To be cured is not necessarily to be healed.
The road 37-year-old Stephani Cook traveled to reach that bitter conclusion could not have been more harrowing. Fourteen months after the birth of her second child in 1970, the willowy, beautiful onetime cover girl underwent a radical hysterectomy because doctors believed dangerous blood clots were forming in her ovarian veins. She was only 26; the surgeon was also her extramarital lover. Three months later she was back in the hospital for a suspected tumor on her heart. She had open-heart surgery, only to learn subsequently that her real affliction was a rare placental cancer and that neither operation had been necessary. Cook ultimately suffered through four months of painful chemotherapy to eradicate the disease, which could have been detected early with a simple urine test.
Three years later she had recovered medically, but her marriage was deteriorating further. Depressed, Cook slashed her wrists. Now she is showing her scars to the world in a powerful autobiography, Second Life (Simon & Schuster, $13.95), described by Kirkus Review as “one of the most memorable accounts of a medical ordeal ever.” Publishers Weekly likewise found her chronicle of pain, fear and guilt “sometimes unbearable to read, especially when she articulates the emotions felt by legions of women cowed by male doctors who demand unquestioning trust.”
Stephani’s wounds go back to her Midwestern childhood. Her handsome father, she writes, started making incestuous advances toward her when she was about 8. That “shameful experience” molded the future woman. “I had sex and affection confused,” she admits. “I thought if a man didn’t want me sexually, he didn’t really care about me and I wasn’t being a good girl.”
When Stephani was 12, her father ran off with the family’s 19-year-old baby-sitter, leaving his wife, June, in Chicago with four children. Stephani recalls, “I would cry and cry and cry, until I was exhausted.” Her mother, a beautiful blonde with a streak of “Puritanism,” later became an alcoholic and died in 1976.
If nothing else, Stephani credits her father with “putting me together the way he wanted his ideal woman. I think I got all my drive from him.” As an art history sophomore at New York’s Barnard College in 1964, she began modeling for Glamour and two years later joined the Eileen Ford agency. After she graduated in 1966, she married an English lit major whom she calls “Michael” in the book. (He requested that she not use his real name.) Says Stephani, “I married the man who was like the father I should have had—loving, supportive and appropriately distant. He took care of me.”
Perhaps unintentionally on Cook’s part, “Michael” emerges as a sympathetic character in her book. As she explains, he “saved my life” with his unflagging affection. But in the meantime she had begun an affair with her gynecologist. Her ex-husband, who was unaware of his wife’s infidelity at the time of her illness, points out: “If they hadn’t had the relationship maybe the right diagnosis would have been made in the beginning. I urged my wife to get a second opinion, but Stephani decided that her lover was going to be the second opinion.”
When she recovered from the malignancy, Stephani says she was advised against suing for malpractice. “My lawyers told me there were two things wrong with the suit—I was a woman and I wasn’t missing anything important like an arm or leg.” After she and her husband split up, she began dating former CIA analyst Frank (Decent Interval) Snepp. “A relationship with Stephani is like being a moth close to a flame,” he says now. “The fire will almost extinguish you.” It was Snepp, however, who convinced her to write and his agent to take her on. Snepp insisted she discuss the painful topic of incest, and supported her ex-husband’s desire to present his side of the marriage in the book.
Top agent Lynn Nesbit sold the manuscript for a $100,000 advance, and the paperback auction will start at about $300,000. (Eight countries have bought the foreign rights.) Cook, who has two master’s degrees and was certified as a sex therapist in 1973, is already a pro on the media circuit. For several years she hosted a family-counseling segment on a Philadelphia TV talk show, and she has also promoted Glamour magazine in “Self-Image” workshops across the country.
Stephani and ex-husband “Michael” remain surprisingly close, though he feels that her book “exploited” him and “was not a fair or full portrait of me. It was written to make money and attain a certain celebrity.” He lives in Manhattan with their son, Zachary, 11, two blocks away from Stephani and daughter Alexandra, 13. Since February Cook’s new beau has been architect John Springer. But she confesses, “The only people I really worry what they are going to think of me are my children. They are the constants in my life.” Having established trust funds for both of them, Stephani is hard at work promoting Second Life and planning a novel dealing with “issues of power, violence and sexuality.” Does that suggest that she has a continuing fascination with life on the razor’s edge? “I’m always willing to jump off the cliff,” explains Stephani Cook. “And to be shattered at the bottom…because why not?”