Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

From the minute the dragon of our fertility came on the scene, we learned to chain it up and forget about it. Fertility meant nothing to us in our twenties; it was something to be secured in the dungeon and left there to molder. In our early thirties, we remembered it existed and wondered if we should check on it, and then--abruptly, horrifyingly--it became urgent: Somebody find that dragon! It was time to rouse it, get it ready for action. But the beast had not grown stronger during the decades of hibernation. By the time we tried to wake it, the dragon was weakened, wizened. Old. 
Ariel Levy's memoir is not for the faint of heart. After building a an elaborate dream life for herself, she guides us through its brutal dismantling. She tells us "When I got on the plane to Mongolia, I was pregnant, living with my spouse, moving to a lovely apartment, and financially insulated by a wealthy man. A month later, none of that was true." The memoir centers around the twinned tragedies of Levy's loss of her baby in her second trimester and the disintegrating of her relationship with her wife.

A few paragraphs in to the chapter, late in the memoir, where Levy describes her miscarriage, I remembered that I had read the New Yorker article the entire book is based off of (which went on to win her an award). The article (and the chapter) describe in vivid detail her miscarriage in a hotel bathroom in Mongolia, a loss so awful and graphic that I had trouble revisiting it again. As if that weren't enough, her alcoholic wife Lucy spirals away from her, and Levy ends up cutting herself off soon after her return. The grief she describes is so deep and sharp and gut wrenching that it can be hard to read, and it's made worse by the unintentional cruelty of others: the suggestion that if only she hadn't flown to Mongolia, the baby would have been fine (something every doctor seems to refute) or, my least favorite, the refrain that "Everything happens for a reason." Levy is careful not to come to this conclusion, and it was refreshing to read a memoir filled with real, visceral pain that didn't try to pair it with too much saccharine reflection on the broader meaning of suffering.

The notion of privilege came up again and again for me in this book. My own heteronormative privilege guided my assumptions throughout the opening chapters; Levy refers to her "spouse" who I just assumed was a man. I could have sworn that I remembered reading the word "husband" and re-read the first few pages only to find that I had gendered her partner myself. Despite being a woman in a male-centric journalism world, Levy does exhibit her own massive privilege before her fall--she is hugely successful almost by accident, and builds a career and a life seemingly effortlessly. Her success, however, doesn't shield her from the terrifying lack of control that comes with pregnancy, and it means she falls from that much higher a height. After the fall, the ease with which practical strangers comment on her reproductive decisions is shocking but also familiar: pregnancy and motherhood seem to give anyone license to share their expertise and opinion, and tragedy during pregnancy doesn't shield Levy from that rule.

This was a rough one to read as a woman in her thirties who has already entered a (hopefully permanent) partnership and is considering motherhood. The degree to which none of any of this is within our control is just terrifying, and I'm not sure I needed to read that miscarriage scene again, but Levy is funny and honest and makes a sympathetic guide.

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