Eros can be obsessive. Ask Lisa Phillips. The summer she turned 30 while pursuing her Master of Arts degree in fine arts, she fell in love with a man who gradually began not to feel the same way. This once level-headed radio journalist called him repeatedly, talked about him obsessively, and one fine morning snuck into his apartment building. Baseball bat in hand, he opened the door, ready to call 911.
Phillips recounts this episode and similar ones from more than 200 other women in her new book Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession, hailed by The Washington Post as “an ingenious hybrid of memoir, case study, scientific inquiry and intellectual history not only of unrequited love but of Love, full stop, with a capital L.” It also offers compassionate guidance for any woman who has been in Eros’s obsessive grip.
A former radio journalist and now a journalism professor at SUNY New Paltz, Phillips is also author of Public Radio: Behind the Voices (2006). Her articles have appeared in many national publications, including The New York Times, PsychologyToday, Cosmopolitan, and The Boston Globe. Phillips has received many reporting awards, including several regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a New YorkState Coalition Against Sexual Assault Media Excellence Award. She is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts grant and writing residencies at Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ucross, and Jentel.
Lisa’s also simply a delightful human being, and I’m excited to peek into the Books That Matter to Lisa Phillips.
In this Books That Matter feature, Lisa shares with us why The Woman Upstairs inspired her, the famous author that she can’t stand, and what she hopes readers take away from her new book, Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession.
Jeffrey: What one book most took off the top of your head (Dickinson on poetry) or was “the axe for the frozen sea within” you (Kafka) or otherwise just changed something profound within you? What did it do for you? Maybe a book that lit you up as a child or that turned you on as a young adult or last week that salved some pain or turned your thinking upside-down.
Lisa: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud was a truly revelatory book. It came to me both at the right time and the wrong time. I’ll explain. When I read The Woman Upstairs, soon after it was released in 2013, I was in the thick of writing Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession. My book is nonfiction, and The Woman Upstairs is a novel. In my book, I grapple with what I call “The Unwanted Woman” — the figure on the difficult side of the vector of unrequited love. Cupid’s arrow hits her, but not her beloved, and for anyone who has been there, it’s rough. But what makes the situation (as I argue in Unrequited) rougher for women is the stigma attached to being unwanted. Women are always supposed to be wanted. So much of their value and security, historically speaking, comes from being desired. Being the one who yearns, without being yearned for in return, puts a woman on the outs. She’s tagged as a lonely neurotic.
But the flip side of that story is that yearning can be an incredibly potent thing. Nora (yep, just like in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and the book makes much of the allusion), the 42-year-old single woman protagonist of The Woman Upstairs, yearns for an entire family. She is intellectually and erotically drawn to the professor dad, creatively and erotically inspired by the artist mom, and maternally pulled to their innocent son, one of her third grade students. The way they energize her is beautiful, as is the way she owns what’s happening — however rich her fantasies and entanglements, she’s not deluded into thinking anything real will come of it. I don’t want to give spoilers here, but what happens to Nora is really, really intense, and brings to light the incredible risk of investing so much in unrequited love.
Reading The Woman Upstairs affirmed and help me move forward the somewhat oxymoronic argument I was building in Unrequited – that the experience of romantic obsession can be inspiring and life changing — AND perilous and enraging. But the book also, briefly, made me want to stop writing my book! You see, I started out as a fiction writer. I still believe that fiction’s subtlety and flexibility with theme and character can at times speak to the truth of our existence more insightfully than nonfiction. Don’t get me wrong — I love nonfiction. It’s a powerful form and truly the one I was meant to write in. But at times a brilliant novel can deliver this sort of mental takedown to nonfiction. Then, of course, I brushed myself off and kept going, bent on facing the challenge of bringing wisdom and nuance to the page in my own, reality-beholden way.
What one detail do you still recall from that book?
Nora’s anger, and her determination to use it. “I’m not crazy. Angry, yes; crazy, no.”
The book you imagined living inside of is what?
Harriet the Spy. I wanted her life: the steady note taking habit, the snoopiness, being able to go to the soda fountain and the park in Manhattan without parental escorts, her best friends Sport and Janie. I can’t say I wanted her life after her friends get mad at her for what she writes in her notebook — but as a kid who had trouble navigating friendships I identified strongly with the pain of being ostracized.
What kinds of books that most irritate you?
I finally get to confess! I can’t stand Jane Austen, and I’m completely mystified by the current rage over her. Because supposedly so much of what she writes is about unrequited love, I recently pushed my way through Emma, which I hadn’t read before. I’d read others back in college – Pride and Prejudice (of course) and Northanger Abbey – and didn’t like them, and I thought maybe I was missing something. I just can’t feel any of the characters and situations. That’s frustrating to me, especially since the plots are always so drawn out. I think that Austen affirms how her fans wish to see love and courtship: a little mystery and tension along the way, but always with a happy ending that doesn’t rock the boat too much. Give me Charlotte Bronte (who also didn’t like Jane Austen’s novels) any day.
You will read anything written by whom?
I find that a lot of the authors I am faithful to eventually disappoint me and I stop reading their work. That makes me a little sad, but not a lot. There’s nothing worse than feeling obliged to read a book out of sheer loyalty, particularly as a working parent — you do begin to feel life is too short for that kind of fealty if it’s not working for you. Or maybe I’m just fickle, or a slow reader. I have the best of intentions of getting through all of the books by my current favorite novelists: Claire Messud, Ian McEwen, and Elena Ferrante. I know I’ve read all of Jeffrey Eugenides and Zadie Smith. I’m sure there are more authors I’ve done this with but memory fails me, probably because I’ve let go of the feeling that this is an important thing to do.
Survey: Roughly what % of books do you read digitally versus in paper?
About 25 percent digital. I prefer paperbacks. I always feel troubled by hardcovers. They are handsome, and it honors authors to buy their books when they first come out (this spoken by an author with a new book still in hardcover). But it’s hard to read them in bed and they are expensive. Kobo and Kindle are so handy but I don’t love reading on a device — the light from the screen of my ipad can be too stimulating and there’s the torment of being able to switch too quickly to getting my email.
If you had five days off to read books next week, which books would you at last read?
Here is what is on my pile:
1. The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante (book two of the Neopolitan Novels; I just finished My Brilliant Friend, the first)
2. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (book three)
3. Moody Bitches by Julie Holland, who wrote a brilliant op ed in the NYT recently about the overuse of medication on women to help them cope with what are actually pretty normal emotional reactions to undue stress and oppression
4. The Children Act by Ian McEwan
It’s funny. I’m kind of letting go of having grand reading agendas re: the classics or keeping up with what everyone else seems to be reading. They get into the mix when I feel like I should read them, though I know I’m not as well read as I should be. I think every writer feels that way!
Which book would you want every (child/boy/girl/woman/man/daughter/son/business person/thought leader) to read? Why?
Every married person (though I dare say the book speaks more powerfully to women, who tend to be the readers of books on relationships and family) should read Marriage Confidential by Pamela Haag. It’s a wise and witty take on the vicissitudes of contemporary married life, with some memorable examples of couples who are breaking the mold. I am quite satisfied in my marriage, but there is no question that making a life with someone entails countless little tests, limits, and compromises. Marriage Confidential helped me see them more clearly.
The little-known book you most relish and champion is what?
The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Havaren. Another novel about romantic obsession as torment and goad.
The one thing you hope readers of your new book, Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession come away with is what?
That we can make something out of unrequited love, however much it hurts.
LISA PHILLIPS is the author of Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession (2015) and Public Radio: Behind the Voices (2006). Her articles have appeared in many national publications, including The New York Times, Psychology Today, Cosmopolitan, and The Boston Globe. A former radio reporter, she has contributed stories to NPR, Marketplace, and other radio programs. She is a journalism professor at SUNY New Paltz. To learn more about Lisa, visit lisaaphillips.com.