Ariel Levy On The Illusion Of "Having It All"

Photo: David Klagsbrun
Ariel Levy is a journalist’s journalist. Which is to say, she’s idolized by young women writers everywhere. Rising through the ranks of New York Magazine to land a job at The New Yorker, where she’s been a staff writer for nine years, she’s made her name penning generous profiles of unconventional women and sharp essays on American contemporary culture. Some might know her better for her famous 2005 book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, which was a look at how a sex-positive brand of female empowerment can become a slippery slope to misogyny.
Something of a cut-through voice in the noise that is contemporary feminism, put a stock question like “Can women have it all?” to Ariel Levy and you’ll get anything but a simple answer. That answer comes in the form of her new memoir, aptly titled The Rules Do Not Apply. It is, as she would put it, a “coming of age story” and by skewering her privilege demonstrates that — in Levy’s words — “thinking we should get everything we want in life isn’t the thinking of a feminist, it’s the thinking of a toddler.” The book reminds us that the thing about having it all is that you’ve got so much more to lose.
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When I speak to Levy over the phone from her home in New York, she tells me she’s spent the morning drinking a ton of coffee and doing yoga, and we laugh about how she’s suddenly found herself the subject of interview profiles where mundane facts like that are used to give some indication of her personality. Still, “it’s not like I’m walking down the street and people are yelling my name,” she jokes, sounding like she’s genuinely quite pleased about that — perhaps because, after reading The Rules Do Not Apply, it’s hard to predict what people would be yelling.
The book is a dangerously honest account of her life from childhood through to adulthood (she’s now 42). Growing up in Westchester, New York, to Jewish parents, she is raised in a household so liberal she can virtually do no wrong. Levy moves to the city to become a writer — “that, I thought, was the profession that went with the kind of woman I wanted to become: one who is free to do whatever she chooses” — and writes her first big story for New York Magazine about nightclubs for plus-size women in Queens. It’s the first of a bunch of reporting jobs we hear about in the book — like a trip to South Africa to meet Olympic athlete Caster Semenya, or a profile of Republican politician Mike Huckabee.
Soon after the Queens story, during a citywide blackout, Levy meets the older, West Coast lesbian Lucy (a pseudonym), and falls deeply in love. As the pair get married, concern starts to creep in. “I didn’t really care about marriage being too straight, at least not in the sense of heterosexual,” she writes in the book, “I cared about marriage being too normal, too American, too confining for my fantasy of a life.” This, for me, was the moment where I fell headfirst into The Rules Do Not Apply, and the moment where you realize that, for Levy — as for most of us — “having it all” can just mean being greedy.
When Levy has an affair with an old flame who has newly transitioned from female to male, her marriage with Lucy starts to fall apart, and ultimately, admitting her infidelity doesn’t solve anything; it causes Lucy to spiral further into a drinking problem. The painstaking detail in which the collapse of the marriage is then described makes for awkward reading — it really pulls the rug out from under our basic belief that we can trust one another. And yet, Levy writes about her dishonesty so honestly, you struggle to hate her for it.
“Maybe it’s because as a journalist I’ve spent 20 years doing the kind of writing where the whole agenda is being as accurate as possible,” offers Levy, when I ask her whether she ever stopped to weigh up how much she shared. “It’s the only way I know how to write.” She explains the affair now as her deepest regret, but also as symptomatic of where she was at in life: “I was in this frantic state where I felt this duty to myself to get as many experiences as I could. But losing everything has made me relax now. I’ve lost the illusion of control.”
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Losing it all
In 2013, Levy published a story in The New Yorker that would become the impetus to write her memoir. It was called "Thanksgiving in Mongolia," and detailed a trip she made to the country to report on its economy. At the time of the trip, Levy was 38 and five months pregnant with Lucy’s baby but decided to travel, because at the time, having it all through her eyes didn’t mean sacrificing a work trip for a pregnancy. On the second day of her trip, in her hotel bathroom, she went into labor, and gave birth on the tiles. When the paramedics arrived, they warned Levy that her baby wouldn’t live — and he didn’t.
After the story was published, it became clear to Levy that she wasn’t done with it yet. “I got so many responses to women that had lost children, or had miscarriages or still births, I felt like it was a matter of feminism to write about it,” she explains in her no-nonsense manner. “Every woman is not going to decide to have children, every woman is certainly not going to lose a child, but at some point in her life almost every woman will have some kind of epic drama around menstruation, fertility, infertility, birth, menopause...something to do with this business of being a human female animal. It’s part of life and it’s not something that gets written about much. I felt like it was important to do that.”
If you haven’t read "Thanksgiving in Mongolia," it’s hard to see the disaster coming. I had read it, and I still cried with shock and horror when I got to the scene in the book. What happens afterwards remains just as upsetting for a while, as Levy returns to America and attempts to rebuild her life with grief at its centre. “Initially, grief is something you live in and then later, if you’re lucky, it’s something that lives in you,” Levy tells me over the phone, when we discuss how she’s feeling now. “I’m not in a tunnel of pain anymore but there’ll always be a spark in my heart for that baby.”
Talking about the baby, for the first time in our call, Levy understandably loses her wording. Until now, she has been quick to respond, almost cutting off my sentences, but when I suggest that grief might be separate from trauma, she is uncertain: “I bet you’re right. You sound right. I guess my experience was one of trauma. But it’s so much about that baby, I can’t really think of it in any other way.” She sighs: “I’m not being articulate. It’s just, that’s such a big deal to me, having been someone’s mother for 10 minutes... I never think about it as traumatic.”
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When Levy wrote the story, back in 2013, one thing she was sure of was that she wanted to include the blood and guts of what happened; to call the picture she paints ‘visceral’ would be an understatement. “I wanted to write about that because I think the fact that women are animals is sort of the last taboo. You can talk about sex now and no one cares, but we are supposed to be clean and shiny and not admit that blood comes out of our bodies again and again and again..."
Saying what you’re not supposed to say
I realize about 15 minutes into my call with Levy that her honesty probably isn’t the product of 20 years in journalism, as she suggests, but is the reason she’s a journalist. When I ask her what she thinks of a particularly damning review by Charlotte Shane in The Australian, entitled “Ariel Levy’s Memoir is A Monument To White Female Privilege” she immediately quips back: “News just in...Ariel Levy is privileged, no shit, baby.” Shane’s piece suggests The Rules Do Not Apply is narrow in focus; “What, in the middle of when my baby was dying, I should have gone on a side trip about how, you know, there’s a lot of economic inequity in the world? That’s ridiculous.”
Levy tells me that on the night prior to our phone call, she took the stage with Lena Dunham in New York City for a discussion on The Rules Do Not Apply and Dunham posed a similar argument to Shane’s, albeit hypothetical: “What are you going to say to the inevitable 22-year-old who says you’re not politically correct enough in the age of Trump?” Dunham asked her. Rather impatiently, Levy responded: “What young feminists should be focused on in the age of Trump is Trump.”
She elucidates: “If you have a choice as a young feminist between critiquing the most powerful man in the free world who is an avowed misogynist, or a 42-year-old writer called Ariel Levy who has spent years writing profiles of courageous women like Edith Windsor, the 84-year-old plaintiff who used the Supreme Court to bring down the Defense of Marriage Act and legalize gay marriage in this country, Diana Nyad, who was the first person in the world to swim from Cuba to Florida when she was 64, or Claressa Shields, the 18-year-old African American Olympic boxer who won a gold medal” — she pauses for breath — “then, who is a more productive target?”
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As our call nears an end, I ask Levy if there’s anything she didn’t include in The Rules Do Not Apply, any self-censorship. She tells me that the main thing she chose not to include was a happy ending. I thought about the last pages of the book, where Levy strikes up a strange email correspondence with a Dr. John Gasson — the doctor who treated her in Mongolia. It makes for enjoyable reading, but you wonder what the relevance is. When Ariel explains that she’s about to marry Dr. John I tell her I’m “shocked to shit” — not just at the serendipity of a love story coming out of her pain, but because the book gave little indication they were now together.
“I’m really happy to hear you say that,” she responds. “I didn’t put that in the book because I didn’t want it to seem like Prince Charming came and saved me from my grief and my messed-up life and my lesbianism. It wouldn’t have been accurate...” — again, that word. “First of all, I fell in love with him over a long period of time and secondly, it didn’t solve anything. It opened up a new life for me eventually, but initially it didn’t take away my grief over the ending of my last marriage or over losing my son, and it certainly didn’t cure me of the desire to have children, which it’s turned out I could not have.”
Does the prospect of not becoming a mother upset her? “I could get in a dark place, but I roll with it,” she muses, “I don’t know how much of that is being in my 40s and how much of that is about having the center of my life drop out when I was 38, but I’m not in a frantic state anymore. When I first got back from Mongolia, I found the pain intolerable... I couldn’t stand the reality. But it became clear to me that I had no choice. It’s like walking up an escalator — you’re never going to get anywhere — but the sooner you surrender, the less you can be in physical pain.”
I tell Levy these words are what I take to be the crux of The Rules Do Not Apply. Fuck having — or not having — it all. The message is: while we might think our choices make us who we are, actually, it’s the things we have no choice over that truly make us. And with that, we hang up the phone.
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