Vanishing Twins: A Marriage by Leah Dieterich
Soft Skull Press, 2018
304 pages / Soft Skull
To choose freedom against coupling is an unpopular preference, one not the least celebrated in American culture, though the great, but often unknown, anarchist writer Voltairine de Cleyre wrote of parallelism (her term for coupling) in 1907 as the “greatest argument to be produced against marriage.” That is, pairing off brings with it irritation and what de Cleyre writes as, “…what was once a rare joy becomes a matter of course, and loses all its delicacy.” While there is truth to this, which I will continue to investigate in this essay—the sometimes banal nature of marriage and partnership over time and the lessening (or loss) of physical desire in monogamous relationships—there is also an argument to be made for the beauty of the quotidian relationship, of the daily intimacies, of the deep knowing of another, and here de Cleyre might even agree. I think she would argue, though, that if you choose to marry, you might do ill (as one of her essays argues)—and should that be your preference, you ought live in separate residences, it being “the permanent dependent relationship which…is detrimental to the growth of individual character.” So follows the question: How to maintain an identity within a monogamous relationship?
The question naturally raises others—most immediately, perhaps, about sexuality. How to weather fluctuations in desire over the long term? Is polyamory, in such a way that partners live and love autonomously, both together and apart, the answer? Leah Dieterich attempts to answer these questions in her new memoir, Vanishing Twins, out from Soft Skull Press. At its core, the memoir covers several years of the narrator’s journey into opening her marriage with her young husband. We follow Dieterich, first as a teen ballet dancer, then into college and the early years of her marriage and on until she quits ballet, becomes an advertising writer, and experiments with her sexuality by taking a woman as a lover. Dieterich establishes the main thread of the book early on, as she describes her desire to play Odile in Swan Lake, the “villainous doppelganger of the White Swan, Odette.” This, the idea of “twinning,” she expands to include the biological fact that one-eighth of all natural pregnancies begin as twins. Through this lens, she establishes her need to find the twin she never had. She takes this idea of twinning further by incorporating psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’ ideas from his book Monogamy, in which, “coupledom is a sustained resistance to the intrusion of third parties. The couple needs to sustain the third parties in order to go on resisting them” (which is also an idea that psychologist and writer Esther Perel has made famous: the idea of the third). Dieterich has a suspicion that she has a missing twin and she’ll find this through partnership, whether with her husband, her lover, or her co-worker, with whom she also develops a close, but non-sexual relationship in the story.
Dieterich frames the metaphor of the book through this idea of the “vanishing twin” in which “a fetus in a multiple pregnancy dies in utero and is partially or completely reabsorbed by the surviving fetus.” The author explores the question: how could you be cared for in a partnership, but also do what you want as an individual? Isn’t this the particular conflict of a monogamous relationship? As the narrator wrestles with the question of twinning, she writes, “We were fluent in the language of our own private country,” which works to lyrically suggest the solitary beauty of a monogamous relationship, but also, should you change the pronoun to “I,” the meaning of the sentence changes to reflect on the self. Dieterich admits that in order for breakthrough, for growth, the marriage had to be opened, the sexuality of each partner had to be explored. She writes, “…it felt like a passage we had to go through, a narrowing before the expansiveness beyond.”
At the end of part one, Dieterich examines the French word “moeurs” related to mores, defined as codes. She writes,
Monogamy is a moeur, I thought. An agreed-upon social code. An expectation of marriage. The word upset me. I loved Eric, sitting beside me on the train. He was my other half, my twin soul. But I didn’t feel like having sex as much as I had in the beginning, and if I could only have sex with him for the rest of my life, did that mean I’d stop having it altogether?
And so does Dieterich set the conflict: of what’s expected of her in marriage (to generalize further and to push the personal into the universal: of what’s expected of most women in marriage). That is, to marry within expectations of cultural constructs, we must deny our inherent sexual desire. Or do we? As de Cleyre has written, “…a roundly developed person will understand that she pays no honor to herself by denying herself fullness of being, whether to herself or of herself.”
Dietrich relies on white space as structural framing to allow the reader into the memoir. There is much to digest in this short book and the allowance of space in the pages gives pause for thought on the layers of accretion and thematic work crafted by the author: constellations of twinning, monogamy, polyamory, and individuality. Dietrich incorporates musings from Roland Barthes, Adam Phillips, Lawrence Phillips, and other psychologists as well as consults medical textbooks to support the personal inquiry. Early on Dieterich writes,
We like to believe that a mirror shows our truest self, but it rarely does. If you’re right up against it, with your nose touching the glass, you don’t see anything at all. That was the way I pressed myself to Eric. And Elena. And Ethan. I was too close and could not focus.
We know then, that her search for a twin fails, which is the most interesting thing about this book. As I read, I didn’t understand the narrator’s need for a twin, I’ve never had that desire, but I did understand the need to search for an identity in another person, that exploring one’s sexuality might lead to some sort of deeper understanding of self. Perhaps that’s my own version of twinning. As well, I found places where our stories aligned in the same way, as I think many will: the probability of jealousy and its ruin, or the correct balance of jealousy to infuse a monogamous relationship with desire, or the ability to slip on a new identity with a partner. Dieterich writes of this as she cuts her hair short, dressing in boyish clothing, “giving voice to a part of myself that had long been silent.” She continues, “Ballerinas are silent. And they aren’t tomboys. The ballerina is the archetype of femininity: beautiful and controlled…I was finally free of all that.” Dieterich’s book tells us there isn’t any one way to create a sexual life and I’m grateful for that invitation.
The dominant narrative, while shifting, does emphasize marriage for women as a positive life development and less so calls attention to those on the fringe who decide to stay single without children. Despite the prevailing narratives, the fairy tales, film, music, and television that forward this fantasy of long-term monogamous happiness, I wonder about my daughter and the future of her own relationships, and that of daughters everywhere. Will they choose to go alone and will that make them happy? Will they find desired companionship and autonomy at the same time? Is it possible, despite de Cleyre’s arguments, to live a life of intellectual and emotional freedom while married? What will future partnerships and marriage look like to the generations now maturing? In my own experience in the college classroom with the last of the Millennial generation, they are fluid in their partnerships, flexible and unpredictable, so perhaps the evolution of marriage will be one in which a model of partnership is designed to exhibit ideologies of autonomy and openness. My marriage certainly does, but because I demand it. Perhaps we’ve advanced far enough in our evolution to accept a new kind of marriage, and Voltairine’s insistence for independence is no longer relevant. But then why did Dieterich explore a new kind of marriage and write a book about it?
Voltairine de Cleyre was an anarchist and a poet, mostly unknown, who advocated for the woman’s mind and body at the turn of the 20th century. Emma Goldman called her “the most gifted and brilliant anarchist woman America ever produced.” I stumbled upon de Cleyre’s essays haphazardly, but find her lectures and essays on freethought and her anti-authoritarian spirit somewhat of a model. She had a mostly unhappy life with near-suicides, failed love affairs, and illness, but she suggested and encouraged a consistent revolt against the patriarchy, the Church, and the State by women, all of these institutions, she said, which impeded the freedom of individual thought, intellect, and emotion. She called the married woman “a bonded slave” and advocated for sex equality. Even in her own experience of love and sex, she found herself as object to the men she loved. She thought the only way to live married, or in partnership, was to live separately as Mary Wollstonecraft (who was her heroine) and William Godwin, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, and Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Dieterich, in fact, writes of her visit to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s houses in Mexico. She asks the question, “Is it too hard for one relationship to sustain two artists?” Which relates to her husband and herself as artists, but could also be expanded to all relationships. She’s entranced with the openness of her own friends’ sexuality and espouses the experimentation of Kahlo and Rivera. In fact, Kahlo had many lovers and was openly engaged with women at a time when unconventionality in partnerships was entirely criticized. Dieterich continues, “Was that [art] what made Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo’s relationship so tumultuous?” Dieterich wonders about the containment of desire and passion within a monogamous relationship as she spends time in Mexico with artists who embody free love and autonomy. It echoes De Cleyre’s sentiments in which she wrote that women must engage in acts of rebellion against prevailing norms and behaviors, which makes her an ideal model for Dieterich’s story.
In de Cleyre’s essay “Those Who Marry Do Ill” she writes,
The majority of women usually wish to create the impression that they are devoid of sexual desires, and think they have paid the highest compliment to themselves when they say, ‘Personally, I am very cold; I have never experienced such attraction.’ Sometimes this is true; but oftener it is a lie—a lie born of centuries of pernicious teaching of the Church.
It is still a fact that a woman with sexual desires is often cast as dangerous, as vulgar or improper. A woman’s sexual desire is not something to consider, but I’d contend that it is an authentic way of being, true to our bodies, true to our nature, as in the way Leah Dieterich’s desire awakens in a new relationship with a woman. She writes of her desire, “She lay back on the mattress and I stretched myself on top of her…I rubbed my face against her stomach…I went running into the woods. I felt my way in, deeper still…We reached inside each other as though reaching into our mothers.” Desire as history. Desire that comes from a distant place of origin. Desire as wilderness. Which, perhaps becomes the replacement for parental love and our search for self.
I think that’s why Leah Dieterich’s book is so interesting and why her memoir resonates with the ideas set forth by de Cleyre. And also why I think we continue to create literature and art that investigates this subject of desire, marriage, and sexuality. How might an alternative to marriage work in a culture where alternatives are often judged? What might family say? Community? Why was that even a problem at all? Dieterich does not write toward any profound realizations by the end of her memoir. We don’t know what happens to the narrator or her husband, but that’s not the point of this book. The point is to reconsider the notions of marriage and individuality. To be curious. To question social norms of traditional partnering. To investigate. Dieterich’s voice is inviting, the prose simple and confident and I found myself thinking of the narrator while I was away, making connections between my own life and hers. Twinning, you might say.
Melissa Matthewson‘s essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in DIAGRAM, American Literary Review, Guernica, Mid-American Review, and River Teeth among others. She currently teaches writing and literature at Southern Oregon University and runs an organic vegetable farm.