Today I am haunted by yesterday and the tragic death of Playwright Wendy Wasserstein. She died of lymphoma at the age of 55. Her sister died of breast cancer at 60. Wendy, unmarried, left behind a six-year-old daughter named Lucy Jane who was born three months premature and weighed 1-pound, 12-ounces at birth.

The cruel gossip about Wendy that dogged her all her life — behind her back and in front of her face — was that she was too fat and too ugly to find a man to marry her.Wendy Wasserstein

Wendy would try to laugh off her never-ending search for a man and she wrote award winning plays about the joy and yearning of relationships but she never found married success in her private life.

She refused to settle for a man who loved her money and power but not her.

Wendy was so desperate to have a family some believe she spent over $130,000 on fertility treatments and Pergonal to get pregnant. Some in the medical community believe Pergonal can cause cancer.

Comedienne Gilda Radner took Pergonal and other drugs to get pregnant and later died of ovarian cancer.

What must have gone through her mind when she realized her dream of having a daughter to only have her new family crushed by her own death a few years later and she was forced to leave behind a legacy of interesting plays, a Pulitzer Prize and a motherless child she was determined to bring to life?

Wendy was Dr. Howard Stein’s student at the Yale School of Drama. I met her many times over the last 20 years and she was always packed with life and a perpetual smile.

Aristotle wrote about the Cathartic effect of Tragic plays for theatre audiences in the delivery of Pity and Fear. Pity in that, like poor King Oedipus, he was born guilty and no one deserves a life doomed to destroy a family from the moment of life.

Fear was the knowledge that, like King Oedipus, we could share the same unwitting fate.

Dr. Stein took Aristotle’s Pity and Fear argument one step further: “Fear isn’t strong enough. It’s Pity and TERROR,” Dr. Stein would yell at us during class, “TERROR! The TERROR of realizing your life and all its decisions are doomed before they are decided in your mind or slipped from your lips. It’s Pity and TERROR that the Tragedy unpeeling on stage could somehow become your life.”

I am haunted by Wendy Wasserstein’s death because, like King Oedipus before her, the theoretical terror of a predestined life was visited upon her along with the uncertain destiny that the sins of the dying mother may be visited upon the surviving daughter.

What must it have been like to be Wendy and to learn everything she fought so hard to win would be ripped from her just as she was finally able to enjoy the fruits of her labor and her love?

It must have been terrifying.

Is there anything more unexpected and unwanted than a body turning against its life?

I wonder if Wendy wondered about King Oedipus who, the Oracle predicted, was born to kill his father and marry his mother and then somehow connect in her brilliant mind how the medication she took as an unwed mother to get pregnant might have prematurely ended her life?

Did she see the Tragic irony that the price of her daughter’s life was the killing of her own?

Wendy refused to identify the father of her daughter and was fond of saying, “Lucy will never want for fathers.”

Let’s hope the Terror of Wendy’s life will not haunt Lucy Jane as her death haunts those who knew her and loved her.

Let’s hope Lucy Jane can somehow be set free from the chains of a family history that tragically predestines its women to suffering in Terror while those around them can offer nothing more than Pity in search of an inconsolable Catharsis.

24 Comments

  1. Hi Carla!
    Thank you for sharing such a great story to help round out the discussion here.
    I guess the power to be a mother is stronger than the fear of death.
    One of Janna’s best friends from childhood just lost his mother to cancer. She was told in October she had a month to live, but she refused to die near any holiday or anyone in her family’s birthday. She didn’t want a day of celebration to be tainted with the memory of her death. She wasted away but still willed herself to live far beyond any sense of reason or medical certainty — and last week she decided the time was right and let go forever.
    Successfully managing the desire for life against the want to die is a great human feat.

  2. Yes, Anne, Wendy was generous with her time. She rarely said “no” to an invitation to speak at a school. She believed in Education and the Arts and in living a life filled with Cultural Cultivation. We will miss her spirit and influence.

  3. Hi Chris —
    Wendy cared about her career, but she cared more about being a good person.
    Yes, genetics are wild and unpredictable. I think you needlessly tempt a dangerous cocktail, though, when you mix Pergonal and a family history of cancer.
    Gilda Radner was a bright example of how devastating the early fertility drugs could be on a woman’s body.
    Wendy tried for something like five years to get pregnant with Pergonal and other drugs but did not find success.
    She gave up.
    A year later her fertility doctor saw her in a restaurant and told her she should try again because a whole new round of fertility drugs were available.
    Shortly thereafter she was pregnant.
    Are we tempting predestiny by using drug therapies to defeat the purposeful want of the body?
    Is it appropriate to tame the wild landscape of the body by forcing it into something unnatural with wishes and dreams?

  4. I’m glad you mentioned adoption as an important option to consider, Chris.
    I’m sure for some religions a natural birth from a coveted mother is important to a clean continuation of a culture and a line of ethnicity, but for others who do not have that kind of ancient pressure, adoption is a fine choice.