Nina Renata Aron and I met as many writers meet these days, on the internet. I think I first discovered her writing when she wrote a review of The Answers by Catherine Lacey in The New Republic. This feels especially poignant now, because The Answers was, improbably, my first introduction to the concept of limerence: coined by Dorothy Tennov as “an involuntary interpersonal state that involves an acute longing for emotional reciprocation, obsessive-compulsive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and emotional dependence on another person.”
Limerence is central to Aron’s memoir, Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls (Crown Publishing) but the book’s themes are manifold. Aron tells the story of how she learned to love in a way that was dictated by films and songs and television—the type of love we all recognize as crazy, obsessive, wild, and all-consuming. As she grew older, she began to experience the consequences of obsession, but she didn’t recognize until she was deep in a relationship with a heroin addict, that there was a name for what afflicted her relationships: codependency. From there, Aron explores how love-dependence on alcoholics or drug addicts can take a toll on the individual, the family, and the community. She also examines the histories of Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, and the temperance movement, weaving all of this back to her own development into motherhood and sobriety.
What I find so singularly appealing about Aron’s work is that it charts something that I’ve always sensed existed, but never knew how to name. I had my first “normal” (read: not distant, emotionally abusive, or dramatic) relationship this past year, and though I was sometimes thrilled by my boyfriend, I was also, sometimes…bored? The ideas I’d been fed of love were more fulfilled by the men who hurt me than by the man who was, overall, kind to me. Aron discusses in the book, and we discuss in this interview: When we think of the love experiences that formed us, are they really ours, and why do we think they’re supposed to hurt?
Rebecca Schuh How has the publishing experience been for you, in the midst of a pandemic?
Nina Renata Aron The literary community that has risen to the occasion this year, keeping bookstores afloat and keeping writers “touring.” One amazing part of it is that I have gotten to read with and attend events with and see people read who I would never ordinarily have seen. It feels like we’re collapsing geography, when we’re all online doing these events. But it’s also strange and disappointing in a way that mostly, I’ve really loved the tactile experience of reading and being a book lover and I spend a lot of time in bookstores. There’s something heartbreaking about that experience not being available as my book’s coming out.
RS You’ve spoken at length about the impression of love that we get from fiction, and life. This desperate, wild, explosion, versus the day to day love that’s doing the work of love and the tasks that are associated with taking care of people. How did that perception change for you as you were writing?
NA It was something I had come to before I started writing, and I wanted to write this book in order to more fully unpack it. One of the questions of the book is, why does taking care of people feel so good and hurt so much?
That had started to obsess me. It felt strangely relevant in every single context of my life, including with work relationships, friendships, the codependent template. I realized it was a template of my entire life, and I think motherhood really cemented for me that I dwell in a particular kind of relation to others, and I didn’t like it. I love motherhood, but I disliked the fact that I always ended performing a kind of victimhood in my relationships. I felt victimized by love itself and by other people, and by how demanding all of that was. Once I was getting healthier in recovery, I realized there are people for whom love is not like that.
RS Has your relationship to relationships changed?
NA Completely, yes, so much so that I think that breaking up with my idea of love was more painful than ending that relationship that I write about, or more painful than any breakup. Parting with an idea of love as a kind of tortured salvation has been so excruciating for me. I wrote this book in order to write my way out of that idea and by the end of this book—once I had gotten that honest about what it’s really like within that dynamic—I absolutely couldn’t justify it any longer.
I’m fascinated by people who somehow emerge from childhood and adolescence with the capacity to look for an equitable love. I don’t understand how somebody who grew up when I did, watching the movies I watched, and listening to the pop songs I listened to, is supposed to intuitively understand that that’s not real life. You’re supposed to sing those songs in the shower and then actually live a much more pragmatic life in a healthy partnership. I wanted the thing in the Lana Del Rey song.
RS You have such a clear voice. We were acquainted already, but I feel like I got to know you in this deeper way, reading the book. Do you feel like the voice in the book is your everyday voice, your personality? How did you develop that into the written word?
NA A couple of friends have said that reading the book felt like hanging out with me, like they were listening to me talk. There were early drafts of the book that were incredibly overwrought, and those were the moments where I was like okay, you’re writing a book, you better make every word great. And, as is typical of writers, a lot of that stuff ended up coming out. The book that here, that’s been published, is a version that freely flowed from me. The voice of the book doesn’t feel cultivated to me, and I wonder if it should feel more cultivated.
There is a more academic mode when I’m talking about historical things, or trying to make an argument for a particular kind of view on the issue, or history that I really wanted to lay out. But that’s the way that I talk too. I was trained as an academic, there’s a particular register that I sometimes write in which codes as serious; it may seem kind of at odds with the book I was writing, but it was really important to me that all of that be in there.
RS How do you feel like your time as a scholar influenced you while writing this book?
NA In every possible way. I write in the book about the way that I dropped out of my PhD program and abandoned academia, but I realized that it really informs my thinking. It informs my capacity to ask certain questions, to research the answers to those questions. It’s strange because I felt very constrained by the conventions of academic writing, and my writing was always trying to buck out of that—it was one of the reasons I felt alienated in academia. I didn’t think I could express myself best in that form. But at the same time, my academic training gave me the capacity to think so fancifully and be really imaginative and creative and to push boundaries. Many times I thought, am I allowed to do this? If no one has put this history of temperance together in a particular way, can I? And I think it was ultimately very freeing to be like, Yes, I am—I just did.
RS I’m looking at the page in the book where you really go deeply into the idea of love as women’s work. I’m seeing a connection between how that relates to writing. Did you ever feel like the work of writing was similar to the work of love?
NA My path in love and writing were parallel.
I realized that I could move away from this mode of performing thankless labor in love, and the period of stewing in the resentment of feeling under-appreciated. It was sort of the same in my writing in the sense that I felt like I had to prove myself and cite a million things and write extensively about the history to prove that I’m authorized to speak.
If we think about loving as a form of people pleasing and also writing as a form of people pleasing, I did leave both of those motives behind. In the writing, it felt really good to not be writing for other people. I think that was true about my academic training too. I followed my passion for what I was most deeply interested in, but I was also trying to prove myself and trying to prove to the world that I was smart like a man, not chick smart. I think writing a book like this and doing an enormous amount of research and lacing it through without needing to prove anything, was really liberating.
RS I’m really interested in the parts of the book where you discuss limerence—that beginning phase of love—and it’s funny. I only learned that word three or four years ago.
NA Me too, five or six years ago.
RS It made so much sense. I used to be jealous of other couples and my friends when they’d get in a new relationship and be so obsessed with the person. It was almost refreshing to learn that this was just a concept.
NA Learning about this was actually a really big deal for me. I had the exact same experience in recovery from alcoholism. They call it terminal uniqueness—this sense of your own singularity…I love that phrase. It’s so unmistakable. Until you get sober. It’s part of the art of the freedom and redemption involved with getting sober, and it’s also totally heartbreaking to discover that nothing about you is actually particularly unique. It’s the same in love. It’s really wild and stupid that we ever think the experience of love is singular. But that is how it feels, the chemicals produce a sense of singularity, and so does patriarchy.
RS I really enjoyed the part of your book where you quote from and discuss the psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Frome, I wrote “WOW AHHHH” around the line, “in the beginning they do not know all of this, they take the intensity of the infatuation, the being crazy about each other, as proof of the intensity of their love, while it may only prove the degree of their preceding loneliness.” I screamed!
NA I think I also wrote “AHHH” when I first read that line. It’s a very shocking line. As I reflected back on this relationship and other relationships in my life, I do think that we want to be seen, we want to be validated, and I think that for so much of my life that was something I couldn’t do for myself. For whatever reason, I didn’t have the tools to do that for myself, so I needed to have myself mirrored back to me, ideally from a new partner. I didn’t really know who I was without that experience. That’s a version of loneliness, a true and profound loneliness, to not know who you are without someone gazing upon you and telling you. This is the cheesiest thing, but I think that I now do that for myself. I see myself and like myself. So then the question becomes, what is love for? The whipped cream on top of it all? If you don’t have that need, then what are you looking for in love? I have no idea.