Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession

By Lisa A. Phillips

Harper | 2015 | 304 pages | $25.99

Reviewed by Jan Alexander

Lisa A. Phillips

Crazy Love

A lifelong obsession, a short run on Broadway. Chita Rivera glided onto the stage as if she were walking on water, which she was in a sense as Claire Zachanassian, the richest woman in the world, coming back to her hometown, a fictitious Swiss village called Brachen, now a desperate place where everyone was broke.

Anton, the boy she loved in her youth, played by Roger Rees, was just one of the ragged townspeople hoping her visit would make a difference in his fortunes.   

John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical adaptation of The Visit with book by Terrence McNally —based on an often-adapted 1956 satirical play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt called Der Besuch der alten Dame—opened at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway in April of this year and closed in June after struggling with grosses and winning no Tonys in spite of several nominations, including one for Rivera as Best Leading Actress in a Musical.  It will surely be back someday, somewhere, however. The essence of the story is too irresistible not to stage again and again.

Claire was a beautiful gypsy girl in her youth (yes, there were gypsies in Switzerland, with a long history of persecution), naïve enough to imagine Anton would do right by her when she became pregnant. Instead he subjected her to a humiliating trial in which two friends testified, for a small fee, that they’d also slept with her. She fled Brachen in disgrace and became a prostitute with a keen nose for marrying outrageously rich old men.

In her return visit, knowing her money is everyone’s last hope, she announces she will bail them out. Just one concession: they must kill Anton. Of course, that’s insane, they all agree, at first. Weeks pass and Anton watches as his neighbors, his friends, his children and his wife ease into a buying binge—all on credit.  Spoiler alert here: in the play, the townspeople lynch Anton and call it a heart attack. After which Claire departs with his coffin; finally, in death, he’s hers.

This is obsessive love of operatic proportions, and therein lie the limitations of the Kander and Ebb version: their music fell far short of operatic. For a more successful twist on vengeance, the 1964 movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn delivered an ending that has haunted me ever since I caught in on late night television sometime in my teens: Claire announces at the very end that the villagers don’t have to kill Anton after all. She just wants him to spend the rest of his life amongst these people who were willing to kill him for a price.   

As is well known to anyone who’s ever become obsessed over a case of unrequited love—I think that takes in pretty much the entire population of the planet—you are rarely able to become the richest person in the world and use your money to make  the person who spurned you very, very sorry. That’s why  I prefer the Ingrid Bergman movie, depicting Claire (or Karla, as she’s called in this version) as a woman of exacting vengeance rather than a murderous harridan with an obsession of necrophiliac proportions—an obsession that would have been moving only if she’d sung an aria that shook the whole theater with the pain she’s suffered.

But what do you do about unrequited love when it doesn’t end with a grand finale and applause, but is just an ordinary knife in your heart that makes you wonder if you’re going to make it through the day? That’s the subject of Lisa Philip’s eclectic but mostly-delightful meditation on the subject, Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession, which, as the title suggests, examines whether obsession is different from a woman’s perspective.  

Phillips, a journalist, observes that throughout most of history women didn’t have the right to establish careers as troubadours, turning their unrequited love into immortal ballads.  Dante Alighieri first met Beatrice when she was eight and he was nine, and his love for her shaped his life’s work. When, in The Divine Comedy, Beatrice becomes an angelic Christ-like martyr figure who guides him through heaven, it’s a revelation that his love was really about “devotion to an ideal, a way to glimpse the transcendent.” In short, Phillips says, his love was “all about what extreme feeling for another can do to transform the self.”

Phillips set out, in part, to liberate the idea of obsession, unmasking it as something that can still be transcendent in the 21st century. For women, she says unrequited love can even be a form of rebellion thanks to its stubbornness and “unbridled conviction of rightness.”  She puts a certain amount of stock in the antiquated but persistent idea that women are supposed to let men chase them.

Think of The Rules—a best seller 20 years ago and a franchise that keeps on giving. In recent years authors Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider have come out with The New Rules: The Dating Dos and Don'ts for the Digital Generation, which tells millennial women “don’t answer the phone after 10.30pm,” “do place an online dating ad but never answer a man’s ad”, “do not respond to late-night booty calls.” 

But what if you’re a woman obsessed with someone and that person never calls you? Phillips also set out to ponder what turns otherwise sane women into pursuers and stalkers. It’s happened to most of us. It happened to Phillips herself. On a certain level the book is a memoir of her own bizarre transformation when she was 30. She was a college lecturer and radio reporter, an accomplished woman. She fell in love with a guy she calls B. She saw him for a while but he made it clear he wasn’t interested in a serious relationship.  

“He wasn’t with me, not this minute, not the next. And he was supposed to be.”

So one gray November morning, buoyed with memories of summer nights when they’d drunk bourbon on his roof together, she went to his apartment in Boston, knocked on the door, and when he didn’t answer she kept knocking. She puzzled in her mind over “who would reject this kind of desire, desire that walks through security doors and knocks and knocks and knocks, refusing to go away? Isn’t this what we all dream of, feelings so strong they allow us to flout the rules?”

When B. did come to the door he had a baseball bat in one hand and a phone in the other. He told her to get out or he was going to call the cops.

From there, Phillips tries to figure out what came over her. This is a book that it’s approximately equal parts grand tales of obsession and sober insights. It’s hard to pull off both feats. But her stories of historical, contemporary and fictitious women who’ve chased men to remote places, one of whom even dragged her husband along, will make readers who’ve been discreetly obsessed feel sane and reassure those who’ve been insanely obsessed that at least they’re not alone. The psychological takes on the nature of obsessive love might help stop the bleeding when you’re in that state.

The scariest revelation, however, comes when Phillips notes that some present-day psychologists see obsessive love as a pathology. True, this is after she’s discussed myriad stalkers, both male and female. Still, if you love obsessively and can turn your thoughts away from physical pursuit toward your own psyche, you might write an immortal ballad or at the very least gain some helpful insights. “If we dismiss romantic obsession as nothing more than as a tumor to be excised from our psyche, we’ll see no reason to heed what our longing might be trying to tell us,” Phillips writes.

Because, although it isn’t the stuff of opera and poetry, if we really analyze a case of obsessive love it usually turns out to be about something beyond the person we’re fixated upon. Phillips did see B. again, after she was married and able to reflect soberly on why she’d done something so unlike her. She concludes that in her mind she was lost at the time, and at first B. saw her as she so badly wanted to see herself: smart, desirable, strong.

At best, writes Phillips, “the impossibility of really experiencing romantic oneness gives the lover a strange advantage when it comes to creativity. ...It leaves them to dwell on the imagined perfection of ideal love.” It can, for those who channel it beyond their beloved, give an epic scale to life and art.

Take Mary Wollstonecraft, whose unrequitted love for Gilbert Imlay drove her to several suicide attempts. Imlay refused to marry her, but what he did do was send her off on a trip to Scandinavia to take care of his business interests—and conveniently get her out of his hair.

But she viewed what was then a dangerous journey for a woman as an opportunity. She kept a journal about the trip. There were miserable years after that, when she returned to England to find that Imlay had taken up with yet another lover, and she tried to kill herself again. But eventually she published a book about the journey that was a tremendous commercial success.  And history would have forgotten Imlay if not for his relationship with Mary Wollstonecraft.

“Unrequited love can be a highly meaningful state of mind, offering us insights into what we really want in life and love,” Phillips writes. A thought that is probably no comfort at all when you’re in the thick of crazy love, but give it a few days, or years. If I may offer some advice to the heinously spurned, it’s this: get on a plane so that you’re too far away from your beloved to present any immediate danger, and lock yourself in a room with Phillips’ contemplations on why you might be harboring this idea that you can’t go on living unless this particular person wakes up and realizes that the two of you are meant to be. You might hear celestial cymbals calling you to a creative pursuit but at the very least the book might help you resist the urge to call your beloved and make a fool of yourself.    

Then, when you’ve finished reading, stream the Ingrid Bergman version of The Visit and plot the revenge you’ll wreak someday when the time is right.   

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