Culture

A Really Tedious Book about a Really Good Day

Ayelet Waldman (Portrait: Claire Lewis via Facebook)
Ayelet Waldman’s latest memoir demonstrates a retreat from moral agency and personal responsibility.

It’s been more than a decade since lawyer and author Ayelet Waldman confessed, in an essay in the New York Times, that she loved her husband, novelist Michael Chabon, more than her kids, and enjoyed a happy marriage and an enviable sex life with him — ”always vital, even torrid” (unlike the poor, sexless moms in her Gymboree group). If her husband should die suddenly, Waldman acknowledged, she’d soldier on. “But my imagination simply fails me when I try to picture a future beyond my husband’s death. Of course, I would have to live. I have four children, a mortgage, work to do. But I can imagine no joy without my husband.”

This disclosure, one of the first shots fired in the soon-to-be-intensifying “mommy wars,” helped accelerate the trend toward more exhibitionist memoirs, making Waldman the spiritual godmother of Lena Dunham and Lindy West. The piece led to splashy profiles in Time, the Guardian, and television appearances, including on the Oprah Winfrey show, where Waldman withstood a chorus of infuriated women, attacking her for her offense against her children and motherhood.

Waldman went on to publish a collection of essaysBad Mother, in which she writes, among other things, about aborting a pregnancy after a genetic counselor informs her and Chabon (who initially resisted the idea) that there was a small chance that “Rocketship,” as she named her unborn child, could have been born less than perfect. “I begged Rocketship’s forgiveness for being so inadequate a mother that I could not accept an imperfect child,” she recalled. But she’s no wishy-washy sentimentalist: “Rocketship was my baby. And I killed him.” She was predictably lauded for her honesty and bravery.

Yet joy and happiness apparently have been in short supply for Waldman in the intervening years, despite her publication of successful novels and her continuing marriage to Chabon, with whom she lives, together with their four kids (minus Rocketship, of course) and the family dog, in a multi-million dollar arts-and-crafts home in Berkeley, California. In her new memoir, A Really Good Day, Waldman describes her quest to achieve emotional equilibrium after a long struggle with various mood disorders, which has led her down a pharmacological rabbit hole.

Waldman’s afflictions are numerous. They include, she says, Bipolar II, PMS, PMDD, PME, insomnia, irritability, and a nasty case of frozen shoulder. She picks horrendous fights with her husband, including when he buys her a couch as a surprise gift — he wanted her to be comfortable in their shared workspace — without consulting her first on the style. She yells at her kids and flips out at her dry cleaner. She has a notorious temper tantrum on Twitter after her latest novel fails to make the New York Times list of notable books for 2014. “I’ve spent the morning on my couch, sobbing about not being included in the NYT Notable Book List! I mean What The F***? I know this book is good!” Her days are filled with rage and despair.

Waldman has been prescribed a dizzying array of medication for her volcanic moods, she tells us: Celexa, Lexapro, Prozac, Zoloft, Cymbalta, Effexor, Effexor XR, Wellbutrin, Lamictal, Topomax, Adderall, Adderall XR, Ritalin, Concerta, Strattera, Xanax, Valium, Ativan, Seroquel, Ambien, and Lunesta. “I’m sure I’m forgetting some,” she writes. “That can happen when you take a sh**-ton of drugs.” But the drugs that seem to have done the trick for Waldman and kept her from destroying her life and marriage were not in the SSRI family but were instead illegal and psychedelic: LSD, which she takes in micro-doses, and the party drug MDMA, or Molly, as the club kids call it, which she and Chabon take together when they feel the need to “recharge” their marriage.

A Really Good Day is a slim yet often tedious volume that alternates between Waldman’s daily log recording the effects of the LSD on her mood (she’s much more “chill,” according to her children) and screeds for drug legalization, denunciations of our legal system, and the purported therapeutic benefits of psychedelics. As a policy brief, Waldman’s book falls short. The benefits of drug legalization have repeatedly run up against reality; when liberalization is introduced, it tends to produce unwanted consequences, among them a rise in the number of addicts and social disorder — leading to a reversal of liberalization. And the medical benefits of psychedelic drugs have yet to be proven, to put it mildly.

The interesting question that Waldman leaves unexamined in A Really Good Day is a moral one: What is the role of character in a life? She is a partisan of the very modern, materialist my-chemistry-is-to-blame-for-my-bad-behavior worldview, at least when she’s not taking aim at her upbringing, in which case “self-blame” is at the root of her relationship woes. “The problem with self-blame,” she says, “is that it launches a vicious cycle. It makes me despondent, and when I’m despondent, I lash out at my husband. Which makes me feel worse.” Whether chemistry or self-blame is at fault for Waldman’s rages, though, moral agency and personal responsibility have little role. Waldman bears no blame for her actions; her character isn’t the result of her choices, her decisions. So much easier to drop acid and get out of the blame business altogether. This is an impoverished understanding of what it means to be human.

The true mystery at the heart of this book is how Waldman, with her periodic tirades and hissy fits, has managed to keep her marriage together. Maybe it’s the Molly, but it’s more likely got something to do with the commitment of her husband — and isn’t that ultimately a moral choice?

— Amy Anderson is a writer for Acculturated, where this piece originally appeared. It is reprinted with permission.

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