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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, August 9th, 2005


 

Unraveled

by

The Great Escape

A review by Sandra Tsing Loh

Finally, an American mother who stopped her yammering and found a stunningly simple solution to the work-life balance problem: she left her family -- her husband and three small children! And now she has written a memoir about it: Unraveled. She is Maria Housden, and while I waited for her memoir to arrive, in its plain brown amazon.com wrapper, I wondered what had made her do it. Certainly some sort of substance abuse had to be involved, a Judy Garland-like hitting of rock bottom. Or maybe the decision was triggered by a Fear of Becoming Andrea Yates self-diagnosis. Perhaps this was a serious psychotherapeutic memoir, the kind sometimes co-written with an M.D., who stands quietly in the authorial background, calm hands steadying the writer's pen, providing reassurance and possibly a medical Web site (sponsored by Oxygen? Lifetime?). I thought of Brooke Shields's Down Came the Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression, and Marie Osmond's Behind the Smile: My Journey Out of Postpartum Depression (co-written with Marcia Wilkie and Dr. Judith Moore) -- except in this case the journey would be one that propelled the mother through the family, beyond it, and right back into single life.

Or perhaps I was imagining such hellward-spiraling narratives only because my own escapes from family have had such a random, seamy, slumming quality. I find I'm the sort of harried working mother who has difficulty scheduling in a bit of rest amid the Ptolemaically complicated interlocking gears of professional and personal life. The clock of woman is strange. You go along for four days, or sixteen, or twenty-five, in some hidden, hard-to-divine algorithmic pattern, heaping more and more little things on your already crowded plate (the playdates, the craft projects, the teeny-tiny little muffins), and then on Day 26 -- Saturday -- the whole thing collapses, and suddenly there you are, a character straight out of Cheever, lying in a hammock from 10:00 a.m. on, swilling cosmopolitans while re-reading William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist … "A book where there are actually compelling metaphysical reasons children behave the way they do!" I recall yelling back at the house on that fateful day, which my family so cheerfully remembers.

So yes, I'm a C+ mother, but...leave the family for good? Who would go that far? In two to three business days I'd know.

My first encounter with Unraveled was disorienting. The cover is an inspirational sky-blue, the triumphal subtitle is "The True Story of a Woman Who Dared to Become a Different Kind of Mother," and the first quotation that leaped out at me on the back is "'Unraveled does for mothers everywhere what M. Scott Peck did for truth seekers in The Road Less Traveled.' -- Mark Matousek." Whether or not you are a truth-seeking fan of M. Scott Peck, you could be forgiven for wondering how much insight the former Interview editor Mark Matousek can claim to have into mothers everywhere, as he is famously gay.

The psychological impulse to leave turns out to be rooted in Housden's processing of grief: she had lost her three-year-old daughter Hannah, several years earlier, to cancer. The passages dealing with Hannah's illness, written as flashbacks, are moving and spare, the epiphanies and surprisingly uplifting transformations fully earned. Housden -- a stay-at-home mother at the time -- depicts herself standing sentry weekly, daily, hourly, over Hannah. As the situation becomes ever more hopeless, Housden (then named Maria Martell) and her husband, Claude, abandon painful experimental treatments to honor their daughter's wish to die at home, "in the bed that smelled like mom and dad" … a stout-hearted, recognizable three-year-old's phrase that had me weeping.

Tissues in hand, I decided that because of her unflinching service to this extraordinary child -- and the fact that she has written about the experience with such precision and ultimate optimism (her first, best-selling book, Hannah's Gift, being, in my subsequent estimation, a jewel) -- Housden is a mother who deserves a major sabbatical, if not actually carte blanche. When, after a year involving surgery, chemo, and a bone-marrow transplant, despite all your efforts, your three-year-old dies in your arms, I think the maternal fuses must be blown, the machine topped out, the illusion of parental omnipotence shattered. Your mothering henceforth will be different, more Buddhist-detached, with that bird on the shoulder asking not "Is today the day I'm going to die?" but, even more unimaginably, "Is today the day my child's going to die?" Few mothers can ponder that question with equanimity; Housden has lived it. And so the Dr. Laura-like moral censure of Housden for leaving her three surviving children -- in their own home, with their clearly devoted father and an aupair, a decision even the publishing staff was divided over -- is no ax I have the stomach to swing.

But as I finished Unraveled, I was weeping again, this time in frustration. Because now, horribly, I was being moved to unintended laughter by some of the writing, and was finding the confluence of emotions quite nauseating. Although grief over loss is the book's emotional back-story, the forward action involves Housden's escaping suburban housewifehood and traveling to an artists' retreat to gingerly spread her wings and write (in this case to write Hannah's Gift -- so in a sense this second book is a tale about "the making of" the first). Embarking on this familiar type of women's -- or womyn's -- journey felt like entering a bit of a seventies time warp. It was not just the prose style, in which the present is in regular type, and the dreamlike past is in italics. In which a tiny ladybug's progress across a journal page is a metaphor for one's own. In which the narrator observes, "I was a secret being kept hidden until the time was right, ripening and waiting for the external world to change before I could be revealed." In which the epilogue's title is "La Mère (The Mother), La Mer (The Sea)." Secrets ripening, feelings upwelling, the ebb and flow of the maternal self being like the tide -- it all seemed less than daisy-fresh.

Then there's the Fair Haven, New Jersey, split-level Colonial that Housden is fleeing, which recalls the 1950s ones long ago dissed by Betty Friedan. (Claude's "rules" for the marriage include that dress shirts be washed and ironed the same day; when Housden falls short, he rails, "I expect you to take pride in this house. I want results! Trying is not enough!") Similarly old-school is Housden's girlish awe of career women.

Siobhan owned a very successful public relations agency in Los Angeles, had traveled the world extensively, and never had children or married. To me, she was the epitome of what was possible when a woman is unapologetically ambitious about her work and dreams, which is what I was wanting more and more to be.

This startled me, since so many Siobhans I know in Los Angeles admit to feeling not so much boldly self-actualized as stuck in a Sex and the City episode that will never end, even though, grimly, the show itself has. (Former Sex story editor Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo's best seller He's Just Not That Into You, which is easily readable in sixty-second bursts, has been traveling from bathroom to bathroom in my circle over the past year. Although drink-coaster light, this roundup of female excuses for why men aren't calling -- ending with a rousing exhortation to love one's own tasty, lingerie-clad self! -- has for me a dark underside, leaving open as it does the very real possibility that some of our frothiest and most fabulous may be destined for a lifetime of solo apple martinis. Sixty years old will be that foot in the Jimmy Choo.) But here's the next turn: although old Maria Martell feels that spurning domestic wifehood is necessary if she is to pursue her dreams, her fate is not exactly to be single either. Enter, to the artists' retreat, Roger Housden -- English writer, photographer, and explorer of such exotic places as Africa and India. Although he's fifty-three and she's thirty-five, the two speak a similar metaphysical language. He is given to utterances like "Beauty, Beauty, you are the sun." And later, when he asks in wonder, "Who are you?," she elatedly replies, with typical Boomer math, "I am the second half of your life." Roger exudes boyishness and a kind of heady European sophistication; personal details given include both that he wears clogs and has a medicine kit containing Eternity cologne and a tiny bottle of tea-rose oil. Often seen sweaty and wearing only running shorts, he is described rapturously as having a "mossy, musky" scent. This was when my horrendous attack of the giggles began. The mossy, musky scent, combined with the clogs … it was too much. I raised my hands in protest, as if to ward off the inevitable tantric sex, but here it came anyway.

Soft, moist mouths, bellies rising and falling, swollen, oozing, trembling, I had felt my heart, petal by petal, gently opening. I had been both in my body and outside it as he entered me, as we stared into each other, eyes wide open. "We are there," he had whispered, his eyes filling with tears. Later, he had gradually unwound his body from our embrace and, kneeling at the foot of the bed, pressed his hands together in a posture of prayer, then lifted and kissed my feet.

At the thought of leaving the unhappy, washed-and-pressed straitjacket of her marriage and making a new, more bliss-filled, yogic-flexible life for herself, Housden realizes that she fears losing connection with her children less than she does the condemnation of friends and community. That insight is freeing. She grants Claude the primary custody he requests (Housden takes the kids on alternate weekends and in the summer), reconnects with Roger, and eventually moves from the suburbs of New Jersey to Roger's redwood-canyon-view tree house in northern California. The two embark on a whirlwind life of writing, dining, and traveling, and are married, eventually, by a Tibetan lama. Her book sells immediately, for $250,000.

It is true that I am a person who prefers, most of the time, to remain petals-closed. My emotional orientation is not tidal. So I had to know: Was it just jaundiced me, or was Unraveled as much of a New Age white upper-middle-class fantasy howler as I thought it was? Test reads by other mothers, trusted friends, revealed that if anything, the book seemed more of a Rorschach inkblot: women reacted, often weepily, to the individual strands that most resonated with their own experience -- grief over a lost child, gloom of a collapsing marriage, hope of finding new love midlife, even the simple desire to break the domestic doldrums and start some fresh new creative journey. Which made me think, "My God -- could this be the fable my generation of mothers actually deserves? A kind of The Bridges of Madison County meets Jonathan Livingston Seagull?" (Or, rather, Joanne Livingston Seagull, in which Housden is the one gull bravely taking flight from the cawing, flapping, land-bound Flock Council of disapproving suburban minivan moms.)

"And what if it is?" an unsettling voice answered.

"Oh, my God," I thought. "Is that my New Age inner voice? The one that's going to rip me from my closed, cynical mind-prison and take me on some gauzy Celestine Prophecy-like voyage to...? Ahhhhh!!!"

And in that moment, as if with an electric shock, my entire mind and being were hurtled back to the summer of 2004. A cavalcade of images passed before me: the Republican convention, the Athens Olympics, and, as inevitable as the wind-lashed tides of Cape Cod, Oprah's Book Club. That summer OBC was spotlighting Anna Karenina -- Western literature's reigning absentee mother.

Oprah had confessed that she'd always had a fear of Anna Karenina, chiefly because of its prodigious length. Hence she and her viewers approached their summer's reading of Tolstoy's novel like an arduous long-distance run. I remember the post-read show as though it were yesterday (although my recollection has been aided slightly by a Nexis transcript)...

Narrator: "They came from across the globe, Oprah Book Clubbers ready to take the Anna Karenina 2004 Challenge. Eight long sections, 817 pages, twenty-three complicated Russian names. The only thing to fear was fear itself. They would battle the elements, summer heat, busy family schedules, obstacles at every turn. Some would stumble, exhausted from reading. But could they pick themselves up and press on to the final chapter? Could they do it? Could they read Anna Karenina in just one summer? Could they conquer Tolstoy?"

Group of people (in unison): "Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna."

The opening guest of the Book Club episode was one of Oprah's all-time most requested: the Music and Passion -- meister himself ... Barry Manilow. (Alternate haunting question: Does each generation of females get the romantic hero it deserves?) Manilow led in by singing, to the tune of "Copacabana," "Her name was Anna, Anna Karenina ... The hottest broad north of the Kremlin!" The final comment came from Will & Grace's Megan Mullally, who was most intrigued in her reading by Anna Karenina's mental unraveling: "Of course, now she'd just, like, take some Paxil and it'd all be good. But ... they didn't have those mood stabilizers back then, apparently."

Which is to say that Oprah and her army of Lady Reebok-shod women did, chapter by chapter, "conquer Tolstoy," practically trampling him.

And is that a bad thing?

One of Anna's few descriptions of happiness comes early in the book. Recognizing young Kitty Shcherbatskaya's coquettish excitement before a ball, Anna says,


"O yes, it is good to be your age … I remember and know that blue mist, like the mist on the Swiss mountains … That mist which envelops everything at that blissful time when childhood is just, just coming to an end, and its immense, blissful circle turns into an ever-narrowing path, and you enter the defile gladly yet with dread, though it seems bright and beautiful … Who has not passed through it?"

Anna will enter the bright, beautiful defile one last time to triumph at that ball, not in the quadrille (which Vronsky dances with Kitty) but, specifically, in the mazurka (which Vronsky boldly decides to dance with Anna). From that blissful, Swiss-blue-misted high point the path indeed grows ever narrower for Anna. But in the twenty-first century, of course, the apex of female achievement has extended far beyond the mazurka; upper-class -- or upper-class-contending -- women are no longer trapped in ballrooms like great fluttering swans. And although Anna and her sister adulteresses Emma Bovary and Tess still mesmerize us by plunging spectacularly netherward through their societies, heat tiles flying for all to see, in modern times a transgressor's extravagant death by train, arsenic, or even that deliciously gothic twist from the court ladies of Imperial China -- eating one's own jewelry -- no longer cuts it. Yes, there are still taboos to be broken; but in post-feminist, post-twelve-step times then comes epiphany; rehab; meeting of the sympathetic psychotherapist, sociologist, or -- if need be -- pioneering death-row lawyer; followed by possible adjustments in medication, six-figure advance, book tour, Self magazine contributorship, spot on Oprah. There's no female pariah who won't get pardoned eventually, or even hired for a Monica Lewinsky-style hosting job on Fox, if she gets her tale right.

Since women's empowerment will not tolerate tragedy (Thelma & Louise's ending was decried by progressive female critics), other genres have necessarily arisen. The 1989 Broadway hit Shirley Valentine, about a forty-two-year-old British housewife who leaves her husband to have a fling with a Greek, played successfully to audiences as a heartwarming, comedic feminist tale. Driving the zeitgeist now is the notion of mothers as brave warriors in the unfolding drama of capitalism. In our female-rage anthologies by overstressed working mothers bitterly wrestling with husbands and playdates and deadlines, it seems the worst thing that can happen between a woman and a train is for her to miss it (again!) and have to call the nanny (again!). New studies by female professors at Harvard and Yale constantly compare the economic plight of today's working mothers with the economic circumstances of endless other demographic groups: single men, divorced fathers, childless career women, American mothers before the multi-generational family broke up, French mothers, tribal mothers from seventeenth-century African villages … Typical solutions proffered include corporate flex time and petitioning our government -- which, "unlike Denmark's," does not provide universal day care.

All good and well (certainly I am grateful), but hovering ever beyond, like Anna's blue mist on Swiss mountains, is that elusive thing called happiness, even bliss -- a thing that sometimes seems to have gone out, along with rope belts, in the 1970s. Mock Jonathan Livingston Seagull if you wish, but consider that the fablelike feel-good best seller of our time is a business book: Who Moved My Cheese? Still puzzling over what, exactly, Mark Matousek was thinking when he mentioned The Road Less Traveled, I flopped open our old water-spotted 1978 copy and read,

Life is difficult.

This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.*...

Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy. They voice their belief, noisily or subtly, that their difficulties represent a unique kind of affliction that should not be and that has somehow been especially visited upon them, or else upon their families, their tribe, their class, their nation, their race or even their species, and not upon others.

*The first of the "Four Noble Truths" which Buddha taught was "Life is suffering."

Buddhism and motherhood may be a tough fit; it's hard to imagine today's white-knuckled über-moms adopting a non-Western, Zenlike detachment from their parenting: "Will Dylan be admitted to the summer-session AP English preparation course and then get in early admission to Brown? Maybe yes, maybe no. I leave it open to the winds." But Housden has a line that must resonate for all: "I felt certain that it was time for me to create a new container for the simpler, more creative, and less angry life I knew I wanted to share with my kids." And, in fits and starts, her life works for her. The weekend/summer mothering Housden describes is full of beaches, sandcastles, baths, picnics, moments of wonder in the garden. Ironically, her book is rife with a maternal happiness unusual to hear of in these times. Which is partly the inherent beauty -- or guilty upside, however you see it -- of being the noncustodial parent. It's no accident that the category of parents who typically report the most parenting satisfaction -- who feel they're doing the best job -- is divorced dads.

In these divorce-heavy days, maybe ceding primary custody will turn out to be the new frontier for Women Who Work Too Much. Never mind universal day care -- how much better to release the kids to hands-on caregivers who truly love them: their dads. Many men today can cook or at least order takeout, and know where and how to hire domestic help, perhaps with refreshing clarity and less anxiety than ever-conflicted mothers. The weekend/summer schedule really opens up a lot of time for mothers to make partner if need be, or to exercise, or to write a book. Regardless, the times we live in suggest at least a reversal of Tolstoy: among two-career couples in the chattering classes, it is unhappy families that are now alike. The happy are unique, peculiar in their rarity if not actually custom-built. Which makes me think, "Oh, if only Anna Karenina had lived today." There would be no boredom (I see her thriving in any of the hip metropolitan Sex and the City jobs); she'd hold her Vronsky secure, Ashton Kutcher-like; there'd be bouts of the Kabbalah, instead of morphia, and the edges would be smoothed with Paxil; she'd have a house in freewheeling California and could still enjoy the sparkle of media favor. And she would not have to wait 126 years -- as so many of the rest of us upwardly aspiring women feel we are doomed to -- to get on Oprah.


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