- Roy Gumpel
Lisa A. Phillips lives so close to Woodstock's Maverick Concert Hall that on summer evenings, she can hear music waft through the trees. That's hard to imagine today, when ice covers the path to a porch flanked by tall stacks of firewood.
The author of Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession (Harper, 2015) opens the door to an idyllic room with a woodstove aglow in one corner. Built by her artist-husband Bill Mead, with a cheerful display of family photos featuring their 10-year-old daughter Clara, the house is a vision of domestic bliss.
This is, in Phillips's own words, the "happy ending" part of a story that's had some distinctly dark turns. Unrequited opens with her younger self banging so insistently on her beloved's door—at six on the morning—that he opens it with a baseball bat in one hand and a phone in the other, threatening to call 911.
"How did this happen to me?" Phillips writes of the obsession that "changed me from a sane, conscientious college teacher and radio reporter into someone I barely knew—someone who couldn't realize that she was taking her yearning much, much too far."
Unrequited love is a near-universal experience; one researcher cites survey responses of more than 90 percent. "But that's not obsessive romantic love," Phillips explains. "That could just be the guy in your math class who you wanted to notice you, but he never did."
What separates the starry-eyed suitor from the delusional stalker? How did Phillips—and so many others—step over that line? "I wanted to answer the question of why this happens, not only to me, but to people. I'm particularly interested in women because there's a double standard, a different response," she explains. While men who stalk women are seen as psychotic creeps, "For women it's neurotic spinsters and bunny boilers. The attitude is mocking, disrespectful: What's going on with that stupid woman holding on to that stupid dream? Well, she's not stupid and the dream isn't stupid."
Unrequited paints obsessive love as a complicated cocktail of circumstance and neurochemistry, akin in some ways to a substance addiction. Phillips interviewed dozens of women who've been in obsessive love, men who've been the object of such obsessions (including her Catskills neighbor James Lasdun, author of Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked), psychologists, and neuroscientists. She also examines literary archetypes ranging from Dante's Beatrice to Disney princesses, the medieval concepts of chivalric love and erotic melancholy, and the more modern ones of pathological limerence, OCD, and addictive behaviors. The resulting book—part memoir and part reportage—is indelible reading. But it took Phillips years to revisit the subject.
"The last thing I wanted to do was write about it. I wanted to put it behind me," she says. When obsession struck, she was still immersed in the novel she'd started for her MFA thesis, a stranger-in-town tale called Posings. Besides, she reports, "I didn't think it would be good material. I was just some girl who'd lost her shit over a boy."
When Phillips met "B." (not his real first initial), she was a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh. In a touch most fiction writers would call heavy-handed foreshadowing, they met in a class on Tragedy, which Phillips had chosen because of her fondness for Shakespeare.
The relationship started platonically. She'd just gone through a painful breakup, and B. was involved in a fading long-distance relationship. But as he continued to send out mixed messages, Phillips fell harder and harder, persuading herself they were meant for each other. Even the baseball bat didn't convince her (or him, apparently, since he let her inside).
At long last he drew a firm line, telling Phillips never to call him again. She got violently ill, and "felt like the devil had left me." A few weeks later, she left for a residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, where she met her husband-to-be. Their stays overlapped by just a few days, but it was enough to spark a potential romance and eventual marriage.
Ten years ago, shortly before Clara was born, Phillips wrote the first words of what would become Unrequited. She'd told her husband about her obsessive past early on. "I just gave him the broad brush: I was hung up on this guy," she says. In 2006, she picked up the thread again, writing an essay titled "I Couldn't Let Go of Him. Did It Make Me a Stalker?" for the New York Times' Modern Love column.