There should be a word for a book that as soon as you hear about it, you need to get your hands on. It’s the book you’re sure will illuminate something critical about your life; it’s the one that you’re sure will give you a key of sorts, or at least a clear mirror in which to reflect. Maybe it’s even the book you think you should have written. If there is a book that I was sure would fit these categories, it is Claire Dederer’s Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning. Now that I’ve hit my own Gen X middle-ness, and articles about “perennials” have caught my attention, I was positive this book would be not only right up my alley but a path I am also traveling along.
It is—but not in the way I expected. As someone who teaches Girls’ Studies, what fascinated me about Dederer’s book was the way she tries to reconcile the teenage girl she was with the middle-aged woman she has become. The “reckoning” in her subtitle quickly takes on the association of “wrecking”—a theme established early as Dederer tries to work out how the choices she’s made (or passively acceded to, as she often points out) got her to where she is—deep in the morass of midlife stock-taking.
Married for over 15 years, with two kids, and an outwardly comfortable middle-class life, Dederer hauls out a stack of her diaries, starting in early teenhood and ending on the eve of her wedding, to try to construct a through line of her choices, mainly those involving sex. Her writing is vivid and observant with a wry, direct tone. Many of her descriptions made me laugh out loud, such as her description of her therapist: “He had fabulous eyebrows like fronds, or antennae designed to pick up extra psychodata about his client. His hair looks like a cloud that had accidentally landed on his head, and his clothes looked like they’d been put on in the dark.” She experiments with structure throughout the book—borrowing the form of a children’s book for the chapter about her college years in what seems a natural correspondence: “A is for Acid: An Oberlin Abecedarium.” All of this gives the book a playful quality. Yet this sideways-examination seems the only way in which Dederer can just barely face what she is trying to get hold of—understanding the sexual impulses of her teenage and twenty-something self.
As she tries to unearth, Matryoshka-like, the teenage girl buried inside the soon-to-be-fifty-something woman, Dederer often touches back to an incident when she was 13 and an older man climbed unbidden into her sleeping bag. This trigger to realizing herself as a sexual being catapults her through her teenage years, two failed stints at college, her at-loose-ends and bewildered twenties, including a long sojourn in Australia following an indifferent boyfriend.
Ultimately, it’s the passages about girlhood where Dederer’s self-understanding refracts most sharply, sending out vectors of insight. Her reflections are poignant, and echo strongly the “girl confidence crisis”—moments of realizing the inheritance of a female body means to be lesser than. “The betrayal of the body is every adolescent’s story,” she writes. “In my case, it brought me up against the truth. I would never be my brother, I would never be that special kind of inviolable—just say it, the special kind of superior that boys are. I would be imperfect. I would be a girl. There was no pretending any longer, once the boobs came.” She adulates her older brother, but it’s more than that—the message that being female and the stricture of femininity implies a kind of inferiority, a loss of power, however subliminally, bewilders her, sinks in and attaches to her psyche.
This epiphany, linked to her entrance into puberty, coincides with her serendipitous discovery of the book Taps at Reveille by F. Scott Fitzgerald, published in 1935. Its female protagonist is full of sexual longing and knows that value is conferred through her relationships with boys. How Dederer makes this correspondence to her life in the 1980s is what fascinated me. “I knew a word for what Josephine was: a slut,” she writes, “but of course in her day, they had something nicer: A girl like Josephine was fast or a speed.” Josephine senses power in her ability to attract—as does Dederer—who is left with the more contemporary reckoning of what owning this power means when “slut” is still a word with a dual edge, yet she is free to act on her impulses.
Dederer writes about herself in the third person:
She wanted to be a boy; short of that she wanted to be as close to boys as possible. She utterly rejected the notion she was essentially a girl—worse, a pre-woman. When she turned fifteen, when she truly could no longer deny she was a girl, she developed a new strategy. She wouldn’t be a boy, but she would be as near to boys as she could possibly be. Them inside of her seemed like just about he right proximity.
Her comments, dated from the 70s, seem both fascinatingly and maddeningly pertinent today.
Most revealing to me were the two chapters Dederer writes in the form of a letter to Roman Polanski. Dederer is haunted by an obsession with Polanski’s misdeeds with a teenage girl, which puts it politely. (Crime is another way to put it.) As a grown woman, she can enter this story at multiple points, which seems to be why she keeps returning to it. The girl that Polanski raped could have been the girl that Dederer was. But she also writes from point of view of a mother who has a teenage daughter. Dederer’s projection into Polanski’s point of view is fascinating as she tries, again, to source the central impetus for her years of sexual exploration—a quest that remains fundamentally unanswerable.
Striking throughout Love and Trouble is Dederer’s open admission of wanting to be dominated, or at least passively led, and relieved of the burden of making active choices. In a time of so much general “empowerment” rhetoric—much of which I would label “fauxpowerment”—it was almost refreshing to read about a woman’s desire to stop having to be in charge. It’s not clear in the book if this proclivity is rooted in her sexual inclinations, her inherent nature, or a refusal, however subconscious, to take responsibility for her own destiny. It made me dislike the author on some levels—why can’t she self-direct?—but I had to laud her honesty about wanting a choice that is ultimately about taking her own choices away.
A mysterious chapter towards the end of the book both reveals and conceals simultaneously—is she raped in a hotel room by a stranger? Is it a consensual affair or a fantasy? She refuses to say, but uses the same sleight of hand she needs in other chapters to gesture without claiming—whether this is artful disguise or her inability to stake a claim—it’s impossible to say, but Dederer tries to get as close as she can to what are essentially uncomfortable truths.
Her willingness to implicate herself is notable, particularly as she reveals how much the locus of sex still confuses her, nevermind the onus of femininity and womanhood.
There’s a deeper truth—I’m still freaked out (still!) simply by being a woman. I dress butch: I can barely stand to put on a skirt. It makes me feel like I’m in drag. The trappings of womanhood embarrass me utterly. At the same time I’m riven by my outsize sex drive. I hate being a woman, and yet I yearn to be fucked as a woman. I yearn to be dominated by a figure of incontestable authority, who will make me become what I never wanted to be: a woman. I don’t know how to make myself a woman; you do it for me.
Her honesty is laudable and the knot of entangled identities and power-identification she outlines is fascinating, particularly as she cops to wanting victimhood, or at the very least, the removal of volition. It didn’t make me like Dederer any more as a person, but as a writer she is bold—as simultaneously reckless and fearful as the girl still within.