A Litany Of Tragedy In 'The Rules Do Not Apply'
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Ariel Levy's memoir "The Rules Do Not Apply" begins with a litany of tragedy. She writes, (reading) for the first time I can remember, I cannot locate my competent self. In the last few months, I have lost my son, my spouse and my house. The book goes on to detail the contours of those losses and how to get to the other side. Ariel Levy is a staff writer at The New Yorker, and she joins us now.
ARIEL LEVY: Thanks for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The book is, as I said, called "The Rules Do Not Apply." So I want to take us back to the old Ariel Levy. Who was she?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What did she want?
LEVY: Well, I mean, I think that I wanted to be a writer, and I got to do that. I wanted to fall in love, and I did. And I got to marry the woman I fell in love with. And the title is basically saying, you know, the rules that my mother and her mother had to follow did not apply to me. I think that the women's movement really told my generation that we could be the protagonists in our own lives. And I took that to heart.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You talk about, in the book, always wanting to have a sense of adventure. You became a journalist who specialized, as you put it, in stories about women who are too much. What was it about journalism that appealed to you? Was it the wildness, the freedom?
LEVY: Well, it was - it's, like, the most perfect job on earth for me. It's the two things I love most. It's writing, and it's adventure. It's going out and finding a world that's exotic to me, I mean, whether that world is in Africa or in Maine, I mean, just someplace where I don't know what's what. And I have to figure it out. And then I have to tell the reader about it. That's everything I ever wanted. And I still love it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mentioned your marriage. You met and married your wife. And that broke a lot of rules.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: She was 41. She had substance abuse problems. And you married her before you were even 30. And then you broke some rules of your own.
LEVY: I certainly did. I mean, we had a real - we broke rules. And we broke each other's hearts, you know. I mean, I think addiction, as anyone knows who's suffered from it or has lived with someone who suffers from it, it's a heartbreaking disease. And I retaliated, I would say, by having an affair, which is, I would say, the only real regret of my life - is that I did that, is that I hurt someone I loved by doing that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to get at the centerpiece of this book, which is this really horrible story about the loss of your son when you were reporting in Mongolia. Many of us read about it in The New Yorker when you wrote about it then. But can you remind us about that story?
LEVY: Well, basically, I mean, I'd been a reporter at that point for almost 20 years. And when I was five months pregnant, I got on a plane and I thought that this was going to be the last adventure I was having of that sort for a while because I was moving to a different kind of adventure. I was going to be a mother, and I was fully committed to that. And I wasn't really that worried about going on this trip, about doing this assignment. You know, my doctor had said it was fine to fly until the third trimester.
But on the second night that I was in Mongolia, I went into labor in my hotel room by myself. And for 10 minutes, I was somebody's mother. That was not only the most painful but also the most transcendent experience of my life. And there's nothing I would trade it for. You know, as much as it hurts, as much as I wish that I had a 4-year-old and that my son had lived, the 10 minutes I experienced of being someone's mother, that was black magic.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was the fallout from that for you, though?
LEVY: Well, when I got back from Mongolia, I was so sad I could barely breathe. I really felt that it was intolerable. I would wake up in the morning and think, no, I cannot bear this. I cannot accept this reality. It is unacceptable to me. Not only was it painful, it was also - I felt, sort of, insane because I felt, in the deepest part of myself, that I had become a mother. You know, a kind of switch had flipped in my heart. And I had experienced maternal love. And my body had flipped a switch, too. I was, you know, creating milk to feed a baby who wasn't there. So I felt very much like I was a mother, but I had no child.
So I had a kind of identity crisis on my hands. And then two weeks after I got back from Mongolia, my spouse left for rehab, which for me was - I couldn't do anymore. I knew at that point that the marriage was over. So it was a very short period of time to lose the family I thought I was about to have.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the end of the book, though, you confront the idea that maybe you were punished for hubris. What did you mean by that? That sounds almost biblical.
LEVY: It felt biblical. Having a baby who lives for a second, who you encounter, who dies right there in your hand - I mean, it felt biblical. And the pain I felt subsequently definitely had a biblical quality. And I found myself, like, wailing all the time in this way that I just never thought I could make those sounds, frankly. But that was grief. In my grief, I felt certainly that I was being punished and that I deserved this.
And for a long time, I lived in this tunnel of grief. And then eventually, what I found is that now I don't. Now that grief kind of lives in me. And I think we have this idea that if there's pain, there's a problem that needs to be solved. I...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That we need to nullify it somehow.
LEVY: Yeah, and I don't - I no longer buy that. I think it's OK to have pain. And I think it's OK not to get everything you want in this life. I think, to me, that's what being an adult is, is realizing that you can want something with your whole heart and it doesn't mean you can have it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ariel Levy is the author of the book "The Rules Do Not Apply." Thank you so much.
LEVY: Thank you so much.
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