The final separation of death is so frightening, so thorny and so difficult for humans to grasp that we tend to distill it into something simpler, with easy-to-follow directives and guidelines. Perhaps the most well-known guideline is that we do not speak ill of the dead. Instead, we rewrite history. Fights and foibles are mysteriously erased. Troubling moments dissolve into nothingness. We loved them, we say. We miss them every day. We do not know how to go on without their goodness. We would give anything to have them back again.
But in Rebecca Woolf’s case, her relationship with her late husband wasn’t just imperfect but toxic. Her memoir, All of This, eschews any such flattering postmortem revisions in favor of the messy, freeing truth.
Woolf had been planning to leave her husband, Hal, when he was diagnosed with an advanced form of pancreatic cancer and given only months to live. With four children, they had hacked it as far as they could through a relationship riddled with acrimony, casual cruelty and Hal’s control issues, which left Woolf feeling desperate and stifled. Their impending divorce felt like a rapidly approaching springboard to freedom for Woolf, until Hal’s diagnosis threw up a confusing and painful wall. Suddenly she found herself fulfilling the wedding vow she had been determined to escape: that she would stay until the end.
Woolf does not mince words or deal in niceties in this memoir. Hal was frequently difficult to like even as he was dying: He was demanding and childish about the fast-moving course of his illness. He was distant from his children, and the stress he caused his wife seemed deliberate. Shortly after his death, Woolf began looking for new partners, mostly brief hookups, as her joy and relief became braided with her grief. Along the way, Woolf reveals more of Hal’s humanity, showing that within the strife and heartbreak of their marriage, there were bright moments as well. Aptly titled, All of This is an all-encompassing portrait of a marriage that didn’t work, and Woolf is as unflinchingly honest about that marriage as she is about the experience of loss that terminated it.
“I loved this man once and then I hated him and then I loved him and then I hated him and then I loved him and then I hated him and then I loved him again, and then he died,” Woolf writes. “This was our love story.”