- 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.
"I didn't think of it as brave," she says now. "And the proof of the pudding is that people didn't look at me in shock. They said 'I can relate to that,' or, 'I've done much worse.' When you can air a taboo, that's an important step. We can't get a handle on these difficult emotions until we can talk about them."
Did she hear from "B.?" "Not a peep," Phillips says, adding darkly, "It won't come from me."
After the column came out, she assumed she was done with the subject. She'd just published her first book, Public Radio: Behind the Voices (Vanguard Press, 2006), and was juggling three jobs as writer, SUNY New Paltz professor of journalism, and mother. "I had all the sane credentials, particularly for Woodstock," she says. "I thought, what about her? What about that girl who banged down doors and was so obsessed? In a way, I didn't feel fully known."
She was also raising a daughter, and feared for her future romantic entanglements. In a chapter called "Crush," Phillips describes her mix of pride at Clara's performance in The Little Mermaid and fervent wish that the plot didn't feature a girl who sacrifices not only her voice but also her species for the prince of her dreams. Mother and daughter had long rated storybook princesses as "smart" and "not smart"; Ariel looked like a poster child for Door Number Two.
Phillips herself outgrew storybooks early. Growing up in small-town Connecticut, she was "socially awkward," walking around with a heavy backpack and a violin case. Her parents were both avid readers, and she helped herself to their basement library. "I read The Thorn Birds at 10, and a lot of guy books—Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, books my dad liked. I read Gone With the Wind 11 times."
She graduated from college in 1990, and found her first radio job at an NPR affiliate in Fort Dodge, Iowa. The station was housed in a blue mobile home, "probably not tornado-proof," recalls Phillips, who "drove into town with a futon on top of my station wagon," garnering stares from the locals.
As one of only six staff members, she learned on the job. "I would get up at 3:30am, arrive at four thirty to turn on the transmitter and let it warm up a few minutes before we signed on at five." She read the morning news and local weather, along with Bob Edwards's national newsfeed. Then she went out and reported on local events.
She describes this as "a very enriching, interesting, but lonely time." Her boyfriend lived three hours away in Iowa City, so she hung out with artists and nuns, "the intellectuals of the community."
After three years in Iowa, she moved to Pittsburgh. Her studies went well, but she didn't relish the prospect of moving again after graduation. "It was that turning-30 thing where everyone's getting into their corners. People were pairing up, my grad student community was dispersing. That's a lot of emptiness to face." For a few intense months, B. seemed destined to fill that void.
How does Phillips feel after writing the book on obsessive love? "Do I understand it better? Yes. Am I still in love with him? Definitely not. But I guess it'll always be part of me. I don't feel you just turn the page, or whatever that metaphor would be."
She looks out the window, where afternoon shadows are starting to gather. At one point, she thought about trying to interview B. to hear his side of things, but decided against it. "It's hard to imagine him completely not knowing, especially after the book comes out, but that needs to be a question I don't answer. I think it's okay to say there are some people you should not be in touch with. He feels the same way about me, I'm sure."
Phillips's takeaway from the experience isn't one-sided. Unrequited love can be destructive, but it can also spur personal growth. "At any given moment, you can find an unwanted woman who makes art out of lost love at an open mike night, or in a community poetry workshop, or in the Top 40 rotation on the radio," she writes. Or at your local bookstore.
She calls Unrequited "the book I wish I'd had. The Rules came out around the same time I was going through this. I would never have been the kind of person to read that book. I would never say don't ask a guy out." Phillips pauses. "I might say don't ask him out 20 times."
Appearing 2/7 at 6pm, Golden Notebook, Woodstock; 2/13 at 7pm, Oblong Books & Music, Rhinebeck; 2/17 at 6pm, Honors Center, College Hall, SUNY New Paltz; 3/21 at 2pm, Woodstock Writers Festival journalism panel with Benoit Denizet-Lewis & Guy Lawson, Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, Woodstock.