Deborah Copaken, a staff writer at Cafe.com, is the author of “The Red Book,” “Between Here and April” and “Shutterbabe,” which she is developing into a TV series for NBC.
By Lisa A. Phillips
Harper. 291 pp. $25.99
When the student is ready, the Buddhists say, the teacher will appear. My sentiments exactly, I thought, the day Lisa A. Phillips’s book “Unrequited” landed in my lap at the precise moment I realized that a man I loved did not love me back.
No, I had not reached the point of prostrating myself at the altar of unrequited love as deeply as Phillips had. She showed up late at night at the home of B., the object of her unwanted affection, only to have him greet her with a baseball bat in one hand and a cellphone to call the police in the other. But still — a year after ending a two-decade marriage — I was, with this new beau, turning into a woman I no longer recognized. She was needy, this new version of me, and overbearing. She sent epic texts and indulged in unearned sentiments. This wasn’t healthy. For either of us. And at 48, I’m old enough to know better.
I mention this by way of full disclosure not only because Phillips did the same, opening the kimono of her shame for all to read, but because I loved every word, thought, theory and anecdote in her book as unabashedly as I loved the man who did not love me back. In fact, I found myself gleefully underlining so many passages that after a while I just stopped. It didn’t make sense to underline an entire book. Was this because I was in the throes of unrequited love as I read it?
In fact, as I was reading it on the subway and watching the body language of the various established and wannabe couples in my midst — young, old, married, not, friends, strangers, it didn’t matter, one can always spot the imbalance when it exists — I kept thinking to myself, good lord, I hope they make this required reading not only for every teenage girl in America but for every boy, man and woman, whether partnered or not, because we could all use a dose of its well-researched wisdom.
What Phillips, a former radio journalist turned SUNY professor, has given us is an ingenious hybrid of memoir, case study, scientific inquiry and intellectual history not only of unrequited love but of Love, full stop, with a capital L. So nimbly does she careen between Dante and pop singer Adele, Greek myth and Wollstonecraft, Goethe, Don Quixote, the Awl, psychology, hard science, her own story and the stories of others, that I actually felt sorry for the poor Library of Congress clerk whose job it was to catalogue the book.
The effect of all of this untrammeled intellectual exuberance — dare I say the love Phillips has for her subject? — is a sense of shared joy as we rip through it, as if we’re discovering tiny nuggets of truth about ourselves along with the author, whose honesty about her own mistakes and unrequited longings should be cheered, not pilloried, for its vulnerability.
“Creativity is a fundamental human response to the frustrations of love,” she writes, and if the reader hasn’t already understood this book as a sublimation of all of her once-pent-up ardor into art, Phillips makes it abundantly clear at the end. “Just as I once strategized and restrategized ways into B.’s heart — coy distance and waiting? insistent confrontation? — I will rewrite this paragraph many times.”
This is a radical step, still, for a woman, to equate creativity with the sublimation of female desire. “Desire — along with the freedom to travel alone, carry weapons, have adventures, and enjoy a host of other privileges — belonged to men,” she writes. We expect our men to love deeply and pursue unabashedly. We expect them to turn all that pining into art. But a woman in the throes of unrequited love is seen as ridiculous, absurd, no better than astronaut Lisa Nowak — whose story upon which Phillips also opines, with touching compassion for its subject — driving 900 miles in a diaper to confront the girlfriend of her unrequited love. And yet, “at any given moment,” she writes, “you can find an unwanted woman who makes art out of lost love at an open-mike night, or in a community poetry workshop, or in the Top 40 rotation on the radio.”
Phillips doesn’t just examine her own frustrated longings in the context of all unrequited longings. She takes the painful but necessary step of seeing the effects of her and others’ often over-the-top actions on the objects of their affection. She calls this “gender-flipping.” “If I used the word ‘stalking’ to describe my actions, it was always with some irony,” she writes. “It was only when I gender-flipped my experience that I could come to terms with what I did. When I envisioned a man acting as I had, I saw a creepy stalker, with nothing ironic about him.”
The beau and I had already cooled toward each other by the time I read that sentence, but it made me reexamine my own responsibility in that rupture. No, I had not stalked him. Not even close. But I had kept wondering why he didn’t love me enough, when in reality it was I who loved too much. I pushed when I should have pulled, made unrealistic demands when I should have given him space. Viewed through Phillips’s sober eyes and no-stone-unturned research, the cracks in my relationship came into sharp focus: I was the one to blame, not him. If anything, he’d been absolutely honest about the ambiguity of his feelings from day one. The question was what to do with this knowledge?
Of course, Phillips has an answer for this question as well. “What my unrequited love inspired,” she writes, “was a change within myself. As I recovered, I made a resolution. ‘You can’t want anyone who isn’t good to you,’ I decided, with the corollary that I had to be able to be good to that person in turn. It was an embarrassingly simple formula.”
That the man in question and I are now back to being good friends is in no small part thanks to the lessons of “Unrequited.” And yet I’m still left with a pressing question: How stalkerish would it be of me to send Phillips a box of chocolates this Valentine’s Day to thank her?