Day 101: The Universe Is A Dick – The Mary Nissenson Story

originally published April 10, 2012

After spending a day clawing through a hundred Wikipedian subjects, counting every word by hand and trying to remember what it felt like to breathe outside air, it’s nice to welcome Mary Nissenson into my consciousness for a pleasant, normal kilograph.

Except Mary’s story is anything but normal. She is a biopic waiting to happen – a riches to rags story from my lifetime, though one I’d never come across until now. Everything about her climb to success simply shrieks of hard work and commitment; Mary wasn’t the blow-her-way-up-the-ladder type. What comes next is nothing short of tragic.

Mary grabbed her undergrad degree from Vassar in 1974, then became the first female elected president of the law students’ association at the University of Chicago Law School. She graduated with her law degree in 1977, then promptly celebrated by going to see Star Wars. I was three that year; I assume that’s what everybody did in 1977.

She worked as a corporate litigator, one of the most lucrative career paths in the legal world. Before long, she was working for WBBM-TV as an investigative reporter. She won an Emmy for her look at child labor law violations.

Not satisfied with a mere Emmy, Mary also racked up a Jacob Scher Award for investigative journalism, a Peter Lisagor Award for journalistic ass-kickery, a Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association, and she finished off the Old 96-er in one sitting.

She jetted off to Israel in the early 80s and produced a documentary that followed a Holocaust survivor’s journey back to Auschwitz. Mary was soaring in her field. Five years out of law school, with little or no formal journalistic or broadcasting training, and she was recruited by CBS to cover Lech Walesa’s Solidarity Movement in Poland.

This is where I’d like to end the story. Mary Nissenson, dedicated student, high-achieving twenty-something, regular customer at Krazy Roy’s House Of Trophy Cases. But that’s not a story. Luckily, things keep getting better before they get worse.

Mary’s work in Poland netted her a George Foster Peabody Award. That’s like a physicist winning a Nobel, an author winning a Pulitzer, or an online collection of Boz Skaggs tablature and photographs winning a Cup Of Wonder Award.

She’d been on the air for two months. Two months, and she’d won the most prestigious award in her field, an award I’ve even heard of, despite never having been an investigative reporter. Sure, I may have heard about it from an episode of Murphy Brown, but I’ve looked into it and I can assure you, it’s a big deal.

Mary kept climbing. She followed presidential campaigns in the 1984 election, and became one of the most recognizable faces for NBC Network News. She showed up on every floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, appearing on The Today Show, NBC News Overnight, NBC News At Sunrise – all the various time-based NBC News programs, except perhaps for the Evening News, which was still all about the Brokaw.

In 1985, Mary defected to WABC in New York, taking on reporter and anchor duties. A couple years later, she was back in Chicago, then by 1988 she was working her way out of the news game. She launched her own company, working with Fortune 500 firms to divert some of their marketing money into ‘public space ventures’. This essentially means she helped them to do some good with their money, rather than just slapping up more billboards and drowning us in more infomercials.

In 1995, after 42 years of kicking life squarely in the ass, Mary felt she deserved a little something for herself. Nothing huge, just a brow lift. She wasn’t in broadcasting anymore, but she was still the public face of her company, and she felt that nature needed a little tweak backwards. No big deal. Except that it cost her everything.

She woke up in agony. The surgery had been botched, her nerves had been damaged. She suffered from something called cranial reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a progressive disease that is considered to be about as painful as bone cancer. We are talking extreme excruciation, all the time. To make it worse, there is no cure. Pain medication can take the edge off, but it doesn’t take long to build up an immunity to that relief. Of all the things that can go wrong with plastic surgery, this is right up there with death. Some may say it’s worse.

By the way, the Google ads on this New York Daily News article about the horrors of Mary’s surgery are a little tasteless:

Mary was violently sensitive to light and sound. Someone unwrapping a candy in the same room would drive her into agony. Before long, she was being fed 12 morphine pills every day, along with thirty other pills to try to curb the disease’s effects.

If the disease was the bad news, the worse news was that her insurance company wasn’t paying for anything, since this was an elective surgery. She lost her life savings, her husband, her home, her career. Everything she’d worked her entire life for was wiped out by the slip of a scalpel.

For fourteen years she could scarcely get out of bed. I’m hesitant to quote a lot of facts from this pivotal paragraph on her Wiki-page, as the spelling and grammar take a suspicious turn for the weird at this spot, and the reference to her ‘pretending to be in pain for fourteen years’ makes it sound like this paragraph was written by a somewhat biased party. But if the facts are to be believed, she sued her plastic surgeon and lost. Shitty.

There is a smidgeon of light at the end of this tale though. Mary founded the Triumph Over Pain Foundation, one of the first pain patient advocacy groups in the US. She now lives in Sausalito, California, and teaches graduate students in San Francisco. She has formed something called Global Gravitas, Inc., which has worked toward Middle East peace, combating diseases, and battling childhood obesity.

There may be a lesson here, about vanity and self-image and gambling with one’s life on an aesthetic improvement. I can also see a potential lesson about how sometimes, despite decades of hard work, dedication and fighting for the causes of good, the universe can be a fickle asshole.

Keep up the good fight, Mary.

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