The Upside of Losing Everything

Ariel Levy on losing everything one terrible night in Mongolia, the illusion of control and grappling with her own culpability

The first time I took note of Ariel Levy was when I read her essay “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” which ran in a November, 2013 issue of the New Yorker and would go on to win a National Magazine Award. The essay tells of Levy’s experience losing her unborn baby at 19 weeks, while on assignment in Mongolia. Levy didn’t shy away from describing the terrible details of her rare second-trimester miscarriage; alone in her hotel room on a blood-soaked rug, the lost baby in her arms. I felt sucker-punched by the trauma of it, and also thankful that she’d had the courage to share an experience which women are generally expected to suffer though in silence.

Of course this piece was hardly Levy’s first — she’s been writing for almost two decades, first for New York Magazine and then for the New Yorker, where she has been on staff since 2008. Among other topics, she’s investigated the controversy surrounding the South African runner Caster Semenya and profiled Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the case that brought down the Defense of Marriage Act.

Levy’s recently released memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply (Random House, March), begins by acknowledging what readers of “Thankgiving in Mongolia” learned part of: at 38-years-old, Levy lost everything — her baby, her wife, and her house. But during her young adult life in New York and San Francisco, she was happy, feeling like she’d sucessfully avoided the rules traditionally placed on women in regards to family and career. Throughout the book, Levy reevaluates this assumption, and many others, as she grapples with the haunting power of hindsight.

I had the chance to talk with Levy over email about creating honesty in memoirs, the illusion of control, and why she’ll never stop traveling.

Carrie Mullins: I read, and like so many others was struck by, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” when it was first published in the New Yorker. As a reader, the way you read a story when you happen upon it in a magazine and have only the information contained within its pages is different than how you approach it when it’s part of a bigger story, and you have more context. For you, as the writer, what were the differences in telling these stories individually versus weaving them together as a memoir? Did the way that you tell them change in any way?

Ariel Levy: “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” was a pretty unique experience for me as a writer — it just came out of my fingers, I really don’t know how else to say it. The Rules Do Not Apply was much more like my usual process: I try things, sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t and I have to cut them, sometimes they work but not in the way or the place I initially intended.

CM: I was reading an interview with a female author recently who said, “Fate is the fundamental engine of narrative, and women are particularly vulnerable to the fake security it promises.” At first I was like, yes, fate, that’s so true! But then I realized that the world I see around me is actually peddling the opposite idea, specifically that women can take control over every aspect of our lives — we have the burden of control. You can go to the gym to become skinny or act and dress a certain way to attract a partner. Or to use an example from your book, “Because I want to believe that if only my loved ones and I refrain from smoking, we’d be ineligible for lung cancer.” I feel like this question of fate versus control permeates your memoir. What are your thoughts?

AL: Well put. I think that on the one hand, it’s very important to make use of the agency and power that generations of women before us have fought for. It is a relatively new phenomenon for women to have the option to decide what kind of career to have, whether we want to marry, whether we want have children, what we want to accomplish in this life. I’m thrilled that we have that freedom, and it was hard-won.

But nobody, really, has control. That applies to men as much as women. I think putting down the “burden of control,” as you so elegantly put it, is the process by which one becomes an adult. I remember my father once told me he never felt as old as he did when he was thirty-five. I had no idea what he meant at the time, but now I get it. As life disabuses you of your illusion of control, you can come to feel free in a certain way that almost reminds me of childhood.

“As life disabuses you of your illusion of control, you can come to feel free in a certain way that almost reminds me of childhood.”

CM: We often say a memoir feels “honest” when an author freely criticizes herself or talks about events that might not cast her in a positive light. Still, I have to say, your memoir feels honest! Did you think about this question of honesty as you were writing? Is easier or harder to be honest about mistakes or accomplishments? It seems like the latter has its own traps.

AL: Ha, thanks. I mean, the whole impetus for writing the book was, to a large extent, grappling with my own culpability in the turn my life had taken — writing my way towards an understanding of what I could and couldn’t control.

Feminism and the Pursuit of Relentless Happiness

CM: Throughout the book, you discuss the idea of interpretation. You see things and decide what they mean — it’s literally your job. At the same time, people are constantly interpreting you and your life, as I’m sure they will continue to do once they read your memoir. Do you try to prepare for this as a writer? How do you deal with the unavoidable double-edged sword of interpretation?

AL: I think it’s kind of none of my business how people interpret my book, my writing in general. I try as hard as I can to say as precisely as possible what it is I mean. That’s really all I can do. The act of reading, of interpreting, is active: we always bring to any text our own experiences and biases and taste — no two people can ever “read” the same book the same way. I guess what I’m saying is that I think reading and writing are reciprocal processes.

CM: Despite being a child who saw the world as unstable, you’ve kept pushing your boundaries, especially with travel. And many of those experiences seem to uphold the idea that the “rules” don’t always apply — whether its successfully chasing the Caster Semenya story with no initial contacts or the value of being in Israel and sitting down with Mike Huckabee of all people. Can you talk a little about that impulse to keep traveling?

AL: I think the way I dealt with fear for a long time was to thrust myself towards it. I didn’t want to be scared. I didn’t want to be the girl who was up all night, afraid of monsters, afraid of the dark. I wanted to be brave and self-reliant and so I tried to put myself in situations that I thought would cultivate — or necessitate — those qualities.

I’d say that the upside of losing so much that mattered to me is that I have considerably less fear now. I’m not trying to hold it all together, everything has already been blown apart. In addition to all the agony that brought, it also gave me a certain feeling of freedom.

“The upside of losing so much that mattered to me is that I have considerably less fear now.”

I still travel a lot, yeah. For one thing I’m in South Africa for several months of the year, because that’s where John, my fiancé is from, so we go to spend time with his sons and our friends there, and we ride horses which I’ve come to really love doing — maybe because when you’re on a horse, you have to admit you’re not in control, you’re along for the ride.

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