Ellen Stohl and David Lubnow live in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Northridge, about a 45-minute drive from Los Angeles. A brick walkway disappears behind a matching planter and makes a gradual incline to the front porch of their modest home. David opens the front door lugging a basket full of laundry and shows me into the kitchen. Ellen is seated at a table in the dining area adjacent to the kitchen, engaged in a Scrabble game with her visiting nephew. It’s a casual Saturday, and Ellen is dressed comfortably in jeans and a loose-fitting sweater. I get the feeling that just about any day is a casual day in this household.
Ellen and I move into the living room and David brings little Zoe and hands her to her mother, who instantly smothers her with kisses. This is my first meeting with Ellen, and I am struck by the contrast between the woman I have read about, the photogenic 21-year-old so intent upon making an impression — the first woman with a disability to pose nude for Playboy — and the cooing mother whose attention is held by a 4-month-old baby. At 39 she is still attractive, but seems open, unassuming and, at least for the moment, unconcerned with the image she projects. It’s all about Zoe.
“When you talked about posing in Playboy,” I begin, “you described it as something you weren’t doing for men, but for yourself, like a celebration of yourself. It almost sounded like a high, being in front of the camera. I’m wondering how things are different now.”
“You know,” she says, “when you get to be that pin-up girl, you go woo-whoo, but what happens as you change and grow and how do you maintain that sense of pride and self and feeling sexy and beautiful? And can you maintain it, and is it as important? I think it is, I still think it’s important to feel attractive, but it is a change. It’s a long way from the Playboy days. But, posing for Chris [photographer Chris Voelker] and doing nudes for him — pregnant and then after the pregnancy— has been incredible, too. I mean it’s about celebration of your body in a different place.”
“I don’t know that sexuality was repressed. It wasn’t really talked about, that’s for sure.”
“What about nudity?”
“I remember seeing my mom naked, and my sisters naked just getting dressed, so there wasn’t anything wrong with being naked. Being naked in front of boys was definitely a no-no. I remember my brother had his friends pay him each a quarter to see my older sister get dressed. Kind of a Brady Bunch thing that really happened. In that way there was always the typical American idea that nakedness equals sex. It wasn’t a European sort of nakedness … just natural … in terms of body image. I think that even if you’re shy you should try to look at your body. You’ve got to be able to come to terms with your body, and you’re NOT going to like everything. I don’t look in a mirror and go, oh, gee, I love every part of my body. I didn’t do that at Playboy, either.”
Ellen Stohl was born April 24, 1964, in Portland, Ore., and grew up in rural Clackamas. “Oh yeah, cows, chickens, everything,” she says. “We used to go down to the country store. We spent our days in the woods or down at the swimming hole sliding down the hillside on inner tubes into the water. It’s a wonder somebody didn’t get killed.” There, in the rainy winters and the made-to-order summers, her dream began to take shape: “I wanted to be an actress. That’s all I ever wanted.”
Her parents divorced when she was still a young girl. After her mother remarried, her stepfather found work in California, so they moved to Anaheim. It was massive culture shock. “I cried when we drove through Hollywood. I was happy to be there but sad that it looked so dirty.”
In high school she was shy. “I was five feet two inches tall and flat as a board. I was afraid of sex, I didn’t like sex, I was afraid of my body. I remember one date just trying to get to first base, and I’m like — aieee — I’m going to walk home, don’t touch me! When all of a sudden at 16 I grew up and out in all the right places, I didn’t know what to do with it. I liked that guys were attracted to my body but they were missing … me.”
She kept her acting dream alive going to theater camp during summers. Then in 1983, at age 18 and in her first semester of college, she hit a slick oil spot in the rain, driving too fast, lost control of her van and crashed, injuring her spinal cord at C8-T1.
Her rehab took place at La Palma Intercommunity Hospital. “I was very fortunate to go there because it was new, they had a young and forward-looking staff. They were just beginning to focus on the person instead of the injury.” Not long after being discharged, she moved out of her home — “my mother had trouble handling my injury” — and into a low-cost housing project with a live-in aide.
Soon she was back on the campus of California State University Fullerton, but were the guys still attracted to her? “I don’t think so. Or if they were I couldn’t recognize it because I couldn’t see myself as attractive in a chair. I felt more like a little sister to everybody, and that’s how they treated me.”
Before long the weight of the wheelchair stereotype began to drag her down. “For awhile I think I lived in oblivion. Like this is not me, I’m not really in a wheelchair. I was just trying to find me again. But I was lucky enough that when I was in rehab, two orderlies in their early 20s used to come in and tease me and flirt with me, and one of them I ended up going on a date with afterwards. So I was exposed early that there was still something attractive about me, but I couldn’t put it with the chair yet, so I sort of only hung out with able-bodied people and lived in that sense of denial for awhile.”
Her Voc Rehab counselors told her that acting wasn’t practical — she needed a “more viable option” — so she changed her major from theater to communications, focusing on advertising and public relations. But the acting dream refused to die. She did some modeling and auditioned for parts and learned how the system worked. “When the script called for someone with a disability, they would audition both men and women for the part. All they really wanted was a wheelchair.” Frustrated, yet spurred on by an indomitable spirit, she decided to capitalize on her training in advertising and public relations: She would utilize Playboy as a “vehicle” to get her acting career going.
In 1985 an attractive 21-year-old incomplete quadriplegic couldn’t approach Playboy via the usual route of sending photos and expecting her body to do the talking. Instead she used her brains, writing a letter that articulated the problem she faced as a woman in a wheelchair and challenging Playboy to do something about it:
“My name is Ellen Stohl, I am a model/actress, who three years ago was injured in a tragic auto accident. At first, I had given up hope of pursuing my career, but after a few months and a lot of learning, I realized a wheelchair should not make a difference. Since that realization, I have been working twice as hard to achieve my career goals not only for myself but also to teach society that being disabled does not make a difference. The reason I chose Playboy for this endeavor is that sexuality is the hardest thing for disabled persons to hold onto. Not to say that they are not capable, but rather that society’s emphasis on perfection puts this definitive damper on self-esteem. Well, I believe it is time to show society the real story. Anyone can be sexy; it is a matter of how a person feels about himself or herself, and personally I feel great.”
Within a month the photo shoot was under way. But it wasn’t until 1987 that she actually appeared in Playboy, perhaps because the magazine was under fire at the time, being pulled from library shelves and attacked by feminists. But while she waited, not knowing when or if her photos would ever be published, she came to terms with who she was. “I realized I am a woman, Playboy or not. I shouted to the world, and even if nobody heard it, I had still shouted it. I didn’t need the world to tell me I was a woman.”
Just before her magazine debut, Playboy released a video about her — a “docudrama profile” — to prime the PR pump and educate the public. When the magazine hit the newstands, she was still a student at Cal State Fullerton. “The college directory was out, and they got 15 calls in 20 minutes, people asking for my phone number — instant craziness!” A frenzy of media attention ensued — the Donahue show, Sally Jessie Raphael, Geraldo, Good Morning America, numerous other television spots and dozens of magazine and newspaper articles. The media could not get enough of her. And always the question loomed — how could a quadriplegic pull off being a Playboy playmate?
Finding Her Way
In 1989 she graduated with a B.A. in communications, but by then, she says, “the hoopla had died down.” She took about a year and a half off and pursued acting and did a couple of stage plays, but got nowhere.
She decided to take up graduate studies in psychology at California State University in Northridge. Her plan was to continue pursuing acting while engaging patients in therapy. But she discovered she lacked the patience that therapy required. “I hated it. You had to sit and listen to people who had problems and you couldn’t really tell them what to do. That just drove me crazy.”
She had moved from Orange County to the Los Angeles area to be close to the action, but there were no roles for sexy actresses who used wheelchairs. That combined with her dislike of therapy and her need for more income pushed her into part-time teaching. “I was a mainstream facilitator, helping mainstream kids with special needs into a regular school.”
By 1994 she had graduated with a master’s in psychology. Given her media exposure, natural beauty, effervescent personality and status — she had lectured on body image and self-esteem to international gatherings — you would think she would have had no problems meeting the right guy, but that was not the case.
“I had a friend tell me — and we dated off and on and we’re still friends — that it could never really go anywhere because of the chair. There were a lot of guys that would get involved — especially after Playboy. You know — ‘Oh, playmate, you’re wonderful, yadda yadda yadda’ — but the reality of the chair doesn’t go away. There are things that you have to do to help out — getting out of the car, or you have to get the chair, you know, there are just things that you have to do. There were a lot of guys that couldn’t deal with it. They have to have enough confidence in themselves that they’re not judging themselves on what other people think.”
It was at this time — while she was participating in research with Marca Sipski on the physiological sexual functioning of SCI women — that she met someone in a sports bar at the hotel where she was staying, someone whose self-confidence stood up to the peer pressure. “He was playing a game with a friend of his and he had this tie on with a suit. So I said, ‘So what are you, a stockbroker or something (you know, this is a sports bar, you’re supposed to relax)? And he’s like, no, and we just started talking. So he says can I buy you a drink? And I say no, water, I need water at this point. So we sat and talked and talked and talked and it was getting toward closing, and his friends did that whole, OK, we’re going now, do you need your ride? — like they were going to save him from the girl in the wheelchair, which I remember to this day, being like — arrghh — I hate you people for feeling you have to save your friend from me. But Dave is like, no, no, I’m fine, I’m fine.”
They were together for the next five days. “What sold me on Dave was the way he treated me in front of all his friends. He didn’t care about the chair at all. There was just this level of comfort. We were together this whole time, we had gone to Atlantic City together — and we were in the hotel bedroom — and I had sat up and had this bladder accident that was really bad and I was, of course, humiliated, and I went in the bathroom and didn’t want to come out again, and he came in after about 10 minutes and said, ‘Can I help you?’ And I’m like, no, no, I’ve got it, and he’s like, no, here, and he reached around me and he washed my hands. And I knew then that he … I mean I was so embarrassed … and he’s saying, ‘It just shows that you’re human, I was getting afraid that you were like a superperson, like you had no flaws.’ And I just knew then that this was somebody who had no issue whatsoever with the chair.”
David left his teaching job on the East Coast and moved out to the Los Angeles area to be with her, eventually landing a job teaching science and math to special education students at Hollywood High. They lived together for three years before getting married in 1997.
“We got pregnant on our own in 1998,” says Ellen. “But I miscarried, and everyone was going, ‘Oh, that’s just wonderful news, I know it’s heartbreaking that you miscarried but it shows that you two can get pregnant naturally and there’s no problems, no issues about getting pregnant.’”
They were hopeful until a year later when they were still not pregnant. After a second year of no results they decided to try interuterine insemination — a doctor inseminated David’s sperm directly into her uterus. After four cycles of IUI and one pregnancy that didn’t take, they were getting concerned. Tests showed there were both male and female factors working against them. “It pisses me off that everybody always assumes that disability is the reason we had to go to in vitro, but it was just infertility, and it wasn’t disability-related.”
By the time they had tried in vitro three times, five years had passed since her first miscarriage. They almost didn’t try the third time: “Financially we were tapped, and emotionally it is so draining. Oh, it’s so hard. It was constantly on our minds, we were constantly trying. So you say, OK, we’re not going to do anything through Christmas, or we’re just going to enjoy the holidays or we’re going to go on vacation. But it’s still there, it’s always there when you choose to have a child.”
Ellen and David are waiting for the phone to ring. They have been waiting for at least five minutes after the doctor told Ellen he would call back “in a minute” to report the results of their latest pregnancy test. Ellen is nervous, biting her lip, trying not to let the stress and frustration of five infertile years swallow her up, trying not to cry, and the camera just keeps rolling — as it has throughout their five years of filming a documentary on their quest to get pregnant — eavesdropping on the awful silence. It is as if the phone, sitting between the two of them, lies at the center of the universe. This will be their last try. They have used up all their financial and emotional capital. One minute, the doctor said. Ellen sighs. It is the longest minute of her life.
The phone rings and she hesitates. “You take it … I don’t want to answer it.” Finally, she picks up the receiver. “Hello … yes? … Doctor?” She listens, her face alive with mixed emotions. “Yes? … Yes?” She starts to cry now, her hand to her mouth. “Right …178?”… Now comes a cautious smile. “I can’t believe it … Oh, my God!” The words, driven by feelings she has been afraid to release for days, months, years, come pouring out: “Oh my God! We were so sure but I was so afraid, you guys were great, you were so supportive all along with everything, tell her thank you so much, and everybody, just everybody. I can’t believe it.” She turns to David. “It’s 178, our level. He said anything over five is good. He says it’s a good solid number.”
One Crazy Day
During pregnancy Ellen developed a pressure sore, not from the added weight of the baby — she actually lost weight while pregnant — but from her altered posture in her wheelchair. Transferring became nearly impossible. Getting comfortable sleep and turning in bed were major challenges. They purchased a Select Comfort Bed, an air system that adjusts “by the numbers,” and raised the bed to an easier transfer height with furniture blocks. A Toilevator (a pedestal that raises the toilet seat) made her bathroom routine much easier. But nothing could prepare them for the day the baby arrived — two weeks early.
Ellen’s doctor was out of town and she didn’t know it until she got to the hospital. He had planned to induce labor the next week if she hadn’t delivered. Instead she was faced with an unfamiliar doctor who was on call, and the vibes couldn’t have been worse. It wasn’t clear if real labor had begun, but he wanted to induce. She wanted to wait. “And I was crying, because as much as you’re intelligent and everything, you get doctors around you and you feel like an idiot and they take over and you’re just infantile again, and I’m crying ohhhh, ohhhh, I don’t want to — this is all on camera, me crying about this doctor — I don’t want him to deliver my baby. I don’t like him.”
At this point David stepped in and questioned the on-call doctor about dysreflexia — the biggest concern with SCI deliveries — but his answer only made things worse. Neither David nor Ellen trusted him. With everything prepped and set to go, the nurse snuck away and called Ellen’s doctor, who then called another doctor — a friend of his — who was also on call. In no time the third doctor arrived at the hospital. “In came this new doctor,” says Ellen, “in flip-flops and shorts and a baseball cap, and he was just great — ‘Whatever you need,’ he says, ‘We’ll keep you here, we’ll watch for dysreflexia’ — and they moved me to my room.”
Later that night her labor arrived for real. The plan was not to have an epidural for pain (and managing dysreflexia) unless absolutely needed because Ellen feared possible further damage to the spinal cord, but that plan was abandoned when her third shot of Stadall was ineffective. So she got the epidural and her water broke. “At first I couldn’t push because I don’t have stomach muscles. And he’s like, push, push, and I’m like, is anything happening? And he’s like, no, but I’ll get her out, don’t worry. And then the nurse says, no no no, grab these handles here and act like you’re rowing, and so I grabbed the little handles on the delivery table and acted like I was rowing, and the doctor’s like, yeah, that’s it, that’s helping, that’s helping, so I did two of those, and he got her part of the way out and he said, now reach down and grab the rest of her. And I grabbed her shoulders and pulled her on out, and there she was.”
Throughout labor, mild dysreflexia — sweating, high blood pressure — had been present, but manageable. Then came the surprise. At 3 a.m. the next night, Ellen’s uterus started to contract — naturally stimulated by breastfeeding — and she went into severe dysreflexia. “My blood pressure shot up to 200 over something, I thought my head was going to explode, I was screaming that I was going to die.” In fact, a stroke was a possibility. Narcotics were ineffective, and with little Zoe in her bassinet on the other side of the room and six people working over her, she passed out, fearing all had been for nought. Fortunately, the team of doctors and nurses succeeded in bringing her blood pressure down. “I mean God, if I hadn’t been in the hospital, I don’t know that I would have survived.”
To manage the breastfeeding/uterine contraction-induced dysreflexia, Ellen had to take small doses of Vicodin and Motrin prior to each breastfeeding for three months. She wonders why no one ever mentioned this potentially serious complication. “Why hasn’t more been written on this? I don’t know. I had just reviewed this video tape from Indiana that was on SCI childbirth and pregnancy, and nothing was on there. I think people just aren’t thinking of it.”
Nov. 1, 2003. David and Ellen arrive at a restaurant off Lankershim Boulevard to celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary. They make a handsome couple, David in his leather jacket and easy smile, and Ellen, attractive, talkative and upbeat. Ellen explains to me that now she is teaching a weekly class at the university in Northridge, and she likes it. While we are waiting to order, several people recognize Ellen and come over to say hi and meet the real attraction — Zoe.
Now that Zoe occupies center stage, Ellen knows certain things must change. “I’ve been trying to figure out what car to get, because I need a different car, I’ve been driving a Mustang convertible since … forever.” She needs something easier to get in and out of, something safe for Zoe, but she’s resisting getting a van. “Nothing against vans, but I wrecked a van, that’s how I broke my neck. And that stereotype about disabled people in big cargo vans, you know, with big lifts, it never goes away, there’s still always this sort of shadow whispering in your ear. I think it’s the shadow of society that will always make you doubt, that somehow you’re less than. There’s always that questioning.”
But there’s no questioning Zoe’s basic needs. When she cries, Ellen secures her “boppy” (breastfeeding pillow) around her waist, providing her with abdominal support as well as raising Zoe’s head to a comfortable height. Breastfeeding in public comes naturally for Ellen — crowded restaurant on a Saturday night seems like home. For a long time now she’s been at ease with her body, but it’s not about her body anymore. “Zoe’s always first,” she says. “There’s not a second you can’t think of her. Going to the bathroom — is she going to be OK in the swing while I go to the bathroom? Getting up in bed at night to go to the bathroom without waking her up — is she OK? That’s the hardest thing, even when she’s with somebody else, is she OK, it’s just mentally and physically you completely belong to somebody else this time.”
But it’s clear her new responsibility is more a godsend than a burden. “I am incredibly blessed that my daughter is strong. She was holding her head up within the first few weeks. She’s so strong, it’s like somebody up there gave me this child. I can pick her up because she can hold her head up, I don’t have to worry as much about her head, so I can grab her around the waist and pick her up with one hand as opposed to having to pick her up like a fragile piece, and she’s been like that since the first few weeks.”
From her preschool teaching experience, Ellen has learned how babies quickly adapt to her wheelchair. “They are so adaptable. Zoe is already figuring out that I need to hold onto my momma, I need to do this. They’re just amazing creatures, and given the opportunity they are not going to love their parent any less because they have a disability.”
But the shadow, the questioning shadow of society is always there. “I just hope she’s never embarrassed that this is my mom,” she says.
“She won’t be,” I assure her.
“I hope so.” She laughs. “I got her all the Barbie dolls in the wheelchair already.”