Subverting Traditional Narratives of Love and Happiness

CJ Hauser finds meaning in chosen families and unexpected love stories in her memoir in essays "The Crane Wife"

Feet stand on smiley face painted pavement
Photo by Jacqueline Munguía on Unsplash

When CJ Hauser published “The Crane Wife” in The Paris Review, an essay about repressing her needs in a relationship, calling off a wedding, and going to study whooping cranes on the Gulf Coast, it quickly became a viral hit. Three years later, her 17-piece memoir in essays of the same name offers us more of that intimate, all-too-relatable magic. 

Hauser writes like she’s whispering hard-earned secrets to a friend, picking apart how she has been held hostage to her own fantasies about love and happiness in warm and vulnerable scenes. This kind of storytelling reminds me of watching a play: eyes fixed on a character who takes shape and transforms and learns, often painfully, always earnestly. And what a gift it is, to have the curtains lift and let us all in. 

These essays interrogate the stories Hauser was given about what a life should look like and travels to a place of her being able to make her own rules about what to believe in. It’s an expansive collection—not simply because it creates space for both Katharine Hepburn and robot trials, but because, much like in improv, it shows us how to say “yes, and.” It is a love story about our biological families and the joy of creating and depending upon a chosen family. It is a celebration of fiction and science, and the ways in which the two together can offer glorious opportunities in meaning making. It is an acknowledgement of how our past relationships haunt us and how those hauntings can be put to good use. 

And, like all good theater, it is completely immersive until the lights go up, our eyes adjust, and we are left with only the ricocheting of these intelligent, unrelenting questions: What story expectations are we carrying around inside of us? What’s a good love story? More than that, what’s a good life story?

It was lovely to connect with Hauser, my former writing professor, over Zoom, where we chatted about how identity can relate to erasure in relationships, the artificial safety of binaries, and what it means to craft a life beyond traditional narrative structures. 

Lauren Hutton: One of the many threads throughout this collection is relationships, romantic and familial, and I so appreciated how you were able to capture their stakes. I think it’s easy for love stories to be categorized as trivial, but these stories have real consequences and almost a physical danger a lot of the time—it’s donating blood to buy flowers, driving through the stop sign to get to your boyfriend’s house quicker, or taking up smoking for a boy. I was wondering if there’s a conscious link for you between relationships and this real sense of a possibility for harm?

CJ Hauser: Yes. Period. In order to really offer yourself vulnerably in love to any kind of relationship, romantic or otherwise, that’s risky. And if you’re not risking getting your heart squished at the very least, you’re probably not putting yourself out there to really become someone’s true friend or someone’s true partner or have a meaningful relationship with a parent, even. And I think that risk is part of love because taking your walls down and being vulnerable is part of love. Some of those other kinds of danger that you’re describing have less to do with the necessity of vulnerability in love. Those moments—the smoking, the stop signs, the physical violence at times—I think that’s more to do with the way I have let myself become in love and relationships, and the way I’ve given myself over too much to the process. A lot of the book is about the journey I’m on to figure out how to keep some parts of myself stronger and more intact and still find ways to be vulnerable. That balancing act is really tricky. I’m still bad at it. 

LH: I am too. I think lots of people are. I did want to talk about erasure in relationships because that’s a violence that is grappled with in several essays. “The Crane Wife” went viral and I think that’s a testament to how many people related to that kind of impulse. And we see that more broadly: we see your great grandmother erased in the family lore and Florence Nightingale’s true legacy erased by a man’s comment. And I was wondering if this narrative (or its absence) is changing? It seems to transcend all time and media, but do you think that we’re still as unwilling to see and understand and hear women and their desires as ever?

CJH: First of all, what I want to say is that one of my favorite things that happened when “Crane Wife” came out was that it wasn’t just women who responded. It was people of many genders. And I think we’re moving into a place now where we’re understanding some of these issues in a less gendered way. Something that was important to me with this book was to make room for the experiences I was having to not be seen only as women’s experiences, though, of course, that history that you’re tracking there obviously has to do with gender. I don’t know if I have a good answer to this question; I’m so in the weeds of it personally that it’s hard to tell what is me and what is me being female? I think I’m getting a little better at it, but I have friends who are men who have this problem, I have friends who are trans who have this problem, and I have friends who are women who are very good at being their full selves in relationships. 

LH: Yes, it’s such a personal narrative and a wrestling with yourself, but I think as a reader relating to those things, my instinct is to say, is this universal? Is this a broader phenomena or are these just individual impulses? And where do they come from? 

CJH: You’re right and some of them do have to do with identity. This is a weird metaphor that I think about sometimes—I’m always stealing from science. But I remember in high school AP Bio they taught you about big ‘R’ genes and little ‘r’ genes. And when they combine there are dominant genes, and the little ones won’t get to be expressed. And sometimes in a relationship, some of us have just been taught for various identity reasons or just personal reasons to be like a little ‘r’ gene. And if someone in your relationship is a big ‘R’ gene, they’re always going to trump unless you show up with as much of yourself.

LH: Definitely. I’ve been saying I’m going to have to buy your book in bulk because there are so many people who I need to read it. I was talking to my friend about erasing oneself in relationships in the context of one of your essays and it turned into a therapy session between us, drinking cider and crying quietly in a tacky, British-themed pub. We were like, this is the Saturday night we wanted and needed. But these essays demand to be interrogated in community.

CJH: And in community, all you need really is the tiniest spark to set off a larger conversation. And sometimes we don’t have hard, weird conversations about the sorts of stuff I’m writing about because it feels embarrassing or it feels private. And I have this hope that if I’ve hung all my laundry out, people will be like, “Hey, what do you think of that?” 

LH: I want to ask a question about structure because there are lots of arcs that move us through this collection. It was interesting because so much of this book is about structure on a kind of meta level—how do we live within the narrative structures we’ve been given or how do literal structures either entrap or empower people? And so I wanted to ask how you went about structuring this book?

Seeking out binaries and black and white answers can make us feel resolved and settled and safe in an artificial way.

CJH: You know my answer is going to be a murder board of index cards. And it was. As I started arranging the pieces I had and the pieces I knew I wanted to write toward, the arc of the book became for me, like, OK, so where did some of this initial knowledge come from around love and narratives of success? What kinds of stories was I handed? And then a process of showing how that got me into a lot of trouble. And then an attempt to overcorrect by being like, I’m not going to tell myself stories anymore, right? I’m not going to spin tales; I’m going to find science and I’m going to see the robots. I’m going to be Dana Scully. I’m going to get to the bottom of this. And that didn’t work, either. 

The last part is about balancing what does it mean to accept fantasy and fiction and performance and love into your life, but also blow the narrative open to be like, what else can I build in a new way that balances those things and feels authentic to me and considers love beyond the romantic? I think of that last section as a section of openness. Open houses, open hearts, open, chosen family. All of that. 

LH: It’s interesting thinking about that last section as an open place and also talking earlier about how some of these tendencies that you’re recognizing in yourself aren’t exclusive to women or their experiences. These essays are populated by chosen families, and coming-to-terms-with-your-sexuality induced breakdowns in giant lawn chairs, and women who want to raise kids by themselves. It’s a literally queer book, but it’s also a book that very intentionally queers heteronormative ideas of what a life should look like. Could you talk about the dynamic between the two?

CJH: The queer community has played a major role in making me feel empowered to make the choices I want to make, and build the chosen family I want to make. That’s, of course, a queer term. And so I’m deeply indebted to that community and that theory. But it was important to me at the end of the book to not be like, and “Now I don’t need my biological family because I have my chosen family.” I love my family of origin so much, and I hope that love comes across in the book. They’ve all read the book. They think I’m nuts. They think everyone’s going to think that we’re a bunch of nuthatches, but they’re excited about it. And so it’s that looking beyond binaries, right? Enough of that. It serves us so poorly. I don’t know why we insist on doing it, and I have tried to do it at certain times in my life because I think seeking out binaries and black and white answers can make us feel resolved and settled and safe in an artificial way. What feels more empowering is feeling malleable and open and flexible, but knowing what you value so that you can make decisions that serve you over and over again.

LH: There are three essays that revolve around what you coin a “mythical first love,” a defining high school relationship that continues to haunt you. There’s an essay where you live in your boyfriend’s house and feel like The Second Mrs. de Winter from Rebecca, where his ex-wife is kind of a specter in your life. And you have an essay where you claim your niece is Shirley Jackson reincarnated. Are all love stories a little bit horror stories as well? Is this a haunted book?

You don’t get rid of the past. If we got rid of it, we wouldn’t be able to use it in healthy, meaningful ways to understand our present.

CJH: I think this book is a haunted house, for sure. I mean, life is a haunted house. I love thinking about ghosts and ghost stories, but one of the things I say in the Rebecca essay, which is via my friend Emily Alford—who I love so much and her thinking about this—is that a ghost is just the past still kicking around. It’s like, I’m still in this space. And maybe this space is your mind or your life story. Maybe it’s a physical space. Maybe it’s the town you live in. But you don’t get rid of the past, most of us. If we got rid of it, we wouldn’t be able to use it in healthy, meaningful ways to understand our present moment. And so the book is a haunted house full of all of the stories that are constantly still kicking around for me. But I’m OK with that. I would have an exorcism for some of them if I thought they were traumatizing me, but the ones that I’m writing about either I’m OK with them still hanging around or by writing about them I have exorcized myself a little bit.

LH: I think that really comes across in my favorite essay, “Uncoupling.” I wanted to talk about a moment in it where you say “I will not bring these threads together for you for the sake of being narratively satisfying.” And that summed up to me a lot of the book’s work to untether the stories we’ve been told and the implications they have on our lives. I was wondering if you could talk about that moment and maybe in what ways viewing your life through a narrative lens is helpful because it gives you agency to frame your decisions and in what ways it’s limiting and ties you to preconceived expectations?

CJH: Yeah, that’s the whole heart of the question I went spelunking for in these pages and that line is so important to me. I believe in stories. I believe in stories because thinking of your life narratively, it’s how we make meaning out of things for ourselves, and it’s how we express what things mean to us to people we want to understand us. And obviously, that’s why I write. That’s why I teach writing. That’s why I teach literature. That’s my church. That’s what I believe. 

It gets tricky when we see only a limited kind of narrative that’s being used to make meaning, especially when it surrounds happiness, especially when it’s our own love, especially when it surrounds family, especially when it surrounds identity. Because then if you don’t have a story shape that allows you to make meaning from the life that you are living—some people are probably evolved enough to just be fine with it but I’m not, and I think a lot of people are not—we’re like, OK, this is not the story shape that equals happiness. This is not the story shape that equals I have a family, and that feels terrible. So what I was really underlining in that essay and in those lines you just mentioned, was the sense that there is no rule that says you have to use the narrative tools in a certain order or shape to make meaning. 

The part where I’m talking about the photo of my friend who has just gone to the fertility clinic. That’s the story. That’s a love story. That’s an identity story. That’s a fucking triumphant, beautiful success story. And it’s all that on its own. But I feel like our brains immediately go to what happens in nine, ten months? What happens five years from now? That does not matter and to invalidate that moment by putting those narrative expectations on it is a disservice. And so I want to try out this practice personally of figuring out other shapes and using them to make meaning to validate the things that I know are meaningful to me.

More Like This

Actually, I Want To Go Where Nobody Knows My Name

The anonymity of lesbian bars and queer spaces gives us the freedom to reinvent ourselves

Sep 2 - Elizabeth Hall

A Bigot by Any Other Name is Just as Dangerous

“Flor” by Natalia Borges Polesso, new fiction translated by Julia Sanches

Oct 10 - Natalia Borges Polesso

Tessa Hadley, Helen Garner & Hilton Als on Capturing Glamour & the Power of Women

A conversation with the 2016 Windham-Campbell Prize winners

Oct 13 - Electric Literature
Thank You!