Elle Writer's Ex: "It's A Strange Luxury To See Someone Else's Version Of Your Life"

One of the most offensive things about Philip Nobel's How-I-Left-Your-Mother Elle essay, "Danger Man," is the way he writes about the two women it primarily involves: his unnamed ex-wife, and his ex-girlfriend, "Ingrid." The difficulty of accurately describing the people one is close to aside, it seems inexcusable for any man to call the mother of his children "insufficiently curious", let alone point out that throughout their 15-year relationship, Nobel apparently felt the need to "edit out of conversation the allusions I didn't think she would get." When Nobel turns his gaze on Ingrid, his then-22-year-old research assistant and the woman for whom he left his wife, he is creepily objectifying and infantilizing in turn. He never misses an opportunity to mention Ingrid's "big tits" or her "bombshell" looks — yet he also paints a patronizing picture of a lost little girl. My first reaction to the essay was disbelief: No way could either of these women actually exist within the circumscribed lines of Nobel's self-serving plea for sympathy. And then I met "Ingrid" last weekend — and discovered I was right. A very special take-back-the-discourse with Ingrid, after the jump.

Throughout the piece, which is not available online, Nobel uses Ingrid (not her real name) as a foil — first for his wife, and then for himself. In the first instance, he builds Ingrid's character up, favorably contrasting her proficiency in the "verbal sparring [that] was intense and playful, erotic when it wasn't obscene," which contributed to their "profound intellectual compatibility" with his wife's supposed intellectual timidity and general inhibited wimpiness ("She thought the world was a scary place"). In the second, Nobel tears Ingrid down. When his relationship with her has run the same course as his marriage, Ingrid's role in the essay shrinks to simply being the yardstick — the culpably naïve, young, substance-sotted yardstick — against which the author measures his progress toward sound mental health and adulthood.

"My first reactions were ‘No, that's not how it went,'" said Ingrid. (She has remarkably different — and sometimes flatly contradictory — accounts of several of Nobel's essay's key scenes.) "But my second and third [reactions] were just interest in how decisions or moments that to me had been insignificant or profoundly significant had been perceived either than or now, and written about — now." Turns out it's deeply weird to wake up and discover you're a cover line on a women's magazine.

What's also strange is I didn't find Nobel's plight inherently unsympathetic, at least at first. Nobody can help whom they fall for; I don't believe anybody who's ever been in a long-term relationship can truthfully say they've never felt their eye wander. (Of course, the choices you make when that almost-innocent flash of attraction occurs are what truly matter.) But Nobel structures his little expiatory exercise as a demand for not just our understanding, but our support.

Situations like his, you see, require women to exercise our "moral imagination"; the essay rests on the premise that it is precisely his newfound ability to fuck around (sorry, his "free[dom] to bounce through different situations each night") that has cured Nobel's depression, awakened his long-neglected personal identity, and made him the kind of father who, rather than spending as many evenings away from the family home as he can, calls his kids "My love" and "Handsome." (Or at least quotes himself doing so in the pages of national magazines.) Leaving his wife, Nobel wants us to understand, was a Good Thing He Needed to Do. It was "original."

And if his portrait of personal growth just happens to require two women to be the canvas, well, so be it. Nobel doesn't imbue the character of Ingrid, or the character of his ex-wife, with much agency or independence; towards the end, he even tosses off a casual reference to going back to his wife — as if he assumes such an option must automatically be available.

And he uses Ingrid shamelessly in the closing paragraph to show how far he's come. After the break-up of their two-year relationship, Nobel runs into her on the street, "walking home at nine in the morning." (Yes, he has the audacity to try and slut-shame her, after everything.) Nobel writes

And without the distractions of others, or maybe because I had grown up a little, or maybe it was just a trick of the light, I saw her for the first time as a little girl — is that what everyone had been trying to tell me? — too much a stranger to herself to settle down. As I was. Twice.

How nice for him!

Turning his most recent girlfriend into a device to throw into positive relief his own life seems to encapsulate the problem of this essay: you can't ever write honestly about others when your goal is just to excuse your own behavior.

What does it feel like to be made into a character in someone else's (wholly public) story? Especially one that seems so unsympathetic? It's something I've been thinking about a little guiltily since I wrote, rather unkindly, about some of my dating experiences (to his credit, when I rang the Guy to tell him there was some shit written on the Internet about him that it might not make him happy to read, even if it was all knitted out of grievances I'd aired with him previously, all he said was "If you don't use my name, then I don't care, write what you want.") (I did, however, get a sort of irate e-mail from the would-be impregnator.)

Ingrid had some interesting insight into this question because she too is a writer. She gets how what she called "the iron filings of ‘fact'" get rearranged into narrative, and how that's an author's prerogative. "If I wanted to write the story of how I was the awed 20-year-old, I could. And if I wanted to write the story of how this all led to my recovery, I could do that, too. And if I wanted to write the story of how I had a relationship with an older man that had its good parts as well as its struggles, I could do that." In a way, she said, "it's a strange and fascinating luxury to be able to see someone else's version of your life."

It's hard to write honestly about the people closest to us in life, for the simple reason that it's hard to see them objectively — they are so much personalities to us, we are often hard put to describe them as actual people. Nobel's various unkindnesses in describing the women the choice to leave his marriage most impacted might well be simply the unconscious result of never questioning his own perspective long enough to wonder if he was fairly getting across theirs. But there is a suspicious convenience in the narrative arc of "Danger Man" - man leaves dull marriage, man is enlivened by life with younger woman, man realizes in dating younger woman how mature and adult he is - that denigrates both of his exes at once.

And having met Ingrid and found her to be a fascinating, sassy, intelligent, shit-together kind of type, I'm going with the conclusion that it is Nobel who's utterly failed to describe his ex girlfriend — and, I'm willing to bet, his ex wife. (Call me, formerly-Mrs-Nobel!)

Which leaves me thinking that my initial reaction to the essay — what an entitled creep — is probably right on the money.

Earlier: Elle Writer Didn't Plan To Be The Poster Boy For Male Recklessness