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Dear John, I Love Jane (Seal)—a ground-breaking collection of stories about women discovering their queer sexuality after years in marriages or partnerships with men—is not so much about sex or betrayal or even lesbianism, but about rediscovery of the self.
As Veronica Masen puts it in her story “Watershed:” “It’s been a year of wondering and discovering and poking and prodding at my soul, my belief system, my fear, my desires, my identity.”
Identity and the notion of sexual fluidity are at the core of this book. Candace Walsh previously edited the feisty anthology Ask Me About My Divorce (Seal). In that book, she featured her own coming out story of leaving her marriage and finding the female love of her life on Match.com.
Her co-editor, Laura André, is her partner, and that woman whom she describes falling for in “Ask Me About My Divorce.” As André, a former art professor, says in their joint Introduction: “Coming from an academic background, I can say that we’re seeing the fruition of what seemed solely theoretical twenty years ago. The idea that sexuality can be pegged to simple binaries (straight/gay, men/women) and that those binary pairs are absolute, has been completely dissolved by the notion of sexual fluidity. The essayists in this book are living proof that sexuality can change over time, often against our will.”
The shattering quality of love is on display in these stories, as the protagonists feel pulled inexorably to a different sort of life, one with less “status” but more authenticity. Erin Mantz’s piece, “Undoing Everything,” relies less on traditional memoir than the others and is almost archetypal, yet the power of her language seems to speak for many of the other stories.
After leaving her husband and suburban lifestyle for a woman at age 39, she feared stigma but “Every person I told hung in there. They hung on my every word as I broke the news,” she writes. To her surprise, her friends stuck by her. “But I was the one who was reeling and changing. They were staying the same.”
Change is the word that crops up in so many of these stories, the eerie shift of leaving one person/gender and one way of life and moving towards the unknown. And yet, something has always been missing from these women’s lives, it seems. Mantz’s essential self hasn’t changed but her world is coming apart: “A sense of place in the world I knew and the ease of being just like everybody else is gone now.” She finishes, “I am living with an enormous bet that what I’m getting will be so much more than what I’m giving up. Yet I will never ever really know, will I?”
These burning, provocative questions continue throughout the book. Some of the transformations/breaks are quick. Others are painfully slow. “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen,” poet and photographer Jeanette LeBlanc writes in “Awakenings.” She has finally acted on her attraction to women, but after she tells her husband, the marriage unravels much too quickly and she is left with regrets and guilt.
She weeps as she contemplates dropping her daughters at her ex’s place for Christmas, knowing that she is the one who has split up her family and made her daughters move between two places. She admits that she misses her husband. And in one of the most poignant moments of the book, in bed at night she asks her girlfriend “When will I feel whole again?”
It is shocking when her lover responds, “It is my experience that you will never feel fully whole again.” LeBlanc concludes that despite the authenticity and rightness of her choice to leave her marriage, “I am both more than and less than I was before.”
Candace Walsh’s story “Counting Down From Ten” is quirky and full of ironic twists. Infatuated with a boy at college, she ends up feeling liberated by making out with his artsy, older, “other” girlfriend one night. Ditching him, the two go on to be close friends and share an apartment, which gives Walsh a taste of living with another woman, albeit platonically.
Despite Walsh’s crush, it isn’t ever a romance. But Walsh writes, “it gave me a model of living together with someone in such a way that everything else since has not measured up. There was unspoken understanding, an alignment, and a harmonious hum. …I now know that women do feel that way with men, and vice versa. I just so happen to be a woman who feels that way only with women. It cradled my spirit, so I could thrive.”
There are 27 stories in Dear John, I Love Jane, and most of them end on a note of happiness. It’s clear that much less societal shame and judgment is visited on women who leave their marriages now than in past years, but leaving a man for a woman is still experienced internally as a momentous act.
Even if the catalyst, the person that makes the writer question or leave her marriage, disappears or fails, the narrator is still forever changed in her perspective about what’s possible.
As one writer says, “Women are beautiful. I listen to my spirit.”
Dear John, I Love Jane
Women Write About Leaving Men for Women
Edited by Candace Walsh and Laura André
9781580053396, $16.95, 265p