The Rules Do Not Apply

The Rules Do Not Apply

by Ariel Levy


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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER •  “This Year’s Must-Read Memoir” (W magazine) about the choices a young woman makes in her search for adventure, meaning, and love

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All her life, Ariel Levy was told that she was too fervent, too forceful, too much. As a young woman, she decided that becoming a writer would perfectly channel her strength and desire. She would be a professional explorer—“the kind of woman who is free to do whatever she chooses.” Levy moved to Manhattan to pursue her dream, and spent years of adventure, traveling all over the world writing stories about unconventional heroines, following their fearless examples in her own life.

But when she experiences unthinkable heartbreak, Levy is forced to surrender her illusion of control. In telling her story, Levy has captured a portrait of our time, of the shifting forces in American culture, of what has changed and what has remained. And of how to begin again.

Praise for The Rules Do Not Apply

“Unflinching and intimate, wrenching and revelatory, Ariel Levy’s powerful memoir about love, loss, and finding one’s way shimmers with truth and heart on every page.”—Cheryl Strayed

“Every deep feeling a human is capable of will be shaken loose by this profound book. Ariel Levy has taken grief and made art out of it.”—David Sedaris

“Beautifully crafted . . . This book is haunting; it is smart and engaging. It was so engrossing that I read it in a day.”The New York Times Book Review

“Levy’s wise and poignant memoir is the voice of a new generation of women, full of grit, pathos, truth, and inspiration. Being in her presence is energizing and ennobling. Reading her deep little book is inspiring.”San Francisco Book Review

“Levy has the rare gift of seeing herself with fierce, unforgiving clarity. And she deploys prose to match, raw and agile. She plumbs the commotion deep within and takes the measure of her have-it-all generation.”The Atlantic

“Cheryl Strayed meets a Nora Ephron movie. You’ll laugh, ugly cry, and finish it before the weekend’s over.”theSkimm

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812996937
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/14/2017
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Ariel Levy joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2008, and received the National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism in 2014 for her piece “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” She is the author of the book Female Chauvinist Pigs and was a contributing editor at New York for twelve years.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

My favorite game when I was a child was Mummy and Explorer. My father and I would trade off roles: One of us had to lie very still with eyes closed and arms crossed over the chest, and the other had to complain, “I’ve been searching these pyramids for so many years—­when will I ever find the tomb of Tutankhamun?” (This was in the late seventies when Tut was at the Met, and we came in from the suburbs to visit him frequently.) At the climax of the game, the explorer stumbles on the embalmed Pharaoh and—­brace yourself—­the mummy opens his eyes and comes to life. The explorer has to express shock, and then say, “So, what’s new?” To which the mummy replies, “You.”

I was not big on playing house. I preferred make-­believe that revolved around adventure, starring pirates and knights. I was also domineering, impatient, relentlessly verbal, and, as an only child, often baffled by the mores of other kids. I was not a popular little girl. I played Robinson Crusoe in a small wooden fort my parents built from a kit in the backyard, where I sorted through the acorns and onion grass I gathered for sustenance. In the fort, I was neither ostracized nor ill at ease—­I was self-­reliant, brave, ingeniously surviving, if lost.

Books are the other natural habitat for a child who loves words and adventures, and I was content when my parents read me Moby-­Dick, Pippi Longstocking, or The Hobbit. I decided early that I would be a writer when I grew up. That, I thought, was the profession that went with the kind of woman I wanted to become: one who is free to do whatever she chooses.

I started keeping a diary in the third grade and, in solidarity with Anne Frank, I named it and personified it and made it my confidante. “The point that prompted me to keep a diary in the first place: I don’t have a friend,” Frank told Kitty, her journal. Writing is communicating with an unknown intimate who is always available, the way the faithful can turn to God. My lined notebooks were the only place I could say as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted. To this day I feel comforted and relieved of loneliness, no matter how foreign my surroundings, if I have a pad and a pen.

As a journalist, I’ve spent nearly two decades putting myself in foreign surroundings as frequently as possible. There is nothing I love more than traveling to a place where I know nobody, and where everything will be a surprise, and then writing about it. It’s like having a new lover—­even the parts you aren’t crazy about have the crackling fascination of the unfamiliar.

The first story I ever published was about another world only an hour from my apartment. I was twenty-­two, living in the East Village in a sixth-­floor walk-­up with a roommate and roaches, working as an assistant at New York magazine. My friend Mayita was an intern in the photo department who knew about a nightclub for obese women in Queens. We talked about it during our lunch break, when we were walking around midtown Manhattan with our plastic containers of limp salad, dreading going back to the office.

I was not a key member of the staff. It was my job to take the articles the writers faxed over and type them into the computer system—­it was 1996, email was still viewed as a curious phenomenon that might blow over. Also, I had to input the crossword puzzle by looking back and forth between the paper the puzzle-­crafter sent me and my computer screen, trying to remember if it went black, black, white, black, or black, white, black, black. I was in a constant state of embittered self-­righteousness at the office. How had I been mistaken for a charwoman? Mayita was similarly horrified by the tumble her status had taken: As a senior at Wesleyan just a few months before, she had been the next Sally Mann. Now she alphabetized negatives all day. (When we expressed subdued versions of our outrage to our elders, their responses invariably included the phrase “paying your dues.” It was not a phrase we cared for.)

We decided not to wait for someone at the office to give us permission to do what we really wanted. We took the subway about a million stops into Queens and went to a cavernous bar in Rego Park where women who weighed hundreds of pounds went to dance and flirt with their admirers and have lingerie pageants at four in the morning. It was very dark in there. The air smelled stagnant and sweaty and the drinks were so strong they fumed. But the women were magnificent, like enormous birds: feathery false eyelashes fluttering, tight, shiny dresses in peacock blue and canary yellow, the dim light reflecting off their sequins. Mayita and I stood out. We were puny, dressed in jeans and drab sweaters, little pigeons. It was scary, but electrifying: What we’re writing is more important than your anxiety and humiliation, my competent self told me. So I went up to complete strangers with my notepad, and asked them to tell me their stories.

And they did. They told me about being fat little girls, or about how they got fat after they had children. They said they were sick of being ashamed, sick of apologizing for taking up so much space, so they’d come to believe that big was beautiful (or at least they’d come to believe it some of the time). They had passionate admirers, but it was difficult because they could never be sure if the men they dated—­the “chubby chasers”—­loved them for themselves, or for their fat. For their fat! I marveled on the way back to my apartment from the subway at 5 a.m. in the fading darkness.

The Manhattan around me in the late nineties was glossy, greedy, hard. The slim women on Madison Avenue, on television, with their clicking heels and ironed-­straight hair, gripped thousand-­dollar handbags covered with interlocking G’s. The restaurants people wanted to get into were sleek and ferociously expensive—­nobody talked about farm to table; nobody wanted to see rough-­hewn reclaimed wood. It was the genesis of Internet culture, and people my age kept making enormous sums of money on start-­ups, on all sorts of things. A friend at work optioned the first big article she published at the magazine to a producer for half a million dollars when she was only twenty-­five. (It was about the rich young publicists who maintained the city’s nocturnal hierarchy, wielding their guest lists and their gift bags. “Most of us have as much power as older guys in suits,” one of them said. “And soon enough we’ll have more.”)

There was no undercurrent of fear, very little pull against the prevailing tide of self-­interest at that time. My generation had never experienced a real, prolonged war. Nobody thought about terrorism. Even climate change still seemed like something that could be safely ignored until the distant future—­perhaps we would prevent it by recycling our soda cans. There was an unapologetic ethos of consumption in New York City, which the magazine I worked for both satirized and promoted. I found it alluring and alienating by turns.

So to locate an underworld of women who simply opted out of that slick culture, whose very bodies were unmistakable monuments of resistance, was thrilling. As I wrote my story (which turned out to be a lot harder than I’d imagined it would), I felt I was describing an exotic universe with its own aesthetic and manners, but even more, I was writing about an unconventional kind of female life. What does it mean to be a woman? What are the rules? What are your options and encumbrances? I wanted to tell stories that answered, or at least asked, those questions.

I was giddy when an editor at the magazine said that they would publish my article and Mayita’s photos, and pay us for them. (They gave the story what is still the best headline I’ve ever had: women’s lb.) That article fee was special money, magic money—­a reward for doing something that was its own reward. It was also two thousand dollars, which was more than my monthly take-­home pay. Usually, it was a stretch to cover the cost of subway tokens and the rent on my grimy, depressing apartment. But after I got paid for my story, I went to the fancy salad bar at lunchtime for weeks. I took heedless scoops of the beets with blood-­orange segments; I piled sliced steak next to them with abandon.

Writing was the solution to every problem—­financial, emotional, intellectual. It had kept me company when I was a lonely child. It gave me an excuse to go places I would otherwise be unlikely to venture. It satisfied the edict my mother had issued many times throughout my life: “You have to make your own living; you never want to be dependent on a man.” And it made me feel good, like there was a reason for me. “It is a very strange thing that people will give you a motor car if you will tell them a story,” Virginia Woolf said in an address to the National Society for Women’s Service, a group of female professionals, in 1931. “It is a still stranger thing that there is nothing so delightful in the world as telling stories.”

I’d been promoted to staff writer by the time I fell in love, when I was twenty-­eight. I got married a few years later—­we all did. As we reached our thirtieth birthdays, my friends and I were like kernels of popcorn exploding in a pot: First one, then another, and pretty soon we were all bursting into matrimony. There were several years of peace, but then the pregnancies started popping. I found this unsettling.

To become a mother, I feared, was to relinquish your status as the protagonist of your own life. Your questions were answered, your freedom was gone, your path would calcify in front of you. And yet it still pulled at me. Being a professional explorer would become largely impossible if I had a child, but having a kid seemed in many ways like the wildest possible trip. Sometimes, on the long flights I took for my stories, I would listen to a Lou Reed song called “Beginning of a Great Adventure” on my iPod or in my head. It’s about impending parenthood: “A little me or he or she to fill up with my dreams / A way of saying life is not a loss.” As my friends, one after the next, made the journey from young woman to mother, it glared at me that I had not.

Some of my friends were outraged to discover that reproduction was not necessarily a simple mission. Can you believe I’m still not pregnant? they would ask, embittered, distraught, as their sex lives became suffused by grim determination, and they endured inseminations, in vitro, hormone injections, humiliation. I’ve been trying for a year . . . two . . . five. I’ve spent six thousand dollars on these doctors . . . eight thousand . . . forty thousand.

I listened to them. I said things that I hoped sounded comforting. But the thought in my head was always, Of course. It wasn’t as though the research had just come in: Fertility wanes as the years accrue. We all knew this to be true. But somehow we imagined we could get around it.

We lived in a world where we had control of so much. If we didn’t want to carry groceries up the steps, we ordered them online and waited in our sweatpants on the fourth floor for a man from Asia or Latin America to come panting up, encumbered with our cat litter and organic bananas. If we wanted to communicate with one another when we were on opposite ends of the earth, we picked up devices that didn’t exist when we were young and sent each other texts, emails, pictures we’d taken seconds earlier without any film. Anything seemed possible if you had ingenuity, money, and tenacity. But the body doesn’t play by those rules.

We were raised to think we could do what we wanted—­we were free to be you and me! And many of our parents’ revolutionary dreams had actually come true. A black man really could be president. It was sort of okay to be gay—­gay married, even. You could be female and have an engrossing career and you didn’t have to be a wife or mother (although, let’s face it, it still seemed advisable: Spinsterhood never exactly lost its taint). Sometimes our parents were dazzled by the sense of possibility they’d bestowed upon us. Other times, they were aghast to recognize their own entitlement, staring back at them magnified in the mirror of their offspring.

Daring to think that the rules do not apply is the mark of a visionary. It’s also a symptom of narcissism.

I always get terrified before I travel. I become convinced that this time I won’t be able to figure out the map, or communicate with non-­English-­speakers, or find the people I need in order to write the story I’ve been sent in search of. I will be lost and incompetent and vulnerable.

So it was with childbearing: I was afraid for almost a decade. I didn’t like childhood, and I was afraid that I’d have a child who didn’t, either. I was afraid I would be an awful mother. And I was afraid of being grounded, sessile—­stuck in one spot for twenty years of oboe lessons and math homework that I hadn’t been able to finish the first time around.

I paid attention to what I saw and read on the subject. “A child, yes, is a vortex of anxieties,” Elena Ferrante wrote in her novel The Lost Daughter. Her protagonist eventually rips herself away from her children, and enters an experience of the sublime: “Everything starting from zero. No habit, no sensations dulled by predictability. I was I, I produced thoughts not distracted by any concern other than the tangled thread of dreams and desires.” If you held a baby all night and day, your hands would not be free to cling to that tangled thread.

I once saw an interview with Joni Mitchell in which she explained why she didn’t marry Graham Nash and have his babies when they were a couple in the sixties. She turned her back on the domestic dream she had inspired him to canonize: “I’ll light the fire, you place the flowers in the vase.” After he proposed, Mitchell found herself thinking about her grandmother, a frustrated musician who felt so trapped by motherhood and women’s work that one afternoon she “kicked the kitchen door off the hinges.” Her life would not be about self-­expression. She resigned herself to her reality.

Reading Group Guide

I wanted what we all want: EVERYTHING. We want a mate who feels like family and a lover who is exotic, surprising. We want to be youthful adventurers and middle-aged mothers. We want intimacy and autonomy, safety and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills. BUT WE CAN’T HAVE IT ALL.

As a young woman, Levy decided that to be a writer would be like being a professional explorer; she’d be free to do and travel anywhere she chose. When, as a 38-year-old working journalist, she left for a reporting trip to Mongolia she thought she had figured out her life: she was married, pregnant, financially secure and successful on her own terms. A month later, none of that was true.

1. “Daring to think that the rules do not apply is the mark of a visionary,” Ariel believes. “It’s also a symptom of narcissism.” Do you agree with her? What are some examples you’ve witnessed of societal or personal progress enabled by someone ignoring or rewriting rules? How does this pertain to Ariel and her friends and family? And when in this book—and in your own experience—has this kind of thinking rather been an enactment of selfishness or narcissism?

2. Can you relate to Ariel’s experience of having a “competent self ” who runs the show? Why has she developed this alternate persona? What function does it serve? When has she depended on less than competent authority figures for protection or guidance?

3. Why is Ariel so fascinated by Caster Semenya? Why is this trip so important to her? Are there similar turning points you recognize in your own life when you’ve proved yourself capable of things you weren’t convinced you could do? Or when, in retrospect, you’ve made “the first of many real mistakes that would stack up on top of each other until they blocked out the sun”? Are there particular life choices you’ve made that you wish you could undo?

4. What does Ariel mean when she warns that “the danger that we invite into our lives can come in the most unthreatening shape, the most pedestrian”? Does this resonate with you? When in your life has danger entered your world in this way?

5. What do you make of Ariel’s family arrangement? What mistakes did her parents make? And, alternately, in what ways were they successful—how did they make her feel loved and valued? What did they do to facilitate her success as a writer?

6. What is so alluring to Ariel about Lucy? Why does she believe that “with this person I could be normal, content, blessed”? Why is “Boyscout Lady” such an apt nickname for her?

7. Both Lucy’s mother and Ariel’s are distressed by their daughters’ wedding—upset that it means their own values are being rejected. How would you describe each of their value systems? Which one is closest to your own? What do you make of Ariel’s mother’s insistence that “You never want to be dependent on a man”? Is this good advice? What are the advantages and dangers of this motto?

8. What does Ariel mean when she says that “Women of my generation were given the lavish gift of our own agency by feminism”? How do we see that playing out in the choices she makes? And in the choices you—or your mother or your daughter—have made?

9. Is it significant that Ariel has an affair at exactly the moment when her friends start having children? Why does she do this? What is she trying to prove or accomplish or avoid? How might her life have been different if she had not done this?

10. How do you feel about Ariel’s decision to go to Mongolia when she’s pregnant? “If a doctor tells me there’s nothing wrong with doing something, then I consider the matter settled,” she writes. Do you? Later, she feels that she “boarded a plane out of vanity and selfishness.” Is this true? Why or why not?

11. If “grief is another world,” as Ariel writes repeatedly, what are its distinguishing characteristics? How does grief change her? How has it changed you or your loved ones? What does it take from her and what does it give her?

12. What does Ariel learn from Al-Anon? Are there lessons she learns there that are meaningful to you— whether you have an addict in your life or not?

13. Why is Dr. John so important to Ariel? What role does he play in her recovery? They are from very different cultures—what do they have in common? What do you think will happen between them when she goes to South Africa? Which of her three fantasies sounds the most plausible to you?

14. What does Ariel learn from her experience? What did you learn from it? How does it change her?

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