Most people’s lives blow up at some point; Ariel Levy’s did so in a devastating and spectacular fashion. Before she boarded a plane to Mongolia, she was pregnant, married, and financially stable. A month later, she was none of those things.
What happened to the New York reporter abroad is one of the most brutally described scenes in modern memoir. Alone, on the floor of a hotel bathroom, Levy gave birth to a live baby boy at only 19 weeks gestation. Her son’s subsequent death was only one of many heartbreaks she suffered in short order. Adultery, alcoholism, divorce, suicidal thoughts, and grief are all beautifully (if achingly) documented in her new book The Rules Do Not Apply, a New York Times best-seller that examines how even the staunchest feminists can be rendered powerless by Mother Nature.
Levy is also the author of Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. She was a contributing editor at New York magazine for 12 years, and has been at the New Yorker since 2008.
City Pages: Miscarriage is more common than people realize, but it isn’t discussed much. Do you have any advice on how to be supportive to a friend or loved one who’s experienced the loss of a baby?
Ariel Levy: I think you have to just realize that for the person who’s lost the pregnancy – or the fetus or the baby or whatever you want to call it – it’s an oceanic loss. It doesn’t feel like some medical misfortune. I think the right response to anyone who is in a state of grief and has lost someone important is just to listen and acknowledge the suffering. It’s no good to say, “Oh, you’ll have another one.” Because you don’t want another one. You want that one.
CP: What was helpful to you as you were coming out of this devastating period of your life?
AL: I had to find an aspect of my identity that was intact. What I had to focus on was that I was still a writer. That was one instance of a general strategy, which was: “Okay. I’ve lost a lot. What do I still have that I can be grateful for?” So I had my writing, my friendships, and my family.
CP: How do you feel about readers’ reactions to the book? Is the response what you expected?
AL: The response has been really exciting. I just got an email this weekend from a woman who told me she was 82, and she has two kids who are alive, but when she was trying to get pregnant from 20 to 28 – so she was young and fresh, she wasn’t starting late in the game – she said she had a series of miscarriages that she found absolutely devastating and that it was never something that anyone acknowledged and that was incredibly isolating. So she was really pleased to read someone admitting what that pain was and that it made her feel less alone. That makes me really happy. That’s what I wanted to achieve. I wanted to connect with other women on this really primal experience that doesn’t get talked about, as you said, because there’s shame around it.
AL: While it would have been technically accurate to come out and say, “Oh, and then we fell in love,” it would have been misleading. It would have suggested that I met this guy -- I met Prince Charming essentially – and we fell in love and that saved me. And it didn’t.
I really look at that as the beginning of the next story, not the end of this one. Falling in love didn’t affect my grief at losing the baby, and it didn’t affect my grief about my last marriage falling apart. Those are things I had to deal with on my own. I really wanted to end the book with some hope and the idea that life would go on without trying to neatly tie things up in a bow, because that’s just not the way it felt to me.
CP: Your parents had “an arrangement” during their marriage. Have you ever considered an open relationship for yourself?
AL: In my first marriage, that’s sort of what I was pushing for. The problem is that was not what my spouse wanted. We never really resolved that. The greatest – the only – regret of my life is that I had an affair. In retrospect, causing someone I love that kind of pain was in no way acceptable, but I had sort of convinced myself that it was. I learned my lesson.
CP: I’m glad you mentioned that, because my next question is: Would you ever cheat again?
AL: God, no. I’m 42 now. When I was having this affair and going into this marriage, I was in my early 30s. I was in much more of a frenzy. I don’t have that desire anymore. I don’t have any desire to roam in that way. Also, it caused so much suffering. I would never, in a million years, bring that on again to someone I love or to myself.
CP: You conclude in the book that life is out of our control and that nature is ruthless. How do you feel about the balance of life? Do the good and the bad balance out?
AL: Depends who you are. I’m really lucky. I have a lot of advantages. Life, for me, is really good. I don’t feel like I would feel like life is so great if I was a Syrian refugee. I wouldn’t presume to say life is one way or the other. My life is really beautiful and I’m really grateful for it.
CP: You’ll be reading with David Sedaris when you come to Minnesota. Why did you two team up?
AL: If David Sedaris says, “Want to do something with me?” you say, “Yes!”
CP: Have you been to Minnesota before?
AL: Yes! I wrote about Al Franken when he was running [for the Senate]. I worked for New York magazine at the time. Because Al Franken was very well-known to New Yorkers from Saturday Night Live, they let me do this story about him. I wrote about his run and a little bit about Minnesota. It was great.
IF YOU GO:
Ariel Levy, The Rules Do Not Apply
With David Sedaris
Common Good Books
3 p.m., Saturday, June 17
Tickets are $28, and include a copy of David Sedaris' new book, Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002).