A Conversation with Ariel Levy

The memoirist speaks on the illusion of control and how writing others’ stories helped her cope with her own.

Ariel Levy memoir

All her life, Ariel Levy was told that she was too fervent, too forceful, too much. As a young woman, she decided that becoming a writer would perfectly channel her strength and desire. She would be a professional explorer—“the kind of woman who is free to do whatever she chooses.” Levy moved to Manhattan to pursue her dream and experienced years of adventure, traveling the world writing stories about unconventional heroines and following their fearless examples in her own life.

But when she experiences unthinkable heartbreak, as she unveils in The Rules Do Not Apply, Levy is forced to surrender her illusion of control. And in telling her story, Levy has captured a portrait of our time, of the shifting forces in American culture, of what’s changed and what’s remained, and of how to begin again.

Recently, Ariel spoke with Read It Forward’s Abbe Wright about keeping a measure of gratitude for what isn’t lost, and what else her “chipmunk of a brain” knows aside from vibrant storytelling.

Read It Forward: Ariel, I’m so glad to talk to you about The Rules Do Not Apply. For those who haven’t read it, let’s tease them. Would you tell us a little bit about what your memoir’s about?

Ariel Levy: It’s about a second coming-of-age—not the transition from being a child to being an adult, but the transition from being a fake adult to a more real adult. It happened to me because I lost my spouse, my house, and my son in a one-month period. Having my life pulled out from under me, for one thing, liberated me from any illusion of control.

That, to me, felt like a second coming-of-age, the same way that I think one of the main things that separates children from adults is they realize they’re actually going to die. I feel like when you’re a kid, you know, “Okay, sure, that happens to everyone, but I think I might skip it,” and then eventually you realize, “Oh, I guess I can’t skip that.” People are probably like, “Well, you’ve got really low bars for maturity.” And I do. But the second part of my process of becoming an adult, I felt, was realizing how little control I had.

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RIF: How did you feel about laying your life bare, out to the public, in this memoir?

AL: I felt okay about it. I don’t know what to say; I’m not private. This was my reality, whether I wrote about it or not. So, inhabiting it on the page in some ways was a relief. I was thinking about all this stuff a lot at the time, so bringing together what I was writing with what I was thinking and feeling was an interesting experience. It’s not usual for me. Usually, I write about other people. But it was an intense time, so being able to inhabit it inside and on the page was not unpleasant.

RIF: In writing about loss—losing your house, your partner, and your son—is there anything you’ve found within yourself, or within the experience of writing this book, that was illuminating?

AL: Well, the problem is that I’ve never lost everything and not written about it, so I can’t compare. I have no idea what effect on the grieving process writing has, because I’ve never grieved like that and not written about it, is the honest answer. What I got out of grief is more gratitude for what’s not lost and a lessened illusion of control. As much as it’s great to be liberated from your illusion of control, you know, I would rather have kept my illusion of control and had my son live; he’d be five-and-a-half now. That would be my top choice. But, given that that was not an option presented to me, it was not going to happen like that. From the whole experience, I’m grateful for a lessened sense of imaginary power and control, and a greater understanding of the extent to which we’re all just playing it as it lays.

RIF: Throughout your life, have you always journaled and written?    

AL: So, the series of events was that I went to do an assignment for the New Yorker, reporting a story in Mongolia. I was five months pregnant, so it was the last story like that—the last big adventure story I was going to do for a long time, because I was going to have another kind of adventure, I thought, and become a mother.

When I was in Mongolia, the second night I was there, I went into labor in my hotel room, and my son was born, and for 10 minutes I was somebody’s mother. And then he died before the ambulance came, which would have happened anywhere in the world. It’s not like, “if there was a faster ambulance.” If you give birth at 19 weeks, it’s not going to work anywhere in the world. The point is that when I got back from Mongolia, my marriage fell apart, we sold our house; everything at once was pretty well gone.

The new life that I thought I was about to—I don’t mean my son’s new life, though that’s essentially what I mean—but my new life that was going to go with that, being a mom, that was over. The life I had before I left, that was abruptly over, too. So, I was taking it from the top in a state of…

RIF: Limbo.

AL: And devastation. I was grieving my guts out. I wasn’t exactly in a mood to redo my life, but it was so unpleasant being me at that moment that it was a relief to work. The first year I was back, I wrote a lot of stories for the New Yorker. It was a good year for stories. I don’t know if it’s because I just got lucky that year, or because I was so desperate, or maybe because everyone felt bad for me at work, so they were giving me good stories because they knew it was a good idea to distract me.

In any event, I worked really hard on stories about other people, and it was a huge relief to be writing about Edith Windsor, or even shame. I’m sorry to say this, but there was a big rape case in Steubenville, Ohio that I wrote about. And even that horrible story, it was still a relief to think about that and not just be inside myself.

I did function, because it was so much better to do my job than to sit in my own head at first, and a year-ish later I started writing this book. At that point, I was ready to occupy that more fully and try to make sense of it.

RIF: What has the last year been like, since this book first came out?

AL: It’s been fine, thanks. I mean, honestly, the stuff I’m talking about that happened in the book, that we were talking about a minute ago, that was all five-ish years ago.

RIF: Yeah.

AL: So, the last year or two has been great, not so much because I had a book come out, but because I was over the hump of the most intense part of my grieving. The same way when you have the stomach flu, then you feel a little normal after, but feeling normal feels so great because you’re so happy you’re not barfing.

RIF: Right.

AL: That’s how it’s been to be me in the last years; it’s been so great not to be in a state of profound grief all the time.

RIF: Have you heard from readers who have been really impacted by reading your book?

AL: Yeah, that’s the thing that’s great about this, the part that feels good, because it feels very self-indulgent writing in the first person if you’re not used to it. If you’re used to writing about other people, it seems like, “Wow, this is really galling.”

RIF: A lot of pages, yeah. 

AL: It’s a lot of pages about me, and I’ve got a lot of gall to make people read this much about me. But it feels okay when what you get back from it is someone else who was in pain, where it brought them some measure of relief because they felt connected.

Part of the reason I started writing was because I wanted to always have a friend, which is an idea I got from Anne Frank. She said of Kitty, her journal, the reason I have a journal is I don’t have a friend. She put it differently than that, but that was basically the idea. Granted, there was a reason she couldn’t socialize, but initially that was her impulse—that she wanted a friend to connect with all the time.

That was very attractive to me as a kid, and a lonely kid. I’m always going to be able to have this “other” that I can communicate with whenever I want by writing. And when readers have that experience, when I as a reader have that experience, I’m grateful for it. When readers had that experience with my book and told me about it, I was grateful to them, because then it feels like it’s not only self-indulgent to talk about yourself if it brings someone else some measure of relief.

RIF: What has the impact of this book been on you and your former partner?

AL: Well, the first person who read the manuscript was my former spouse. I said, “If there’s anything you can’t live with, tell me and we’ll fix it.” And she’s very generous; she essentially said, “This is your story, and I’m not going to censor it. You do what you need to do.”

I think that, since then, she’s had different feelings about it at different times, as have I. I think both of us at different times have felt, “Oy gevalt, it’s bad to ever tell anyone anything private in a public way.” And then other times, you think it’s good to occupy your reality fully, just be open about it, and maybe it’s helpful to someone else, and that’s good.

RIF: So what does life look like now?

AL: Like I was saying before, first of all, I’m not walking around in a tunnel of grief. So, that’s really pleasurable as an alternative. My experience of grief was at first that you live in it; you’re walking around in a tunnel, and everyone else is in normal life, and you’re not. You feel like a crazy, grieving lunatic.

RIF: Completely.

AL: And then, eventually, grief lives in you instead. It’s still there, and you can get there sometimes, but you’re not walking around in an altered state. It’s just part of you, and maybe, in some ways, enriching. Maybe it has the potential to make you more empathetic to other people’s pain because you’ve suffered at a different level. And I say this a lot, but it’s because it was a big deal to me: you can’t imagine you have as much power as you did before after you’ve done some real grieving.

The whole experience of grief is, “Oh my God, no matter how badly I want this not to be true, no matter whether I wake up every single day and say no, I don’t accept this, I don’t want my son to be dead, I don’t want my spouse to be an alcoholic, I don’t want my marriage to be over,” it’s still true every day. That’s grief; you can’t undo it.

RIF: Yeah.

AL: And accepting that no matter how much you want to be the mother of a live child, and you’re not, no matter how much you want it, it doesn’t change. I found that to be a really impactful experience beyond the sadness, beyond just the pain. I felt like it shifted my relationship to reality ever so slightly, and I think that’s very much a position of privilege. If you didn’t know where your next meal was coming from when you were growing up, you never really got around to an illusion of control. You probably were in a constant state of feeling out of control and desperate for some.

RIF: Yeah. It’s really humbling to lose everything.

AL: It’s humbling. That’s the word.

RIF: As a journalist and a storyteller, what do you love most about telling stories?

AL: You know, I guess I’m sort of addicted to it. I don’t even remember why. It’s just what my brain wants to do—look for stories, and make stories, and tell stories. What’s the best way to tell this story? Where does it start? Where does it end? What’s the climax? What does the reader need to hear at what point for it to have the most impact? Like, that’s all my chipmunk of a brain wants to do, and I just think it’s fun.

RIF: Yeah, it’s a part of your physical makeup now.

AL: It’s all I know how to do! That, and ride a bicycle. That’s it.

Author Photo: David Klagsbrun

ARIEL LEVY joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2008, and received the National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism in 2014 for her piece “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” She is the author of the book Female Chauvinist Pigs and was a contributing editor at New York for twelve years.

About Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Senior Editor of Read It Forward. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.

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