In 2015, award-winning journalist and co-founding editor of Bustle Rachel Krantz was in the midst of a breakup when she first went out with Adam.
He was somewhat older, refined, successful in his field, vegan, white and Jewish (like Krantz), and seemed to home in on her immediately with an intensity she found welcome. On their second date, he told her that, should they continue seeing each other, "[she] could still date and sleep with other people, even fall in love again. I don't want to restrict my partners' experiences."
This thrilled her, although knowing that he would also forgo monogamy eventually did not. Still, she was fascinated by and powerfully drawn to him, so she decided to give it a shot. Her first book, Open: An Uncensored Memoir of Love, Liberation, and Non-Monogamy, documents what happened next, using extensive research, interviews with experts, and her own meticulous record-keeping to flesh out and interpret her personal experiences.
I'll admit that I was trepidatious when I first approached this memoir. I've never really hidden the fact that I am polyamorous, nor that my partner of seven years and I have always had, to one extent or another, a non-monogamous relationship. Anyone who is poly (or polyam, the short form Krantz uses in the book) or non-monog knows when to share this information and when to silo it away in order to avoid the judging eyes and skeptical questions of the monogamous overculture. Knowing the memoir was about Krantz's introduction to non-monogamy — and not only that, but that she was introduced to it by a straight cis man, a demographic that is often assumed to abuse this relational preference — made me brace myself for a traditional happy ending about how it was a valid life choice but simply not for her.
I couldn't have been more wrong. It's no spoiler to say that Krantz still identifies as polyam, at least according to social media, and while Open is about non-monogamy, of course, it's neither a manifesto of polyamorous ideals nor an argument against it. Instead, more than anything else, it's Krantz's sincere and curious reckoning with the cultural messaging we all receive about gendered expectations and power dynamics in romantic and sexual relationships in general. How do we untangle those from our own desires? How do we differentiate between those desires and the things we think we should want, or that our partners want us to want? The highs and lows of a first non-monogamous relationship prove the perfect canvas on which to explore these fundamental questions.
At first, things between Krantz and Adam seem rather rosy, although readers familiar with gaslighting and manipulation in relationships may recognize the red flags early on. Adam showers Krantz with affection and sexual attention, and she moves in with him just months after they first meet. She allows herself to enjoy the power-play between them, which she recognizes as a dominant/submissive dynamic, although Adam refuses to call it that — meaning there are no clear rules to follow, nor a way for Krantz to exist with Adam outside that dynamic. She begins sleeping with other people both with him and alone, starts dating alone, and indulges finally in her long-held desire to act on her queer attractions. When Adam begins to date as well, she struggles with painful jealousy that he repeatedly dismisses as being a weakness, something she needs to just get over. His attitude plays into the common misconception that people who live and love polyamorously do not (or should not) feel jealousy — and while this is true for some, it is laughably far from universal.
As the memoir unfolds and Krantz's relationship with non-monogamy changes and evolves, Adam's behavior becomes less and less comfortable to witness. There will certainly be some readers who will find him hateful for his unrepentant emotionally abusive patterns. Yet it's clear, and in my view deeply admirable, that Krantz is seeking to elicit "a non-dualistic compassion beyond boxes and shame." She acknowledges that Adam's manipulation, while real and harmful, is not always deliberate. He is not a mastermind who gets up in the morning thinking about how he's going to be abusive to the woman he hopes to spend the rest of his life with — that's rarely how this kind of thing works. This does not mean he should be absolved of responsibility for his actions, only that it's possible to hold someone responsible while also, as Krantz writes, feeling "an immense compassion for the confusion and suffering that fuels harmful behavioral cycles."
Readers should take the word "uncensored" in the memoir's title seriously; Krantz certainly does, and she clearly means it when she writes, in her author's note: "I put myself forward for naked examination because I'm morally opposed to being told to cover up in shame." Sex parties, swingers' meetups, and drug use are unapologetically rendered, but Krantz is no less forthcoming with her anxieties, fears, and attempts to understand what is going on in her primary relationship with Adam. Her vulnerability — along with the 20/20 hindsight she's able to bring to her younger self's emotional journey — is precisely why the memoir works so well. Her warm tone throughout, laced with sometimes rueful, sometimes tender humor, helps the reader trust that she's not working to gratuitously titillate, but to examine sexuality as a vital part of many people's lives that need not be cloaked in guilt, shame, or embarrassment (unless, of course, those are part of a person's kink).
Ilana Masad is a fiction writer, book critic, and author of the novel All My Mother's Lovers.