The Divine Honesty Of Heather Havrilesky

Havrilesky’s brutally truthful memoir has split critics into two camps: those who get it, and those who don’t.

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Heather Havrilesky is the author of 'Foreverland.'
Willy Somma
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Heather Havrilesky is not concerned with coming across as likable, and yet, her likability is all critics seem to be interested in. In reviews of her new memoir, Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage, commentators insist on assessing Havrilesky herself, as if the writing’s worth turns on its author’s amiability. (I do have to wonder how often men get this critique about their work — that they, not their words, are unpalatable). When an excerpt came out in the New York Times, it seemed like everyone and their spouse ran to Twitter to opine about whether she was just being real about marriage, or was actually just a delusional, obnoxious shrew.

I have the urge to email each and every carper, explaining that they have missed the point entirely. The point of writing a book, the point of making art — and in fact, the point of marriage — is not to come out of it seeming like you’d be fun to hang out with at a hotel bar. The point is honesty. The point is to lay yourself bare, like really, really, really bare, and have someone else — although not everyone else — see that and understand it and love it. And in Foreverland, Havrilesky does exactly that. The book tells the truth of marriage, or at least Havrilesky’s admittedly “brutal” truth: More than an unflinching look at the institution, Foreverland requires readers to flinch and then look back anyway.

To say the book is just about marriage, though, is a bit reductive. Foreverland is not only about how you deal with being with one person forever (“although forever doesn’t exist”), but how you deal with being one person forever, held still against the bends and curves of a partner. She examines the roles we are expected to play as parents and spouses, railing against the idea that becoming either might require anyone, especially women, to fade into the background or to feel deep, abiding, unending love — after all, she writes, “Being married is far more interesting than falling in love.”

Below, Havrilesky discusses what she loves about being married, the fear that comes with writing about yourself, and the polarized reaction to her book.

How did the response to the New York Times excerpt feel? Did you expect it?

[In that piece] it might sound like I'm describing being driven out of my mind with rage at how gross and pointless my husband [Bill] is, [but] that is not my experience of my husband at all. What I was trying to say was it's hilarious once you accept someone, you can still feel like, “Oh my God, what is your problem?” It's interesting because Bill’s sneezes are not offending me at the moment. I can hear them from across the house, and I'm like, “Oh, yeah, still does that,” but they're not landing in the same way they were when I wrote that part of the book. But look, even when I wrote it, I was laughing my ass off — it’s interesting that the fun of that doesn’t come across in that excerpt. I'm saying it's hilarious to be married to someone, the way [people] talk about their job [driving them] nuts.

What was it like releasing a book that’s so open, and at times critical, about yourself and your family?

It's pretty frightening to write something this honest. I’ve been in a state of fear over it for a while. Last year was really hard. I had cancer in 2020. And I kind of glided through it somehow. It was difficult but I just kept patting myself on the back for not being, you know, totally ground into the dirt by it. But then in 2021, it all caught up to me and I had all kinds of shame about the book. Part of it was the stress of moving [across the country] and part of it was the stress of having cancer and part of it was the stress of COVID. And then it was just worrying about how it would affect Bill, how it would affect my kids, whether or not I was doing something completely unhinged. What was interesting was once the New York Times excerpt came out, even though I could understand why some people misunderstood it, I also got a lot of feedback from people who got it completely and loved it and were thrilled to read the book, and I started to feel a sort of peace about what I had created.

“I would much rather be understood for who I am than adored for who I'm not.”

You write about your own flaws and missteps a lot in this book. Did you ever worry that you were getting them wrong?

It's hard to get it exactly right. There were times when I did sound too harsh and it wasn't reflective of how I felt and I had to soften it. I had two editors for this book; one of my editors left [Foreverland’s publisher] Ecco and another one picked up where she left off. And it was actually great because you really do need multiple people to tell you when you're coming across as one thing or another. This book is the most accurate snapshot of who I am that I've ever created, and it's really nice to feel understood. I feel really calm and good about this story. I would much rather be understood for who I am than adored for who I'm not. My aim was not to make people like me. My aim was to be understood and I think all of my writing, even the stuff that is a little over the top and aggressive, is really just some piece of me that wants to be seen completely. I don't mind if some people find it repugnant, if I feel like it's reflecting something important or something that I am passionate about. I think that that's the purpose of art — to capture something about the human condition or to capture something about your soul that you want the world to see and it's not necessarily always a pretty thing. I'm bored by perfectly pretty and admirable things at this stage.

How did this book change your marriage or your opinion of marriage?

The ridiculous final piece was after I sold the book, I developed a crush on someone and I had to talk to my husband about it and then it didn't go away as quickly as I thought it was going to go away and I was frustrated with myself and angry with myself. And so that became another piece of the book. In order to make the book be what I wanted it to be, I had to question the marriage itself. I had to ask: Am I being completely honest? Does this marriage really work? I didn't want any piece of the book to feel like, “My marriage is great!!! It's really great!!!” like this defensive or overly-romanticized story. I wanted each moment to feel earned and real and I was brutal that way because I really wanted my reader to understand how it felt to be loved by someone completely, but also to feel inadequate in the face of that love. I really wanted to write about cold feet. I really wanted to write about the bone-chilling terrors of having a kid with someone and not really knowing if you're going to be able to do it without freaking out on each other constantly.

I think people might think, from the excerpt in particular, that you’re pretty cynical about marriage, but I think the book itself is actually very romantic and optimistic. So, what’s your favorite part about marriage?

I​​t's a shame that it didn't come across in the excerpt for everyone, but I think [my favorite thing is] the feeling of total acceptance that you both eventually have and share and sort of rejoice in and talk about and enjoy.

I’m sure everyone’s asked you this because of your advice column, but what advice do you have for people on marriage?

No one has asked me that, really. You know, it’s easy to work for someone who isn’t showing up and it’s hard to stay with someone who is showing up. If there's a central challenge to your 20s and 30s, I think that's it. It's very, very hard. I hate it when people say, “Well, I’ve fallen out of love. It's time for us to break up.” That just means the relationship is beginning! You don't know what you have yet!

It’s understandable to be swept away by your passion for someone. Everyone loves that feeling. But part of the feeling is insecurity. The feeling is, “Will I really get to keep this?” The feeling is, “Does this person really love me as much as I love them?” And that's just a suspenseful dramatic thing that turns all of us on. I think the real challenge is finding someone who sees you clearly and cares about the details and wants to hear the crazy sh*t in your brain and also just enjoys being with you and enjoys doing a lot of the same things that you like doing. But the thing that you can't control is that this motherf*cker is gonna be annoying in ways that you have no control over and will never fix. And that's part of the package. It's not like you break up with someone for being annoying. You just think to yourself, “Oh my God, why do I, Amazing Princess of the Universe, have to be around this snotty motherf*cker?”

I feel like, when you're feeling annoyed, you’re thinking like, “This is the only type of annoying I'll ever get. I wish I could just have variety in the annoying!”

Yes! For a while, I had this chapter that was about how it sounds perfect to cheat because cheating is a pathway to a whole different life. It's not so much that someone is better. It's just novelty. It's like, “Oh my God, I could cheat with a bowler from Ohio and then I could move to Ohio and be a bowler!” You've been married for a while and you're like, “This is the life I get.” And when you get older, you're like, “Holy sh*t. I'm never going to have another life besides the one that I can make with this person?” That seems unfair; I want to do a lot of different things.

I think your book answers that question so well, of how you deal with the truth that you only get to be one person.

The answer is that you basically talk a lot about the things you might want to be and you dare to describe to the person you're with your fleeting ideas about who you are. A lot of people have vivid and flexible ideas of what they could be that live inside them when they're young, and then we’re supposed to cast these notions off, and just become practical and more appropriate, based on ways that say wives or mothers are supposed to behave. I really reject that; I think that women in particular are extremely vibrant, vivid, layered, exceptionally interesting beings, and we need a lot in order to feel fully alive. I’ve found ways to excavate my former selves and celebrate them, and also I've found ways to use my imagination and have more fun inside my mind and have more fun alone and have more fun on the page and have more fun with my husband. I think that if you can find ways to reinvent your future so that you can see it as being multi-layered and full of possibility and just as vivid as you thought it was when you were younger, you end up sort of emancipated, and in some ways it almost makes your relationship bulletproof. Bill and I have managed to share just ridiculous embarrassing things in the past few years, and it's completely transformed how we relate to each other.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

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