On the Unacknowledged, Virtuosic Mess of Julie Powell’s Cleaving

Dear CF,

Does an author have the right to be a bad person? Particularly if it’s precisely their “badness” that makes their story compelling (Cheever be damned)?

I finished reading Julie Powell’s book Cleaving today. A dark read. Not because of the one scene of anonymous sex (which the entire internet seems to have fixated on, and which was totally forgettable), but because of the ugly and insanely raw emotional territory it occupies, and how fiercely it decimates the Julie Powell persona of Julie and Julie. You rarely see a nonfiction author assassinate her own character, and it’s fascinating to watch.

I wrote this post about the internet response to the book (and to female selfishness generally) back in March 2010. Here’s what I said then, back before I’d read the book, concerning the charges lodged against Powell that she was a Selfish Narcissist who Overshares:

Some qualify that assessment. They say Julie Powell seems to think that self-awareness means calling herself all the names she knows people will call her first. If she labels herself a whore before anyone else does, she vaccinates herself against judgment by being the first to confess herself guilty as charged. This set of critics complain that this is pure defensiveness; she doesn’t really think she’s a whore. Therefore, she doesn’t really feel guilty. To admit guilt without doing anything about it, this set of critics feels, is, well, it’s downright Catholic! It’s as if she expects absolution just because she says something that’s true without feeling, in her heart of hearts, its truth and changing accordingly.

This latter charge strikes me as probably true. It’s also what Woody Allen (for example) built an entire career on. [/snip] Nobody would deny that Woody Allen is a selfish, unregenerate narcissist whose every project is a paean to his own ego. But neither is anyone suggesting that his career should end because of it. Narcissism does not necessarily make for bad art. In fact, to my everlasting despair, it seems like great artists almost have to be Firecrackers—it might be the case that great artists are constitutionally shitty people. Most writers are narcissists, most artists are egomaniacs, and most memoirs are fake. The sooner we reconcile ourselves to that, the better. Memoirs are faker than (for example) Facebook profiles, and if you think your Facebook profile is in any way a representation of the real you, well—the deposed King of Nigeria desperately needs your help.

This is one many reasons why it’s so damn hard to write—how absolutely great, but also how absolutely selfish it feels. That’s the wrong word. “Selfish” is really the wrong category. We’re all selfish in different ways all the time, and most of those ways should be worked on.  They can hurt the people around us who we genuinely care for and have reason to treat well. But this kind of selfishness, the writing kind, is strange in that it’s basically victimless but feels especially objectionable. It feels (and I speak only for myself here) like a HUGE taboo.

While narcissism in male artists gets painted as brilliantly iconoclastic or even excused—Diego Rivera and Pablo Picasso were just raw, sacrificing convention (read: their partners) for the sake of great art, Roman Polanski anally raped and drugged children but made great movies—women are severely punished when their desires or demands cross the line of the reasonable and prudent. (My God!!! Julie Powell cheated on her husband!!!)

Now that I’ve read the book, I want to point out a few things. The first is that I’m not actually minimizing the final reaction I’ve noted above—it is genuinely shocking that Julie Powell cheated on her husband. The reason it’s shocking is that Julie Powell made her husband such an immensely likable character, and their marriage so impossibly charming. Eric, that figure for whom reviewers have advocated with so much compassion, and on whose behalf they’ve eviscerated his creator, is a literary creation. Our experience of him is mediated by Powell herself. We see him through her eyes. We have no direct experience of him. Or them.

I’m emphasizing that because many reviewers have criticized Powell for a lack of authorial control. They’re wrong. Eric may or may not be a saint, but anyone who has ever been written about—including Julie Powell herself—knows that the written version of a person bears (at best) a sibling relationship to the real thing. The reason we love Eric is because Powell made us love him. That’s the same reason we dislike her. In a way, watching the internet attack Powell for her book is watching a creation butcher its creator.

Here’s how Linda Holmes (of NPR) anatomizes the shortcomings of Cleaving:

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that you can’t do regrettable or dishonest things and write about them in a good memoir. But for me to enjoy it, that takes reflection. It requires that you not appear to be bragging about the worst things you did and how exciting they were, while insisting that really, you feel terrible. In fact, you could write a memoir in which you explain why you do not feel bad about your affair, and if that seemed to be your authentic perspective, maybe that would be interesting. But when your internal struggles seem to be the ones you think you’re supposed to be having more than ones you are actually having, then the book feels inauthentic and dull.

While I agree with Holmes in principle, Powell’s internal struggles aren’t the one she thinks she’s supposed to be having. This, I would argue, IS the memoir in which she explains why she doesn’t feel bad about her affair, even as she has the intelligence to recognize her own ugliness. Powell seems to believe that feelings are animal things that refuse to be dictated to. You can’t lecture a feeling away; you can sit with it or you can push it underground. What we do on the basis of those feelings is a whole different question, of course. But in a marriage like the one Powell describes, where there is no privacy because you essentially share a brain (and e-mail passwords), the feeling is the real sin. Not the infidelity. That’s not how we narrate the ideal marriage, it’s not how we understand what a “sainted husband” should have to put up with, but it is interesting. We’ve certainly seen versions of the same story before, wherein husbands anatomize their personal journeys, complete with marital infidelities, without seeing (or writing) their spouses as anything nearly so human as Eric Powell. Not having read Elizabeth Gilbert, I nevertheless suspect that Julie Powell’s depiction of an ideal union and its decline is far more real than anything she’s done.

As far as the claim that Powell lacks self-awareness goes, I challenge anyone to claim that the following is anything other than the naked and ugly admission it is:

Eric and I haven’t had sex in months. And though D is gone, hasn’t exchanged a word with me in weeks, despite or because of the desperate, pleading texts that our horrid at-last-real breakup didn’t succeed in deterring me from, still he’s there, of course, living in our apartment. Eric doesn’t touch me. And I can’t touch him either. The truth is that Eric’s love, his very dearness, is excruciating to me, a constant stabbing.

or the sheer, nightmarish discomfort of this sequence, which offers a ruthlessly honest portrait of what people are really thinking even as they go about offering what seem like the “correct” performances:

“Eric, of course, knows I’m fucking someone else, has known for almost the entire period of my affair with D. He even knows that, in distressing point of fact, I’m in love with this other man. I don’t have to tell him this. We basically share the same mind, after all. Once, I was proud of and comforted by this nearly paranormal connection. That my husband knew me so well, and I him, seemed proof of a love superior in all ways to all others. Then D happened. We fought about it when Eric first found out, of course, or rather I cried and Eric yelled and marched out of the house into the night for a few hours. But after that, there was only exhaustion, and quiet, and in all the months since we’ve barely spoken about it at all. Sometimes, even most of the time, everything seems fine this way. But then, this talent we share emerges and proves itself the stealthiest, most vicious weapon in our arsenals. We can delve into each other’s heart and deftly pull out the scraps of filthy hidden longing and unhappiness and shame. With a look or a word, we can deftly rub these into the other’s face as we’d push a dog’s nose into its mess on the living room rug.

“We’ll be sitting in front of the TV, say, into our second bottle of wine, watching some Netflix DVD. I always have my phone on silent when we’re together, so Eric doesn’t hear the trill or feel the buzz against the sofa cushions. But still I’m tense, glancing at the BlackBerry screen whenever Eric gets up to go to the bathroom or stir the soup. When he gets back to the couch and sits, I’ll press the soles of my feet up against his thigh in a gesture of affection intended to make me seem comfortable and happy. But eventually, unconsciously, the nervous energy builds, and I’m tapping my bare feet against his pants leg. “What’s the matter?” Eric will say, grabbing my feet to still them, not taking his eyes from the TV screen. “He not paying enough attention to you tonight?” I’ll freeze, stop breathing, and say nothing, waiting to see if there will be more, but there won’t be. There doesn’t need to be. We’ll stare at the television as if nothing at all has been said; when D does send me a message, if he does, I’ll be afraid to answer it.

“I can do the same to him. Some night my husband will go out. “Drinks with work buddies,” he will say. “Back by nine.” Nine o’clock and then ten will, inevitable, come and go. The first time this happened, a month or two after he discovered I was sleeping with D, I was surprised and worried. He came home that morning at two thirty and woke me up to confess, remorsefully, that he’d been on a date with another woman, that it wouldn’t happen again, though I told him—ah, the pleasure of being the sainted one for once—that he deserved to be able to see anyone he wanted. By now I’m used to it; I don’t expect him home, probably until dawn. I can instantly tell, from the tone of voice when he calls or the phrasing of his e-mail, that he’s going to be the woman he’s been seeing off and on for nearly as long as I’ve been fucking D. I’m not even angry; I’m pleased. The text I send him a little after eleven is always more than gracious: Sweetie, can you let me know if you’ll be home tonight? I totally understand if you won’t be. I just don’t want to worry. 

“It might take him twenty minutes to write back, or an hour, or three. But he’ll always write the same thing. I’ll be home soon. I know I’m fucking up everything. 

“No, I’ll write, all sweetness and light, you’re not fucking anything up. Have fun. Come home whenever you like. When I hear the lock in the door I’ll initially feign sleep while he undresses and cuddles up guiltily beside me in bed, but I’ll make sure I give his hand a reassuring squeeze so he knows. In the morning I’ll pretend not to see his wish that I’d scream or cry, show my hurt and thus my love. I’ll poach an egg for breakfast, smiling. Nothing will be said. This is how I punish him.”

The person who comes out of that claustrophobically dark domestic portrait looking bad is not Eric. And it could have been. There was a way to tell that story that made Julie Powell look good, or at least not horrifically bad—there were problems with the relationship, she had noticed an attraction between Eric and this other woman, there were fissures. She doesn’t. That first sentence—Eric, of course, knows that I’m fucking someone else—beats you over the head with her culpability. She doesn’t make excuses, she doesn’t psychologize her own behavior. She owns the intense ugliness of her actions, which are predicated on the fused intimacy she spent the first book creating, and strips the cloying sweetness of all the passivity that would make it passive aggression.

That could be sociopathic, as some have suggested. It could also be one of the most honest things I’ve ever read. Plenty of people go through their whole lives manipulating decent codes for indecent ends. The vicious private languages couples develop, the misunderstandings they cultivate, which to outsiders can look innocent, even sweet, are an incredible phenomenon that seldom gets tapped in memoir (for obvious reasons). Julie Powell translating her cheerful morning egg-poaching into the brutal and unfair indictment of Eric that it is? That’s many things, but it isn’t sociopathic. Would that it were. It’s deeply human, and we’ve all done something like it, and never spoken of it, and even forgotten about the motives ourselves.

There’s plenty not to like. The food metaphors frequently drift into the domain of maudlin punning. This one, for instance:

In an ideal world, this recipe would yield about two dozen four-inch links of sausage. However, all boiled sausages are delicate, especially blood sausage, due to the liquid filling. You will lose many lengths to burst casings…. but the ones that do turn out are lovely—spicy and rich, with the mint providing an unexpectedly refreshing note. You’ll find that you can live with the few links you have and not mourn too much over your mistakes.

Yikes.

Still, it’s a memoir where the author refuses to see either her lover or her husband as anything less than fully human, and that’s remarkable. It would have been so easy to make “D.” villainous or manipulative or bad—a bad man, taking advantage of her weakness, her newfound fame. Powell doesn’t do that. She isn’t a victim, and D. isn’t a villain, and that’s awful to have to read, because we want Eric to get the happy ending he deserves. We want her to have an epiphany, and there is one, but it isn’t that D. is horrible: it’s that he isn’t a god granting sexual favors, and that he’s been badly damaged by all the demands she’s placed on him.

I don’t know if that’s generosity. Perhaps it would have been more generous to sacrifice D. on the altar of narrative catharsis. More artful too—if art is about wrapping up the ugliness of infidelity in a CryoVac package so it stops contaminating. But the alternative Powell offers, while flawed, gives one (in the words of Hercule Poirot) “furiously to think.”

Fondly,

M

17 Responses to On the Unacknowledged, Virtuosic Mess of Julie Powell’s Cleaving

  1. Jenny says:

    Was this a response to the John Cheever quote? Coincidence?

    • Millicent says:

      Coincidence only in that I found Cleaving at the bookstore yesterday on sale, and bought it! But it fits with the Cheever, right? Like a ball and a socket. Heh.

  2. Jack Crow says:

    Well, damn. I had no affinity for the movie character (at least, no affinity for the “Julie” sweetened into saccharine plasticity by Amy Adams), but you have with this one review made her far more interesting and likeable, for the honesty of her unconfession which you manage to capture.

    • Millicent says:

      Thanks, Jack. I don’t want to oversell it (it does have problems), but I think it deserves a better rep than it got.

  3. This was an excellent read, just great.

  4. brendajanec says:

    Ooh, this really made me want to read Cleaving, for the first time since its publication.

  5. Pingback: Sunday Reading « zunguzungu

  6. Mary V says:

    Wouldn’t the real generosity have been not writing the book at all? Not forcing Eric and D and the woman Eric was seeing (who is somehow always just an afterthought) and everyone else involved to wade through the muck of a fiasco they had already lived through once a second time?

    • Millicent says:

      That depends. Generous to Eric? Probably. But I’m talking about authorial generosity, not personal generosity. Authors are vampires, as Janet Malcolm points out, and usually take their subjects for far less “generous” rides than the one Julie Powell takes Eric and D on here.

      I agree that the woman Eric was seeing came across as an afterthought; the flip side of that is that Powell probably had very little insight into that relationship. Since it’s a first-person account told from her point of view, it’s hard to imagine what she could have said, beyond recording her own response to the fact that the affair was happening.

  7. ONEWEIRDWORD says:

    I discovered your blog just yesterday – I too found Cleaving fascinating, and yes I agree, brutally honest. And it’s really bugged me how angry reviewers, etc. have gotten with her. I look at my own life and that of my close friends over the years of our 20s, most of us made some incredibly bizarre choices – bizarre from the vantagepoint of being in our 40s. But if Julie and Eric hadn’t been “married”, and like most of their friends, just lived together, I think people wouldn’t have gotten so hot under the collar. Why is everybody so surprised that she & Eric got back together? (they did separate for a time.) People do rotten things, people cheat, and for many, we don’t know what our motivations were and we never examine them.

    Never mind all that stuff too about male writers writing about their disposable wives and lovers and nobody bats a freakin’ eyeball.

    I’m looking forward to reading more from you two.

    • Millicent says:

      Hey OWW! Gee, thanks, and yes–every single review has a barblet for Julie remarking on the fact that s/he (the reviewer) would never have stayed with her. Which is fine, I guess, but I just don’t think Norman Mailer’s memoirs sparked anything like the same vitriol. She exposes the ugly underbelly of splits and returns without lapsing into self-indulgence or rationalizations. That’s rare, I think.

  8. Carla Fran says:

    One thought about Cleaving is that one of the main themes of Julie and Julia is that happiness does not work as expected. The friend in that book that is happily married, and then goes on to break her husband’s heart by running off with an English guy and opening a bookstore with him, she devastates Julie. And the devastation is partly from the fact that her friend was right to do it, she is wonderfully happy in her new life, even if she hurt her very nice original husband. This is so shocking to her. I like the idea of Cleaving even more reading this first, because you can see Julie waking up to the idea that she could have this, too, but with the newest book, you see how very unhappy her roll of the dice was. Not that I want all of my protagonists to end up miserable or punished for their sexual fores. But, a major conflict of modern peeps, one that I am fascinated by, is dare you believe in the narrative of following your heart, because the rewards can include happy ever afters as much as they can include a full crash and burn. This is, the anti-Eat-Pray-Love memoir.

  9. will says:

    I really enjoyed this piece. Thanks.

  10. This is damn good, and I wish I’d read it earlier.

  11. Pingback: Plus que de la chick-lit : Julie & Julia (Julie Powell) | Undecorated Wall

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