To Love What Is
By Alix Kates Shulman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 180 pages, $22
The most remarkable and memorable part of the story Alix Kates Shulman tells in her latest memoir, To Love What Is, comes early on, before the main event. The book is mostly about what happened after Ms. Shulman’s 75-year-old husband had a terrible fall from a sleeping loft in her rural Maine retreat: He suffered significant and lasting brain damage, and she refused to institutionalize him, even though he must be supervised every waking hour. To Love What Is is a chronicle of the organization and sacrifice involved in keeping her husband at home with her in New York City—a maze of traps and dangers to a disoriented, brain-injured person. But what’s most beautiful in this book is the story of how Ms. Shulman and her husband, Scott, got together in the first place, and how their bond—forged in youth, lost, then re-sealed in late midlife—created a marriage that could survive, as a true marriage—with affection, emotion, sex and everything else—even after the traumatic brain injury.
Ms. Shulman, a second-wave feminist hero, first noticed her husband Scott in high school—she was a freshman and he a senior—but they didn’t date until he was in college, and the two of them were properly introduced in a summer-school botany class in Cleveland. He was at Duke, an athlete; it was 1950, and Ms. Shulman was a smart, spunky and forward teenage girl. On their first “genuine date,” she suggested that he find a bed “where we could make love. No backseats for us!” (Who says second-wavers weren’t pro-sex?) They didn’t sleep together that night, but they did the next week. When he went back to college, their relationship faded. Eventually they married other people, had kids, divorced, etc. So it was a high-school love affair after all.
But in 1984, after a 34-year separation, Scott reappeared and courted Ms. Shulman just like the gentleman he always was. Now a successful author—she’d written a handful of novels and memoirs on top of her germinal feminist essay, “A Marriage Agreement”—her life was one of travel and visiting professorships, of freedom and work. But Scott wooed her, and the attraction proved durable. They eventually married in 1989, expecting their later years to be lived out in New York and foreign places and Maine, in the bare-bones cabin, each day grateful that they’d rediscovered one another.
EVEN AFTER SCOTT’S accident, To Love What Is remains a love story, with Ms. Shulman fighting to retain every shred of dignity for her husband, who has basically zero short-term memory and a significantly damaged long-term one as well. At times he’s annoying, or mean, or even scary; he can hardly tolerate anyone other than his wife, which keeps her tied to him, away from her work, until eventually an aide is found who can get along with him well enough to be his companion for a few half-days a week. But he’s also, at strange and surprising moments, lucid and tender, comprehending that something is different, or off, though he can’t name what it is. Even with his diminished capacity, Scott loves his wife the best he can, and sometimes, the way Ms. Shulman writes it, that love seems more real than what some of us experience.
In giving us a detailed account of the progress of Scott’s limited recovery, along with an account of what she’s gone through herself to get him the best possible care (even in New York, at a prestigious and expensive hospital, there’s a moment when Scott is left unattended—a lapse that could have ended his life), Ms. Shulman has made an important contribution to a genre that includes another fine (and overlooked) book by a famous second-waver, Kate Millett’s Mother Millett (2001), which chronicles the author’s struggle to keep her ailing mother out of a nursing home.
These are books that show a different facet of the feminist movement of the ’60s and ’70s: Although those years were so much about personal empowerment, the lessons taught and learned inspired a deep and committed humanism that transcends individual wants and desires. As young feminists gripe about the outdated ideas of the second wave, or as we try to redefine what feminism is supposed to mean in this new century, we could do worse than learn from Alix Kates Shulman’s example.
Hillary Frey is a senior editor at The Observer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.