Identity

Dealing With Life's Tough Shit—And Having the Privilege to Write About It

Ariel Levy suffered the premature birth and death of her son while traveling abroad alone. In 'The Rules Do Not Apply,' she details the meticulous mapping and rapid evaporation of a stable-seeming life.
April 11, 2017, 5:25pm
Photo by ILYA via Stocksy

One thing that's not talked about enough, according to Ariel Levy, is "the literal blood-letting that comes with being a woman." The Rules Do Not Apply fills the gap. An expansion of her 2013 New Yorker essay "Thanksgiving in Mongolia," Levy's new memoir details the meticulous mapping and rapid evaporation of a shiny and stable-seeming life. At age 38 and 19 weeks pregnant, she flew to Mongolia to write about its mining industry. Alone, on her second night in the country, she suffered a placental abruption that triggered the premature birth and death of her son, and flooded the bathroom floor with blood.

Advertisement

"It's hard to comprehend, if you haven't experienced it, how real of a loss [a pregnancy] is when you're the one losing," Levy told Broadly. First came the miscarriage—a word that feels clumsy in Levy's context—then came the dissolution of her marriage and the loss of a home a few weeks later. The Rules Do Not Apply addresses each added blow in the clear-eyed manner of a journalist used to making sense of other people's lives. It is remarkable in its eloquent, unvarnished presentation of nightmarish loss and its utter lack of self-pity.

"My dad said another title for this book could've been Tough Shit," Levy gamely mused, and while the shit she's been served is undeniably tough, it also speaks, on a native level, to the often bloody enterprise of womanhood.

"Not every woman will have a child, not every woman—God knows—will lose a child," she said. "But I think every woman at some point in her life will have some kind of epic experience around menstruation, fertility, paternity, pregnancy, childbirth, menopause, all these very animal aspects of being female."

Read more: Exploring the Terror of Motherhood with Latin America's Most Promising Novelist

For two decades, Levy's work has probed the female experience: "What does it mean to be a woman? What are the rules?" she writes in her memoir. First for New York magazine and then for the New Yorker, she has written about women who are, in her words, "too much." Unconventional women; women who buck tradition; women who make themselves the protagonists in their own stories, she explained. Women like Edith Windsor, the octogenarian at the center of the Supreme Court case that legalized gay marriage. Women like Diana Nyad, who—at age 64—became the first person ever to swim from Cuba to Florida. Women like Levy.

Married to a woman during the George W. Bush era and having actively pursued a late-in-life pregnancy to be parented by a throuple, Levy is in many ways untraditional. She credits feminists of generations past with giving her and her peers "the lavish gift of agency," the option of unconventionality, and the "belief that we could decide for ourselves how we would live, what would become of us," as she puts it in The Rules Do Not Apply. Levy always believed she could write her own life, revising as she went.

Ariel Levy, photo by David Klagsbrun

That view, Levy readily acknowledges, comes from a place of privilege, and that's the largest complaint that's been levied against her memoir. For a woman who has enjoyed so many advantages to complain about a series of sad but, as the New Republic's Charlotte Shane argued, reasonably commonplace occurrences is just totally typical and illustrative of what's wrong with white feminism. "I didn't get what I want so I guess no one does," was Shane's takeaway.

Levy's memoir tackles symbiotic concepts of personal agency and self-interest—because "daring to think the rules do not apply" may be "the mark of a visionary," as she writes, but "it's also a symptom of narcissism." That conflict recalls recent criticism of today's feminism as a trend too tightly entangled with narcissism to have any real bite. Has privilege been the movement's undoing?

Advertisement

Levy doesn't buy it. "Yeah: I'm a white lady," she said, an audible shrug. "And the idea that the book expresses a perspective that's privileged, well, I say that about a million times in the book. Of course it does." Having privilege doesn't preclude the possibility of human tragedy, and anyway, the book's not specifically about feminism. Independent women seizing agency, yes. A manual for the modern feminist, no.

What Levy has done is attack that familiar standard of Having It All with which women are so often beaten over the head: These are the rules one must follow to get the job, the marriage, the home, the kid, the life. But no amount of planning, no amount of prudence, no amount of control can account for life's lovely habit of sweeping in and fucking things up. There are no rules: to life or to being a woman. Privileged or no, we're all united in our inability to avoid Mother Nature's caprice.

For More Stories Like This, Sign Up for Our Newsletter

And women, some certainly more than others, know what it means to navigate life's daily, arbitrary pain. We are intimately familiar with idea that nothing is guaranteed—that you might put in all the work and still get passed over because of your gender; that you might take every reasonable safety precaution a human could and still find yourself preyed upon just for walking around as a woman; that you might follow all the doctor's orders and still suffer a rare pregnancy complication, crouching alone on the bathroom floor. The shared experience of blood-letting, literal or metaphorical, is unifying: There's "a sense of satisfaction, a sense of comfort, in hearing a woman admit the details of an animal experience like this," Levy said.

"Nobody gets through this life without loss," she added. "Nobody gets out alive."