Claire Dederer's 'Love and Trouble' is an intensely erotic tale of midlife sexuality

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Jenny Jiminez

When New York Times bestselling author Claire Dederer experienced a sudden surge of sadness and arousal simultaneously at age 44, she looked for a book that reflected what she was going through.

Claire Dederer

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She couldn’t find one. So she wrote it.

Love and Trouble is an emotionally bare and intimate memoir that attempts to understand midlife through the lens of adolescence. The reckoning of the author’s past and present selves is what Dederer calls the “engine” of the book. But don’t call it a midlife crisis memoir; Dederer rallies against that term.

“Cliché is the enemy of actually having a real feeling or a real experience. When we hear or we say ‘midlife crisis,’ there’s a way in which we have a set of expectations about what that means. The book is very much about pushing past expectations and looking at lived experience,” she says.

That experience is at once titillating and disconcerting. From losing her virginity to high school promiscuity to following a professor 15 years her senior to Australia, Dederer struggles with her hunger for sexual attention in her youth. As an adult, married for 15 years to the father of her two children, she finds herself tempted into a kiss with a short-story writer, makes out with a woman at a party, and engages in inappropriate emailing. Near the end of the book, Dederer details a brutally sexy fling in a hotel room.

“I was so driven and disrupted by my sexuality at that period of my life, I wanted to write something that would give the reader a glimpse into how intense those feelings were for me,” she says of that chapter, which is fictional. “I wanted to have a really immersive scene and I also wanted the reader to know how intense my fantasy life was.”

But please, don’t blow off her rediscovered lust as the result of raging menopausal hormones, as many books on women’s experience of midlife do. “Women and men [in midlife] are looking at the same thing, which is our mortality, the end of our sexuality. Men write about it and it becomes the Great American Novel and a universal human experience. Women write about it and it’s biological and hormonal,” she says.

Evading trite genre labels was just one challenge of the book; another was form. Initially, Dederer wrote in narrative prose but felt the manuscript had a “heaviness and boringness about it,” she says. “As I was doing that writing, I was sneaking off and sort of having an affair with these different forms.”

Those forms include ABCs, a map, the passive voice, a psychological case study, jump cuts, and instructional writing. “Those were things I did to amuse myself on the side while I was writing this much more traditional and, I thought, literary book,” she says. After she amassed several playful literary experiments, her best friend said, “That’s the book.” Indeed, it was, and the memoir is better for the unconventional storytelling.

Though Dederer is hard on her younger self throughout the book (she describes her adolescent self as “craptastic” and a “disastrous pirate slut of a girl”), by the end of the book, she shows signs of self-acceptance. “I’ll always be a flirt,” she writes. “Male attention will always be of value to me. I’ll always feel embarrassed by my sexuality and completely at its mercy.”

Now 51 and a few years removed from the writing of Love and Trouble, she feels tenderness toward the 44-year-old woman depicted therein. “I was really sad and really having a hard time and I’m not in that same place anymore,” she says. “But I don’t wish it didn’t happen. I felt so much pain in that period and I think it honestly – this is going to sound really smarmy – it made me a more compassionate person. It sort of got me off my high horse and made me feel less judgmental towards others and more understanding of other people’s pain.”

Dederer is still married, going strong for more than two decades now, a longevity she attributes to her husband’s patience and the couple’s ongoing conversations. When asked if she and her husband ever considered an open marriage, she laughs. “Oh, no. It’s becoming much more common now among younger couples, I’m hearing. I’m from an older era and no, I’m not interested,” she says. “I came from a very disruptive, chaotic background and I think, for me, there’s a very strong drive to create stability for myself and my kids. A stable marriage is like a goal of mine. Whether or not it’s realistic is an eternally unfolding question.”

Her daughter, now 19, and her son, now 16, were both were aware of the thrust of Love and Trouble while Dederer prepared it for publication. “My daughter understood the feminist impulse behind the book,” she says. “I was a little more concerned about my son.” Dederer worried he’d be teased for having a mom who wrote a “sex book,” but that fear never manifested in reality. The small community on the island near Seattle where Dederer and her family live has been “unbelievably supportive,” she says.

Dederer is currently at work on a new book titled Monsters, which is about “horrible people who make great art,” she says. The spark for it was, in part, Roman Polanski, a man she considers both a “totem figure” of sexual predation and a “guiding spirit” of Love and Trouble. Though Love and Trouble included two open letters to Polanski that recounted his drugging and sexual assault of then 13-year-old Samantha Gailey (now Samantha Geimer) and Dederer’s own experience with a sexual predator in the 1970s, when she finished the memoir, she realized she wasn’t done writing about Polanski.

“Nobody knows more about Polanski than I do – I mean, somebody does, some judge somewhere – but I researched his life very intensively,” she says. Despite his heinous acts, Dederer admits she still pays for and watches Polanksi’s films. “I started thinking about that problem of this horrible, horrible person who makes this great work and what’s my responsibility in watching it or not watching it.”

She had been writing about this dilemma for a couple of years when the Harvey Weinstein allegations came to light and the #metoo movement erupted. She sent a chapter of Monsters to her agent, who submitted it to the Paris Review; when that piece was published last November, it went viral.

“The book is really looking at the stories of these people, these monsters, but it’s really asking what we do. I think of it as almost an autobiography of an audience. It’s asking: How do we navigate this stuff?”

Because Dederer is a memoir writer, she began to wonder if she herself was some kind of monster and if one needs to be “a little bit horrible” to be an artist. The answer depends on your definition of a monster – and your gender. When men are deemed monsters, it seems to be because they hurt or traumatize the people around them. When women are called monsters, it’s because they “do stuff that non-monster men do all the time. Men leave their kids to go do their work and it’s considered not horrible at all, and in some ways, even valuable. But when women do that, they are judged and they feel judged,” Dederer says. “That’s the problem. Men aren’t monsters until they rape someone and women have such an internalized sense of their own badness that if they just shut the door against their own children and go to work, they’re monsters. I’m not saying that those two acts are co-equal. I’m saying they have to do with the way that we judge others and experience that judgment.”

It’s quite a lot to wrap one’s mind around. But given the dexterity Dederer displayed in her first book, Poser: my life in twenty-three yoga poses, it’s nothing she can’t handle.


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