Five years ago, Jonathan Santlofer’s wife, Joy, died unexpectedly following a routine outpatient procedure. In the days and months following her death, Santlofer kept a “widower’s notebook” — a collection of thoughts and drawings he polished and bound into a memoir of the same title. Reading Santlofer’s “The Widower’s Notebook” hit fairly close to home for me. I am also a widower. Heck, I even kept a “widower’s notebook” of my own for a while.
Santlofer’s book is an affecting read and not entirely heavy, despite the subject matter. My wife, who died of cancer at 39, wrote a memoir, “The Bright Hour” about her own experiences with mortality, so I recognize the challenges of the dying-death-grieving genre. It is hard to present an untimely death without making it maudlin, or to convey the humor and absurdity of everyday life that persists even amid terminal illness and loss.
Santlofer, an artist and the author of several novels, delicately shows how his wife’s death devastated him and forced him into an uncomfortable identity. There are moments that will resonate with anyone who has experienced the loss of a partner: Santlofer cleaning out his wife’s closet and then throwing out a third of his own clothes, to “equal things out,” stood out to me as precisely the sort of neurotic and powerful gesture people need when grieving, and it is a well-chosen detail.
But Santlofer tries to do more than explore his loss; he also mounts an argument about gender and grief. “There are plenty of things men and women share,” Santlofer writes, including “the basic fundamentals of human grief . . . but I came to see that the expectations for grieving men as opposed to grieving women, the cultural lens through which they are viewed and treated, are very different.”
At one point Santlofer asks, rhetorically, if “it is even worse because our culture says that men are supposed to take charge and be in control,” a question he later answers in the affirmative, writing he believes many men “are culturally conditioned to be stoic and unemotional but also take care of their wives and partners and families.” This conditioning, we learn, rendered him unable to ask for the help and support he needed while grieving.
I feel for Santlofer’s struggle to connect, and while I agree there are certain gendered cultural norms attached to grief, they are superficial and idiosyncratic. The idea that men must always maintain control, or that women are inherently better at communicating about their emotions, for example, not only is not a fixed genetic trait, it is belied by the actual behavior of millions of people every day.
Santlofer, who is 72, recognizes his male-female dichotomy may be antiquated. But instead of critiquing these “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” ideas, he embraces them. “Women civilize men,” he writes, adding he used to half-jokingly tell his wife “if left to my own devices I would live in one room . . . eat chips, and drink beer with the occasional piece of raw meat thrown into my cage.” When he confronts his own inability to express his feelings of disappointment with friends who went AWOL after his wife’s death, he suggests “this has something to do not just with my personality, but with the more basic genetic fact that I’m a man.”
Then there is this: “I have heard women, widows, complain of husbands who kept them in the dark about money or legal matters so that when their husbands died they were stunned and helpless. Here I was, the husband, the widower, who had lost a wife, and though my wife did not keep me in the dark, I became as helpless as any widow.”
I doubt Santlofer meant this as an insult to widows — and my guess is that he would say this attitude is one he would like to overcome. That is the problem with the book: Santlofer’s struggle to evolve beyond the old-fashioned cultural norms he identifies — essentially, that men grieve differently because they are taught to hide their feelings — just reasserts those norms.
Nothing prevents men from seeking to better understand their feelings. Men can and do communicate with their children, even about grief — even when their children are, say, 9 and 7 years old, as mine were, in contrast to Santlofer’s daughter, who was a fully grown, educated woman (a fact that sometimes seems to escape the author). Santlofer may be right that the feelings industry is dominated by women — which, though unfortunate, is far from the most pernicious vestige of millennia of patriarchy — but in the current age, the cupboard of help available even to a man with a hardened grief carapace, is far from bare.
There is a plethora of support for men who are feelings-averse — or their female counterparts (not all women are in touch with their feelings!). Beyond family, friends and traditional therapy (which has long been culturally acceptable for men), there are innovative resources like the website and book Modern Loss and the Facebook support group Hot Young Widows Club, which, despite its cheeky name, is a powerful community of grieving folks. It quickly became my most treasured support module and allowed me to interact (and emote!) without ever leaving the fetal position in my bed. Santlofer himself identifies traditional sources of literary support in C.S. Lewis’s moving account of widowhood, “A Grief Observed” and Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking.”
Santlofer’s book, which shines most brightly when it focuses on his grief for his wife, is not a pedagogical tool and does not advance our understanding of grief in an appreciable way. It is the testimony of Jonathan Santlofer about the loss of his beloved wife and the ways he grappled with that loss. Viewed in that more limited lens, the book has perhaps less literary or cultural merit, but it still offers a moving portrait of one widower with a notebook.
John Duberstein is an assistant federal public defender in Greensboro, N.C.
By Jonathan Santlofer
Penguin. 272 pp. Paperback, $17