Since childhood, Ariel Levy has been relegated to the terrible “too”s— too ardent, too aggressive, too male, too much.
“One of the defining experiences of my childhood was being told to tamp it down—not be so loud, not be so forceful, not be so assertive,” says Levy, author of The Rules Do Not Apply. “Everywhere I turned, someone was [sending me] the message, which was you’d better find a way to feminize or you’re not going to be OK. No one’s going to like you.”
In other words, Levy is what some people like to call a lot—big intellect, big ideas, big ambition, big success. She had her big break at 22, with a feature story in New York. She became a contributing editor at the magazine and in 2005 published her first book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. In 2008, she joined the New Yorker as a staff writer; in 2014, she won the National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism.
That award-winning essay, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” is the basis for The Rules Do Not Apply, and the crux of both is unfathomable loss. At age 38, Levy was married, the owner of a Shelter Island home, and five months pregnant with her first child when she left to report a New Yorker story in Ulaanbaatar. Within a matter of months, she’d lost it all: “my son, my spouse, and my house.”
“Until recently, I lived in a world where lost things could always be replaced,” Levy writes in The Rules Do Not Apply. “But it has been made overwhelmingly clear to me now that anything you think is yours by right can vanish, and what you can do about that is nothing at all. The future I thought I was meticulously crafting for years has disappeared, and with it have gone my ideas about the kind of life I’d imagined I was due.”
Levy had made all the right moves to secure her career, her marriage, her home. A wealthy friend had donated his sperm and pledged to support their child financially and emotionally. But due to circumstances beyond her control—a rare placental abruption—her son was born prematurely in the bathroom of her hotel in Ulaanbaatar.
“I felt an unholy storm move through my body, and after that there is a brief lapse in my recollection; either I blacked out from the pain or I have blotted out the memory,” she writes. “And then there was another person on the floor in front of me, moving his arms and legs, alive. I heard myself say out loud, ‘This can’t be good.’ But it looked good. My baby was as pretty as a seashell.”
He lived for minutes. Levy returned home broken, devastated, and faced the judgment of people who assumed the miscarriage was her fault, a result of the unwise decision to travel so far. (Doctors said, unequivocally, that it was not.) She also had to face the fact that her wife, Lucy, was an alcoholic and out-of-control.
In The Rules Do Not Apply, Levy embraces incision and viscera to tell these difficult truths. It’s an “effortless” boldness, she says—in fact, writing vividly about the miscarriage was “the least deliberate piece of work I’ve ever done.”
“The thing I’m happy about in terms of that section of the book,” she says, “is I think it’s high time women started writing and making art and having more discussions about what it means to be a female human animal. What happens with women’s bodies—menstruation, pregnancy, birth, stillbirth, miscarriage, menopause, everything around the female animal’s reproductive life—has not been adequately present in literature or art or comedy.”
She cites the comedian Ali Wong, whom she recently profiled for the New Yorker, as a recent exception to the rule. In her comedy special Baby Cobra, Wong jokes about lactation, C-sections, placentas, chafed nipples, genitals—basically, what it means to have a female body.
“All of that is a huge part of the experience of half the human population,” Levy says. “When you consider that, it’s pretty astounding that there’s not more written about it. So when people were like, Oh my god, how could you write the details of [your miscarriage], it’s like, why wouldn’t I? That’s the most intense thing that ever happened to me. I write about everything else. Why would I not write about it? Because it’s so female?
“I should just stay in the red tent?” she continues. “I don’t think so. That’s not feminism.”
And feminism is not a panacea. In The Rules Do Not Apply, Levy grapples with the impossibility of “having it all” and the illusion of totally controlling one’s own life.
“Women of my generation were given the lavish gift of our own agency by feminism—a belief that we could decide for ourselves how we would live, what would become of us,” she writes. “Writers may be particularly susceptible to this outlook, because we are accustomed to the power of authorship. (Even if you write nonfiction, you still control how the story unfolds.) Life was complying with my story.
“The struggle of that [devastating] period was attempting to cope with it the way I coped with everything else, which was to try to make a narrative,” she explains. “Make it make sense, be in charge of it. The only way it got better was to say, I give up, I can’t be in charge of this. That is a skill set for my work, not for my life. And that’s not an easy thing to do.”
When the usual tools did not apply, acceptance emerged as a balm. So, too, did the unflagging support of family and friends. Unexpectedly, Dr. John Gessen of South Africa, the physician who attended her in Ulaanbaatar, became one of her greatest supporters; the two struck up an email correspondence after she returned to the States.
“It was pretty intense being in email communication with this other person who had seen what had happened,” Levy says. “That was extremely soothing to me, because he was there, he saw it, I didn’t have to [explain it]. It’s just a strange quirk of the universe that it turned out we had so much else in common and connected the way we did.”
They’re now a couple. It may not be the life Levy expected, but it’s a lucky one, she says.
“I did not expect to be spending big chunks of time riding horses. In Africa. With a man,” she says. “That is not what I thought I was going to be doing—which is great. It’s not the life I planned, but it’s a great life, and I am grateful for it.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.