writing her way to redemption

| 06 Apr 2015 | 10:54

Alice Eve Cohen was having a rough go of it a few years ago.

Her fourth-grade daughter, Eliana, needed a complicated leg-extension surgery, while her adopted 18-year-old, Julia, was searching for her birth mother. And Cohen, then 53, had just found out she had breast cancer.

A longtime Upper West Sider, Cohen was on the verge of crumbling. Then, when she maybe needed her most, her mother, dead 31 years, returned by way of vivid dreams and powerful hallucinations.

“Eliana was hospitalized when I got my diagnosis. That day, my mother appeared in my apartment, joining me at the kitchen table,” said Cohen, now 60.

Cohen, a solo theater artist who teaches playwriting at the New School, said she was initially reluctant to face painful memories from her adolescence. She and her mother, Louise, had shared a close relationship, but that morphed into mistrust as Alice entered her teenage years.

But as she began having what she describes as holographic visions and full-blooded conversations with her mother, the visits extended to amends over dinner, to wise counsel, and, as Cohen underwent radiation and fretted over her own children’s lives, the comforting she was wishing for.

Cohen’s mother would have understood her vulnerability. Louise had also suffered with breast cancer, in her mid-40s. But after her double mastectomy, Louise’s relationship with Alice and her two other daughters changed profoundly. Cohen watched as her once lively, loving, feminist mother became a resentful, angry ghost of herself. As Alice grew into adulthood, and particularly when she started dating boys and her mother turned jealous, the connection frayed even further. Alice got scared, and shut her out. Her mother died when Cohen was 22, long before she would become a parent herself.

“My breast cancer brought my mother back to me. But I kept thinking, now is not the time. My daughters need me. I don’t want my mother here. I don’t want to think about her. She’ll get in the way. But she was back,” Cohen said during a recent interview.

Cohen realized she was still anguished by her experience as a daughter. Despite that, she longed for a mother’s — her mother’s — love. Cohen, though, also knew she needed to be supportive of her own daughters during her family’s challenges. To avoid the mistakes her mother had made, and also to forgive herself, she needed to confront her past to succeed at motherhood.

“The more I tried to be a good mother, the more I was haunted by being a daughter,” she explained.

Cohen’s new memoir, “The Year My Mother Came Back” (Algonquin Books), recounts how she became the mother she wanted to be by being a daughter again.

This wasn’t Cohen’s first bout with adversity. Her first memoir, “What I Thought I Knew” (2009), revealed how she’d married, adopted Julia, divorced and then found herself unexpectedly pregnant at 44, just as she was about to marry her then-partner and now-husband, Michael. It was during an emergency CAT scan, which doctors thought would reveal an abdominal tumor, that she found out she was six months pregnant. After 25 years of infertility, she might now bear a child of her own.

But as much as it was a surprise, the pregnancy brought with it a host of worries. If she carried full-term, Cohen had three months to acclimate to a new baby who would have had no prenatal care and, because Cohen’s pregnancy was considered high-risk, would not be covered by her insurance. After much doubt and soul-searching, Cohen decided to have her baby.

Now a happily married mother to two artistic daughters, Cohen turned her travails, and triumphs, into “What I Thought I Knew” a solo play incorporating 40 characters that is at once dramatic and humorous.

With a talent for converting obstacles into art, Cohen is forging on.

Cohen next returns to the stage in June to reprise “Thin Walls,” her well-received play about twelve lives bumping into one another within a century-old New York City residential hotel, at the Kitchen Theatre in Ithaca.

“I’m very excited about this new performance, I did it in Scotland,” she said. “I can’t wait to bring it home to New York.”