Longtime critic and essayist Claire Dederer has always had a slight obsession with film director Roman Polanski. So in the summer of 2011, a year after the release of Poser, her gutsy, bestselling debut memoir about yoga and motherhood, she set out to write her next book with him in mind. “I was working on that book,” Dederer recalls. “And then I realized, ‘Oh, I’m really not interested in Polanski, I’m interested in the girl that he raped.’ And then I realized, ‘Oh, I’m not really that interested in the girl that he raped; I’m interested in the girl that I was in the sexually predatory 1970s.’ ” There was a larger story here, and it had its roots deep in Dederer’s turbulent past.
At 44, Dederer had a seemingly perfect life—a beautiful family, successful career as a contributor to the New York Times, and a charming house with a “romantically overgrown” garden on Bainbridge Island—nevertheless, she suddenly found herself inexplicably flattened by unwieldy despair, undergoing disconcerting bouts of “gape-mouthed catatonia,” and grappling with an unbridled sexual hunger she’d thought she’d parted ways with decades ago.
“I [laid] in bed for a year; I cried for two,” Dederer writes in Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning, the book born from her aforementioned Roman Polanski endeavor. “I got kissed or just chatted up or occasionally groped by men not my husband...and wrote them letters and had long phone chats with them. I blew deadlines. I forgot appointments for my kids. I fell down on the job in every conceivable way: as a mother, a wife, a writer, a friend.”
The hypersexual girl she once was, and had long tried to quell, had been resurrected. “You could hear the girl you were,” Dederer writes, “a disastrous pirate slut of a girl, breathing down your neck.” In Love and Trouble, Dederer interrogates the girl she once was, drawing from her own diaries—20 in total, whose guileless entries punctuate the bookin hilarious ways—and maps the striking parallels between that girl and her abjection, as a woman at midlife, disillusioned by the very life she’s worked so hard to cultivate. To the same self-deprecating, beguiling effect as her debut, Dederer manages to deftly handle the intricate (and frequently alienating) nuances of sex and aging.
“A lot of the book was written out of the impulse to help other women who were going through this mysterious, emotional flu that so many people seem to go through in their mid-40s,” says Dederer. “Whenever I would tell people I was going through it they [would] just practically start crying because they were too. I think that when you’re married to someone, and they’re like, ‘I’m in despair, and all I want to do is lie around watching Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia,’ that’s a really hard thing for a partner to hear. That’s like a referendum on your marriage and your household and your family. And there was nothing I could do about it except try to tell what it was like as truthfully as I could.”
Much of the book hinges on an absorbingstudy of Dederer’s coming of age in Seattle during the morally ambiguous and “victimless” sexual revolution of the 1970s. “Once sex was set free, it ran like a fire and consumed everything in its path, especially girls,” she writes. “Girls found themselves in a new landscape. In this landscape, girls wandered without parental supervision much of the time; and girls were acceptable objects of desire.”
Dederer, like Roman Polanski’s infamous victim Samantha Gailey, was 13 when she was sexually assaulted by a family friend. Writing about this wasn’t simple, especially because this victimhood later became a significant part of her sexuality, as a girl navigating her power in the male gaze, and as a woman, raw and honest, stepping out on the other end.
“One of the hardest things for me to talk about in my book was just saying I liked it when I was a kid. I like it now,” explains Dederer. “I abhor the conditions of my victimhood; I abhor the person who did it to me; I abhor the culture that said it was okay; I abhor the culture that continues to say it’s okay….But we make hay out of what we’re given, and what I was given was that. I built my sexuality from the ground I was planted in.”
Stephanie Buschardt is an editorial assistant at Kirkus Reviews.