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The Tenuous Bond of Fathers and Sons

When he was twenty-eight years old, Bernard Cooper received a bill in the mail for two million dollars. It was an itemized invoice from his dad charging him for every expense he'd ever generated as a child. It's easy to see why Cooper chose this incident to title his fantastic new memoir, The Bill from My Father, a recounting of his many baffling, funny and laborious interactions with the peculiar man who raised him. Cooper is the author of two other memoirs and a novel, and a recipient of the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Award. He spoke to us from his home in Los Angeles about reparative sexual therapy, truth in memoirs and the unsteady armistice between fathers and sons.

Will Doig: In many of your arguments with your father, you both seem to be at a remove.

Bernard Cooper: I describe a lot of the arguments my father and I had as being like two men chasing each other on stationary bicycles. There was this sense that we were unable to really understand what the other was after.

WD: Was this combativeness just a natural product of his aging, or do you think the two generations are increasingly alienated from each other?

BC: My father was not a person who believed in talking about his problems or his feelings. He grew up in a generation that was very skeptical about psychotherapy. All that group therapy and primal screaming in the '60s, he saw it as a bunch of nonsense. He did not live his life with the idea that one makes concerted efforts to thoroughly divulge their inner worlds to other people.

When I was much younger, especially in the '60s and '70s -- the post-hippie generation -- I really wanted to believe one could have faith in people, that the world was actually welcoming and not competitive, that people mean well in general. My father was much more skeptical about human behavior. I think I've actually come to see that, to a certain degree, he knew more about human nature than I was willing to believe.

WD: Many of us have parents who are just now reaching old age. Some of us find ourselves increasingly parenting our parents. Does this reversal of roles bring us closer, or just foster resentment on both sides?

BC: I think both. As I grew older, I realized what it would be like to have physical limitations, to lose one's financial security, to move from a huge suburban house in Hollywood to a run-down trailer park in Oxnard, and how much that must have shamed my father.

WD: Toward the end, when your father was becoming very difficult to manage, were there ever moments when you wished he would die?

BC: He had a long and thorough history of alienating every single person he was close to. It was almost methodical. He had always been peculiar, and his eccentricities climaxed in the last month of his life. There was not much left for him. So I didn't ever think, it'll be easier for him that he should pass away. When he did pass away, however, I did think it would have been difficult [if he'd stayed alive].

WD: I think men in the 1950s were taught that they shouldn't be truly open and knowable, and as a result, we now have a generation of sons and daughters who know their fathers as Father Figures, but not really as people. Did writing the book help you to understand him better?

BC: I understand him better and identify with him more, but he simultaneously remains a mystery to me. And I'm not entirely unsatisfied with that. I feel that in some way, people have to recognize the fact that you can never thoroughly know another person.

WD: For such a cantankerous old man, he seemed to take your sexuality in stride.

BC: Oh, yeah. [My partner] Brian has an extremely strong work ethic. He's really organized, has a good income. I think my father had this sense of, "Hey boy, you've snagged yourself a good money-earner, there!"

WD: In an earlier memoir, Truth Serum, you wrote about going into therapy to "cure" your homosexuality. What was that experience like?

BC: At that point I lived with a woman who I loved very much and even had a good sexual relationship with. My therapist believed something could be uncovered to release me from those [homosexual] longings and make this heterosexual relationship possible. His particular method, which I haven't heard of before or since, was to take me next door, where an MD would inject me with a combination of sodium pentathol and Ritalin. The idea was that the sodium pentathol would make me pass out, and the Ritalin would make me wake up a few minutes later, and it would loosen the tongue so I might discover all these hidden things.

Let me just say that it was worth every penny. For the two minutes after that doctor injected me, I was in heaven. There was a neon light over the padded examination table I would lay on. He would inject me, dim the lights, leave the room and I'd stare up at the neon tubes. I would hear what I thought was the typist outside just typing away like crazy. It sounded like some inspired writer. And then I'd start to think, No, it's not typing. It's the sound of light from overhead! And I would feel inexpressible joy about this every time, just like clockwork. Of course, nothing I didn't know was uncovered from the therapy, but it was a great high, so I kept going back for a while.

WD: I have to ask you about James Frey. A 1996 article about Truth Serum in the Boston Phoenix was headlined, "Total Recall: Bernard Cooper blends fact with fiction in his new memoir."

You were quoted in the article as saying, "Toni Morrison once wrote that there is a difference between 'truth' and 'fact,' and I'm always aware of shaping the material I work with. I have no qualms about making embellishments to create a more beautiful piece of writing. The impulse to fictionalize or modify the truth is inherent in all acts of memory. Believing that lets me follow my instincts while I am working; not everything I say has to hold up in a court of law."

So, what's your take on the whole James Frey circus?

BC: I find it really fascinating. I think one thing that allows me to confront those issues without any sense of guilt or embarrassment, is that it's almost as if I'm working in another genre entirely than what he's working in. There's a certain transparency and rawness in his prose that makes it read almost like a journal entry. It's raw and immediate, and that's what people responded to. My response was, I don't really want to read this book because it's not processed or filtered. It doesn't take some kind of risk with language. There's not very much exciting to me about the prose. I think one of the real problems was that his embellishments seemed to be largely in service to a kind of posturing from the very beginning. "I'm tough and I like pit bulls and I drink beer." That also made me not very interested.

In the kind of memoirs I like to read, even if there are fictive elements in them, I feel assured that the writer is at least doing their best to get at the truth. In my book, there are long passages of dialogue. I have always mimicked my father. That I don't mean this in a hocus pocus sort of way, but I almost do feel like I can channel him. And I felt like, who better to invent dialogue than me? It's certainly based on things that happened and things he said, but it's a kind of invention. I really try to explain in this book, that what you're getting are my memories, and I do feel tremendous responsibility to tell the truth, but I also am not interested in telling the truth without my imagination.

This book, it was so much about memory -- my father losing his memory, me remembering things correctly and incorrectly. For a long time, Brian and I thought his headstone said one thing when it actually said another. Instead of digressing into the fallibility of memory, I try to make it part of the text in the way everybody experiences discrepancies. I'm fascinated by that, and I welcome that.

WD: Do you worry Frey could have a chilling effect on memoir writing?

BC: Maybe I'm living in a fool's paradise. It crossed my mind. A couple of things: I think readers of anything should be skeptical. I am, and I feel like I have to be won over by a book and feel a certain degree of trust. But that's me. I wouldn't hold the author responsible if I found out there was, like in most memoirs, some sort of minor discrepancy. It wouldn't surprise me. Making up entire jail sentences out of the blue is pretty weird, and it's troublesome. But I did see the last half-hour of Oprah's public chastisement. It was excruciating. It was like seeing someone put in stocks in the colonies.

Here's what really flipped me out about that show. Oprah had someone in the audience from something called the Poynter Institute of Ethics. Among other things, he said that memoirs should be rated according to how much is true and how much is fictionalized. Suddenly I thought, I don't want to live in a world where people lie, but nor do I want to live in a world where everyone thinks what's true and what's false is a quantifiable, inarguable thing. What you get is fundamentalism when that happens. And that scares me way more than anything James Frey has done.

Stonewalling Plan B

The Food and Drug Administration, for all its faults, has largely preserved a dispassionate scientific sobriety above the tides of public philosophy.

In fact, its earliest incarnation was a humorless little office called the Bureau of Chemistry, which was created by President Lincoln in 1862 and headed by an actual chemist. In later years, the FDA would regulate tea importation, penicillin and a polio vaccine with an impressively unsympathetic eye. In 1959, with almost Grinchian relish, they recalled the entire U.S. cranberry crop three weeks before Thanksgiving.

But more bothersome still is what it shows signs of becoming: an agency that allows the safety of our food and meds to fall victim to ideology. Such a concept was disturbing enough to drive Dr. Susan Wood out. The former director of the FDA's Office of Women's Health, Wood recognized, as did virtually every other member of the agency's staff, the safety and necessity of an emergency contraceptive called Plan B. Compared to other products the FDA had approved, Plan B was a no-brainer, safe and effective.

Crucially, it was time sensitive, requiring dosage as soon as possible after, say, condom breakage, to prevent unwanted pregnancy. For this reason, it would need to be available without prescription.

Yet today, Plan B sits not on a Rite Aid shelf, but in a bureaucratic holding pattern that will likely endure for years. After being recommended for approval at every level of its formal review, the pill mysteriously ended up in what is called a "rulemaking process" to determine whether the product can be given "dual status," which would make it available without prescription for adults but not for minors.

FDA staffers say this is simply a way to ensure that Plan B stays in purgatory (for a few more election cycles, one could imagine.) Wood took the strongest stance, resigning in protest on August 31.

What is the function of the FDA's Office of Women's Health?

It was created to focus on the inclusion of women in clinical trials. For example, right now there's a lot going on with coronary heart disease. The office would focus on questions of whether the medications are safe and effective for women. When I was there, we had a budget of around $4 million.

In the case of Plan B, the FDA decided to solicit public comment about whether it should be available without prescription. What's the value of getting input from a public with no medical expertise?

The FDA is proposing going into a rulemaking process, or the development of a regulation. When you develop a regulation, you begin by asking for public comment, asking people what sort of issues they think need to be addressed.

What's wrong with that?

Rulemaking is a long, multiyear process. I'll give you a good example of necessary rulemaking. When the FDA was given the authority by Congress to regulate mammography facilities, it required establishing standards for facilities throughout the country: who does the inspections, what level of training do the physicians need, what about the technicians who upkeep the machines, what about the standards of the machines themselves . . . it was big and complex and took several years to develop the rules and regulations to ensure that an FDA-certified mammography facility is in fact a good one.

In this case, it's an abuse of the system. We've had multiple products out there on dual status, and we've never felt the need to go through rulemaking on them before. But for some reason, this time we announce that instead of approving [Plan B], which is what the evidence says we should do, we're going through rulemaking. It sounds like just sixty days of public comment, but that's just the first one percent of how long this is going to take. It's a very big deal to pass a regulation. It's going to be years before we get through this.

Recently, we've witnessed what seems to be an ideological drift in women's health issues -- abstinence education, parental notification laws, etc. Is this part of that?

The common thread in those things you mention would be that there now seems to be a problem with contraception itself. Contraception seems to have become controversial. We assume that contraception is not controversial and here we are proven wrong. That said, I think it's only controversial for a very small group of people, but they're clearly wielding enormous influence.

The FDA is part of Health and Human Services, which is run by the executive branch of the federal government. The delay of Plan B is certainly in step with this executive's ideology, don't you think?

I agree, but historically, to a very large degree, the FDA has maintained its independence. Though it's part of the chain, it should be able to build a wall so that it gets input, but the decision-making is made inside the FDA. What appeared to happen in the emergency contraception decision was the professional staff was completely locked out and a decision was issued without the usual consultative decision-making. That's extraordinary.

If historically the FDA has been able to maintain that wall of independence, why does it seem to be coming down now?

Well, as to the change in the administration or who is able to influence this administration, I'll let other people speculate on that.

When it's reported that "the FDA made this decision," who exactly are they talking about? Who is "the FDA?"

In a normal process, this never would have reached the leadership of the agency. Somewhere in the middle, there's the authority to issue a decision on a product, and if the normal process had occurred, that's what would have happened. But something above the bureaucratic process -- something happened at the leadership level of the agency, or beyond, and the only thing that I'm at this point willing to say, and it's speculative but I feel pretty confident, is that the agency was not acting independently. The leadership of the FDA overruled every level of staff review in the agency. None of the decision-making process was followed in a normal way. And the fact that the current acting commissioner hasn't changed the direction shows that the agency is still not acting independently.

Who appoints the commissioner?

It's a presidential appointment.

And Lester Crawford, who was commissioner when the decision to start a rulemaking process for Plan B was made, has since resigned.

He resigned suddenly and unexpectedly, and there's lots of speculation as to why, but I have no inside scoop. They've since appointed a new acting commissioner. He was Bush Sr.'s prostate doctor.

He was appointed by the current President Bush?

Yes, and he hasn't changed direction at all.

The FDA is not involved in national security or anything like that. Why does it seem to be such a shadowy organization? Why isn't this process more transparent?

A lot of the stuff is confidential because pending decisions can affect the stock market and insider trading. So there's a lot of regulation that prevents the FDA from talking about where it is in the process.

Critics of emergency contraception say that it could encourage unprotected sex, thereby increasing the likelihood of STD transmission. Is it the FDA's place to consider hypotheticals like this?

Yes, to some degree, they have to balance risk-benefits. But there have been studies done that show emergency contraception does not change sexual behavior or regular contraceptive use. So not only is there a lack of evidence of a problem, there's evidence to show it doesn't cause a problem.

American Life League Director Julie Brown says Plan B contains a chemical that can contribute to heart problems and blood clots. Do you know what chemical she's referring to?

She's referring to progestin, and yes, if you're taking it as hormone-replacement therapy every day it comes with associated risks. But this is one-time use. The vote on safety was unanimous. And American Life League, I'd point out, is opposed to all forms of contraception. People need to understand that a lot of the people who are against emergency contraception have made the same arguments against regular birth-control pills.

The U.S. Bishops Pro-Life Secretariat has said that Plan B can also be used as an abortion pill, after conception, by impeding the movement of the new embryo through the fallopian tube. Medically speaking, is this considered abortion?

Medically speaking, it is not considered abortion. Progestin is the same natural hormone that a woman's body produces while she's breastfeeding to help prevent her from getting pregnant. If you're comfortable with breastfeeding, you're comfortable with emergency contraception.

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