'Staying True'? Most Marriage Memoirs Do Anything But


Lizzie Skurnick

Mary, I was interested to see your post about the release of Jenny Sanford's memoir being pushed up to February. (Who knew she was writing a memoir?) I'd prefer that it be pushed back a few years, or that it were never written at all. Although you can't make assumptions about what leads anyone to put pen to paper -- perhaps Sanford is a secret memoirist who's been itching to blow the lid off her marriage since the honeymoon -- it seems far more likely that this is yet another contribution to the scorned-wives genre, where the spouse offers insta-insights for the benefit of an enthusiastic marketing department, not readers.

Like Elizabeth Edwards' "Resilience," scorned-wife screeds are most pertinently a thinly veiled opportunity to bash an ex's paramour. (Edwards' book might as well have been illustrated by a photo of her giving Rielle Hunter the finger.) And, like many conjugal postmortems, "Resilience" also loses its authority by trafficking in a deeply implausible transcendence. You'd find it a lot easier to buy Claire Bloom's "Leaving a Doll's House" or Mia Farrow's "What Falls Away" were those literary f-yous not directed entirely at the gentlemen in question.

But my biggest quarrel with the quickie marriage memoir (oh, the worst kind of quickie!) is that they suggest the most interesting thing that can happen to a woman is something a man does to her, not something she does.

I was raised in an era where fiction, autobiography and criticism took on with emotional and intellectual gusto the costs and complexity of marriage. Novels like "Diary of a Mad Housewife," "Kinflicks" and "Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen" poked fun at the fallacy (ba-dum-dum) of a "Father Knows Best" idyll. If you wanted intellectual evisceration, Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer were at the ready with detailed polemics on exactly how marriage would ruin your life. Marge Piercy depicted the gray state of liberation with "Small Changes" (published in 1973, the year I was born) and "Braided Lives," wherein the husband who coaxes his wife into leaving work to become a homemaker, then launches into an affair with a younger model, is a constant theme. Rona Jaffe and Alice Walker also had juicy depictions of the pitfalls of allowing yourself to become dependent on a man -- and of course, I would be completely remiss in not mentioning the mother of all marriage moratoriums, "Heartburn," Nora Ephron's brilliant and breathtakingly funny fictionalization of her semi-disastrous marriage to Carl Bernstein.

Part of the appeal of these works, of course, was that I was way too young to read them. But most important, they made me aware of a crucial point: there is life outside of marriage.

Nowadays, a reader could be forgiven for thinking that all women do is try to get married, stay married, or graciously get over being married. (The better to get married again, to a better model.) I think everyone already understands what's wrong with insipid how-to's. (If you don't, note that Ellen Fein, author of "The Rules," filed for divorce just as her sequel "The Rules for Marriage" came out, while Liz Tuccillo's follow-up to the apparently prophetic "He's Just Not That Into You" was "How to Be Single: A Novel.")

But lately, even ostensibly honest works about the marital state duck the question. Elizabeth Gilbert purports to wrestle with marriage in "Committed," her follow-up to the eleventh-hour romance in "Eat, Pray, Love." But she devotes 300 pages to the subject of marriage and two to the suitability of her future husband. Julie Powell's "Cleaving" is a clumsy attempt at reviving the alchemy of food and fidelity in her first work, but she takes on butchery and adultery without getting to the bloody heart of either. And Elizabeth Weil's recent unburdening about her marital problems in the New York Times magazine was an arid expanse of faux-confessions, save the startling asides that she doesn't like to French kiss and that her husband spent the early years of their marriage writing an "erotic bildungsroman" about an "emotionally sadistic, sexually self-aggrandizing woman." (Maybe she Frenched?)

A writer's reluctance to dish on a union she still maintains is not entirely surprising. There is a limited payoff, after all, in alienating the person against whom your ragged toenails cut on a nightly basis. But when a marriage is over, there's no explanation for neatly sidestepping the story, except that making a plea for sympathy while smilingly ax-grinding is a lot more satisfying. (If only we could give a Pulitzer in Martyrdom to Julie Metz, who tracked down all her husband's mistresses after his death in "Perfection.")

Men writing post-conjugal postmortems are usually smart enough to wrap it in the guise of fiction, like Philip Roth's Claire Bloom-inspired "I Married a Communist." (It's easier to get them into the canon that way.) But that may be changing. Marriage-memoir addicts should note that Michael Cooper, Elizabeth Gilbert's ex-husband, is now coming back with a rebuttal to her depiction of their marriage in "Eat, Pray, Love."

It seems almost certain that Cooper's book will be nine kinds of vindictive, repulsive and unreliable. But I'm curious if it will herald the return of the ugly into a public conversation that's avoided it for two long -- because ugly, in the right hands, can lead to useful revelations. From Jenny Sanford's pre-victorious title alone -- "Staying True" -- readers can assume that's the last thing she'll be doing.