Friday, December 4, 2009

Read This Book: Perfectiion

Perfection by Julie Metz is both shocking, disturbing and thoroughly wonderful. Metz's "perfect" life shattered when her handsome young husband died suddenly and she subsequently discovered his web of infidelity. How she unravelled all the secrets of his life and began to build a new life helped her redefine just what perfection really means.

What sparked the writing of this book?

When my husband died suddenly in January 2003, I was living in a small town north of New York City. My family and most of my longtime friends lived elsewhere and they were all worried about me. After a few days of trying to respond to individual e-mails, I decided to write one long e-mail each day and send that to anyone who wrote to me asking for news. After a few months I had created a diary of my early widowhood. When I found out about my husband’s infidelities in July 2003, several friends suggested that I should write about my experiences. But I wasn’t a writer and had no idea how to take the e-mails I’d written and put them together into a book that anyone would want to read. At this point, a professional writer I knew took me out for lunch and insisted that I give it a try. She pretty much sent me home with instructions on how to get started and kept after me to make sure I was working. After a while I sank into the writing experience and committed myself to the project.

As you were writing the memoir, and when you completed it, what discoveries did you make about yourself and the nature of your relationship with your husband?

The writing process helped me work through so many complex emotions: grief, then anger, shame, despair, and finally, acceptance. Along the way I learned that I was tougher than I had thought, that I could, in fact, take charge of my life, and rebuild it, with help from family and friends. From that point I was able to look back at my marriage and see the good and bad times with more clarity. In the end there are still unanswered questions. Henry’s behavior was so spectacularly self-destructive

You found out that your marriage was an illusion, so I’m wondering, what was the process that allowed you to trust again?

While I was married, I imagined that I couldn’t live without my husband. Then he died and I found that I could, after all, live without him. Slowly I put the basics of life back together. I was a working single mother and my heart was pretty much a disaster area, but I still earned a living and got dinner on the table. When I started to feel more settled, I made a list of what I hoped to find in a new partner: someone who was kind, and honest, who would love my child, and share my world view. When I began dating, I didn’t always stick to the list, so there was plenty of trial and error. When I met my present partner, I wasn’t sure that he was the right man for me, but slowly over time I saw his love for me and my daughter and his genuine interest in making a real family. This is what I’d wanted to have with my husband. It all took time and what I like is that we are still learning about each other.

Do you think a perfect marriage is possible? Why or why not?

Perfection! It doesn’t exist! So what’s left once we give up on that (unrealistic) ideal? We have the variety of real everyday experience, filled with beauty and flaws, excitement and boredom, happiness and sorrow. I look at my present relationship as a series of “everydays,” most of which are terrific, some less terrific, a few disappointing. I think the best relationships are ones where both individuals can change and grow and feel supported. What I enjoy about my situation now is that we genuinely love each other, we have fun together, and we weather difficult times with our spirits intact.

What made you want to know these other women that your husband had been with? Do you think that it ultimately helped, or was it more like rubbing salt into your already deep wounds?

My husband had died, leaving me with so many unanswered questions. I couldn’t ask him why he’d made his choices, but I didn’t feel like I could move forward with my life until I had some answers. I contacted the other women to try to understand what had happened to my marriage. I am not saying this is what every woman should do, but for me this was ultimately a positive experience. In the short term it was painful, but I did get some answers, and encountering these women helped me resolve my anger and find compassion for him, for them, and for myself. In one case, an unlikely friendship began that continues to this day.

I’m wondering, what are you going to tell your daughter about her father?

I have had many conversations with my daughter about her father. I would never have published the book without talking to her. What I have told her is that her father loved us but made some terrible mistakes. I want her to understand that adult life can be complicated, that we are flawed creatures, and sometimes our flaws can overwhelm us. I also hope to show her by example that it is possible to remake your life and that you can create your own second chances. And when I make mistakes (every day), I apologize and try to do better.

Why do you think you didn’t realize the signs of what was going on with your husband and all the women in his life, especially in the light of your honestly portraying the difficulties in your marriage? Do you think we choose to see what we want to see and protect ourselves from the rest?

When I was married, I had a lot at stake in not looking at the reality of my life. My identity was very wrapped up in being Henry’s wife. We had our child and a house and comfortable life in a beautiful town. I think many women are in this situation. Since my book came out I have received many letters from women who also didn’t see what was going on in their marriages because they were too afraid to look. Not looking too hard is a way of protecting oneself, though it won’t work forever.

I always ask…what are you working on now, what’s your writing life like, and what question didn’t I ask that I should have?

I am working on a novel now. Some of the themes are similar—a woman in midlife confronting her past and her future—but it’s such a different experience writing fiction. There is a new freedom in being able to invent scenarios and imagery, though I often feel now that the characters are directing the action rather than the other way around. I have a pretty clear idea of the basic story but I don’t really know yet how it’s all going to turn out.

My writing life is…probably not ideal. Which is to say, I have is no set writing schedule. I clear away the breakfast dishes and write at the dining table, while I also work with my assistant on book design projects, pay bills, make soup for dinner, and run loads of laundry. In the evening I might work some more on writing, while my daughter does homework, also at the dining table. But this is pretty much how the first book got written, so perhaps this method will work a second time…

People are sometimes curious about the title of the book: Perfection, since the story is about a time in my life that was anything but perfection. I chose the title because I felt that women are really struggling with this idea of perfection: perfect bodies, houses, kids, careers. The feeling that you have fallen short of the standard creates a feeling of shame that leads women to make some poor choices as they try to hide or plaster over the parts of themselves they feel are less than perfect. I wanted to find a way to redefine the word “perfection” so that it could encompass real life with all its beauty and flaws.



Jeff Lyons said...

C: Wow... I hope someone has optioned her story for a movie... I sure would I if I had the money! Fantastic.


Katharine Weber said...

Such Good Friends by Lois Gould

Melissa said...

Thanks for this interview! I just read Perfection a couple of weeks ago and loved it.

I understood the title to be somewhat ironic, and to encompass both Henry's quest for umami and Julie's grappling with what perfection might mean and might cost.

That last question and answer sheds more light on it--I like the idea of redefining perfection; I agree absolutely that a certain class of women struggle with maintaining a "perfect" of image especially, and that we would be wise to reexamine our assumptions about perfection.

Thanks again!