Ariel Levy Makes Her Own Rules

The out essayist opens up about love and loss in her new memoir, "The Rules Do Not Apply."

In “The Lesbian Bride Handbook,” her 2007 essay for New York magazine, Ariel Levy shared her trepidations about her wedding at a time when LGBT people were just starting to fight for the right to marry.

I am not a total idiot. I always had the sense to say “No wedding cake, no officiant, no first dance, no ’Here Comes the Bride,’ no Times announcement, and absolutely no white dress.”

Who are we kidding? And why? We just wanted a big, awesome party where everyone could meet and go bananas. It’s a special opportunity, you know: The only other time everyone you love will assemble in one place is at your funeral.

That same refreshing honesty is present in Levy’s examinations of public figures like Diana Nyad and Caster Semenya, whom she profiled for The New Yorker, where she’s been since 2008.

It’s only every few years that she allows readers to devour something about herself, though.

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In the 2013 New Yorker essay “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” she recounted a miscarriage that happened while on assignment. It was a piece filled with crushing tragedy but without any self-pity or plea for sympathy. Instead, she interwove her experiences in the moment with more composed post-trauma ruminations. Levy presents a clear portrait of humanity in her writing, even (or especially) when it’s about herself.

He new memoir, The Rules Don’t Apply (March 2017/Random House) is an expansion of the “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” essay, with anecdotes from her life providing even richer context for readers interested in lingering in Levyland. Rules doesn’t center on the miscarriage itself—instead it reveals the psyche of a woman betrayed by her own body, and the events that shaped her before and after. Considering miscarriage is a topic rarely broached publicly, Levy’s story has found resonance with women in similar circumstances—much like “Lesbian Bride Handbook” before it.

“The response to [’Thanksgiving in Mongolia’] made me realize how hungry women were for a discussion of what miscarriage really is,” Levy, 42, tells NewNowNext. “Since it came out, I’ve heard from a lot of women about stillbirth and miscarriage—just all sorts of the kind of epic stuff that goes on for women around those issues of being a human female animal.”

The topic is so often taboo, she explains, “and I got the feeling that we’re hungry to have a discussion about it.”

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The Rules Do Not Apply/Random House

Levy is used to chronicling other people’s stories—mostly women, and often queer: At The New Yorker she’s written profiles of Edie Windsor, Catherine Opie and, most recently, Olive Kitteridge author Elizabeth Strout.

But sharing more of herself has given her the opportunity to hear from women who often feel unheard.

“It’s a real privilege to hear from people about this stuff,” Levy confides. “This lady wrote me the other day—she’s, like, 82 and she [said] ‘I kind of hadn’t thought about it for decades but I was trying to get pregnant all throughout my 20s. I had a series of miscarriages and they were just devastating and isolating, and there was no way to talk about them.'”

At a reading in San Francisco, another reader shared her experience with losing a baby: “She [said] ‘I have three children who are alive, and lost four babies. I’m 77, and I miss every one of them.’” Levy recalls.

“I mean that’s intense. That’s a real honor to be connecting with women, particularly older women, on this issue. That’s really been a big deal to me. It’s not like I have a casual relationship to this issue. It reshaped my life in many ways.”

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 10:  Ariel Levy participates in a discussion with Lena Dunham during the New Yorker Festival on October 10, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Thos Robinson/Getty Images for The New Yorker)
Thos Robinson/Getty Images

Discussing a miscarriage can be harrowing, especially when you’re called on to recount it again and again.” Sometimes I’m giving these readings—Jesus, It’s excruciating,” Levy reveals. “It’s not a picnic. Sometimes I wish I’d written a cookbook.”

But as a writer and storyteller, she finds the process both necessary and cathartic.

“It was already this defining part of my story—now it just became a public thing instead of a private thing. But that suits me fine,” she says. “I didn’t mind being honest and open about that. It was my reality either way. So it was sort of a relief to be like ‘Yeah, this is my truth.’”

Part of that truth is discussing her now ex-wife, whom she calls “Lucy,” and the demise of their relationship—largely due to Levy’s infidelity and Lucy’s alcoholism, both of which are detailed in Rules. Levy’s essay about her wedding was so widely read, it could have made the truth about her divorce a harder story to share, especially since it wasn’t hers alone to tell.

“She was the first person to read this,” Levy said of her ex. “I gave it to her before I gave it to my editor. And I said, ‘If there’s anything you can’t live with, I’ll take it out.’ As important as the book is to me, she’s more important to me.”

Thankfully, Lucy didn’t ask for anything to be excised. “She read it, and she said, ‘I’m not gonna censor you and your story. Do what you have to do.’”

Part of Levy’s likability is that she doesn’t particularly try to be likable. She doesn’t explain away her affair, or place the blame solely on Lucy for their marital struggles. The confidence that she so effortlessly employs allows us to trust her recollections, even when those memories might be less than flattering.

hos Robinson/Getty Images

Instead of self-deprecating, Levy is self-effacing, but without attempting to force a teachable moment.

“I worked really hard to be as truthful as I possibly could,” Levy says of The Rules Don’t Apply. “I did the best job I could to depict myself and my life honestly. So, you know, if you read it and you’re like ‘I really don’t like this person,’ then you probably genuinely really don’t like me. And I can live with that.”

“On the other hand,” she counters, “I’m a person and that’s a book, and it’s not the same thing.”

Levy has helped significantly to queer The New Yorker in her nine years with the magazine: Her 2009 piece “Lesbian Nation” took readers inside the lesbian separatist movements of the 1970s. The story was “definitely my idea,” she says, but editor-in-chief David Remnick didn’t need much prodding to give her the go-ahead.

ariel levy new yorker

And because of the trust she engenders in her subjects, who see her as their woman on the inside, she’s able to get insight into people often painted as caricatures.

“I love old ladies,” Levy confesses. “That’s why I write about them so often for The New Yorker. I just think that it’s such a sad thing that in our culture women, once they reach an age where they’re actually receptacles of wisdom, get marginalized. I hate that—and I just really enjoy the company of old birds. I write to hear stories from old women.”

She cites Edie Windsor as one of the best “old birds” ever.
Such is Levy’s reputation that when Roberta Kaplan, Windsor’s attorney, came to the The New Yorker to ask for a profile of her client, she specifically asked for Levy to do it.

It’s more than just the gay girl’s club, though. Windsor’s sexuality wasn’t secondary in her profile, Levy insists, “but the point wasn’t that she was gay. The point was she had the tenacity to sue the United States government.”

She estimates she’s been writing about tenacious, unconventional women for two decades now. She’ still touring with The Rules Do Not Apply but she’s always on the hunt for her next subject.

“Now I have to find another story—that’s our life,” she says. “It’s like, finish one thing and you’re like ‘Okay, back to the beginning. Gotta find another thing now.’ And, every time, you ask, ‘Is there another story on Earth or is that the last one?’”

The Rules Do Not Apply is out now on Random House.

Trish Bendix is a Los Angeles-based writer.