May 2015

Rebecca Silber


An Interview with Lisa A Phillips

In her latest book, Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession, Lisa A. Phillips delves into the notion of obsession, how it affects women, and how they can use the experience to empower themselves. Phillips sympathetically disregards the cringe-factor associated with one-sided passion and discusses it on a personal level, helping women who have been at some point, or are currently, overtaken by obsessive love. Because she intersperses her findings with her own story of obsession, Phillips quickly becomes the reader's wise confidant. By the time I finished this book, and started this interview, I was so familiar with her tales of embarrassment that I felt like she was an old friend, waiting to hear my own mortifying stories.

Wow, this is a book that I wish had been in existence about fifteen or twenty years ago. Yet, despite my more outwardly stable current life situation, I still found Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession completely fascinating. Unrequited love, as your book suggests, is fairly common, yet when in the throes of it, the admirer feels very alone, maybe even a little ashamed, depressed -- so many not good feelings. What inspired you to write a book about this rather unappealing, maddening life experience?

Pretty soon after my obsession ended, my life became increasingly stable. All the things that had been up in the air when I was obsessed -- career, relationship, where I should live -- resolved themselves one by one. Some of this may have happened as a result of the obsession. I was such a wreck over my unrequited love that when I finally got over it my resolve was firm to take better care of myself when it came to relationships. The new standard was: He (whoever he was going to be) had to be good to me for there to be any hope of a relationship, and I had to be good to him. And that simple rule eventually worked. I got married and had a daughter.

But when my daughter was small -- that time when you're in the thick of various parenting preoccupations, like toilet training and whether you'll cause irreparable damage if you buy conventional strawberries instead of the very expensive organic ones -- I just began to feel that the people in this pleasant working mommy life I made didn't really know me. And more importantly, that I had to reconcile these two aspects of myself: that sane, hardworking, responsible wife/mother/writer/college professor with the unhinged stalker. Even more importantly, I knew that what I went through was something that at any given moment many women were going through -- with the attendant feelings of isolation, shame, despair, and exhausting yearning -- all of it taboo to talk about.

Think about it: In this age of algorithmic dating and mating, girl power, unprecedented female professional accomplishment, and lean-in feminism, it's really difficult to talk about the irrational, time and energy-sucking pull of unrequited romantic obsession -- women being mentally consumed, or worse, by someone who isn't reciprocating. I came to feel that if I came out as someone who'd been in that crazy unrequited love situation and then could act as an author/interpreter to what it was all about, I could make the mind state less taboo and better understood. When we can talk about something potentially shameful in terms of what it really is, as opposed to leaning on the dismissive stereotypes about it (the neurotic hung-up spinster and the bunny boiler stalker are the two big ones), hope, understanding, and even healing can enter the picture.

You mention your own obsession -- one of the strengths of this book is that you intersperse your findings with personal vignettes about your past obsession with B. Your own vulnerability makes your writing more authentic, makes you relatable to your readers. Was it difficult for you to open yourself up like this without the mask of the FICTION label to hide behind? Are you curious/concerned/hoping/apathetic to the possibility that B might read Unrequited?

It wasn't difficult. At first, it was cathartic just to process the experience. It happened 16 years ago. I first started writing about it 12 years ago. I already had a lot of distance from that time in my life, and that helped me feel right about that level of disclosure. Though I used to write fiction and have a graduate degree in fiction writing, I switched to nonfiction not that long after graduate school and haven't gone back since (though I wouldn't mind doing so at a future time). Authenticity felt very important -- as did the journalistic impulse to fact find. And then the catharsis feeling transformed into a larger mission. I wanted to inform and I wanted what I discovered to help others who had been/were in a similar situation. So I never found it difficult to self-disclose. It was both for myself and the cause of airing out all the myriad ways unrequited love can affect our lives in an era of romantic practicality. 

As for B. Yes, I am curious. Yes, I am concerned. I'm definitely not apathetic, and I honestly don't know whether I hope he reads it. It feels important to me not to invite him to read it, because we are not in touch and I haven't initiated any contact with him since the obsession ended. Too much happened for us to just suddenly be Facebook friends, or friends at all. Plus in the book I talk about the importance of cutting all ties from the object of your obsession, and reconnecting with him -- no matter how many years have gone by -- would have set the wrong example.

We did run into each other once, about a year and a half after he told me we could never speak again. We had a good talk, which gave me some sense of closure (and hopefully him as well). In the end I see that what I went through wasn't about him -- it was about my dream of him and how he was going to complete my life. So I hope he can see this as my effort to come to terms with being taken over by romantic obsession, and to understand what he was going through in a way that didn't involve contacting him.

In addition to interviewing other Bs (people who were the target of another's obsession), I delve into the moral dilemma of the rejecter -- mainly that when you are casting off someone's love, you can't do anything right in the eyes of society (and definitely not in the eyes of the person you're rejecting). You're either leading someone on, cruelly cutting them off or avoiding them, lying, or simply being a jerk by not returning their sincere gift of affection. What we have to come to terms with is that anyone has a right to say no to a relationship (or sex, etc.), at any point. Even though it's so terribly painful to be rejected, we can't ask people to live lies. 

You definitely can't ask people to live lies, and I think it's important that you present both sides of the unrequited relationship (or lack thereof) in the book. You also discuss unrequited love as being a muse and changing your life for the better. You talk about heartbroken creative people who go on to do amazing things -- write songs, make art, author books! Is it safe to say that if there were no unrequited love, the world would be a pretty bleak place?

Maybe we'd be "happier" without unrequited love. Or, for that matter, in a world without failure or pain. But it is our existential lot to fuck up, miss the mark, feel hurt, suffer, and be vulnerable to passionately loving someone who won't return the feeling. The great thing about the human spirit, though, is the potential to make something out of failure, particularly failure in love. I call unrequited love a "primal teacher," goading us to create, understand ourselves, and make changes in our lives. We can't always listen -- sometimes the obsession is too all encompassing for us to see outside of it. But if we can gain some modicum of perspective, or shift some of that energy in a new direction, unrequited love can be a powerful force for good. It is true: We would be a lesser species without it.

Unrequited love can be a powerful force for good, but it can also cause women to do some rather cringe-worthy things in the process. I am going to restrain myself, but I do have an urge to recount for you my most horrific unrequited love moments, sort of a greatest hit collection of desperate measures that I can never forget. God, some of them are so bad! Now that you've written this book, do you have women approaching you with their own cringe-worthy stories? 

I have both women and men approaching me with both extremely cringe-worthy stories and very tender crush stories and everything in between. I call myself an unrequited love story magnet. After an old friend shared with me a story of a devastating heartbreak and his ensuing mental breakdown -- something that occurred many years ago -- I asked him if he was okay after reliving such an intimate and difficult experience. He said, "Yes, I am." He told me that I was the first person who asked him, "What happened?" instead of "What's wrong with you?" That really moved me. "What's wrong with you?" flattens everything into A Problem or A Fault. "What happened?" is a question that assumes there is value in the telling and in the process of figuring it all out. 

I agree that asking the right questions to someone grappling with unrequited love is really important, and so often overlooked. As I read Unrequited, I appreciated your sensitivity on the subject of unrequited love, but also the sensitivity you have in talking to your young daughter about unrequited love. You state in your book that "our society as a whole could do a better job raising children to have healthy romantic relationships." Is there one thing that stands out that you believe society could do to better raise children to grow up to have healthy romantic relationships? What is your best piece of advice for the next generation of women who will no doubt face unrequited love at some point in their futures? 

If there's one thing society could do to better raise children to grow up to have healthy romantic relationships, it's probably to convey that though romantic love can feel magical, it's not. When we raise our kids on stories like "Sleeping Beauty," when a prince comes out of nowhere to raise a princess from a 100-year slumber, we are sending the message that Mr. Right is essentially a wizard (and a necrophiliac one at that!), righting all wrongs and restoring us to our fullest selves. I know fairy tales are a cheap shot, and now the movie industry is trying to create better ones (I've written about this trend on my Psychology Today blog). But that shouldn't stop us from unpacking these stories when they come up in the storybooks, and using them as an example of misguided thinking as our kids enter adolescence (as mine is about to do!). 

As to the second part of your question, it allows a second part to this answer. You can teach kids about sex, but the big surprise is always when they're first struck with sexual desire -- there is no way you can really prepare anyone for how powerful it is! The same goes for love. So as girls enter womanhood, passionate love may actually feel magical, because it's also so potent -- it can be a yearning as strong and all consuming as any addiction (and indeed it is an addiction, activating the same brain areas that other addictions do). But we can't let that magic blind us to the reality of real relationship formation, where human will and free choice enters the picture, with all the attendant messiness: confusion, fickleness, and even outright betrayal.

We've seen a wave of attention recently about sexual assault and an underscoring of the importance of listening at every stage of a sexual encounter to make sure each step is okay. It's also important to listen to each other at every stage of relationship formation, from the first glimmerings of a crush on forward. If we end up saddled with unreciprocated feeling instead of a mutual relationship, it's not anything to be ashamed of, unless we act invasively or destructively -- which is not at all inevitable. We can learn to put boundaries around, and even make good use of, unreturned passion instead of letting it diminish us.

To make good use of unreturned passion harkens back to the Edna St. Vincent Millay epigraph (from her poem, "Dirge Without Music") that you include at the beginning of Unrequited, "I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground." When did you come across this poem and decide to include the quote from it? It really is quite perfect for your book.

Edna St. Vincent Millay expresses the complexities of desire so well, and she lived a life that was always open to the possibilities of passion in love (requited and not) and on the page. When I was looking for an epigraph, I first turned to Emily Dickinson, thinking perhaps one of her "Master" poems would do. But they felt too enigmatic somehow. Then I thought of "Dirge Without Music" -- it's a poem that in one sense is about the death of people who love passionately, and how it's kind of bullshit to say that life goes on and "[t]hey have gone to feed the roses." The persona of the poem insists that she would rather have the lovers back than the roses! For Unrequited, I wanted to make sure from the outset that readers knew this was a book that was going to honor their "loving hearts" and not bury them. It's sometimes been a tricky thing, to express my regret over going too far in my pursuit of an unavailable man and also insist on defending the essence of unrequited love as a powerful human experience. But I knew I couldn't write the book without embracing this duality.