There is a lot of literature about the emotional toll of being a mother and wife in our culture, and in most of the world.
“The Cost Of Living” is a brilliant addition to the genre, it is about how the British author Levy (Hot Milk, Swimming Home) escaped a suffocating marriage at the age of 50 and set out to begin to take herself seriously as an artist and a free person.
The critics are calling this a “post-feminist” memoir in that it moves to re-define feminism in a different and very personal way.
“It was possible that femininity, as I had been taught it, had come to an end,” she writes. “Femininity, as a cultural personality, was no longer expressive for me. It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the early 21st century.”
In this context, she sets out alone to expand her life and vision. She had two daughters, but they do not appear often or distinctly in this book, and that is sort of the point. She is not writing as a mother, but as a person.
After her divorce, Levy becomes a poor writer working and freezing in a friend’s shed to support her two daughters. She reject’s society’s conventional ideas about what a woman is expected to do with her life.
The memoir is, in many ways, the story of every woman throughout all of history who exhausted herself and her love and labor making a home or growing up in an oppressive family, living a life that turns out to serve the needs of everyone except herself.
Right away, the book struck a deep chord for me because this was for much of her life also the story of Maria, my wife, lover and great friend and partner. The memoir became personal for me because at ever turn, I began substituting Maria for Levy and almost every time, it fit perfectly.
Reading the book, I felt I was on two parallel journeys, not one.
The story of the suppressed woman seems sometimes to be almost universally true to me, even in the homes of good fathers and decent husbands and caring brothers.
Suppressing women seems to be an almost biological function of being a man, even if it is sometimes unintentional, and we know it is often quite intentional. There are just too many women telling the same story. Sometimes, I think that is what all of the “populist” turmoil in our country is about.
“The pain of the contemporary middle-aged male who, having failed to entirely suppress women, perceives himself as disempowered is a delicate matter,” writes Levy. So it is.
Like Levy, Maria has spent a lifetime fighting for her identity and figuring out what it is.
She was suppressed not only by one husband, but also by her family, who simply could not celebrate her identity and individuality or accept it. When there is trouble, Maria doesn’t really know how to get angry, an important defense mechanism for individuals and oddballs. She asks herself “what is wrong with me?”
Mr. Rogers, our fantasy teacher and friend, told children that they were all special, each in her own way. But society at large never quite got the message.
Schools and parents often push gifted and creative children away from their bliss and make them feel stupid, ashamed and worthless. What is so wonderful about Maria is not that she is like everyone else, but that she is not like anyone else.
But no one ever told her that, so she didn’t know
The people around her could never see it that way or convey to her the wonder and beauty of it.
For decades, she felt shamed into going to Sunday dinner every Sunday of her life, the idea of saying no was a trauma.
Levy, confronted with similar emotional suppression, made the same decision Maria did, and just as late in life. At all costs, she had to break away and learn how to be herself and love herself.
Eventually, Maria broke out and stopped going to Sunday dinner. Without it, her family had no way of communicating with her. They stopped calling her or seeing her or knowing much about her.
Free of these invisible chains, she began to live her own life.
The farther she got from those dinners, the happier and more fulfilled she was. The further Levy got from her marriage, the more she found the freedom and independence she wanted.
Without saying so, or perhaps even knowing it, Maria’s family essentially disowned her, shunning her without ever quite saying so. We love you, she was told, please come back to our dinners. That was all she was told.
That’s what parents are taught to say to children caught in cults.
That was as far as any conversation ever got, and now, there are very few conversations.
Every morning, Maria goes out into the pasture – sometimes in her wedding dress – to shovel out the manure and put it in our pile. Every morning, she affirms her own identity, looking very much her own ever evolving self, and looking nothing like any other farm person, male or female, who shovels manure every morning.
Someone wrote me recently to compliment Maria on her “fashion” sense and suggest she was a very different kind of “farm wife.” I guess that is so. Whenever I hear the term, I think of change.
I don’t think of Maria as a farm wife, the term seems outdated to me. I have met many women on many farms who still call themselves farm wives, and who refer to their husbands as “my farmer.”
My friend Carol Gulley and I have had several conversations about this, she sees her husband Ed as the dominant figure on their farm, and calls him “my farmer,” she writes about him in that way and openly sees herself working and living in support of him and her family.
Yet she is just as much a farmer as he is, works just as hard, milks as many cows, shovels as much manure, drives in a tractor just as long, and I cannot imagine describing her in any other way than as a dairy farmer, just like Ed.
Ed would be the first to say she is just as much of a farmer as he is.
There is an individual choice here, but more and more women are rejecting a system of work and life in which men – and families – find different ways of suppressing and dominating women, even if it is not their intension
You don’t have to just beat someone to abuse them, you can just as brutally damage their sense of self.
Joseph Campbell often wrote about a phenomenon he witnessed in his teaching career (so have I) in which men and families so often suppressed the creative desires of women by encouraging them to stay away from art and creative, by shaming them to get “safe” jobs or “day” jobs, have children, push aside their bliss and ambition and do what is expected of them.
“What else was there to do?,” asks Levy in her memoir. “To become the person someone else had imagined for us is not freedom – it is to mortgage our life to someone else’s fear.”
These women, Campbell said, invariably ended up living “substitute” lives.
The lucky ones came to their senses later in life, he sayd, like Levy, and pursued their passions and callings. The men in their relationships often had to be shed, so were their families.
What is beautiful about the Levy book is how wonderfully she captures the interior process of this new kind of apolitical and solitary liberation, a new way for women to look at their lives.
Maria’s revolution is quite internal, quite personal: she brings her own style and fashion sense to her art, dress, friendships, to everything she does, it is her mark of identity and individuality. It is the opposite of a group.
In the first years of our marriage, I went to a number of family functions with her, and I saw what she means, and I saw that she was right. I couldn’t be myself either at those dinners either, and no one seemed to care who I was or what I was about.
We were just expected to be there because that was what everyone did on Sunday afternoons.
Eventually, and with great pain and anxiety, Maria stopped going to family functions. It did feel like leaving a cult, it took months before she could find the strength to do it.
She still talks to her mother often and visits her frequently.
Her family will only say they love her and wish for her to come back to the family dinners. When she hears this, she feels once again like a sick ward in a mental hospital or cult, they assume she must be broken or sick if she insists on being herself.
Like Levy, Maria always felt that her family and her first husband did not know who she is, and did not want to know who she is. It’s especially ironic, because that’s all she really wants from them, it costs nothing and is a basic human right, and she will never find it because they will never offer it.
They cannot help but suppress her, she is simply too different, and it is what they know.
Levy and Maria both reached the same conclusion, they each had to set out alone to find a new way of living. It is a long, hard and wrenching process which Levy captures in this short but powerful memoir.
There is no doubt her that Levy is looking at the world in a different, post-feminist way.
She found contemporary feminism a sort of tired masquerade, an elaborate costume she no longer has any interest in wearing. In “The Cost Of Living,” Levy begins to notice the ways in which women instinctively defer to men, or accept being dominated and suppressed or ignored by men.
Her memoir plunges deeply and skillfully into the artist and the philosopher’s personal struggle to reconcile sexual love and conventional marriage with intellectual and personal liberty.
The long and entrenched idea of family and marriage is breaking down all over the world, women are looking beyond these ideas for fulfillment and love and work. They don’t care to be suppressed any longer.
In a way, Levy’s book, like Maria’s life, is a poignant manifesto for a new way for women to live in the post-Rockwell world, where we will all have to paint a different picture of their lives.