Sex and Sensibility


First Person


Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, detail, 1768, oil on canvas. National Gallery, London, UK.

Vivian Gornick describes the journey to self-possession as one of unimaginable pain and loneliness. “It is the re-creation in women of the experiencing self that is the business of contemporary feminism: the absence of that self is the slave that must be squeezed out drop by drop,” she says, quoting Chekhov, in “Toward a Definition of the Female Sensibility,” from her 1978 collection Essays in Feminism.

The journey, Gornick observes, is “one in which the same inch of emotional ground must be fought for over and over again, alone and without allies, the only soldier in the army, the struggling self. But on the other side lies freedom: self-possession.”

Last July, three years to the month that my marriage ended, I also ended my first serious postdivorce relationship, on the eve of the twelfth anniversary of my mother’s death. It was the first year I had forgotten my mother’s anniversary and one month after my divorce became official. My ex-husband, who had vowed to become a better friend the day we told my father we were splitting up, showed up when others were too fed up with my ramblings and hand-wringing over a man who had made me astoundingly unhappy for months. For some, it was not easy to understand that the sexual content of being loved, after so much loss, was simply gripping.

The sexual vulnerability so specific to postdivorce love is the very thing that rekindles your relationship to experience, but it is also what makes you that much more lonely. The dark months of summer were a time of reassessing: my commitment as a mother, my relationship to close friends, to my sexuality, and to experience itself. I let my body advance my sexual repositioning and reentry in the world. I played simple games with younger men, sexted crudely, and jumped into bed without caring one bit. I wanted the love that came from sexual vulnerability, but wanted it cheap and fast, and even though it felt bad, I preferred to feel anguish in order to maneuver around it.

Sex is never without emotional consequences. The deeper I went into a sexual relationship within my new relationship, the more the relationship drew me away from my writing, which had been, since my divorce, my center. What I gave made me realize I had no emotional self. I had a married self, a mother self, and a sexual self, but I had no “alone” self and thus no creative self.

In her process of rediscovery, Gornick turned to Dorothy Thompson, via Vincent Sheean’s memoir of the pair Dorothy and Red (“Red” being Sinclair Lewis), just as I came to Gornick in mine. In “The Conflict Between Love and Work,” also in “Essays in Feminism,” she inspects their relationship and observes that Thompson, above all else, believed she needed to make herself a “creative marriage.” Painfully, I read Thompson’s testimony, in her 1929 diary entry, of the life she wants. It starts out well: “What I need: more knowledge.” She prizes human relationships, she wants a home, her gifts are interpretive. She’s interested in humanities, politics, literature, economics, and civilized living. And then, a blow: “My passion: creative men.” Gornick chalks it up to the limits of her time. Yet as needy as Thompson pretended she was, observes Gornick, she was an “unstoppable workaholic.” She committed herself to as political a life as Lewis’s was literary, and pretended to be helpless but carried on with life. Ironically, this most unsubmissive of women, the first reporter to get kicked out of Germany in 1934—which catapulted Thompson into fame and gave her a platform from which to publish sharp political analysis—also wrote women’s interest pieces for Ladies Home Journal, a magazine that caters to homemakers of the most traditional kind. Is it midcentury, 1978, or 2013? In the way we mingle work and relationships, our eras seem closely intertwined. These are both the ironies and conflicts of what it means to be a woman, which feminism can merely attempt to define.

If I follow Gornick’s lead, there is an argument to be made that feminism has lost steam because we’ve lost the ability to look at ourselves deeply. For the last decade, women have fought out a public battle in the press over whether they should work or whether they should stay at home with their children. Should they dominate or should they be submissive? We are so busy arguing with one another that we have lost the ability to recognize that perhaps we do things out of need and in time. We have also overlooked what’s far more interesting: our own relationship to power. As mothers, we have tremendous power to shape our children’s intellectual and emotional intelligence and to teach them how to love. And of course as women who work, think, and contribute to our culture, we grow our advantages, though perhaps more slowly. But I wonder: Do we let ourselves feel enough?

The incoherent dredging up Gornick talks about is so dark it is nearly unbearable. For me, it took place in the form of paining my way through, frankly, shame and undone love by writing my way out of loneliness into a place of solitude. Gornick’s words brought me to the stunning recognition that I was completely alone. After the suffering it took to bring me to that realization, the relief was grand, and grounding. I was finally in my feet. That confident groove is a place in which you define your own clarity by digging into a tough, ever-evolving place of long-term findings. Reciting Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” got me through my mother’s funeral twelve years earlier. So I took to the page to transfigure the pain, the only way through it. (“Divinity must live within herself,” Stevens wrote of the life of becoming.) You write, you wait. It was a truth I struggled to tolerate in grad school, in 1993. I wanted to write a certain way immediately, by working my butt off. Robert Pinsky told me that I would get to that place in time. He sighed and told me to do other things: read Ralph Ellison, see some Yiddish theater, wait. Meanwhile, I wrote feverishly, and produced until I got married and had a child.

Most women writers with children fight their inner conflict quietly and slide in a few hours when they can, and make time for what’s possible. But some, like myself, just give it up. Managing a child and a household simply won out. Earlier this summer, I looked at Alix Kates Shulman’s “A Marriage Agreement,” which she published in 1970 in the feminist journal Up From Under. She asked her husband to sign the document that would guarantee her only fifty percent of the labor in raising her children. “They were always there,” Shulman wrote. “I couldn’t read or think. If there was ever a moment to read, I read to them.” Jobs—from homework to gift-making, from transportation to sick care—would be shared fifty-fifty. I marveled. That was 1970. For the first three years of my son’s life, I did virtually everything: I quit my job, nursed, made playdates, read to him for a half hour nightly, then coaxed him slowly to sleep. Over the course of nearly seven years, I had stopped writing, retreated from most friendships, and had become, in retrospect, an embittered zombie, walking through life and parenthood with an unease that seemed uncomfortably counter to the cheer-emoting mothers that wheeled their giant double strollers around the baby-making machine that is Park Slope.

Last year, a friend gave me Rachel Cusk’s gutting Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation. She also sent me a link to her essay on Muriel Spark, in which she described the “seething muted trauma” of divorce. She was one of the few women I knew who understood the endless reeling that took place when your family was broken up and, being an expressive person, that you double-suffer not only the social and literal consequences of single parenthood but the emotional toil of working to a place of emotional balance. She took a close look at Spark’s Loitering with Intent, and admired Spark’s ability to “weave stories over an unforgiving life.” And like Spark’s Fleur Talbot, she too “used everyone I came across and everything I read.”

Cusk was difficult to stomach. “To resist pain one must be as strong as pain, must make of oneself a kind of human bomb-shelter,” she says up front. She walks around in a daze, wondering how other couples made it while she and her husband did not. The pages were a teary blur. “Everywhere people are in couples,” she observes, and recalls a family trip to Agamemnon’s tomb in the Peloponnese.

>Clytemnestra’s tomb is there too: the two are far apart, for this is a story not of marriage but of separation, of the attempt to break the form of marriage and be free. There are two tombs, just as there were two people: separation is a demand for space, the expression of the self’s need to regain its integrity.

Cusk holds nothing back and gives us her pain and the pure, cruel aftermath of a marriage ending. Eventually I stopped reading.

* * *

“The capacity to experience oneself is everything,” Gornick emphasizes. The struggle to understand ourselves is about becoming human. She quotes Virginia Woolf: “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” The spiritual purgatory of women, Gornick explains, is what men have depended on to produce their “maleness of experience” and thus the great works of literature that define it. So what is the “femaleness of experience,” she asks? I’ve since asked myself what is my own female sensibility—and how do I articulate that? As I read Gornick, I feel like she’s describing women now as much as the women of 1978. It’s not clear whether we’re any closer; perhaps it’s an individual path you sort out in moments of desperation.

Gornick seemed to be describing my summer and my own unraveling: the emotional gutting of a happy divorce cleanly done, the humiliation I found myself retreading when my next relationship didn’t work, the inch-by-inch fight toward self-possession from the dirty dregs. I was unable to forgive myself for my inability to contain my creative self within the confines of my marriage and of parenthood. I had also stopped writing for the entire nine-month period of my on-off romance. Because I again stopped writing, I had no internal structure. It was especially painful because for several years after my husband and I split up, I flourished creatively and wrote in new forms. That I lost myself in a relationship again, and an unsatisfying one at that, hit me hard.

In her essay “What Feminism Means to Me,” from her 1996 collection Approaching Eye Level, Gornick reflects on how she married an artist and, pleased as punch with herself, thought, Now I can work. “Ten years later, I was wandering around New York, a divorced ‘girl’ of thirty-five with an aggressive style who had written a couple of articles.” Then she defines the conflict that so profoundly confused me: “The lifelong inability to take myself seriously as a worker: this was the central dilemma of a woman’s existence.” (Light, music, exhilaration flowed in, Gornick said. “The slings and arrows of daily existence could not make a dent in me.”) Gornick telescoped the problem in a way that helped me see that the loss of my independent self wasn’t just a giving up, or just inertia, but an inability to believe. Maintaining the rhythm of my work, given that I’m a certain kind of woman, should have come first.

Gornick knows how hard it is not to prioritize a man over writing. “Loving a man, I vowed, would not again be primary.” Heart-hardened and thrilled with her newfound feminist reality, she decided to settle for nothing less than “grown-up affection.” Yet she recognized that “romantic love was injected like dye into the nervous system of my emotions, laced through the entire fabric of longing, fantasy, and sentiment.” Even feminists want love and romance. You can’t give up love, but you can be split about it. For a while, Gornick had feminism as a partner, but when feminist solidarity unraveled in 1980, she got stuck again. But she learned, just as I’ve been learning, that the “power over one’s life comes only through the steady command of one’s thought.” And as she plugged away daily at her work, she found that when she thought, she was less alone. “I had myself for company,” she said.

Edna in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening didn’t fare so well. She was “mesmerized” by her own spirit, Gornick says. Edna “ignores the house, forgets the children, spends hours painting, reading, thinking, walking.” It was freedom or nothing. Her point of no return took place after discovering her sexual possibilities. Why sex, I keep asking myself, as I pondered the role of sexuality in becoming a more evolved woman and a more deeply feeling feminist. “Desire becomes an instrument of self-awareness,” says Gornick of Edna. “Her hungers grow with inordinate speed. They become powerful, complex, demanding: and yet oddly sorrowful, tinged with a sense of foreboding.” (It is true that men, confronted with the vastness of women’s sexuality, reel back a bit. Just how vast is what Daniel Bergner makes clear in What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, along with the fact that the female eros is no better made for monogamy than the male libido.)

There it was: desire was about self-awareness, about becoming uncaged. It was a not unfortunate discovery, the years after my marriage split, that casual sex could exist in the on-and-off world of custodial parenthood. It could take place freely without the awkward recognition that a child is in the house. Sexual experience could be immersive, even obsessive, and endlessly amped up in ways that the psychological necessity of married family life would not allow. But the mistake of sexual freedom, both in my new relationship and then, later, out of it, was to assume that liberated sex corresponded to liberated emotions. Quite the opposite. The vulnerability that raw, unfettered sexual experience exposes is deepened over time, as losses accrue: the death of a parent, the tart fact of getting older, the recognition that commitment is a see-saw of a word that complicates and sometimes unseats actual experience.

Yet the vulnerability attached to casual sex was something to be filtered through the lens of Gornick’s experiencing self. Each new sexual experience felt useful in that each party seemed to be, well, using one another, in a mutually agreed upon shared experience. This was the case with a friendly one-night stand as much as it was the case in an authentic relationship that bumbled along with tremendous uncertainty. Interestingly, once single again, I found that what men wanted was fast sex and what women wanted was to hear that I had a boyfriend, that he would move in with me, and that we would eventually marry. This is where, I started to feel, some women have failed feminism.

The face of single womanhood, to others, is often not pretty. It threatens to overwhelm other women with visions of loneliness, it undermines their self- and spouse-protecting belief that marriage is the finest and most natural denouement of a relationship, and it seems kind of slutty. Not immediately slutty, but slutty if the single lifestyle continues and settling down is not a given. Nondivorced women (let’s say “nondivorced” rather than “married”) initially felt titillated over my escapades and complained of their boring husbands. Every woman wants to know what it’s like to have sex with a new man for the first time in a decade or so. But explaining that I would never marry again was usually greeted with silence or an overly compassionate gesture, intimating that I must be so wounded to not have faith that any man could be my second husband.

It is not always easy to explain, to surface feminists who glory in having it all, that the very raw pain of loss is nothing if not hope-reviving. I have far more faith and curiosity about what lies ahead, in my consciousness-raising relationship to work and to other people, then I did while married. My desire is out-size. One day I may even find a man, as the ladies say. Perhaps by then I’ll want one.

Diane Mehta is a writer living in Brooklyn.