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'Us: Americans Talk About Love': Interviews about intimacy

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By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010

"He just held me while I cried over another man."

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That's the line that steals John Bowe's breath every time he reads it. The sentence comes at the end of a story Marty Edwards, a 56-year-old Oklahoma woman, tells about being in love with a man who pulls away from her after learning he'll suffer an ugly death from liver failure. Find someone else, the man tells her, and eventually she does. Edwards meets a younger guy who doesn't care that her heart is divided, who knows he's giving more affection than she can return and who will comfort her when it comes time to grieve the death of another lover.

"This is the total fabric of everything we do," says Bowe, editor of "Us: Americans Talk About Love," a new collection of 44 personal narratives from people describing the dynamics of their most intimate relationships. "There's money and existential stuff . . . but then this love stuff fills in almost everything else."

In a follow-up to "Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs," Bowe and his colleagues interviewed people with backgrounds and experiences as wide-ranging as the country is diverse, and whittled those dialogues down to short stories told in the subject's own voice. A compulsive cheater talks about her double life. A guy with a girlfriend recounts his first sexual encounter with another man. A homeless woman describes her relationship with a man who keeps her on the streets. A middle-aged New Yorker explains why he still lives in the basement of his ex-wife's house.

It's a dream book for anyone with a respectable sense of voyeurism, but was a far trickier endeavor than Bowe expected. "It was so much harder than it was with 'Gig,' " he says, "because it's the most intimate thing." Eventually though, he learned how to get people to open up about what it was like to find a wife attempting suicide, or to hear, as a teenager, that your boyfriend has taken up with your best friend.

For Bowe, who is 45 and unmarried, listening to these tales of how love played out was like going to business school and "studying dozens and dozens of business plans for businesses that work or businesses that don't work.

"Anything going on in my personal life or with my friends, I definitely have this sort of guiding map of, 'Okay this fits into human experience that I know of and these people ended up happy,' " he says. "Or, 'These people ended up miserable, and watch out.' "

Bowe was surprised, in his interviews, by how reluctant most Americans are to discuss sex, and yet how funny and crude they can be, how frequently they swear, even while invoking God, and how high their expectations are for love, no matter how many times it's disappointed them in the past.

He encountered plenty of foolishness and despicable behavior: "Some people become horrible people because of love or they do horrible things for love," he says.

And yet, he also found that the "the right love and the right situation definitely will pick a whole bunch of locks. . . . And people become much bigger people than they otherwise would have."

"Us" is meant to be an oral history, a collection of snapshots that make up a larger portrait depicting the modern American experience with love. But it became, along the way, something like a self-help book.

At least for Bowe it did. "This is going to sound New Age-y and gross, but it's true," he says. The stories "have really become these points of light in my emotional firmament. . . . You would almost have to end up wiser after reading them."


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