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"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.