The Same Situation
By Sari Botton
I got a nice email from Emily (Gould) the other day about my conversation with Emily Carter, published as part of a series I write for The Rumpus. She said she wished the piece had been longer, and I immediately regretted two choices I had made.
The first was not pursuing further with Carter the subject of addiction to male approval and attention. We touched on it briefly at the beginning of our talk.
I told her that when I read the opening lines of “The Bride,” – “It may seem, by now, that males have always had incredible power over me, even more than over the average PWV, which stands for Person With A Vagina, the first of many acronyms in an initial-cluttered life.” – I wanted to both laugh and cry (urges that continued throughout the piece, and the rest of the collection). This has been the “Red Thread” running through my history, too, this feeling that without boys’/men’s love, “I had no power.” Of course, that is not vaguely original. This illness, while hopefully curable, is pretty much epidemic in our culture.
My particular affliction, I told her, was that I had, it seemed, for roughly a decade, been addicted to alcohol not by mouth, but by nose, specifically on the breath of a difficult man, which made her laugh. I had been one of those women who would vie for the chance to “wipe away the invisible tears she thinks she sees” on the face of some unforgivably awful Person With A Penis.
“I used to go to Al-Anon, largely because I couldn’t afford therapy,” I said, “but also because I went out with one alcoholic or addict after another. I accompanied those guys to AA meetings, too, and held their hands the entire time,” I confessed, cringing a little.
“So you’re more than a little bit familiar with the Twelve Steps and Traditions,” she said.
“Put it this way,” I said. “For someone whose primary addictions are to Trident Bubble, singing in private, and recovery memoirs, I’ve spent an awful lot of time in ‘The Rooms.’”
She laughed again. “But that’s not really true,” I said. “My main addiction has been to male approval.”
“Well,” she said, “that is a phenomenon with which I am quite familiar.”
And then I changed subjects. Just like that.
There were logistical reasons. Carter had very limited time to meet with me; she was on her way to a family event. The main focus of my Rumpus series is the question of how writers of memoir and autobiographical fiction deal with possibly upsetting others in their lives – mostly their parents – through what they reveal in their writing. It’s my biggest dilemma. My father has been deeply upset about things I’ve written and published. I didn’t want to waste any time getting to the question of how Carter’s mother, Anne Roiphe, reacted to the portrayal of Glory’s mother, who is clearly based on Roiphe. I was particularly interested because Roiphe herself was disowned for writing about her parents, in both memoirs and fiction. Would she be less sensitive about her daughter’s writing? Apparently not.
But in hindsight, I think I also veered away from the addiction-to-male-approval-and-attention topic because it’s a hugely challenging one for me, one I’m wrestling with in a bigger way than before. I imagine it’s a tendency other women might also be reluctant to consider closely. It’s not a flattering or acceptably feminist image, the one of you with your self-esteem perpetually tethered to a man’s interest and opinion of you. It’s also not an emotional attachment that’s easy to permanently sever, living in this culture. That was driven home for me when I recently read No More Nice Girls.
Still, I had at some point convinced myself I’d moved past it because I was no longer involved with assholes, and because I married a really awesome guy who’s possibly more of a feminist than I am. (Although we hew toward traditional gender roles – he builds and fixes shit, I shop and cook - we often joke about how he won’t do certain things for me, like buy flowers, or always lead the way when we ride bikes together, because he is opposed to “undermining my power” by engaging in “benevolent sexism.” He’s also tactfully suggested I stop asking “Do you mind if I…?” when I want to do something on my own. I think it also bears noting that long before he met me, he built a dulcimer by hand so that he could play all the songs on Joni Mitchell’s Blue.)
No question, by my late 30s I’d opened my eyes and stopped taking shit in my intimate relationships. I learned the difference between the buzz you get from shallow validation, and the less instantly exciting but deeper and longer lasting feeling you get from genuine satisfaction of needs, and I eventually started seeking the latter.
So, I figured I was done with the addiction to male approval and attention. But in the past year or so, I’ve been reluctantly realizing that is not nearly the case, and also just how big of a problem it is for me. I’ve been having dreams in which men from my past do nothing but judge and criticize me as I contort myself systematically into various versions of me which I estimate will be to their liking. They’re exaggerations of real-life interactions with old boyfriends – like when I, at 32, proudly bared my new navel ring to intermittently attentive and rejecting alcoholic #3. How do you like your nice Jewish girlfriend now? I said without saying it. “Oh, look at that,” he sneered. “You did something antithetical to your image. Good for you.”
Most of all, the issue is wound up in my central dilemma - my conflicting, deep motivations to both write the truth and protect my father from it. It has been slowly bringing me around to seeing my deep dependence on his approval, even where it isn’t warranted, even though I’m a grownup in my mid-forties. I’ve been afraid to see that tied in with the fear of upsetting my father - more than my mother or anyone else - is that fucking unrelenting male approval issue. When my father is upset with me, when he withholds his warmth and praise and acceptance, I go wobbly and lose all my grounding. I can’t sleep or eat, even when I know in every cell in my body that he’s wrong.
I’m not entirely ready to let go and tell all, and this certainly isn’t the place to do so, so I’ll just say that there are secrets and lies and uncomfortable truths I’ve been burdened with all my life. My silence is slowly killing me. In maintaining it, I am putting someone else’s interest before mine, once more valuing his validation and approval over really taking care of my needs and wellbeing, which is something no one else is going to do for me.
Which leads me to the other editorial choice I regret. Toward the end of our conversation, Carter and I talked about how her mother had been disowned, and how I feared that for myself. I left that out because, once again, I was being fearful and protective.
When Carter said, “What my mother did was she got us disowned from the wealthy side of the family, which she could have thought of when she was 27, writing her books!” it sounded like she was mock-regretting her mother’s choice. Beneath it, at least in my imagination, there seemed to have been some real regret, which is why she quickly added, “But she had to tell the truth.”
I told Carter about how deeply afraid I was of being cut out of my father’s life, and also, to be quite honest, his will. “I have never had money,” I told her. “I had to put myself through college even though my parents could have afforded to help me. I just have this deep fear that I won’t be okay without my father’s approval, and without that money – even though compared to what your mother lost, it’s just a little pushke.”
“But look at what you were able to do,” she said. “Can you draw some strength from what you’ve done for yourself? Put yourself through college? I couldn’t have done that. You don’t need that money. Think of all the money you’ve been able to come up with on your own. What’s one more little pushke?”
Before we said goodbye, Carter inscribed my copy of her book: “Sari, Good luck, & give ‘em all what they need, not want.” She signed it Emily Carter Roiphe. As she was leaving the diner, she turned back around to me and put her fist in the air and said, “Courage!”