 'Trust me.' Their refrain in my book really is, 'Oh, you women, you're so hysterical.' Of course, it was my own fault. I'd been willing most of my life to accept authority -- especially the authority of men."
Silence. The audience ponders.
"I was all that time in collusion with them," she adds. "You know, the longer we look for a rescuer, the longer we suffer."
More questions, candidly fielded.
Explaining: "Yes, I was an incest victim from age 7 to 11." Correcting: "No, my husband didn't abandon me, that isn't true." Clarifying: "What I coughed up on 57th Street in front of Bergdorf-Goodman, after being cured the second time, turned out to be a bloody chunk of lung. I was taking one of the kids for ice cream. The cancer had metastacized." Laughing: "I'll tell you one good thing that came of this. It's made my son an 11-year-old feminist."
A repeated inquiry. Why didn't she sue for malpractice. Why?
"Well, we did go to see some lawyers," Cook says. "They weren't very encouraging. First of all, I'm a woman. Second of all, they said, 'You haven't lost anything visible, like an arm or a leg, and you're not dead.' Thirdly, there were four or five doctors involved, and as a practical matter you can't sue all of them. But, of course, that was 10 years ago. I am pretty sure we could get a settlement today."
After the taping concludes, the audience surrounds her, commiserating and offering advice. Touching her hand. Out of suffering, she has found the Answer (yes -- an Answer beyond their expectations). Religious tracts are pressed upon her. Into a Gucci shopping bag she drops Scripture Packet Two of the Women's Aglow Fellowship, unopened.
She exits with a bounce in her stride. It's a beautiful day. Her hair has dried.
"Capitulation is the most basic affirmation of female identity": the Second Stephani Cook over a glass of wine in Georgetown.
The restaurant manager hovers, obsequious. He cannot place her: television star? senator's second wife? some glad kind of glamor. You can tell by the classy eye makeup, or is it the close focus of the eyes themselves? Good looker, tough cookie, New Yorker.
All her life, the Second Stephani Cook is saying, she had defined herself in relation to men. She had determined to be a good girl if it killed her, and it almost did. Yes, she had "what they called then a nervous breakdown" in the eighth grade, when her parents divorced. She admired cheerleaders. Strove harder to be one.
"Oh, it came as a surprise to find I was attractive," she says. "That first happened at Barnard. I sort of discovered I was a desirable commodity." She was, she thought, lucky. Lucky to marry "Michael," lucky to have friends, lucky there were men who would say, "Trust me." Lucky to be lucky.
"I was a part of everything that happened to me," she says, smiling grimly. No bitterness? No, only the loss of illusion: "My problem has never come from hating men, but from loving them too much."
By 1971, the First Stephani Cook was still alive and kicking and in fact getting along quite well. She had been returned the gift of life, and in repayment would become at last "the keeper of the house -- Hera, the goddess of the hearth," now that "life is once more balanced and predictable and I am new and chaste and purified."
Wearing a wig to protect her children from the shock of her total baldness, she cooked and cleaned and spread peanut butter, and during the summer of 1972 completed her master's degree in family and community relations and entered a PhD program in counseling psychology. She trained and practiced briefly as a sex therapist.
More than ever, she clung to her marriage and her children. Further complaint (What's wrong this time, Stephani?) seemed impossible. She had been healed, and even under the circumstances, should be grateful. The overwhelming emptiness would pass, or be defeated by force of will. There were, after all, other people to think of besides herself. Any cheerleader could tell you that. Yea, team.
Quite unexpectedly, her husband asked her point-blank if she had had an affair with her gynecologist, and she said yes. It had happened before the hysterectomy. "Michael" did not cope with the information well (should she have said: "Trust me, hon?"). Their marriage moved toward indifference. And later to stone-cold indifference.
"I wanted more than I had, even though what I had promised was to want less. I wanted more." Contrary impulses flooded her consciousness: Had she learned from her difficult passage that wanting more was greedy, selfish and at odds with her surgical purity? Or that "we do the best we can. Sometimes people get hurt; it can't be helped"?
Recovered, beautiful again, the First Stephani Cook became so isolated by that interior dialogue that "life got muffled; the children had to yank my sleeve to get my attention." In the meantime, her husband "circled in his silence."
At Christmastime, she confronted her father, telling him he had damaged her emotionally if not physically, and that he'd had no right. His answers were lame. He looked away. She considered her own children. Earlier, she had convinced herself that they were everything. Now she faced the reality that no matter how much she loved them, they could not be everything.
The final conclusion of the First Stephani Cook -- the greatful survivor, the rededicated mother, the still-trusting hearth guardian, the affirmed capitulator -- was devastating. When she drew back the gauzy curtain of her illusions and looked at the reality of herself she found that:
"Whoever it was that the doctors had saved, that 'Michael' had saved, that my mother and sisters and in-laws had saved, was not worth saving.
"What I should have known was that to be cured is not necessarily to be healed; that surviving death does not necessarily equip one to survive life: to survive as a wife, as a sister, a mother, a friend. To survive as a good girl."
" . . . One learns to lie down in darkness."
In September of 1974, while her daughter's sixth birthday party went full blast in the next room, the First Stephani Cook committed suicide. She did it with a razor ("took the indigo blade and pressed it against my flesh") in her sink.
She explains in "Second Life": "I envied the children and their excitement, their birthday celebrations, their conviction that anything was possible -- and what's more, that it was imminent. I envied their abandon."
"Spilling my own blood -- after so many others had spilled it for me -- became an archetypal act of self-determination. I did not want to die, but I did want to bleed. That is the answer. And it is probably only another woman who will know what I am talking about."
It took almost two years before she and "Michael" were separated, before, as she puts it, her transformation from "someone to be looked at" to "someone who sees" was complete. What the cancer had failed to kill, and the doctors had blunderingly cured, she herself destroyed: the First Stephani Cook.
"The victim chooses the oppressor; the prey offers herself to the predator."
The Second Stephani Cook wrote that line. She is quite fond of aphorisms. She is also intensely competitive and competent by all signs, well-read, ambitious and surviving in New York City, where her children attend an expensive private school. She is writing another book, and because she is good at being on television will undoubtedly do more of that. She can drop literary names if required, contribute to a conversation on statistical forms theory and lead a seminar on cosmetics and the feminine image.
"I really think I've come to a recognition of self, in the etymological sense," she says. "It came little by little. At each eureka you become a fuller person.
"Happiness isn't somewhere you get. It's the way you live your life. It's choices. You try to live so that the choices resonate in a way that makes you yourself, and that ties you to your fate. You can't change your fate, but you can fine-tune it. It's literally a listening -- to your body, to the people around you, to your professional life. To be able to tune in on a loyal sense of yourself, that's happiness.
"It may offend and hurt, but that has to happen. The only apologies you have to make are to yourself."
The Second Stephani Cook ("Yes, I am sometimes lonely") checks her nails. For an intelligent woman who has been through hell and forged a dangerous new life out of the wreckage of her past, she spends a lot of time worrying about her nail polish.
"It bothers me to have chipped nails," she explains patiently. "Your hands are a reflection of the self. Makeup is important, yes. When I stand in front of the mirror and paint myself, it's a form of meditation. It's really a very deep expression of the self."
A quizzical look from Stephani Cook: Would anyone else like to try to tell her who she is, and who she is not?