The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Here Lies My Heart:
Essays on Why We Marry, Why We Don't, and What We Find There
Edited by Deborah Chasman and Catherine Jhee
Boston: Beacon Press, 1999. $15.00

Reviewed by Sheila Bender

Book Review July/August 1999

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Despite reports that married people earn more, eat better, and live longer and in safer neighborhoods, “the people fleeing marriage are the people who have tried it,” writes poet and Nation columnist Katha Pollitt, one of 21 popular literary authors whose writings are collected in Deborah Chasman and Catherine Jhee’s fine and rewarding anthology. Pollitt thinks troubadours today might sing, “The world is ablaze with possibility and—mon Dieu!—you speak of savings rates? Of someone to nag you about your smoking?” In his contribution to the collection, playwright David Mamet explains our present-day cycle of marriage and divorce another way: “At the end of the day we want someone to hold our hand. If we are happy we want someone to be a hero for us and someone to whom we can be a hero. In misery we strive to be or find a victim.” Mamet adds that “in either case, we’re searching for a partner to share our idea of home.”

Another contributor, novelist and critic Phillip Lopate takes a look at something his wife expects at home: empathy. What happened to old-fashioned sympathy, he wants to know, the idea that a humane concern for others is based on a generalized ethic of compassion for all living things? By contrast, empathy—which his marriage counselor is advising Lopate to develop—stems, Lopate writes, “from the arrogant delusion that one can actually take on, or fuse with, another person’s feelings.” Not empathy but “forbearance, resignation, and stoicism” strike Lopate as the requirements for a lasting marriage.

Poet Mark Doty extends the theme of empathy in his essay about mourning the death of a long-term partner while at the same time beginning a new relationship. It is through his art, though, that he comes to terms with a new love after his first love has died of AIDS.

Meanwhile, Lynn Darling, a former contributing editor for Esquire, writes that all marriages begin in myth but take shape when the myth begins to crack. “All marriages,” she explains,

have a critical moment that changes things, like a tree after a bad storm, the event that colored their whole lives—Bill had to go to war; we lost the money when the market crashed. So where you end up is not where you began, which is both the heaven and the hell of marriage. You are not who you were and she is not who she was, and the balance on any given day, of whether that is a good or a bad thing, shifts precariously. 

Of the several contributors who write about adultery, the essayist Edward Hoagland views his years of extramarital affairs in the light of his wife’s devoted platonic relationships with many men, and scholar Gerald Early confesses to an affair for which his wife forgave him and from which the couple learned that in any marriage a partner’s failure must be a shared burden.

Divorced and living singly, literary critic Vivian Gornick writes about the value of companionship, recalling that when she divorced, she made up a slogan for herself to live by: “If one cannot win over loneliness, at least one can learn that it’s not fatal.” But years later, living in what she calls a “remarkably compatible” roommate situation, she savors the “joys of civilized friendship and domestic tranquillity” and feels grateful that she’s no longer living alone. The fog in her head has cleared, she writes, and she can concentrate for hours. She had not learned to live alone, after all, she now comes to understand, but to “lie down until the pain passed.”

And so the pendulum of our lives swings between the solitude we long for and the loneliness that solitude eventually becomes. Clearly, marriage has its compensations. “In its barbarous civility, in its impossible dependence and impossible expectation,” as Early writes, it “assures one that in the vast meaninglessness of the world, one can, only through the most monumental and absurd of accidental unions, hope to find the true rudder of meaning at last.”

Sheila Bender is the author of many books of writing, including Writing Personal Poetry: Creating Poems from Life Experience; Writing in the Convertible with the Top Down; and Writing Personal Essays: How to Shape Your Life Experiences for the Page. Sustenance, her new collection of poems, will be out from Daniel and Daniel Publishing in June.

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