There But for the Grace
That I read Julie Metz’s Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal just after I finished Isabel Gillies’ Happens Every Day: An All-Too-True Story was coincidence — I’d ordered both books from the local library network and they happened to arrive at the same time. Nevertheless, read side by side, the similarities between Gillies’ betrayal-and-divorce memoir and Metz’s widowhood-and-betrayal memoir were striking.
Each book features a privileged white couple who vacations in Maine, lives post-New York in a small town, and goes to couples therapy. Both women are mothers with creative careers: Gillies is an actress with two sons, Metz a book designer with one daughter. And of course there is the most salient connection: each woman discovered that her husband was cheating on her and wrote a book about it.
Gillies and her English professor husband were living idyllically with their young sons in a dream house in Oberlin, Ohio, when her husband announced, “This marriage is over!” Although he repeatedly denied that there was anything between him and his colleague Sylvia, Gillies repeatedly caught them together; eventually he announced that he and Sylvia were a couple. They subsequently married, apparently around the same time that Gillies met “the love of [her] life.” Four years later, she writes in the book’s Epilogue, Sylvia “is a thoughtful and kind stepmother, and… I like her now very much.”
Happily ever after? Sure, why not? Gillies writes like the chatty acquaintance you make on a plane or at a party who tells you her whole life story — way more than you want to know, or really think she should be telling you — but at the same time is so charming, and has such a shockingly entertaining tale, that you can’t help but be riveted. She spares no fire for her husband, but is hard on herself too, and by the end of the book, it seems perfectly reasonable that everyone should live happily ever after.
Metz’s story is darker. Her marriage to food writer Henry was never idyllic — in fact, they fought constantly — and then he dropped dead on the kitchen floor. She subsequently uncovered a long trail of infidelity, from an ongoing affair with a good friend and neighbor whom Henry saw almost daily for years, to several simultaneous long-distance romances. Needless to say, these discoveries shattered her world as much as Henry’s death did, transforming her entire past, along with her future. Metz revisits her life with Henry, tracks down his other women, and comes to peace with herself and her new reality, which also includes a happy relationship, albeit one described in less dramatic terms than Gillies’.
It should not be surprising that Perfection feels, somehow, more seemly than Happens Every Day. Metz is a quieter writer, more thoughtful and elegant, though no less compelling than Gillies. And, her husband is dead.
I read both books in the space of perhaps a week, taking them with me into the bathroom, reading late into the night, my bedside lamp turned to the wall so my husband could sleep beside me. When I finished reading, they stayed on my mind: I thought about their similarities; about how and why a woman would publish such damning revelations about the father of her children; about the difference between writing a book about your ex-husband and writing a book about your dead husband; about what I would do if… God forbid! Eventually, though, I realized that the books were not the issue: I was.
Again perhaps coincidentally, both Happens Every Day and Perfection evoked in me a powerful sense of recognition. Like Gillies’ husband, I was once a small-town Ohio English professor, and Gillies’ account of life in Oberlin was uncannily faithful to my experience, from the intense departmental friendships, to the Midwestern Mexican restaurant, to the way everyone in town keeps a not-always-so-friendly eye on everyone else. Like me (and the rest of our demographic), Metz knits and practices yoga. Like Henry, my husband is in the food business. Like both authors, I am a mother and a writer. However, I have not written a memoir of betrayal, for the obvious difference is that, as I write these words, the father of my children, to whom I am still happily married, once again lies asleep in our bed.
And now to my confession: timing aside, it’s really not a coincidence that I read both of these books. While some otherwise respectable readers have romance habits or binge on crime or vampire novels, my secret literary vice is what I call There But for the Grace books: books, mostly memoirs, about terrible things that happen to people like me: cancer books, infertility books, death-of-a-parent, death-of-a-husband, death-of-a-child books, and so on.
I’ve had this habit for a while — I remember a youthful interest in Helen Keller — but it became acute when I read Before I Say Goodbye: Recollections and Observations from One Woman’s Final Year. British journalist Ruth Picardie, born the same year as me, died of breast cancer when her twins were two years old. When I read her book, my oldest daughter was two, and I wept as I read, imagining myself as her, though of course the difference was that I was reading and she was dead.
If, as many critics argue, vampire and zombie novels, like slasher movies, illuminate our cultural fears, There But for the Grace books bring my personal fears right into the spotlight. What is the worst thing that could happen? That I should die while my children are still young, that one of my children should die, that my husband should die, that my husband should suddenly leave me or I should be left to discover his lies.
Why read books about the worst things? Because I tend to run toward my fears; because I want to know what it would be like, in case it happens to me; because if I’m reading about it happening to other people, it’s not happening to me. Reading becomes a talismanic act: in keeping my fears close, it pushes them away.
Reading these books is undoubtedly a selfish thing, a sign of privilege, not to mention my own domestic solipsism. I live in safety, in a warm house, with enough to eat; I have not suffered outrageous misfortune; I am, instead, a reader of misfortune. I’d like to say that my reading of misfortune encompasses the Holocaust, Rwanda, and Cambodia, but it usually doesn’t. I am drawn, instead, to the duality of identification and difference embodied in books about people like me whose experiences (knock wood) are not like mine.
And yet, I would argue, even in its narcissism, my There But for the Grace habit embodies the power of reading, its ability to warn us, fortify us, generate revulsion and rejection, sympathy and empathy. Reading books like Perfection and Happens Every Day, I can experience other realities and return to my own, embracing my own intact family while acknowledging the power of my fears through my own private horror stories.
5 replies on “There But for the Grace”
I read the same kind of books for similar reasons, although I feel like reading your essay was one of those aha moments…so THAT’S why I’m so addicted to these types of stories. But I never thought about it as being selfish — the books are there to be read.
Much food for thought in this, Becca. Well done!
Really good column!
I’m rather counterphobic too — running towards my fears — and I used to read these kinds of books and enjoy the “what ifs.” Then one of your biggest fears happened to me. And I realized that no matter how much I read about somebody else’s experience, it will never be like my own. Those books didn’t prepare me at all.
Maybe this is why, at least for now, I’ve lost interest in this kind of literature. Especially because these books all seem compelled to have some sort of happy/evolved/self-actualized ending.
I also really appreciate your touching on the issue of what one writes about dead relationships — whether with an ex or with somebody who has actually died. As a writer who often uses her own life as material, I struggle with this one all the time. No less because my husband died. I have no answers yet. All I can say is that, for me, it’s not any less challenging a question because now he can’t respond to what I write.
So… provocative questions raised. Thank you!
With publication, the authors’ negated the standard, and difficult to adhere to, advice to couples in the midst of divorce: Don’t bad mouth the other parent.
Do the authors’ discuss the decision to publish and its impact on their children? Did anticipating their children as readers compel them to edit the material?
Thank you for the book reviews.
This was beautifully written.
As a child, I gravitated toward books like There are Two Kinds of Terrible (about the boy whose mother dies) and this ridiculous book whose title I can’t remember about children who were sent to a summer camp where the counsellors were supposed to kill them because their parents hated them….
You put words to something I have always wondered about, the reasons we gravitate toward There But for the Grace books. There is one other reason I can think of: if there are things in our lives that feel unbearable, reading about other misfortunes, ones we don’t suffer, sometimes helps ours feel more bearable (or is it that we just have a moment not to feel our own pain?)
Thank you for this piece, it was lovely.
Great column – I agree, but would add that sometimes I read books about things that have happened to me to see how others have handled similar situations, to know that I’m not alone. I think writers write memoirs for similar reasons. When my mother died, I read countless memoirs about death and they, believe it or not, were comforting. I, too, write about my family and make sure my husband and daughters read everything before I attempt to publish it.
Thanks Becca for your usual thought provoking insight.