When I read about the new memoir Happens Every Day: An All Too-True Story, I knew I would read it as soon as I could get it from the library. I picked it up on Wednesday evening and finished it Thursday night. The reviews I’ve since read on Amazon all say about the same: “I couldn’t stop reading this book,” “This is a page-turner,” etc.
And it’s true – I wanted to get to the end of the book so I could find out what happens. If someone is spilling a good story, I stick around until the end. But now that I’ve reached the end, there are more questions than anything close to an answer.
First, the gist of what happened: the author, Isabel Gillies, was married to a professor at Oberlin College, they had two sons very close in age (both under the age of 4 when the main story unfolds) and her husband leaves her, pretty much because he’s in love with another professor at his college, although that solidifies a bit later.
Yeah, this does indeed seem to happen, in one form or another, every day.
The drama lies in the back story and details. The marriage was the husband’s second. His first marriage also resulted in a son but he left that wife for someone else and the first wife and son went off to Texas. So, one child already out there not seeing his dad a whole lot, since he no longer lived in the same state or region of the country. And hubby refuses to put the brakes on some intense-sounding friendships with former lovers that, while no longer sexual, certainly seem intimate. Even further in we discover that the husband’s father left his mother for another woman while she was pregnant. Hmmm… whether or not this is important depends upon how much stock you put in your family history influencing the choices you make as an adult. Regardless, the pattern is interesting.
In the space of what amounts to about two months after a new female professor starts teaching in his department at the college, the husband decides he “just can’t do it,” meaning continue on with Gillies and their two sons. According to Gillies, she found him sobbing one morning and the conversation went like this:
“‘I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t,’ he cried. ‘Yes, you can. Baby, please. Stop,’ I said. But he was gone. I knew he was. He was leaving me and I knew from the way he was crying that he wasn’t going to come back… He had decided and it broke his heart.”
To interject a stoic, Midwestern view of the world here: I probably would have said, “You can’t do it? Tough shit, you are doing it because we have two toddlers!” Because what he really seemed to be saying to her at that moment wasn’t “I can’t do it,” but rather, “I don’t want to do it,” which is a very different thing.
And, while it wouldn’t be the end of the world, I suppose, if the marriage had to end because he was in love with the Winona Ryderesque new professor (Gillies makes this comparison between lady professor and Winona more than once in the book) why does he allow his children to move across the country back to New York? Or why doesn’t he follow them back to New York and try to set up shop there? What the hell is this?
How can not seeing your kids on a regular basis and taking part in day-to-day decisions be “the best for everyone?” This may be an OK decision if you’re insane, like the crazy wife tucked away in the attic in Jane Eyre. If you’re that person, too crazy to interact with other people, then OK, you have a point. You aren’t a fit parent and it might be best for you to skedaddle. But otherwise… suck it up. No matter what bill of goods anyone tries to sell me, I still believe parenting doesn’t take place from several states away.
When Gillies finally packs up to head back to her parents’ apartment in New York with the kids, they have the most ludicrous conversation of the entire book (and that’s saying something for these two):
“Will you always be my friend?” I said, crying.
“Yes,” he said (ha, I bet not after this book was published because it makes him look like a total dickweed)
“Will you always love the boys?”
“Oh, yes.” (as long as I don’t have to see them or be involved in parenting them on a day-to-day basis and they don’t muck up my new relationship with the elfin literature professor, I will love those boys to death)
“Will we always be their parents?” (by this point the conversation reminds me of something from Peter Pan, although I can’t exactly pinpoint why)
“Always.” (I mean, technically, yes. Biologically, yes.)
“I am so sad,” I said.
“I am too,” he said (but not too sad because, well, I’m getting my way, aren’t I?)
“Someone else will raise the boys,” I said. (I’m getting remarried as quickly as I can.)
“You will choose someone who will be loving and kind.” (Pick someone, anyone, so I don’t have to deal with you anymore, please!)
“How do you know that we will be all right?”
“I just think we will be happier…” he said. (Happier? Did I mention that this guy is a professor of poetry? If he wanted happy, he should have picked a different profession. Combining poetry with a job as an academic is about the saddest life condition I can think of, like sharecropping on a word plantation; doing a poetry jig for The Man.)
I’m judging the husband harshly here and most other readers will too because, well, he doesn’t have a tell-all book. We don’t know what Gillies left out, what she never knew, what she denies even to herself (she claims, at one point, to have absolutely no secrets in her life, which makes her sound well, either incredibly ignorant or incredibly boring). Who knows?
She does come across, more than once, as frenetic, unhinged and idealistic – whether this is really what she’s like or whether it’s because of the sometimes poor writing is hard to say. Her husband isn’t just handsome, he’s “an Adonis.” He’s not just intelligent, he’s “a genius.” And I quickly became tired of her handing out the “Just Folks” line even after all the stories of summers in Maine, Ivy League schools, the expensive remodel on the Oberlin house,etc, etc. She paints her family as a roving band of organic, ergonomic, culture-loving, foodie Gypsies who wow the Oberlin campus with their adorable-ness. And maybe, just maybe, this line of fucked-up thinking is what helped land her in the biggest mess of her life.
Could it be, in the end, that the moody poetry professor just couldn’t take the chirpiness? The go-go attitude and the absolute adoration? The only reason he ever gives Gillies for having to bail, despite months of trying to wring it out of him, is that they are not alike. They are different and these differences can’t, in the end, be ignored. He didn’t want to have the wife who wanted to make snow angels in the falling snow and later drink cocoa naked (I’m making this part up). He wanted a waifish wife dedicated to 18th century literature who preferred to watch the snow fall from the safety of the pavement while smoking a cigarette. In the end, you are who you are.
Just don’t leave your parenting job to someone else, even if they are loving and kind.