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“Women of my generation were given the lavish gift of our own agency by feminism—a belief that we could decide for ourselves how we would live, what would become of us,” writes Ariel Levy in her new memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply. Her life’s first three-and-a-half decades—encouraging parents, elite college, world travel, plum internships, bestselling book, happy lesbian marriage, and gig as a staff writer for The New Yorker— give scant lie to that belief.
But when the reader meets Levy at the start of the memoir, the winning streak has broken—hard. Almost all at once, at thirty-eight years old, she has lost a baby, a marriage, a home, and the illusion that she can compose her own biography. “The future I thought I was meticulously crafting for years has disappeared,” she writes, “and with it have gone my ideas about the kind of life I’d imagined I was due.”
The Rules Do Not Apply is a bildungsroman of a smart, spunky, pushy, bookish girl groomed and determined to have it all—which to her means career and motherhood, sexual freedom and marital security—coming to understand that she might not get everything she envisioned. In the words of Maureen Dowd, the (childless) New York Times columnist whom Levy once profiled, “Everybody doesn’t get everything.” 
'I wanted to talk about the experience of being a female human animal.'
Levy’s reckoning comes in a hotel room in Mongolia, where she has flown on assignment. Alone and nineteen weeks pregnant, she gives birth to a tiny baby boy, who dies in her arms. Levy returns home to find her spouse tumbling into an alcoholic crisis, not for the first time. Too devastated to support each other, the women divorce and sell their beloved Shelter Island house. Levy’s wealthy sperm donor, who had been ready to cushion the baby’s financial future, declines to try again. The author is flayed by grief. This section of the book—drawn from Levy’s unsentimental award-winning New Yorker article “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” (2013)—is the book’s emotional center and its literary climax, foreshadowed by reckless innocence and resolved in wisdom. The book has been largely perceived as an exploration of the messiness of grief and of growing up.
Although a number of critics have noted that the ostensible lesson of Levy’s book—that you can’t have everything—is not exactly news, The Rules Do Not Apply has been met with near-universal praise. “Levy has the rare gift of seeing herself with fierce, unforgiving clarity. And she deploys prose to match, raw and agile,” Ann Hulbert wrote in The Atlantic. In The New York Times, Leslie Jamison wrote, “There’s a deep generosity in Levy’s willingness to acknowledge that trauma is rarely dignified or simple; her writing offers readers a salve against the loneliness of feeling that one’s own sorrow should feel more elegant or pure.”
But who ever thought that trauma is dignified or simple, or that sorrow is elegant or pure? Who believed you could have everything?
A white, well placed, middle-class woman, that’s who, says Charlotte Shane in one of the only tough critiques Levy’s book has received. In her New Republic review, headlined “Ariel Levy’s Infuriating Memoir of Privilege and Entitlement,” Shane does not begrudge the author her long run of good fortune. She just finds Levy’s self-awareness about the built-in bonus of her race and class seriously limited.
“Ultimately, what troubles me about The Rules Do Not Apply, which would otherwise be the capably told but unremarkable story of a young woman struggling through some of life’s most common trials, is that Levy presumes her perspective is universal and her experiences are uncommon when it is the other way around,” Shane writes. “She doesn’t speak from inside one-size-fits-all feminine ambition but rather garden-variety white entitlement. She’s ambitious because she’s been set up to satisfy that ambition; she climbs the metaphorical mountain not because the mountain is there but because the sherpas, the tools, and the cheering crowd are there as well.”
For her part, Levy glancingly acknowledges her class privilege. Mentioning the necessity of putting the Shelter Island house on the market, for instance, she inserts, in parentheses, “I know: those poor people.” (That year, 2003, The New York Times reported that “despite the weakened economy, sales are brisk,” on the island, citing properties priced from $695,000 to $7.9 million.) But the narrative returns over and over to Levy’s individual luck and pluck—and hubris and bad judgment. Only one force trumps the personal: Nature. “Everything seemed possible if you had ingenuity, money and tenacity,” she writes, “but the body doesn’t play by those rules.”
Levy’s admirers dismiss the white entitlement critique as irrelevant in the face of this putatively larger truth. “The Rules Do Not Apply is about the limits of what privilege can save you from, even if you aren’t reckless, temperamental or entitled,” writes Allysa Rosenberg in The Chicago Tribune. In The Guardian, Hadley Freeman proposes that the memoir can be read as a sort of nature-versus-culture parable of “the immovable rock of fertility, butting up against female progress.” Asked by PBS’s Charlie Rose what motivated her to write about the death of her baby, Levy answered: “I wanted to talk about the experience of being a female human animal.” The body, in other words, is the ultimate equalizer.
But this is not true. Nature probably started losing the upper hand the day humans took a plow to the earth or whittled a stick into a spear. Soon caste, class, gender, and race were narrowing the paths of some and widening those of others. Human-made systems are as determinant of destiny as is biology, maybe more so. There is nothing irreducibly female, human, or animal about being a female human animal.
The body is not, as Levy claims, the ultimate equalizer.
Reproductive opportunity and health vary widely by race, ethnicity, and income, as does health writ large. “We were to use birth control and go to college and if we somehow got pregnant too soon or with the wrong guy, we were too abort,” Levy writes. But who is “we”? Adolescent girls of color are about twice as likely as white girls to get pregnant, and most teen pregnancies are unplanned. Poor women have unintended pregnancies and births at five times the rate of their higher-income peers, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The last two decades have seen declines in unexpected conception, thanks to increasing use of birth control. But Republican lawmakers are likely soon to reverse that progress, especially for the least privileged. A study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that Texas’s denial of federal funds to Planned Parenthood resulted in an increase in unwanted pregnancies among low-income women.
On delaying motherhood, Levy and her friends also enjoy a confidence—and advantage—that few can hope to. “We would go to the clinics and the hospitals,” she writes. “We would flood the offices and the coffers of the reproductive endocrinologists and the obstetrician/gynecologists.” But assistive reproductive treatments are expensive and rarely covered by insurance. In vitro fertilization (IVF), which Levy pursued for four years after losing the baby, runs from $7,000 to $13,000 per cycle in New York.
Levy was lucky to get pregnant with her son; her age, thirty-eight, gave her three-to-one odds of having a full-term birth. Her son was born extremely premature because of a rare complication. It is sheer bad luck, the kind that often causes white middle-class women to lose babies to prematurity and miscarriage. According to a 2009 study of over five million U.S. gestations, “congenital anomalies” are more likely to account for the in-utero deaths of white fetuses than of black; black fetuses more commonly succumb to adverse—and remediable—conditions of pregnancy and labor, such as poor nutrition or inadequate prenatal care. Prematurity also may be linked to environmental hazards, including higher levels of lead and air pollution where the poor and people of color live and work.
In the U.S. infant mortality—the rate at which children die before the age of one—is more than twice as high among black infants as white. Unsurprisingly, maternal mortality is also an unequal-opportunity scourge. “For the last four decades, Black women have been dying in childbirth at a rate three to four times their White counterparts,” says a 2014 report from three U.S. reproductive justice organizations. Largely to blame are disparities in health and health care due to poverty.
Had she lived in the most extreme poverty, even the experience of motherhood might have been different. Those few minutes of holding her little boy were “black magic,” she writes, a feeling of blissful connection she assumes to be innate. “Nature does something very shrewd to pregnant women,” she says. It plants in mothers an obsession with the fetus’s well-being so fierce that after childbirth maternal protection enhances the infant’s survival.
But nature is not always a match for economics and culture. For example, a poignant study of mothers in a Brazilian shantytown where poverty, malnutrition, and disease kill one in five babies found that mothers have adapted by requiring infants to thrive from the start. Those who do not are expected to die, so mothers “detach” emotionally and allow them to perish. The study’s author concludes that “maternal thinking and practice are socially produced, rather than determined by a psychobiological script of innate or universal emotions.”
“Mother Nature. She is free to do whatever she chooses.” That is the final epiphany of The Rules Do Not Apply. But in the age of fossil fuels, biotechnology, borderless capital and captive labor, and inequality as vast as it has ever been in history, human decisions dole out winter storms and citizenship, wellness along with wealth. Some bodies are assigned lesser value than other bodies. It is we who select Mother Nature’s favored children.
Judith Levine is the author of five books and countless articles exploring politics, policy, and public emotion, especially at the intersection of sex and justice. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and a small town in northeastern Vermont.
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