Unfortunately, It Happens Every Day…

When I read about the new memoir Happens Every Day: An All Too-True Story, I knew I would read it as soon as I could get it from the library. I picked it up on Wednesday evening and finished it Thursday night. The reviews I’ve since read on Amazon all say about the same: “I couldn’t stop reading this book,” “This is a page-turner,” etc.

And it’s true – I wanted to get to the end of the book so I could find out what happens. If someone is spilling a good story, I stick around until the end. But now that I’ve reached the end, there are more questions than anything close to an answer.

First, the gist of what happened: the author, Isabel Gillies, was married to a professor at Oberlin College, they had two sons very close in age (both under the age of 4 when the main story unfolds) and her husband leaves her, pretty much because he’s in love with another professor at his college, although that solidifies a bit later.

Yeah, this does indeed seem to happen, in one form or another, every day.

The drama lies in the back story and details. The marriage was the husband’s second. His first marriage also resulted in a son but he left that wife for someone else and the first wife and son went off to Texas. So, one child already out there not seeing his dad a whole lot, since he no longer lived in the same state or region of the country. And hubby refuses to put the brakes on some intense-sounding friendships with former lovers that, while no longer sexual, certainly seem intimate. Even further in we discover that the husband’s father left his mother for another woman while she was pregnant. Hmmm… whether or not this is important depends upon how much stock you put in your family history influencing the choices you make as an adult. Regardless, the pattern is interesting.

In the space of what amounts to about two months after a new female professor starts teaching in his department at the college, the husband decides he “just can’t do it,” meaning continue on with Gillies and their two sons. According to Gillies, she found him sobbing one morning and the conversation went like this:

“‘I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t,’ he cried. ‘Yes, you can. Baby, please. Stop,’ I said. But he was gone. I knew he was. He was leaving me and I knew from the way he was crying that he wasn’t going to come back… He had decided and it broke his heart.”

To interject a stoic, Midwestern view of the world here: I probably would have said, “You can’t do it? Tough shit, you are doing it because we have two toddlers!” Because what he really seemed to be saying to her at that moment wasn’t “I can’t do it,” but rather, “I don’t want to do it,” which is a very different thing.

And, while it wouldn’t be the end of the world, I suppose, if the marriage had to end because he was in love with the Winona Ryderesque new professor (Gillies makes this comparison between lady professor and Winona more than once in the book) why does he allow his children to move across the country back to New York? Or why doesn’t he follow them back to New York and try to set up shop there? What the hell is this?

How can not seeing your kids on a regular basis and taking part in day-to-day decisions be “the best for everyone?” This may be an OK decision if you’re insane, like the crazy wife tucked away in the attic in Jane Eyre. If you’re that person, too crazy to interact with other people, then OK, you have a point. You aren’t a fit parent and it might be best for you to skedaddle. But otherwise… suck it up. No matter what bill of goods anyone tries to sell me, I still believe parenting doesn’t take place from several states away.

When Gillies finally packs up to head back to her parents’ apartment in New York with the kids, they have the most ludicrous conversation of the entire book (and that’s saying something for these two):

“Will you always be my friend?” I said, crying.

“Yes,” he said (ha, I bet not after this book was published because it makes him look like a total dickweed)

“Will you always love the boys?”

“Oh, yes.” (as long as I don’t have to see them or be involved in parenting them on a day-to-day basis and they don’t muck up my new relationship with the elfin literature professor, I will love those boys to death)

“Will we always be their parents?” (by this point the conversation reminds me of something from Peter Pan, although I can’t exactly pinpoint why)

“Always.” (I mean, technically, yes. Biologically, yes.)

“I am so sad,” I said.

“I am too,” he said (but not too sad because, well, I’m getting my way, aren’t I?)

“Someone else will raise the boys,” I said. (I’m getting remarried as quickly as I can.)

“You will choose someone who will be loving and kind.” (Pick someone, anyone, so I don’t have to deal with you anymore, please!)

“How do you know that we will be all right?”

“I just think we will be happier…” he said. (Happier? Did I mention that this guy is a professor of poetry? If he wanted happy, he should have picked a different profession. Combining poetry with a job as an academic is about the saddest life condition I can think of, like sharecropping on a word plantation; doing a poetry jig for The Man.)

I’m judging the husband harshly here and most other readers will too because, well, he doesn’t have a tell-all book. We don’t know what Gillies left out, what she never knew, what she denies even to herself (she claims, at one point, to have absolutely no secrets in her life, which makes her sound well, either incredibly ignorant or incredibly boring). Who knows?

She does come across, more than once, as frenetic, unhinged and idealistic – whether this is really what she’s like or whether it’s because of the sometimes poor writing is hard to say. Her husband isn’t just handsome, he’s “an Adonis.” He’s not just intelligent, he’s “a genius.” And I quickly became tired of her handing out the “Just Folks” line even after all the stories of summers in Maine, Ivy League schools, the expensive remodel on the Oberlin house,etc, etc. She paints her family as a roving band of organic, ergonomic, culture-loving, foodie Gypsies who wow the Oberlin campus with their adorable-ness. And maybe, just maybe, this line of fucked-up thinking is what helped land her in the biggest mess of her life.

Could it be, in the end, that the moody poetry professor just couldn’t take the chirpiness? The go-go attitude and the absolute adoration? The only reason he ever gives Gillies for having to bail, despite months of trying to wring it out of him, is that they are not alike. They are different and these differences can’t, in the end, be ignored. He didn’t want to have the wife who wanted to make snow angels in the falling snow and later drink cocoa naked (I’m making this part up). He wanted a waifish wife dedicated to 18th century literature who preferred to watch the snow fall from the safety of the pavement while smoking a cigarette. In the end, you are who you are.

Just don’t leave your parenting job to someone else, even if they are loving and kind.

5 thoughts on “Unfortunately, It Happens Every Day…

  1. I loved your review of this book. Just skimmed the memoir myself and was left with very similar questions to yours. Seems the narcissism spills all over the place, i.e. being handsome is not enough. The brilliant husband with a “mind like a cathedral” (what a howler of a compliment!) also must be an Adonis and get in the zone before he enters a classroom to “intimidate” his students with his magnetism. Jeez, what mystifications!!
    As someone who knows this world quite well, I find the reverence towards this Peter Pan professor quite embarrassing. The sad thing is that, if one reads the ratemyprofessor.com reviews of the fellow it is clear that “Josiah” manages to mesmerize plenty of college students with his ivy league background and his intense+sexy classroom persona.
    Frankly, hubby and Ms. 1/2 French waifish scholar sound like complete and utter jerks. Unfortunately for those of us who live in these worlds, many of Ms. Gillies’ observations about the snobbery of the academic tribes ARE absolutely true.
    One last observation: I don’t believe for a nanosecond that Gillies really has made peace with the ex and Ms. 18th Century. No matter how genteel and fair she wants to seem, this memoir is a true kick in the groin. Given that there were two little children involved, this delicious revenge seems very just to me.

  2. Great review. I found the book to be way over-the-top and the author so self-involved that you can never really get a good picture of those around her. On one hand she speaks of her husband’s depth, intelligence and brooding dark side. But she herself never gets deeper than the labels on people’s clothing. I found myself wondering through the entire story why he would have married her in the first place if he is truly so deep. I find the three main characters to just be really shallow and sad and not at all likable.
    In the book she mentions how she could sense everyone watching and admiring her good-looking family when they were out and about. I also laughed out loud at her describing how adventurous they were to move to Oberlin, as if they were loading up their wagon and heading out onto the Oregon Trail in the dead of winter. Half of Oberlin is from the east. She tries so hard to convince the reader how beautiful she, her children and her wallpaper are. How could he leave her?! Over and over, I actually felt uncomfortable reading it and sympathizing with her Oberlin friends who seemed to be desperately dodging this train wreck.
    What Isabel doesn’t seem to realize is that the new literature professor has already received the biggest punishment of all-she is stuck with a man she will never be able to fully trust and who will most likely toss her aside at some point as well. While Isabel will have long moved forward. That would seem to be punishment enough.

  3. O.P. – I agree about the new wife being stuck with the biggest punishment. She’s now the third wife of a guy with a terrible track record who also has three children who he is (hopefully) helping to support.

    To me, this book does seem like a revenge tactic, even though she doesn’t use her ex-husband’s real name and praises him every chance she gets. It’s a complete invasion of privacy and it’s obvious that she needed to make some money. She touts the book as a way to help others who are going through the same thing but I have to say that I didn’t read too many coping tips – if that was the point of the book maybe there should have been less time spent writing about how much her mother loves a garden and more about how to move on emotionally and practically when your husband leaves you. The book pretty much ends with her and her kids living with her parents. She has no money and no employment, but in the “epilogue” we learn that she pretty quickly “met the love of her life” and from her bio we know that she’s remarried. So much for introspection and trying to figure out how to support yourself. I read that she’s writing another book, probably to fill us in on this new “chapter” in her life.

  4. you should have heard her interview in MPR.
    it was gag-worthy. she’s VERY passive aggressive. martyr, anyone?

  5. What hubby and “Sylvia” did is pretty damn awful, but after reading the memoir completely, I find the jilted wife so dependent (my upper-class mother this and my mother that…), insecure (enough already with the petite, brainy brunettes…you’re a beautiful, successful blonde actress for God’s sake!!), controlling, status-bound and CONDESCENDING (wow, can you believe that they have running water and an actual museum in Ohio) that I can understand why her spouse—any spouse—would want to check out.

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