New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy was five months pregnant when she went to Mongolia on assignment. Her doctor had cleared her for travel, and she was excited to pursue one last adventurous story before settling down with an infant.
But things didn't go as planned: Alone in her hotel room, Levy suffered a placental abruption; her baby boy lived for only 10 minutes. Afterward, Levy was haunted by the notion that she had caused her child's death:
"It's a terrible feeling ... that you made this life and failed to bring it through," she says.
Levy experienced more loss upon her return to the United States. Just weeks after her son's death, her spouse checked into rehab and their marriage dissolved. Suddenly, the life Levy had and the future she'd planned no longer existed.
"That winter — that November when I got back, right after Thanksgiving, from Mongolia — it just felt like a tidal pull was sort of sucking all the most important pieces of my life out to sea," Levy says. "It just kept feeling like, What next? What am I going to lose next? What's left to lose?"
The one aspect of Levy's life that remained unchanged was her identity as a writer — and clinging to that identity is what got her through. Her new memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, describes her experiences with guilt, grief and with moving on.
On initially being ambivalent about becoming a mother
I think that like a lot of young people I know, I was really focused on myself and I wanted to be the protagonist in my own life and I wanted to do what I wanted to do.
There's this great Amelia Earhart quote where she wrote in a letter to her husband: "I want to do it, because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried." That's how I felt. I just thought, if you had a child, of course that person would have to come first, and you could no longer be the kind of woman who is free to do whatever she chooses. And your path would calcify in front of you and you'd have to put this other person first.
When I was young, that's not something I could stomach. And then, as I got closer and closer to middle age, I thought, I'd love to put someone else first. I'm sick of putting myself first. I thought it might be a relief to think about someone else's needs, instead of letting my life be governed by my own wishes and wanderlust.
On what it felt like to be pregnant
When you're a pregnant woman, the world smiles on you. I mean, I would tell people, and you could just see them bloom with joy — because it's an amazing thing of course, that you're brewing a human being in your body. I mean, I still can't get over it — that that was something that I was able to do. It's like I knew it was the most obvious thing in the world, and it's how the species keeps going; but it feels pretty miraculous when it's happening to you. And people respond in kind. People who I didn't expect to have a positive reaction did. ... It was amazing to me how many people, how frequently people thought it was, like, the best thing ever.
On what she was thinking when she gave birth in her hotel room in Mongolia
I wasn't in my right mind. I think, at some level, I knew: This isn't possible. This isn't going to work out. He's just too small. There's just absolutely no way. And I think because at some level I knew that, that's why I took a photograph of him. When I picked up the phone eventually to call a doctor, to call for an ambulance, before I put the phone down I took a picture of him. Because at some level I think I knew: This isn't going to work out and I'm going to want to look at this face again.
I think that's something I see my friends do so much with their children — just gaze at them, because it's amazing. I mean, they are these beautiful, fresh humans that got made, and I think we just spend so much time just gazing at them. And I knew this was it for me with this baby, that I knew I was not going to be able to gaze at him again and that the picture would be all that I had. So at some level I knew it. At another level, you know, I had never given birth before and it was all so shocking. It was so incredibly surprising that a person, that a living person had come out of me, that I wasn't really thinking straight. I remember having this thought of like, Is there a way to put him back in? I mean, I wasn't in my right mind.
On if she still looks at the photo she took
I still have it and I don't really look at it anymore. I mean, maybe once a year, on the date that he was born and died, I look at it. I think of the baby then, but I don't look at it anymore. When I first got back from Mongolia I looked at it obsessively, and I tried to get other people to look at it, because I just felt insane. ...
I just felt like a switch had flipped inside of me while I was in that hotel room. I had experienced maternal love, and I couldn't get the switch to un-flip when I got back. ... I just felt like a mother in the most primal part of myself. And also a switch had flipped in my body. I mean, I was lactating. I was making milk for this baby who wasn't there. So I really felt like a mother, but, of course, that was invisible because I had no child. So it was sort of an identity crisis. And one of the ways I tried to resolve that was by showing the picture to anyone I could possibly get to look at it. I kept trying to show them this picture and say, "Look, I made this person. He was alive. I was somebody's mother."
On the guilt that followed
Having now spoken with lots of women who have had miscarriages or still births or other tragedies, I want to say — because that's what it feels like when it's you, tragedies around losing their babies — "I think it's pretty common to feel really guilty." ... And if you've done something that sounds bad, like flown to Mongolia, it's even easier to think, I did this. I got what I deserved.
But it's just not rational. That's not what happened. I had a placental abruption. And if you have that — which means your placenta is coming off from the uterine wall — it's not going to work out. It doesn't matter if you're in Mongolia or Massachusetts. It's just not going to work out. Eventually I just had to accept that I was sort of liberated from my illusion of control by this experience, and then by not being able to ever get pregnant again. I mean, I just sort of had to surrender to the idea that it's not up to me, it's not something I get to decide.
On coming to terms with mortality and not having everything
I just think that mortality is a rule that always applies, obviously. And I think infertility is sort of a preview of mortality. It's just, OK, you can make all sorts of decisions and open your mind and change the rules, but you're going to die, and as a woman there will come a day when you're no longer able to make children. And that was just a reality I had to learn.
It probably sounds extraordinarily obvious, and how could I have ever thought otherwise? But I don't know, I just didn't really understand all that. I was a late bloomer in terms of understanding the limitations of life. ... People have asked me a lot, "So are you saying that feminism has done some sort of disservice to women by telling them that they could have everything?" I don't think feminism said that. I don't think feminism ever told us, "You can have everything." I think feminism said, "You are fully human. You're a full human being as a woman." But the human condition, of course, is that everybody doesn't get everything. And I think imagining you can have whatever you want, it's not the thinking of a feminist — it's the thinking of a toddler.
On falling in love with, and getting engaged to, the doctor who treated her in Mongolia, but not including that in the book
It's all so ridiculous that I didn't put it [in the book] because I think that if you put at the end of a book, "and then we fell in love," it's unreasonable to ask the reader not to think what you're saying is, "And then Prince Charming came and saved me and we lived happily ever after, and that saved me from my grief." So I didn't put it in because that's not accurate.
Falling in love with him didn't save me from the grief of losing my son. It didn't end the grief of my last marriage ending. It didn't do anything except begin a new chapter. And I just didn't think it was appropriate to put it in this book; that's not what this book was about. So it's not there.
Sam Briger and Therese Madden produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Deborah Franklin adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Ariel Levy was five months pregnant in Mongolia on assignment for The New Yorker when she had a miscarriage alone in her hotel room. At the time, she'd been married to a woman for nearly 10 years. The marriage soon dissolved. Their house was sold. And the life Levy had and the future she was planning no longer existed. Her memoir is about how she went from being reluctant to have a child to being devastated when she lost her baby. It's also about being raised by a feminist mother and a father who worked with Planned Parenthood and now. They brought her up with the "Free To Be... You And Me" ethic.
And Levy succeeded in challenging rules about sex and gender, but she also learned there were some things out of her control. Her memoir is called "The Rules Do Not Apply." She first wrote about her miscarriage in The New Yorker. That article won a National Magazine Award in 2014. Her previous book, "Female Chauvinist Pigs," was about trying to understand why a tawdry, tardy, cartoon-like version of female sexuality had become so ubiquitous and why women, including some of her friends, had started going to strip clubs and describing the experience as liberating and rebellious.
Ariel Levy, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So in the book, you describe how you went from not wanting to have a baby to really wanting to have one and then feeling devastated after you miscarried. Would you describe the period when you didn't want to be a mother? What were your fears or reservations then?
ARIEL LEVY: You know, I think it was more ambivalence than clarity. It wasn't, oh, I don't want to. It was that I was torn about it because I thought, you know, having a child seemed like the wildest adventure there could be. But I also had grown up wanting to be a different kind of adventurer and wanting to see the world and write about it. And I knew that if I had a child, that would have to stop.
GROSS: What other changes did you think you might have to make in your life, things that you'd have to give up that you didn't necessarily want to give up?
LEVY: I think that like a lot of young people I know, I was really focused on myself. And I wanted to be the protagonist in my own life. And I wanted to do what I wanted to do. There's this great Amelia Earhart quote where she wrote in a letter to her husband, I want to do it because I want to do it. You know, women must try to do things as men have tried. And that's how I felt. And I just thought if you had a child, of course that person would have to come first. And you could no longer be the kind of woman who is free to do whatever she chooses. And your path would calcify in front of you. And you'd have to put this other person first.
And when I was young, that's not something I could stomach. And then, you know, as I got closer and closer to middle age, I thought I'd love to put someone else first. I'm sick of putting myself first. I want to try to - I thought it might be a relief to think about someone else's needs instead of letting my life be governed by my own wishes and wanderlust.
GROSS: So when you decided you wanted to become a mother, you were married to a woman who you subsequently divorced. So you had to choose a sperm donor. It was a friend of yours who was enthusiastic about the idea and had the money. So he committed to when the time came putting the child through college and paying for it. You conceived quickly. It all really seemed kind of perfect. And you write in your book about how special it felt to be pregnant. Can you describe that feeling?
LEVY: Yeah. I mean, when you're a pregnant woman, the world smiles on you. I mean, I would tell people and you could just see them bloom with joy. I mean, because it's an amazing thing, of course, that you're brewing a human being in your body. I mean, I still can't get over it, that that was something that I was able to do. It's like I know it's the most obvious thing in the world and it's how this species keeps going, but it feels pretty miraculous when it's happening to you. And people respond in kind. I mean, people who I didn't expect to have a positive reaction did.
When I was first pregnant, I was writing an article about this woman, Lynn Vincent, who was the ghostwriter who wrote Sarah Palin's memoir. And I had imagined that, you know, she would be horrified if I told her I was pregnant because she knew that I was with a woman. And she was adamantly against same-sex marriage. But then when I told her that I was - it came up somehow in conversation - I mean, she just - she - a light came on in her face. And I found that in general that was the kind of reaction I got, that people just thought, oh, my God, you know, you are undergoing this miraculous thing. And even people who I didn't expect to have that reaction - it was amazing to me how many people - how frequently people just thought it was like the best thing ever.
GROSS: So you had taken several foreign assignments as a journalist before that. And when you were pregnant, you were offered a writing assignment in Mongolia. You decided to accept the assignment. You were five months pregnant at the time. How did you do the calculus about whether to take that assignment or not?
LEVY: Well, the first thing I did was asked my doctor, is this OK? And he said, yeah, of course it's OK. You know, I mean, the baby doesn't get dislodged by going on an airplane. You know, a fetus doesn't get dislodged by going on an airplane. That's not a thing. And, you know, so that was almost the beginning and the end of it. I mean, once a doctor said to me, of course it's fine, I'm not superstitious. And I'm not a sissy, you know.
So once this doctor told me it was OK, that was that. And I think the other thing was that I love going to places where everything is new and everything is a surprise and then writing about my experience. I mean, that's my favorite kind of story. And I knew I wouldn't be able to do another story like that for a long time. So I was delighted to have one last big, wild, adventurous story before I - and, you know, temporarily stopped living that way and really committed myself to being the mother of an infant, which is all-encompassing, of course.
GROSS: So soon after you got to Mongolia, you knew something was wrong. You were in a lot of pain. And you left a dinner early. You went to the dinner reluctantly. It was moved to the hotel restaurant so that you'd be nearby, so that you wouldn't have to travel. You left the dinner early, went to your room and you miscarried in your hotel room. I would like you to read the section of your book where you describe what happened. You OK with that?
LEVY: Yeah. (Reading) I felt an unholy storm move through my body. And after that, there was a brief lapse in my recollection. Either I blacked out from the pain, or I have blotted out the memory. And then, there was another person on the floor in front of me, moving his arms and legs - alive. I heard myself say out loud, this can't be good. But it looked good. My baby was as pretty as a seashell. He was translucent and pink and very, very small, but he was flawless. His lovely lips were opening and closing, opening and closing, swallowing the new world.
For a length of time I cannot delineate, I sat there awestruck, transfixed. Every finger, every toenail, the golden shadow of his eyebrows coming in, the elegance of his shoulders. All of it was miraculous, astonishing. I held him up to my face, his head and shoulders filling my hand, his legs dangling almost to my elbow. I tried to think of something maternal I could do to convey to him that I was his mother and that I had the situation completely under control. I kissed his forehead, and his skin felt like a silky frog's on my mouth.
GROSS: Thank you for reading that. And that's Ariel Levy reading from her memoir, "The Rules Do Not Apply." So this happens. Did you think there was a chance for the baby to survive?
LEVY: You know, I wasn't in my right mind. I mean I think at some level, I knew this isn't possible; this isn't going to work out. It's - he's just too small. There's just absolutely no way, you know? And I think because at some level I knew that, that's why I took a photograph of him. You know, when I picked up the phone eventually to call a doctor, to call for an ambulance, I - before I put the phone down, I took a picture of him because at some level, I think I knew this isn't going to work out, and I'm going to want to look at this face again.
I mean I think that's something I see my friends do so much with their children - is just gaze at them because it's amazing. I mean they're, like, these beautiful, fresh humans that got made. And I think, you know, I just - we spend so much time just gazing at them. And I knew this was it for me with this baby, that I was not going to be able to gaze at him again and that the picture would be all that I had. So at some level, I knew it.
At another level, you know, I mean I had never given birth before, and it was all so shocking. I mean it was just so incredibly surprising that a person - that a living person had come out of me that I wasn't really thinking straight. I mean I remember having this thought of like, is there a way to put him back in? I mean I just, you know - I wasn't in my right mind.
GROSS: So if you weren't in your right mind, how were you able to think clearly enough to know what to do next? You're alone in Mongolia in a hotel room. You don't really know a lot of people there, you know?
LEVY: (Laughter) No.
GROSS: You don't know the medical system. You don't have, like, your doctor in Mongolia. I mean how did you know what to do?
LEVY: Well, you know, I - there wasn't - it didn't really matter what I did. What I did do, that turns out to have been, like, the totally wrong thing to do, is I just thought about all the movies I'd ever seen when someone gives birth. And it's just, like, OK, the first thing you do is cut the umbilical cord. And I had it in my head, I better do that immediately because otherwise he'll suffocate. I had some crazy idea about you have to block that off, or it's like - it's like a fish and his gills - something. I don't know what I thought.
So I yanked the umbilical cord out of myself, which is a bad thing to do if you ever find yourself in this situation. Apparently that's not a good thing to do. But that's what I did. And in terms of calling for a doctor, I mean I had been in pain and had asked this one American guy that I met there if he had a doctor that he recommended. So I had this phone number on a - on my notepad that I called.
GROSS: What were the consequences of having yanked the umbilical cord?
LEVY: I got lucky. There were no consequences. But you could bleed to death. I mean you don't want to do that. And also, you could - I mean apparently if you yank the umbilical cord off, you could - your placenta could then not come out. Like, it just - I don't actually know the details, but it's - you don't want to do that. It's bad to do. But it was fine for me.
GROSS: So that picture you took...
GROSS: ...After you miscarried - do you still have it, and how often do you look at it?
LEVY: I still have it, and I don't really look at it any more. I mean maybe once a year on the date that he was born and died, I look at it, you know? I think of the baby then. But I don't look at it anymore. When I first got back from Mongolia, I looked at it obsessively. And I tried to get other people to look at it because I just felt insane. I mean I just felt like a switch had flipped inside of me while I was in that hotel room, and I had experienced maternal love.
And I couldn't get the switch to un-flip when I got back, right? I just felt like a mother in the most primal part of myself. And also, a switch flipped in my body. I mean I was lactating. I was making milk for this baby who wasn't there. So I really felt like a mother. But of course that was invisible because I had no child. So it was sort of an identity crisis.
And one of the ways I tried to resolve that was by showing anyone, you know, who I could possibly get to look at the picture - I kept trying to show them this picture and say look; you know, like, look; I made this person. He was alive. You know, I was somebody's mother.
GROSS: For a long time you were convinced that the miscarriage was your fault, that you shouldn't have gotten on that plane to Mongolia; you shouldn't have made the trip even though the doctors said that it was fine to travel and that even after the miscarriage, doctors told you that was not the problem.
GROSS: What did it take to convince you of that?
LEVY: Well, I think just time. I mean I think that having now spoken with lots of women who've had miscarriages or stillbirths or other tragedies, I want to say because that's what it feels like when it's you - tragedies around losing their babies - I think it's pretty common to feel really guilty, to feel like you've killed your child and that you've - you know, that you made this life and failed to bring it through. It's a terrible feeling. And if you've done something that sounds bad like flown to Mongolia, it's even easier to think, I did this. I got what I deserved, you know?
But it's just not rational. I mean that's, you know - that's not what happened. It's - I had a placental abruption. And if you have that - which means your placenta's coming off from the uterine wall - it's not going to work out. It doesn't matter if you're in Mongolia or Massachusetts. It's just not going to work out.
And eventually I just had to accept that you can't, you know - I was sort of liberated from my illusion of control by this experience and then by not being able to ever get pregnant again. I mean I just sort of - I had to surrender to the idea that it's not up to me. It's not something I get to decide.
GROSS: Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ariel Levy. She is a writer for The New Yorker, and now she has a new memoir called "The Rules Do Not Apply." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Ariel Levy. And she's the author of a new memoir called "The Rules Do Not Apply." And the kind of centerpiece of the book is a miscarriage that she had while reporting in Mongolia. And surrounding that is the breakup with her spouse, a woman who she'd been with for several years.
GROSS: Ten, yeah, that's a long time.
GROSS: And there's a lot of - she writes a lot about just, like, you know, feminist issues in her life and, you know, what it means to be single, what it means to be married, what it means to be on the verge of being a mother and then lose your child.
During this period, you lost a lot. Two weeks after your miscarriage, your spouse ended up in rehab again for alcoholism. The relationship was falling apart. It turns out she was in way more debt than you realized. You had to sell your home because of her debt. So you lost the baby. And you basically lost your spouse during the same period and your home. So it was a period where neither the life you were planning on nor the life you had before was in place anymore.
So you're very adventurous when it comes to traveling to foreign countries for writing assignments. How are you with dealing with uncertainty and with big changes in life and big changes in your identity that are kind of out of your control?
LEVY: Well, I mean that winter - I mean that November when I got back right after Thanksgiving from Mongolia - and it just - it felt like a tidal pull was sort of sucking all the most important pieces of my life out to sea. I mean it just kept feeling like, what next? What am I going to lose next? What's left to lose?
And, you know, at first, I would wake up every day and just think, no, I don't agree to this reality. I don't accept this. I don't want my baby to be dead. I don't want my spouse to be in rehab. I don't - this is not OK. And, you know, it took a while. It took quite a while before it just sort of became a possibility for me to surrender and just think, none of this is within my control. I don't get to make these decisions.
And, you know, I have to think about what do I get to keep? And what I got to keep - and the part of my identity that was stable, the only part because I felt like I had failed at being a wife and being a mother - I was still a writer. I still had that. And that was this thing that couldn't be taken for me, that I had been - I didn't know what to say - cultivating since I was a really little kid. And I think focusing on that kind of got me through.
GROSS: So the man who was your doctor in Mongolia was a South African doctor who spent a lot of time in Mongolia doing - doctoring there. Dr. John Gasson is his name. And after you returned to the states, he emailed you your medical records with a very nice note. And then you kept in touch through email. Then you went to visit him. And now you're engaged, right?
LEVY: That's what happened.
GROSS: That sounds like the ending of a romance novel or like a movie...
LEVY: I know. It's weird.
GROSS: ...Or, like, tragedy leads to a love. Like, one door is closed, but another door opens. Did the - was the writer in you almost offended by this ending? Like did you want...
GROSS: ...To take a red pencil and circle it and say, cliche. Like, you can't write that.
LEVY: I - that's exactly how I felt. And that's why I didn't put it in the book.
GROSS: I was wondering why you didn't put it in the (laughter) - I thought maybe you were afraid to jinx it.
LEVY: Because it's - no, it's too trashy.
LEVY: It's too - and also, you know, I mean I think that because romantic love - you know, heterosexual, romantic love is, like, such a thing - I mean it's just such the - it's the heart of all these stories we grow up on. I don't think it would be reasonable as a writer to put at the end of a book like this, and then we fell in love, you know? Then this - and also, it's, like, he's also sort of a cliched hero for that kind of thing 'cause he's, like - rides horses and is a doctor in Mongolia and, you know, can build a house with his hands, all that kind of stuff.
GROSS: I see the cover of the romance novel (laughter)...
LEVY: Right, exactly.
GROSS: ...With you riding a horse on the beach.
LEVY: And that is actually what happens a lot now, is that I do - he did teach me to ride horses on the beach. I mean so it's also ridiculous that I didn't put it because I think that if you put at the end of a book like this, and then we fell in love, it's unreasonable to ask the reader not to think what you're saying is, and then Prince Charming came and saved me; and we lived happily ever after, and that saved me from my grief.
So I didn't put it because that's not accurate. It didn't - you know, falling in love with him didn't save me from the grief of losing my son. It didn't end the grief of my last marriage ending. It didn't do anything except begin a new chapter. And I just didn't think it was appropriate to put it in this book. That's not what this book was about. So it's not there.
GROSS: My guest is Ariel Levy, author of the memoir "The Rules Do Not Apply." She's a staff writer for The New Yorker. We'll talk more about sexual fluidity after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "AQUELAS COISAS TODAS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Ariel Levy, a New Yorker staff writer and author of the memoir "The Rules Do Not Apply." The turning point of the book is her miscarriage. She was five months pregnant on assignment in Mongolia, alone in her hotel room. Her baby survived for 10 minutes. Levy's memoir is also about sexuality, gender and being raised with the free-to-be-you-and-me ethic, believing that women didn't need to be confined by the old rules.
So one of the things you write about in your memoir is about being sexually fluid. You - earlier in your life, you had boyfriends, and you had girlfriends. You were married for 10 years to a woman. Now you're engaged to a man. Are you surprised to be with a man again?
LEVY: No. I mean, you know, when I was married to my former spouse, you know, I was married. I mean, I thought that was for life. So I hadn't anticipated having other relationships. But being with men and women, I mean, that's always been my - it's just reality for me. So it's not that - doesn't surprise me. It's never changed, really.
GROSS: Did you live in a world where fluidity was an accepted concept? I feel like fluidity is a big word now. People, you know, a lot of people accept it, but it wasn't long ago when bisexuality, which was the word most commonly used...
LEVY: Yeah, that's the word I always use because I'm 42. I don't - I've never said the word fluid to mean something other than, like, orange juice.
GROSS: (Laughter) So bisexuality was seen by a lot of people as being fraudulent, as a way of not being fully out or as a safe way of being gay while still hiding behind some veneer of heterosexuality and not wanting to relinquish hetero privilege. So how did you deal with how other people saw, like, your sexuality?
LEVY: You know, my former spouse, who's like a - who's a real bonafide lesbian, no one can accuse her of being anything but like a true lesbian. She was the one who was always like, oh, for God's sake, you don't worry about that. Because I remember feeling fraudulent, as you say - when we were getting married, I remember thinking, do I really - am I entitled to get gay married when I'm only, like, part gay? I mean, is this allowed? Is this - am I being an arriviste, you know? And she was the one who was like, oh, for God's sake, you know, the whole point is everyone gets to marry the person they love. That's all you have to - you don't have to think about any of this nonsense.
And, you know, at this point, I don't care. But when I was younger, yeah, I certainly thought, oh, this is - you can't really be bisexual. You have to declare an allegiance. And I just wasn't quite able to. And I - yeah, I thought that was sort of inadequate. But now, kids today...
LEVY: ...I mean, God, they don't even think there's gender. So, you know, it was a bigger deal when I was younger.
GROSS: When you were married, you were annoyed when people called your spouse your wife. And you'd think, no, I'm the wife.
GROSS: You wanted to tell them, I'm the girl. And to some extent, you had traditional gender roles within the relationship. So as a feminist, how did you - how did those gender roles break down? And how did you feel about having those gender roles when it was two women?
LEVY: Well, I mean, I was - I had a much more traditional marriage with a woman than the relationship I have now with a man. I mean, you know, I've been having a - I mean, now we live together, but for years I've been in this relationship where we had to conduct ourselves on separate continents, you know. So, I mean, whereas when I was married to a woman, we lived like a very traditional marriage. And in terms of, like, the feminist - the way I thought of our gender roles, as a feminist, you know, it makes it a lot easier when you're two women.
You don't really have to feel - you don't really have to think about it. I mean, you - it's like this get-out-of-jail-free card. If you don't - if you have - how to say this - I do - I think there's something about when you have two women in a marriage, you do feel that you've got this feminist trump card. I mean, you just think it's like no one can say that there's anything - I don't know how to put that. I'm having trouble answering the question because I just don't know what to say except that I think - except that it really did feel like a get-out-of-jail-free card.
GROSS: You wrote about what you described as raunch culture. You had a book called "Female Chauvinist Pigs," in which you wrote about how things like pole dancing and stripping and "Girls Gone Wild" was starting to be seen as an expression of female empowerment as opposed to of male objectification of girls and women. And so you were challenging this from a feminist point of view. And it was a really interesting book. So you were writing about appropriating male ways of seeing women as becoming a way that women were starting to see themselves. So I'm wondering...
LEVY: And, I mean, and it's come to fruition in the craziest way. I mean, it's so crazy to me that, you know, when I wrote that book - 12 years ago something like that - it was like the dawn of reality television. You know, I mean, it was - reality television was just becoming a thing. Now, look at who's president for God's sake.
I mean, it really came to pass that, you know, I mean, that's what I was thinking about so much when the infamous, you know, [expletive] grabbing "Entertainment Hollywood" tape came out, that it was like this was a guy who was a reality television star who really did walk around assessing women on a scale, you know, whether they were 1 or 10 and thought that women were something you could just grab in the most vulgar way and that that was perfectly acceptable. You know, and that's who's president now.
I mean, those were very much the - that was the ethos I was writing about was that women were imagining - I thought - that if you just decided to wear the Playboy bunny symbol on your T-shirt and get a Brazilian bikini wax and wear a thong and dance on a pole, then it was going to be empowering and you could sort of upend the meaning of all this symbolism. And I don't think that's what came to pass (laughter). I think exactly what I feared came to pass.
GROSS: So in addition to feeling like you're seeing that reflected in our president and in the fact that he was elected to be president, how are you seeing it reflected in women today, either in pop culture or just in women you see around you?
LEVY: Well, just - I mean, I think about my friends who have teenage girls. I mean, I feel like it's totally inappropriate of me to ever look at their Instagram feeds. Like, it looks like they're - I mean, they look like they're selling sexual services in their Instagram. I don't - I can't look at their Instagram feeds. I feel like I'm looking at child porn. I mean, I just think that the kind of - how do I put this? I think when I wrote that book, you know, it was this moment of like Paris Hilton. And that just seems, like, so tame now.
I mean, it just - where we've gone with it as a culture, it's just been multiplied a thousand fold. And it's just so common now. I mean, I'm not being articulate about this, I'm sorry, because it's not something I think about much anymore. Like, I sort of put that book away a long time ago and stopped thinking about - just lost interest, frankly, in critiquing the culture in that way because it's just - the culture got so far gone, it just was like, what's the point?
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ariel Levy. She's a writer for The New Yorker. And now she has a new memoir called "The Rules Do Not Apply." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Ariel Levy. She's the author of the new memoir "The Rules Do Not Apply." She also writes for The New Yorker. And the kind of centerpiece of this memoir is having a miscarriage when she was five months pregnant and reporting a story in Mongolia. And that part of the story was first written for The New Yorker, and she won a National Magazine Award for that story.
So let me get back to something that you write about now. The title of your memoir is "The Rules Do Not Apply." And that relates to the fact that you feel like you and a lot of women of your age were raised to think that, you know, you could do what you wanted, that, you know, you were free to be you and me. How was that expressed in your home?
And I should say, your mother went to consciousness-raising groups for a couple of decades. Your father was a writer who wrote things for Planned Parenthood, for the National Abortion Rights Action League, for I think Greenpeace. So you know, he was very much involved with, like, feminist issues and activist issues. So what are some of the things you heard in your own home about what it meant to be a woman and what it meant to, you know, have control over your life?
LEVY: Yeah. I mean I think I just was the beneficiary of the women's movement - I mean, nothing less than that. I just was lucky enough to be born at a time and to parents who told me all the time, you can do what you want. And my mother in particular was really supportive of me as a writer. My mother always said, you know, of course you can be a writer. If that's what you want to do, of course that's what you'll do. And I think that's a huge gift to give a kid.
I mean I think that - you know, to say this thing that many people will say you can't do - it's - that's not a real career; that's not a job; you can't just decide you're going to be a writer - she said, yeah, of course you can. So it - so that gave me a lot of confidence to really try. And what I wasn't told was, you have to be a wife. You have to be a mother. You have to get married. I didn't have to do any of that. Whereas I think my mother and certainly her mother had - there was no doubt. Of course you had to get married. Of course you had to have kids.
And I think, you know, my parents really were the one - their generation came up with this idea that you should doubt. You should question hierarchies and rules. And just because something has always been this way doesn't mean it always has to be this way. And that's what's brought us all sorts of progress, all sorts of movements for social justice.
I mean you don't get the first black president or the advent of same-sex marriage without people thinking the rules don't apply. I don't have to follow those rules if they're not fair, and they shouldn't be the way they are.
GROSS: Do you feel like you took that too far in thinking that you could just write your own script without, like, fate intervening in a negative way or, you know, things not working out as you expected?
LEVY: Well, I just think that mortality is a rule that always applies, obviously. And I think infertility is sort of a preview of mortality. It's just, OK, you can make all sorts of decisions and open your mind and change the rules, but you're going to die. And as a woman, there will come a day when you're no longer able to make children, you know? And that was just a reality I had to learn.
I mean it probably sounds extraordinarily obvious. And, you know, how could I ever have thought otherwise? But I don't know. I just - I didn't really understand all that. I was a late bloomer in terms of understanding the limitations of life.
And, you know, I think that - people have asked me a lot. So are you saying that feminism has done some sort of disservice to women by telling them that they could have everything? And I don't think feminism said that. I don't think feminism ever told us, you can have everything. I think feminism said, you're fully human. You're a full human being as a woman. But the human condition of course is that everybody doesn't get everything.
And I think imagining you can have whatever you want - you know, that's not the thinking of a feminist. That's the thinking of a toddler. So I don't think of this book in any way as a critique of feminism or a repudiation of the values I was raised with. It's just about becoming a - becoming an adult, really, and just realizing that, you know, I wasn't - I didn't have the kind of control I thought.
GROSS: So having lost a baby after carrying it for five months, has that helped you understand - and having, like, fallen in love with this baby who died, like - I don't know - minutes or hours after he was born...
LEVY: Yeah, like, 10 minutes, yeah.
GROSS: Has that helped you understand people who are really staunchly anti-abortion and who consider every fetus to be like this baby that you fell in love with?
LEVY: I've never thought that that thinking was insane or incomprehensible even though I'm passionately pro-choice and I was raised by people who are passionately pro-choice. I mean I was sort of raised in the pro-choice movement because my dad worked for NARAL and NOW and Planned Parenthood.
But I've never thought it was incomprehensible. You know, I've always - it's always made sense to me that if you thought this was a life and you thought people were ending other people's lives, that that would be horrifying to you. I've always understood that point of view. I just don't think that that should trump the life of the mother, who, you know - there's no question about her consciousness, right? I mean it - we don't - it's, like, you don't know what's there in terms of a soul when you have a fetus. But you know this mother has a soul (laughter) and a life and that she should be self-determining and that she knows better than someone else what's going to be the best outcome for her life and her child's, you know?
And I - that just hasn't - I've always felt - I don't know what to say - sympathetic. I mean that sounds condescending, and I don't mean it that way. I've just always felt that I - it - I didn't - I never found the other side incomprehensible. I just think every child should be a wanted child. I just do.
GROSS: Have you have had to learn to overcome jealousy of people who have been able to have children?
LEVY: You know, I guess what I would say about that is the ability of my friends to have children doesn't affect my inability to have children. So I wish I could join them in this experience. I mean I wish that we all had these kids together. But I don't know how to say this.
Like, when I was pregnant, my best friend, Emma (ph), was also pregnant. And we had this whole scenario in our heads. I mean we were going to be the godmothers of each other's children. And I am her daughter's godmother and now her son's godmother, too. And she said - you know, after I lost the baby and she was about to give birth, she said, do you hate me for being pregnant? And I really didn't. I really just felt like, at least we've got your kid. At least we've got some kid. At least I have someone to play with, (laughter) you know what I mean? Like, at least I have some intimate access to little kids, you know, and to watch them grow because I don't have siblings, so I'm not going to be an aunt or an uncle. So that's what I get - is access to my friends' children. And I get to be, you know, a presence in their lives.
So I'm - I certainly envy that. But my - the more dominant feeling is that I'm glad I get to have some kids around. And sometimes I don't envy them. I mean when the screaming starts and I'm like, OK, I'm going to go now, bye...
LEVY: ...Right? - then they envy me.
GROSS: (Laughter) Well, Ariel Levy, thank you so much for talking with us. And thank you for writing your book.
LEVY: Thank you so much for having me. Your show is my very favorite.
GROSS: Oh, gosh, thank you so much. Ariel Levy is a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the memoir "The Rules Do Not Apply." After we take a short break, our TV critic David Bianculli will review three TV shows premiering this week. This is FRESH AIR.
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