About to turn 40 years old, I was having a serious midlife crisis. A novel I’d spent five years working on had been rejected, at the same time that my husband “Aaron” and I were going through infertility. I nicknamed this sad, vulnerable time-stretch my “no book, no baby summer.” Then I picked up the phone to hear the voice of Brad, an old college beau I hadn’t spoken to in a decade. He was currently a Harvard science professor with a 24-year-old graduate school girlfriend he could have 20 kids with. Worse, he had a new book coming out. Why did Brad get a book? He was a biology major. I’d been a struggling freelance writer in Manhattan for 20 years. I was enraged.
Instead of killing him, I offered to write a profile of Brad, turning my anxiety into a business opportunity. At our emotional lunch interview, I found myself less interested in his sociobiology book than with what had really happened between us in Ann Arbor, 20 years before. Without realizing it, I’d wound up conducting an exit interview. Focusing on my previous rejection took my mind off my current rejection. It was wildly cathartic. When two other exes called out of the blue, I got together with them and asked them the same questions. Before I married, from the ages of 13 to 35, I’d been madly in love five times, once every 4.4 years. I’d created a mythology in my head about why each of my old loves hadn’t lasted. One guy was a skirt chaser, another was too immature, a third had fallen for a more petite, successful woman. For each breakup, I’d blamed them. Now that I was a happily married, 40-year-old graduate of a dozen years of psychotherapy, my perspective had changed. Instead of being the victim, I pinpointed the moment where I’d screwed up each relationship. Having written countless personal essays on male-to-female issues for The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Jane and New Woman, I suspected I was onto something. I scrawled down what happened when I’d reconnected with each beau and brought the early version into my writing workshop. The group’s members were usually critical about my rough drafts, offering such comments as, “That’s throat clearing. Throw out the first five pages and start over.” This time somebody said, “You should have gotten old and bitter a long time ago, ’cause this rocks.” Giving a reading at NYU, where I taught journalism, I nervously read the first chapter. When I was done, the audience roared. Then all the female undergraduates in the room mobbed me, telling me about their romantic disappointments. I realized what the next step was. I tracked down my other two major heartbreaks. My husband Aaron, a TV comedy writer, always hated when I wrote anything about him or our marriage. It was a problem since I preferred writing in first person and hated censoring myself. But here I could write about sex, drugs and rock and roll in past tense, so he couldn’t complain. There was only one problem. The workshop insisted that the tiny role of the muttering husband in the background be expanded. It seemed that the book I was writing in order not to write about my husband needed him as the hero. I feared the minute he read it, he’d divorce me.
The day after a wonderful editor at Delacorte bought my finished manuscript, I handed it to Aaron. He loved it, though he later joked to a friend that he was penning a rebuttal called The Bitch Beside Me. When I e-mailed Brad that I sold the book, he asked if he could see it. After he read it, his response was, “You’ve written a better character than I am a person.” The only people who don’t like it so far are my parents in Michigan. My mother said, “Go ahead, tell the whole world you’re in therapy.” My father is threatening to move to Alaska and keeps telling me how the sculpture of five male heads on the cover makes it seem like I cut the heads off. I told them that one of the benefits of publishing a book at my age is that I don’t really care if it’s not their cup of tea; they’re not my audience. “If you think turning 40 was hard, wait until you turn 50,” an older colleague recently warned.
Since I had the most fruitful midlife crisis in the history of the world, I can’t wait. Susan Shapiro’s heartbreaking and hilarious memoir, Five Men Who Broke My Heart, investigates the current lives of her past loves. A freelance writer, Shapiro lives in Manhattan with her husband.