February 22, 2020

Ariel Levy’s “Rules” addresses motherhood, feminism and guilt

When The New Yorker writer Ariel Levy was 38 years old and five months pregnant in late 2012, she boarded a flight to Mongolia. The journalist had accepted an assignment to report on that country’s mining business and “wanted one last brush with freedom” before becoming a mother, she explains in her new memoir, “The Rules Do Not Apply.”

But on her second day in that country, Levy found herself in agony, squatting on the floor of her hotel bathroom after suffering a placental abruption, in which the placenta separates from the wall of the uterus. “And then there was another person on the floor in front of me, moving his arms and legs, alive,” she writes.

Her 19-week-old son was “as pretty as a seashell,” but he lived for only about 10 minutes. Levy took a photograph of him to remind herself that he had ever existed.

Back in New York, her grief was so intense that, at times, she would clutch at a kitchen counter or a subway pole to keep from collapsing. Her guilt back then was profound, even though doctors had told her that air travel was safe for pregnant women up until the third trimester, and that the miscarriage was inevitable and could have occurred anywhere. “I had boarded a plane out of vanity and selfishness, and the dark Mongolian sky had punished me,” she writes.

In the aftermath, Levy’s wife, Lucy (a pseudonym the author uses to refer to her in the book), continued her own downward spiral into alcoholism — something she had been battling even before the miscarriage — and their marriage soon was over. “In the last few months, I have lost my son, my spouse and my house,” Levy writes.

She will discuss “The Rules Do Not Apply” on May 13 at Book Soup, and with author Maggie Nelson (“The Argonauts”) on Mother’s Day, May 14, at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Levy first wrote about her experience in her award-winning essay, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” which was published in The New Yorker in 2013. She expanded on the story to pen her memoir, which came out in March.

“I realized that I wasn’t done,” she said in a telephone interview from her one-bedroom walk-up apartment in Manhattan. “I had more to say … about being a woman … my initial ambivalence about motherhood, about my wanderlust, about the meaning of marriage [and] the fundamental human conflict between the desire for adventure and novelty and stimulation on the one hand and intimacy and home and safety on the other.

“And also the maturation process by which a person realizes that everyone doesn’t get everything, and you will bump up against limits. … The book is really a coming-of-age story about figuring out what the limits of life are.”

For Levy, those limits include the fact that she has not been able to bear children, even though she tried to get pregnant via fertility treatments for two years in the aftermath of her miscarriage.

The prospect of not becoming a mother is “hugely painful,” she said. “It’s been the great sadness of my life. But it’s also the case that I get a lot of other things. … Anyone can spend his or her life thinking about what he or she doesn’t have, but that’s not how I want to live.”

Levy, now 42, grew up in a culturally Jewish home in Larchmont, N.Y., where her mother attended feminist consciousness-raising groups and her father worked for liberal organizations, including the National Organization for Women and Peace Now.

As a girl, she was often told she was “too loud, too much. … My notebooks were the only place I could ‘talk’ as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted,” she told the Journal. “That’s part of what drew me to writing — communicating exactly what I thought with no limits.”

A career in journalism enabled Levy not only to write for a living, but also provided a means for her to travel the world and experience the adventures she craved. In 2005, she published her book “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.” As a staff writer for The New Yorker several years later, she journeyed to Africa to write about a controversial champion female runner, and in 2010 met conservative politician Mike Huckabee at the Western Wall in Jerusalem while he was leading a tour group of evangelical Christians to Israel. She also wrote about lesbian separatists, gender and race, among other subjects.

Levy’s “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” essay and her memoir have resonated with other women who also have lost a baby, she said. “I’ve yet to speak to a woman who hasn’t felt horribly self-recriminating after a miscarriage,” Levy explained. “The hormonal letdown is oceanic, but normally if you’re lucky, you have that letdown and you also have a baby.”

Delivering her child on that hotel bathroom floor “did feel like an Old Testament world of barbaric suffering,” she said. “It also felt biblical in the sense that I cannot overstate the volume of blood that was part of this experience — giving birth to a baby and watching him die.”

Although “The Rules Do Not Apply” has received many laudatory reviews, Charlotte Shane, writing in the New Republic, critiqued the book in a piece titled “Ariel Levy’s Infuriating Memoir of Privilege and Entitlement.” In the article, Shane takes to task Levy’s statement that “Women of my generation were given the lavish gift of our own agency by feminism … a belief that we could decide for ourselves how we would live, what would become of us.” Shane wrote, “The conviction she’s describing actually belongs as much, if not more, to whiteness than to mainstream feminism — which is also called ‘white feminism’ for this very reason. It’s unlikely many Black women or Arab women or undocumented women would presume a similar degree of permission and mobility, regardless of their exposure to Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.”

In response, Levy said, “Essentially, what [Shane is] critiquing isn’t the book; it’s the system in which privileged white women’s experience takes up more space in the public discourse than underprivileged women of color. … But if you really look at it, the problem isn’t with the book, but with culture at large. If I hadn’t published my book, it’s not like that would change society such that suddenly everything would be egalitarian.”

Levy added that she has “spent 20 years writing about unconventional women, so the idea that silencing me is what needs to happen is … just silly.”

At the end of her memoir, Levy writes of her budding friendship with Dr. John Gasson, the South African physician who treated her after her miscarriage. But she does not reveal that their friendship eventually blossomed into romance and an engagement to be married. The couple “may very well still consider” adoption, Levy wrote in an email to the Journal.

Writing about her new relationship in the memoir would have “actually been misleading to the reader, because it would imply that I fell in love with a man who sort of solved everything; like he saved me,” she said. “And that wasn’t really what happened. Falling in love with him didn’t take away my grief about my son … [or] at the dissolution of my last marriage. I really felt like falling in love with him was the beginning of the next story in my life, not the end of this one.”

For more information about Levy’s Book Soup event, visit http://www.booksoup.com/event/ariellevy-discusses-and-signs-rules-do-not-apply-memoir.  For reservations and information about her Skirball appearance, visit http://www.skirball.org/programs/words-and-ideas/ariel-levy-rules-do-not-apply.