Ariel Levy: “Feminism Never Said You Can Have It All”
Bethanne Patrick in Conversation with The New Yorker Staff Writer
Ariel Levy is a journalist, author, and staff writer at The New Yorker who has written long stories about South African Olympian Castor Semenya, gay-rights activist Edith Windsor, and what The Joy of Sex looks like for today’s reader. But if you know her name, it’s probably because you’ve read her 2013 article “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” where she bravely and honestly detailed how, during a work trip, she gave birth at 19 weeks to her son who died shortly thereafter.
David Remnick, who poached Levy from New York Magazine in 2008, is probably not surprised by the success of “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” demonstrating as it does Levy’s tenacity, strength, and commitment to observation—even in the most devastating of circumstances. Now Levy has expanded that essay into a memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply. I spoke with Levy by phone from her Brooklyn home and learned that she’s soon to have a new housemate.
Bethanne Patrick: Let’s start with your title, and all that it implies.
Ariel Levy: I know the answer! I know that one! It means, mostly that the rules that applied to my mother and grandmother did not apply to me. My whole life I was told I could be, and believed I was, the protagonist of my whole life. Several people said to me: Do you mean, in this book, that feminism told us something untrue? By which they mean that I’m saying feminism lied saying you can have it all. My response is NO: feminism never said you can have it all. That’s the thinking of a toddler, not the thinking of a feminist. You can have a lot of things, but no one gets everything.
BP: Now let’s turn to your ending, and all that it does not give away.
AL: Doctor John and I are getting married and everything, it’s so nice for me! I didn’t let the book go there, to our courtship and all, because even though it’s technically true I think it would have been very misleading because it would imply this person came and saved me. That’s not what happened. I am so glad I have this relationship but it didn’t make me any less sad that my last marriage ended. It didn’t make me any less sad that my son died. His death was the most painful experience of my life but also the most transcendent. If it were up to me, obviously, my son would be four years old right now, but I don’t get that choice. I am grateful for what my life has turned out to be. I don’t mean this memoir as a cautionary tale, a kind of “Be careful, you could end up like me!” story. No, no, no. I’m in love, my parents are alive, I have my health, I have my friends, I have a lot. I really, really like being a writer. It’s what I always wanted, and I got it.
BP: Your mother told you never to depend on a man. She really meant never to depend on anyone for your livelihood. But did you hear something else, about love, about intimacy?
AL: I knew she meant that. I’m not sure I make that clear in the book. She meant the money, she meant, “Cover your ass” financially. She was the one in my parents’ marriage who wasn’t into monogamy. She didn’t mean all men are no good. It didn’t work for everyone, is what she meant. It didn’t work for my father and it didn’t work for me, but it worked for them. For a while. Trying to be in two places at once—being married but being in love with someone else—was torment for her, and it was certainly torment for me when I tried it. I’m not sure it would work for anyone. I think that’s where I got this idea that you could cook up some arrangement, from my mother. But as it turns out that didn’t work for me at all! The only real regret of my life is that I had that affair. It was a really cruel thing to do to Lucy, to someone I loved. There are some relationships where it would work, but not mine with Lucy. I think Lucy wanted a really traditional marriage, I hope she finds it, it wasn’t what I wanted, it wasn’t what I was about. Then. Now I can’t relate to how I felt, then, this sort of frenzied desire for experience.
BP: Many reviews of this book focus on the “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” parts—but there is also a substance-abuse survivor story in here.
AL: I didn’t grow up around any kind of substance abuse, and maybe that’s why I didn’t grasp that we had a disease going on in our house, mine and Lucy’s. They always say it’s a family disease, and we were in denial together. My affair was retaliating for Lucy’s addiction, and I was working out my own issues, too. I really had this kind of greed for every experience I could possibly have.
It wasn’t until after we were apart that I realized this is a disease; Lucy’s substance-abuse problem is not her fault. I really didn’t get that it was not her fault, that she couldn’t control her addiction any more than I could. And I tried to control it. I didn’t know then that that’s a thing. The experiences in this book show how I aimed for the illusion of control, and how I was disabused of those illusions in all sorts of ways. I do think I was addicted, too, to lust and experiences. I was lying, I was doing things that were disruptive to my life, I felt unable to control. You can’t stop doing something that is bad for you and bad for your life.
One of the mind-fucks about addiction is that it’s hard not to get angry at an addict because that’s who’s doing the things that upset you. When you’re there with it it’s very hard not to blame the person. Who knows what effect better treatment would have had on our marriage? I’m so proud of Lucy now. She’s great. She’s a really, really important person to me. She read the memoir first. I told her “You’re more important to me than this book, cut whatever you want to.” It will tell you a great deal about Lucy to hear that her response was “This is your story. I’m not going to censor it.”
It’s very painful to be close to someone who was once your spouse, I have great examples with my parents; they’re very tight. I’d like to think we’re going to get there, we’ve never stop loving each other. After the first year post-divorce when we were viciously angry, we’ve been so nice to each other. We’re learning how to be intimate without being spouses.
BP: Let’s talk about ambition. You really burned with it, and that led you to certain places. Did it keep you away from others?
AL: I think that my number-one ambition was and still is to be a good writer, to be as good of a writer as I possibly can be. I don’t think that ambition is what kept me away from motherhood. I could have had a kid anytime; most of my colleagues, female colleagues, Janet Malcolm, big talented writers, they had children. I didn’t have a child earlier because I didn’t feel ready feel worthy of motherhood.
I kept trying after Mongolia. But I can’t have a baby. It’s a bummer. It’s the great sadness of my life that I can’t do that. But I’m not a sad person. I have a lot of other things. I wanted to be a real writer, and I have that.
But my ambition wasn’t about a certain place or brand. I was never focused on writing for The New Yorker, and I was pretty surprised , as was everyone else I knew, when I got this job. But what I wanted wasn’t The New Yorker, or New York, or anything like that, but to have a life in which writing was taken seriously. To live as a writer and ideally, having some things to say. I’m proud that I’ve done that.
BP: And what about resilience?
AL: Well, I mean, I think that is what I got out of all this. I think that I was operating from sort of frenzied place. After my son died, my experience was at first I lived in a tunnel of grief. That was my reality. Then grief came to live in me. Now I’m no longer walking around in an alternate reality for that baby and motherhood in general. Maybe that’s resilience? It’s surrendering, not trying to control the pain.
When I first got back from Mongolia I could only think: This is unbearable. Unacceptable. I cannot stand this. Little by little occurred to me whether you accept it or not this is reality, whether you resist or surrender. The only sane choice was to surrender, then to find gratitude for what is intact: Writer, friend, daughter. Those are all things to be grateful for, those are all lucky things. Maybe that’s the key to resilience.
BP: What did your mother teach you about grief and loss?
AL: The huge thing my mother gave me was that from the time I was little was that she always said of course you’re going to be a writer. Of course. That’s a huge gift to give a kid, to say I have absolute faith that you’re going to do what you want to do. That’s a pretty solid foundation to draw on. The other thing she gave me when I was in real agony was to repeat: You’re not alone. You’re going to be ok. She didn’t say, “You’ll have another baby.” I won’t. I can’t. When I think about how scary it is to let your kid do something when you know it’s not going to be safe, I marvel at my mother. She’s had cancer twice and does volunteer work with other women with cancer; she’s around a lot of death. You have to stop trying to control everything because you can’t. You might as well not live in a state of fear, so relax. Be sane and everything; don’t do reckless stuff. That’s what my mother taught me about life.
BP: At one point in The Rules Do Not Apply you talk about how you and your friends in middle school managed to learn about “the dragon of [our] fertility.”
AL: I think that there’s room for much more writing about being a human female animal. I wanted to publish part of that experience through “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” but I wanted, want, people to understand that these are legitimate subjects for literature. If that can happen, maybe some young women will be able to own their fertility.
BP: Has writing this book changed your writing at all?
AL: Right before this I had never written in the first person. I had only written reported work, and that’s my first love and that’s what I do: BUT. But. What changed is that instead of piecing something together from other people’s experiences, I was trying to extract the truth from my own experience, and I liked doing that. What I have in the works is reporting. It was enough for me, for the time being, to write one memoir. I want to go back to seeing other people’s lives again
BP: Who you love matters less and less these days, but there are still matters of the heart that won’t budge—like wanting to be “the girl.” Right?
AL: That was our thing, that’s a common thing, that’s exactly who I was with Lucy and what Lucy wanted. I don’t think that infidelity is inherently atrocious, but given who my spouse was and what her needs were, it was atrocious for our relationship. That’s the problem with identity politics, isn’t it? You have to think in group consciousness to get anywhere, to get things change, but it’s so much the case that every relationship is different.