Bingo square – new (I let this book jump over quite a few others in my TBR pile, messing up library due date timelines, because I was that excited to read it) (BINGO! bodies – elephant)
I loved reading Rebecca Woolf’s blog, Girls Gone Child, from the early years when I was also building my family based on surprises. Picking up her latest book, All of This, was a little like knowing that one of your formerly close girlfriends was going through some SHIT, but mainly hearing about it on social media – and then, finally, being invited to have drinks with that friend. When it arrived from the library, it was like pulling up a chair, uncorking a bottle of wine, and demanding: “Spill!” Of course, Woolf isn’t an actual friend, but having read so much about her family for so long creates a bond, albeit a one-sided bond – I felt as though I knew not only of her family but something about them. I had heard about her relationship with her husband, Hal – what I understood to be the ups and downs. But there’s always more that we do not know. In 2018, Rebecca’s husband Hal died after a whirlwind stint with cancer. By that point she wasn’t really updating her blog regularly, and I was just barely using Instagram, where many bloggers had migrated most of their content, so I heard about her husband’s illness and passing in late 2018. Since then, her social media content explored broadly the topics that she delves into in this memoir – what happened before, during, and after the death of the husband she was about to divorce.
The first part of the book is an in-depth exploration of the very complicated feelings Rebecca had as Hal was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He went from being healthy – and imminently hateable for Rebecca, as much as she resisted seeing that for their 14 year marriage – to bound to his bed within what felt like weeks, and died so quickly after his diagnosis. Rebecca reveals that she was ready to divorce him, had in fact started making very real plans to dissolve their marriage, when he got his diagnosis. Their relationship began when she was in her early 20s, he nearly 30, as two chain-smoking, music loving artists. The sort of relationship where you’re not really concerned with whether this person will make a decent LIFE PARTNER, you’re more concerned about finding time for sex and long car drives and belly laughs. She got pregnant, and they decided to make things work – they married in Vegas, and she started a blog that became incredibly popular, wrote a book about their experience (Rockabye), and did their best to make their LA life work. What we saw, from the blog, was that it was difficult but ultimately loving. They eventually had a daughter and then twin daughters – their children were 7 and 7, 10 and 13 when their father died.
The book goes into some pretty gritty detail about Rebecca’s reasons for wanting to end her marriage – ranging from her own behavior and beliefs in non-monogamy, to some admissions of essentially abuse on his part that she endured during their relationship. She is clear about how he wasn’t a good partner for her – and although she admits her faults, this book is not an exploration of what she did to him and how or whether she even should forgive herself for some of that. To be clear, she doesn’t owe any audience proof of that work – but for me, it did feel as though that was one almost incomplete part of the book. It’s very candid about her part of the story in so many ways, but I have to wonder, if she was a man admitting to regularly having sex with someone who isn’t your partner, without their consent – wouldn’t we want some deeper understanding from the author beyond, “I wasn’t into monogamy and he didn’t want an open marriage, so I lied to him and did what I wanted to do”? It’s hard to parse that without judgment – but it is one of the elements of the book that make it stand out, and it is certainly an area that brings up a lot of room for discussion.
The latter parts of the book are about what happened after Hal died – how Rebecca felt as she navigated his funeral and her family’s grief, and how she honored her own desire to date and explore her sexuality. Her experience was that she was not happy that Hal was not alive, but she was happy to live her life without him. She had already been planning to explore her happiness outside of her marriage. She had wanted a life without Hal – but she didn’t want Hal to die. She wanted him to also get to experience that, but there wasn’t anything she could do to control his illness and how unfair that situation was. There were things that he was unable to do, limits of who she was – and this book felt like a way to accept that he was a limited, imperfect person, that she loved until he died (even if she also hated him – that’s life, too). It’s pretty explicit about her desire for sex and to explore her sexuality, including falling in love with another former blogger from back in the day who had also gone through a divorce and was rediscovering her own agency.
Overall, I think that the book tended to show a balance between her deep love for the father of her children, and her pain at what their life together had become. It’s complicated to both love someone but to also feel hatred for how they have treated you, and that deepens when you go through big life experiences together, including giving birth and supporting someone in death. Watching someone die over the course of months, you do feel like a death doula – it’s unique, and special, and it is a space to honor relationships. I can understand how two people who may have at one point felt like they wanted nothing more than to be separate might find enduring love in that space. If I were a member of Hal’s family, I think it would be really difficult to read some passages, particularly those that detail Hal’s treatment of Rebecca – but their pain doesn’t invalidate her experience. It’s not for me to decide how her family will experience her work – clearly, even those of us who had read and followed her personal blog for years are only experiencing a fragment of her reality. I enjoy her writing, and I hope that others who find themselves in that particular nexus of grief and fulfillment find her book like a lifeline.