Aileen Weintraub is an author, essayist, and journalist who lives with her husband and teenaged son in the Hudson River Valley. She has written on an array of subjects (her previous books include We Got Game! 35 Female Athletes Who Changed the World and All About Rocks), but this one is different. Knocked Down: A High-Risk Memoir is a deeply personal memoir about a time of great turmoil in the author’s life, during which she experienced not only the fear and physical challenges of shutting down her life to save her unborn child, but also myriad other stressors. Throughout these pages, Brooklyn-born-and-bred Weintraub is learning how to navigate the waters of a new marriage, a new house, a new business, and a new rural community, all while remaining as horizontal as possible, ensconced in an old pull-out couch.
For a minute there, I wasn’t sure the fledgling family unit was going to make it.
I don’t know what I had in mind when I sat down to read Weintraub’s new memoir, but I’m sure I didn’t expect to laugh so much. And yet, there I found myself, staying up far past my bedtime, unable to put down a book that is somehow both poignant and hilarious. Weintraub’s story digs into the messiness and the absurdity in the unforeseen trials we all face; whether the reader has experienced bed-rest or isolation, they’re sure to resonate with this story.
When we sat down to chat, I had to remind myself more than once that we’d only just met. With a vibrant, storytelling air about her and that signature Brooklyn-Jewish wit, I felt as though I was talking with a close friend from down the block. That feeling of intimate familiarity was present as I read Knocked Down as well. Even in the darkest moments of this, frankly, harrowing time in Weintraub’s life, she never loses her sense of humor. The sense the reader gets is that of sitting down with a long-time pal at a bar who happens to have a completely wild story to tell you.
One of the many threads woven through the cloth of this text is the tale of a young New Yorker who finds herself marooned upstate, exiled from her Jewish community. To someone for whom the experience of growing up in an exceptionally close neighborhood, this estrangement was both sudden and staggering. “You know, living in Brooklyn, you can hear through the walls, you can hear everybody’s arguments and their simchas and everything,” she says, “and living in this tight knit community really informed who I am.” Suddenly though, she found herself married to someone from outside the community, without a familiar face for miles. “I have a thick Brooklyn accent, which I worked really hard to soften,” she laughed, “When I go home, I can use my accent, and it just comes out — it feels like home.”
Alone with her fibroids and high-risk pregnancy, staring out at Hudson Valley fields, waiting for her husband to come home from the new business they’d just bought — all of these cause Weintraub to fall into what can only be described as a mental health crisis. “Pregnancy is seen by society as this amazing, beautiful time in your life, and it is not always that way,” she told me, “If you’re a pregnant woman and you’re struggling, it’s hard to ask for help.” Nonetheless, perinatal depression and anxiety are very real, and they affect millions of pregnant people each year. As someone who, myself, suffered from a tumultuous pregnancy and postpartum period, reading this masterful, candid exploration of these mental health struggles was a revelation.
I’m not the only one who feels that way. Weintraub’s many essays on the topic have been extremely well-received among others who have been in similar situations. “The outpouring that I received of people saying ‘thank you for writing this,’ just kept me going,” she told me, shaking her head, “There are so many people who still haven’t processed their trauma, and don’t think they have a right to process their trauma or even acknowledge that it was trauma.”
Once perinatal depression and anxiety set in, the young mom-to-be is left to contemplate another person whose pain she had witnessed, unable to understand before she herself was in the thick of it. Weintraub’s father, whom she had recently lost, also suffered from depression, a fact she’d never faced head-on. Now, though, she has an opportunity to mend her relationship with her mother, talk about the distress her parents had worked through, and figure out how to hold the grief of living without her dad. By her own assertion, this exploration was “very healing” in a way she couldn’t have predicted.
“It wasn’t hard to intertwine the [different threads], because that’s life,” said Weintraub, “Life doesn’t happen, where you’re just grieving someone, and then you’re on bed rest, and then you have difficulties in your marriage, these things all happen at once.” At one point in the book, the author’s brother comments that her life is “like every after-school special rolled into one,” and she can’t help but agree. This book isn’t a tidy story about one challenge, it’s a cascade of them. Like dominos, but with big, life-altering events.
These days, Weintraub is writing from the same upstate home, but now she’s surrounded by a community she and her family have built over the years. “It’s warm, and it’s welcoming, and it’s definitely made me look at Judaism in a different way,” she says, “I appreciate the details of Judaism more. For example, lighting the Sabbath candles or sitting down to Shabbat dinner is not just something that we just do now. It’s so meaningful, and it’s so beautiful. It’s different. And it’s wonderful.”