To Love What Is: A Marriage Transformed

By Alix Kates Shulman

New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, 180 pp., $22.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Diana Postlethwaite

“It’s all life until death,” Grace Paley affirms in the epigraph to Alix Kates Shulman’s new book. Despite its unflinching exploration of aging, To Love What Is is aflame with intensely lived life.

Readers of Shulman’s 1972 autobiographical novel Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen were shocked by the image of heroine Sasha Davis’s self-aborted fetus “suspended over the water in the toilet bowl, swinging from my own body, its head down.” Thirty-six years later, a startlingly similar image appears: Shulman’s 75-year old husband Scott, “lying on the floor, curled up like a fetus. Naked and deathly still.” Following his ten-foot fall from the couple’s sleeping loft on a remote island in Maine, Shulman’s beloved partner struggles with traumatic brain injury compounded by dementia; she becomes his determined caregiver. The next chapter of Alix Kates Shulman’s life story has begun.

In the early l970s, Shulman’s alter ego, serial sexual adventurer and discontented housewife Sasha Davis, charted terra incognita for those repressive times. Young Sasha proudly tallies her multiple sexual partners; a slightly older Sasha discovers that “the conspiracy of silence about motherhood was even wider than the one about sex. Philosophers ignored it and poets revered it, but no one dared describe it.”

From abortion to Medicare, Shulman continues to send us impassioned reports from the front lines. This self-proclaimed “nervy activist-adventurer” is yet again trailblazing new territory for a generation of American women: frankly chronicling the peaks and valleys of providing at-home care for an aging, mentally disabled spouse. Familiar feminist questions arise: how does a woman balance the demands of love and work? Self and other? Will the answers Shulman arrives at in To Love What Is be different from those of that young wife and mother who wrote Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen?

Shulman secured her legacy in the women’s movement nearly four decades ago with “A Marriage Contract.” In l970, Schulman proposed a legalistic division of domestic responsibilities (men should do half, and sign so on the dotted line) that electrified its radical readership in the feminist journal Up From Under, was reprinted in the inaugural issue of Ms. magazine, then mainstreamed into the pages of Redbook, New York, and Life (part of a groovy cover story on “experimental marriages”). “A Marriage Contract” still sustains sufficient sass to inspire both mockery and grudging respect from snarky twenty-first-century postfeminists such as Caitlin Flanagan, who wrote, in “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement” (Atlantic Monthly, March 2004), “Shulman has earned herself a spot on almost any short list of very silly people.” Nevertheless, Flanagan adds, “Give those old libbers their due.”

Published two years after “A Marriage Contract,” Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, often dubbed the “first novel of the women’s liberation movement,” became a bestseller, commanding what was at the time a record sum for paperback rights. A 25th anniversary paperback edition and publication alongside Germaine Greer and Shulamith Firestone in the Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Feminist Classics Series reified Shulman’s place in the pantheon of feminist foremothers (a. k. a. “old libbers”).

And now, here’s an update from the ever-advancing front line of Shulman’s life. The publication of To Love What Is makes clear that she is no bra-burning dinosaur but an ever-evolving woman, eager to bring us along on the latest stage of her odyssey through bedrooms, kitchens, and rooms of one’s own.

To Love What Is makes a powerful read in itself, but ideally it should be published in a four-volume set, alongside Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen and Shulman’s subsequent memoirs, Drinking the Rain (1995) and A Good Enough Daughter (1999). We once were taught in literature classes that men penned the earth-roaming epics of war and adventure, women the small domestic dramas of courtship and marriage. But read these four volumes sequentially and you get both, rich with oxymoron: a domestic epic, an unheroic heroine, the ordinary life of a late-twentieth-century, white, upper-middle-class, Jewish, New-York-intellectual woman, who Speaks for Her Generation yet lives and writes a life story that is hers alone.

Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen opened:

I shall begin my story neither at the beginning, moving forward as a reader expects, nor at the end, moving backward as a writer recalls, but rather somewhere in between, where the truth is said to lie.

One thing is true in all four volumes: whether she’s 35 or 75, Shulman is always writing “from the middle,” “[struggling] with this latest challenge to my preconceptions in my ceaseless negotiation with the given”

In Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen Sasha/Alix finds herself “negotiating the givens” of suburban Midwestern propriety and sexually alluring college professors, becoming a “dissertation widow,” then a “half-bright” married to a self-absorbed Fulbright scholar. As Shulman summarizes that story in A Good Enough Daughter: “Part I: Take Off, Part II: Wise Up, Part III: Freedom. It’s not just a feminist plot but an ancient imperative.”

Two decades later, in Drinking the Rain, Shulman enters her fifties and negotiates a new set of realities. Children off to college, her (second) marriage at an impasse, Shulman does something she’s never done before: stays home alone. On a small “nubble” in Maine, without electricity, telephone, or plumbing, “the tide goes out” and the “speeder [slows] down, fighter [finds] harmony, activist [turns] contemplative, . . . desire dissolving in contentment.”

“Amor fati”—“love what is” (which will be the title of her later memoir)—becomes Shulman’s ecstatic mantra as she discovers a “world of astonishing abundance, wild extravagance, glorious waste.” Foraging for feasts of fresh mussels and wild greens, the ex-prom queen is reborn as Elemental Woman. Broken a rib?—ignore the pain and forage on! “[T]his cabin, however scarred or outmoded, miraculously renews itself. Like my rib, which will soon be healed,” writes Shulman.

Shulman’s adult children are embarrassed by her epiphanies (“Mom! . . . How can you get so carried away?”). But I’m right there with her, in the middle of midlife bliss, savoring each delectable beach pea, shadberry, and jewelweed before heading back to Manhattan, transformed and renewed.

What awaits Alix Kates Shulman on the other side of sixty, in memoirs three and four, is the landscape of old age: first her parents’, then her own. In this new territory, abundance, renewal, and healing are no longer the paradigms; the life plot is again rewritten.

In A Good Enough Daughter, Shulman returns to her parents’ house. Shortly after the untimely death of her brother Robert, she reluctantly places her failing 87-year-old mother and 93-year-old father in the Judson Park Retirement Community. Now free to explore closets and drawers in the house her parents lived in for forty years—a place in which she’s never spent more than a long weekend—Shulman ponders their complex but steadfast marriage (“a marriage I wanted for myself but didn’t get till my third and final try”). Movingly, she discovers that the “housewife” mother whose life she disdained was in reality a remarkable woman, “an eight-course banquet of a self, composed of family, politics, travel, romance, music, writing, art, and ceaseless education.”

Equally important is what Shulman does not find in Shaker Heights: the estranged adoptive brother she now can never know: “His enigmatic silence. . . has made me write this book.” This time, the story’s conclusion is foreordained: Shulman’s parents die. Homecoming and reconciliation are tempered by the painfully acknowledged truth that “my deepest knowledge of them is as biased, partial, and self-serving as my knowledge of my brother Bob.”

Shulman’s life-stage is set for Act IV. Husband #3 (an old high-school boyfriend)—creative, patrician, considerate, wealthy, and sexy—has turned her 180 degrees, from teenaged sexual cynic and middle-aged loner to septuagenarian unabashed romantic. Scott and Alix have been blissfully married for twenty years, “perfect counterparts in self-sufficiency.” The lovely work studio he’s built her on that familiar Maine nubble becomes the scene, ironically, of Scott’s devastating fall, the moment when “the universe flipped over.”

As weeks, months, then years pass, Shulman vividly chronicles extreme frustrations, losses, and brief interludes of triumph: a short-term memory retained, a joyful present-tense trip to Italy. The narrative is driven by her growing realization and hard-won acceptance of Scott’s permanent impairment. The ex-prom queen who took to the feminist barricades, the housewife who wouldn’t wash all the dishes, is now the advocate of “compromise and accommodation.” “In the scale of fulfillment, devotion may outweigh independence,” she says.

In Drinking the Rain, Shulman recounted recurring dreams of a “hidden door” opening to “a whole new wing or floor known only to me.” At the conclusion of To Love What Is, Scott begs to be taken “home,” to “our other house,” and Shulman is reminded of those dreams of a “vast, calm secret space. . . which soothes and comforts me.” Will Alix and Scott some day cross the threshold, forever together? Is Schulman dreaming of a heavenly afterlife?

Not a bit. By the conclusion of To Love What Is, our here-and-now, ever-questing heroine has arrived, for now (the only time we’ve got) at her earthly paradise. She’s opened the door to a rich balance between work and love, self and other. “I write in the mornings, I read at night, and in between I’m with him. Within the range of my freedom I have what I need: a life of the heart and of the mind.”

Born in 1933, Alix Kates Shulman was older than many of her sixties compatriots; so today, she’s out ahead of some of us in exploring this next chapter of women’s experience. But don’t read To Love What Is looking for any endings, happy or otherwise. Alix Kates Shulman is still dynamically in the midst of living her life.

Diana Postlethwaite is professor of English and Boldt Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Humanities at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. She frequently reviews contemporary fiction and memoir.

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