There is a dominant narrative about what it means to be queer: a person struggles with their identity, comes out, and eventually finds love. Within that narrative there’s another storyline, one that involves a denial of self via a metaphorical closet, in which a person subsumes their identity, partnering with someone to whom they’re not attracted, only to accept, eventually, who they have always known themselves to be. This acceptance comes after much struggle, and, oftentimes, a divorce. And while it’s not uncommon for this to happen, it isn’t written about very often — until now.
A few years ago, when writer and restaurateur Molly Wizenberg, who had always considered herself straight, found herself preoccupied with a woman she had met while serving on a jury, she was confused. She was married to a man and the mother of a young child. She had never questioned whether she was straight or not, but her fixation led her to re-evaluate everything she thought she knew about herself — and about what she thought it meant to be queer.
In doing so, Wizenberg looked around for narratives that mirrored her own but she couldn’t find any. It’s not that instances of this don’t exist in real life — when I left my own marriage to a man, for example, I connected with plenty of women who had done the same thing. We were all queer women who had entered into marriages with men — either thinking we were straight or thinking our queerness had space for attraction to cisgender men — only to realise years later that perhaps we wanted something else. But those are the stories you hear only once you’ve had the experience yourself, once you start talking to people around you. They weren’t stories you read about in memoirs.
That’s changed a bit in recent years; Glennon Doyle wrote about it in her book Untamed, and Elizabeth Gilbert has written about it, too. But Wizenberg failed to find a story that grappled with what it means to be a mother who chooses to leave a marriage, one that showed what it could look like when two people divorce with love and not hatred for each other, and that named the unspoken ambivalence so many straight marriages contain. So, Wizenberg decided to write her own — The Fixed Stars — something that would help make her “feel less alone in [her] own mind.”
Below, I talked with Wizenberg about her memoir, and also queerness closets, and the limited representations of gender in mainstream culture.
Why did you want to write this book?
I have always used writing as my preferred tool for coming to understand things about my life. Writing, for me, is a way of paying attention to things that otherwise slip past me. And in the case of this experience, there was so much that happened to me and so many choices that I made as a result of it. I really felt like I couldn’t move past this huge shift in myself without devoting this kind of attention to it and writing was how I do that.
Something I really identified with is when you wrote about how normal it felt to be ambivalent while in your marriage, that this is just what long-term relationships are, particularly among straight women. For me, I know that feeling made it really hard to know if I should leave my own marriage. I just assumed it was normal.
I love that you brought this up, because this continues to fascinate me. The degree to which it was difficult for me to decide what is normal. And then to take the step beyond that and say, Well, even if this is “normal,” is it okay with me? I mean, yes, of course it is natural in long-term relationships for desire and sex drive and things like that to shift, and that makes no difference what my partner’s gender is. But I am amazed by the degree to which — in my own straight marriage, and in the straight marriages of many people I know; all of us who consider ourselves to be healthy, actualised adult women — we don’t talk with our partners about desire and the fluctuations of it. And I think the way that media portrays hetero marriages keeps us all in a place where it is so normalised to be sort of quietly unfulfilled.
I remember sitting with a friend and saying, “Things are fine. But sometimes I worry if I’m settling for fine, what am I potentially missing out on?” And they said, “Well, if you’re worried you’re gonna miss out on something, it means that you already are.” And it was this “oh shit” moment, and I thought about that every day for a year before I left my marriage.
What a good friend. I have never heard that phrased that way. And that’s so interesting because I think about my relationship now, and even though I’m aware that we bother each other and we’ve already lived through some difficult life experiences just in four years together, I never think, Oh, I’m missing out by being in this relationship. You know, whereas I thought that a lot in life [before]. I think I thought that from the beginning in my previous marriage, and that is so sad to me to say now.
I appreciated the way that you wrote about the concept of the closet, of how there’s a predominant idea that being closeted requires some level of awareness that you are closeted, or awareness that you are queer — but that that’s not always the case. Sometimes the closet can be characterised by a realisation you haven’t had yet, as opposed to an active denial.
I look back now at myself as a preteen or a teenager, or sometimes look at pictures of myself when I had this very punk, spiky haircut when I was in college. This tripped me up so much when I was writing the book. I felt like I had people who knew me then, like they were on my shoulder as I was writing this and I felt like they were saying, Well, I mean, obviously, you were queer all along. But I think back to the part of the book that’s about the date that I went on [with a woman] when I was like 20. Despite the fact that I came out of that feeling like, Wow, that was incredible, I had no idea how big, how expansive I could feel. I felt like a better person for discovering that I could be attracted to her, that I could be attracted to all kinds of people, not just men. But at the same time, I never came away from that with this lingering sense that I was queer. I just felt like myself, and I was attracted to men, every time except that one time when I was 20.
And so, I spent so much of the early months of the story, both living it and writing it, feeling that I had somehow been stupid, that everybody knew but me, or that all of these pieces of my life added up to this realisation that I was the only one too blind to see. But I don’t talk like that to myself anymore. I think that, for so very many people, the way that we see ourselves, the people we’re attracted to, the people we surround ourselves with, these things are all so situational and so subject to change.
You wrote about being attracted to masculine-of-centre women and more masculine queers, and about it being different than men, but not knowing it until you saw it — like when you saw Nora in the courtroom, and then it all made sense. I think this says a lot about what happens because of our limited mainstream representations of masculinity, which is usually limited to cis men. So there’s this assumption that if you’re attracted to masculinity, it must mean cis men. For me, when I finally saw queer masculinity, everything fell into place. And I wonder if we had a more expansive representation of what masculinity could be, if you may have had different feelings or realized earlier that you were queer?
Oh, I love that idea. That is so interesting. Yeah, I wonder what it would be like if masculinity were not so inextricably hitched to cis men. I don’t know if you’ve been aware of this in your time ending a hetero marriage, but it’s been so interesting to me the moments when I find myself learning how to do things that I previously used to let men to do for me and how much I love the feeling of that in myself. Not because it makes me more masculine, but it just makes me feel more like a whole person.
I noticed that the way you wrote about gender changes throughout the book. There were parts at the beginning where it felt to me a little bit binary and reductive, like describing more masc women as “women who look like men.” But then towards the end, it shifts, and, from the work you cited, it’s clear you’ve done a lot of reading on the topic. I was wondering if that was intentional, if you’re taking the reader on your own journey as you think about gender?
Yeah, that was intentional. I don’t know if I would do it the same way now, but it was intentional, because I had learned a tremendous amount over the experience of living those few years. When I first saw Nora, what I thought was, She’s wearing a men’s suit. I didn’t have other language for it. I didn’t have any words, except like “butch,” for instance.
I think of it all in much more nuanced ways now, both in terms of gender and in terms of sexuality. I started writing the book thinking, like, I want to figure out what I am, and by the time I was thoroughly immersed in it, I was just like, I don’t even need to have a name for this anymore. I believe that it is enough that this is how I am. I don’t need a name for it. And I think that in terms of gender, I’ve learned a lot from watching [my partner] Ash articulate their own identity and getting to be in conversation about that.
I think it’s complicated because like, how you use language that feels good and true when you’re writing about two individual people is one thing. But on a larger platform, knowing that other people who share those identities may feel completely differently about the words you’re using, and does that change how you write about it? Because it’s all so personal.
These are things like that really have tripped me up in various parts in the writing process, because I was aware that I wasn’t always using the right words. And yet, at the same time, because this story unfolds pretty much chronologically, I had to not impose my learning on a past version of myself. That’s really tricky. I feel a little bit nervous about it because I think that it is so important to get the terms right. And I don’t know if any of us can get them right all the time. We can try.
The Fixed Stars is available for purchase here.
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