My Favorite Trap

Thoughts on Heather Havrilesky’s Foreverland: “Belovedness shows us how to love and be loved.”

When my husband Jason and I finally got together after a year of friendship, I was one of those obnoxious people who walked around like she was living a romantic comedy. I actually pinched myself in a coffee shop one morning, and I’m pretty sure that the night we admitted our feelings to each other, I texted my sister that I was “getting married.” My pronouncements of Jason’s perfection stretched far and wide, or at least to my meager blog audience, who were treated to glowing stories about his strength of character and witty repartee. The way I saw it, he had saved me from (shudder) a life of singleness as one of New York City’s resident Cat Ladies.

Then we got married, and had kids, and now those cats don’t sound so bad.

The mark of a good book, in my estimation, is that it makes me feel less alone. The mark of a good memoir is that, in addition to making me feel less alone, it makes me feel as though someone read my diary: I am seen, finally; I have a table to sit at in the lunchroom of life with people who understand me. Foreverland, Heather Havrilesky’s recently published marriage memoir, was all of that for me while I devoured it over the course of three days. My former posts about Jason cutting a hole in the bookcase to allow room for my computer charger have morphed into sneakily-posted photos of him sleeping on the couch while our kids climb atop him. I went from praising his integrity to making jokes about his inability to smell dirty diapers. Our relationship has changed over the dozen years we’ve been together: it’s become less picturesque, and more real. I’m so grateful. And I’m grateful Havrilesky has experienced a similar path, and that she’s written about it.

Not everyone is, though. The New York Times Book Review enlisted Walter Kirn for a write-up on Foreverland, which is unfortunate, given that he doesn’t seem to understand the premise of a memoir. He kicks things off by calling the author a “neurotic perfectionist” while designating her husband a “formidably patient man.” Hmm, I thought when reading the review. Feels sexist, but…

It only got worse from there. “How well can an institution be explained by a single instance of it?” he asks, seemingly forgetting that not every memoir alleges to equate every life. Sure, Havrilesky is a middle-aged American white woman, but Kirn’s standards would imply that I shouldn’t read his book reviews since I’m not a pedantic American man. What Kirn really takes issue with, though, are the author’s complaints about her husband, sprinkled as they are throughout the book. He seems to forget that for every complaint about her partner (hey Heather: my husband’s sneeze sounds like a five-alarm fire warning as well, solidarity), Havrilesky follows up with myriad praises. In fact, since Kirn went to the trouble of listing so many of the negative anecdotes, allow me to share a few of the heartwarming ones:

Marriage grinds you in the dirt until you can see new colors and taste new flavors. But you have to show up and invite it all in. You can’t hide. (p. 4)

I can always trust that we’ll find each other again. (p. 8)

Being married is far more interesting than falling in love…It’s not easy. That’s what makes it so interesting. (p. 29)

I had never had a friend like that before. It changed everything. (p. 127)

It’s a whole new thing, to have a partner who loves you even after the wheels come off. (p. 140)

Maybe I decided that out of all the traps out there, I liked this trap the best. (p. 276)

All I’ve ever done is tell him the truth, and through some miracle, the truth is what Bill craves the most. (p. 279)

That last quote highlights, for me, what was so appealing and freeing about Foreverland: its brutal honesty, and the fact that one of its main characters is going to be just fine reading it, because he can handle that honesty. (The chapter about infidelity was especially eye-opening to me — how shocking, even revelatory, to hear a couple openly discussing temptation.) 

Some readers (and reviewers) — most, if you read the comments section of that review — would be more comfortable with the fairy-tale version of marriage that we believed in when we were kids; the one I unwittingly expected when my own knight showed up to rescue me from spinsterhood. But at some point (usually around the first time one of you farts, or during a sleepless night full of infant screams and threats of murder), the wheels do come off, which is to say that you actually begin to see each other. All of each other. This is when grace enters the picture, because sticking around becomes a choice when both of your flaws show in the marked relief of everyday light. Which feels reminiscent of another kind of love I know.

“Sometimes you fear possibility itself: the possibility of growing into something more expansive and generous than you are now, growing into a shape that might look ugly from the outside but feels beautiful from the inside,” writes Havrilesky, who is describing marital love but could be documenting my own interaction with God’s grace over the years.

The changes wrought in me by every true kind of love I’ve experienced, especially the hardest loves, that of my husband and kids: these are really just imperfect reflections and extensions of divine love. My belovedness — as a wife, mother, and most especially child of God — is what changes me in every moment, even when I’m shitposting my husband. I didn’t love him more when I was pinching myself in that café, because I didn’t know him as well. The love we share now is messy, raw, paradoxical, enduring, and so much more. That kind of love is the one I read about in Foreverland, all respect to Kirn, who, regarding his own union, “prefer[s] to hide its nuttier moments” as he believes “marriage is — for [him]self and others — a secret.” Sorry, Walter, but writers don’t really do that (and actually, neither do you). 

Give me vulnerability over secrecy any day. Give me an author’s acknowledgment to her husband that reads, “thanks for showing me how to love and be loved,” because even in the hardest moments of my marriage, I feel the same. And even in the moments when I’m crying out to God about some hell I’m experiencing, I know the same is true, even more so, of our relationship. Belovedness shows us how to love and be loved. It is a journey, not a state, and Havrilesky’s eloquent encapsulation of it reverberates through my soul, echoing my walk through grace:

But I’ve struggled to stand still and feel his love for me. It’s the hardest thing to do, sometimes: just to stand still and be loved. It feels frightening. It feels like surrender. (p. 283).

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One response to “My Favorite Trap”

  1. […] Our own Stephanie Philips was onto something. When she reviewed Heather Havrilesky’s new memoir, Foreverland last month, she not only appreciated the book’s low anthropology, but marveled at the widespread […]

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