After we mentioned Lori Gottlieb's 2005 essay "Fat Like Him" in our review of Marry Him, the "fat guy" in question approached us to tell his side of the story — and his experience dating a now-famous advocate of "settling."
"Tim," who asked to remain anonymous, disputed much of Gottlieb's recollection of their relationship, like her assertion that he had "fatty cum that tasted like cream" (he says, "I can't vouch for the supposedly cream-flavored taste of my cum, but neither can she: she never went down on me, and only let me go down on her once"). And he had many choice words for Gottlieb in general, which he provided via email. Of course, this creates a he-said-she-said situation — Tim's email is only one perspective, and one colored by considerable resentment at that. But since Gottlieb, who's using her own dating life to tell a cautionary tale — a tale in which one "mistake" can ruin a woman's chance at happiness, and in which women sabotage themselves with superficial "checklists" while tolerant men just want to marry a nice girl - we were willing to present another side.
Tim's reaction to "Fat Like Him," in which Gottlieb describes him as a man she just couldn't keep dating because his "oily beads of perspiration" and jiggling butt made her ashamed, was as follows:
I was offended; this is a non-fiction book, and she's making up stuff to fit an arc or for a joke or to make her look better. So Tim is 300 pounds, and gains 50 in the month before the break-up, while I went from 270 to 235 to 245; Tim was a member of Overeaters Anonymous and I wasn't; Tim has a variety of disgusting physical features beyond his obesity; Tim obsesses about whether he can see his penis; Tim plaintively asks Lori to reciprocate his love, when in real life Lori used the L-word first; and the multiple times Lori begged me to stay with her and her broken promises are left out, of course. There were ten months we were emailing, and seven we were dating; Tim's only in the picture for five months.
However, when it comes to Marry Him, Gottlieb's claims about her former dating difficulties may be pretty accurate. She accuses women of rejecting guys for silly reasons, and it sounds like she did just that:
The one time we went out for ice cream, she told me it was a good thing I didn't order vanilla, or she'd lose a lot of respect for me. [...] Presumably, in conjunction with the American car, it would've been a dealbreaker.
My ex-wife liked facial hair, so I had a beard that I shaved the week before I met Lori, and she mentioned that everything would've been different if I hadn't shaved.
Everything was a test. One afternoon, she calls me at work and tells me I have to come over immediately to kill a spider. I'm like "You realize Diane Keaton already did this in Annie Hall, right?" No, it was evidence of whether I really cared about her, would I stay at work and finish the assignment the senior partner wanted on his desk in two hours, or would I drive to Brentwood and kill the spider for her. So, yeah, that spider made me have to switch law firms and lose several years before I could become partner. Most expensive spider in the world. My fault for giving into the emotional blackmail, but, hey, I'm a naive romantic.
Tim also says, "I got the sense that she was looking for marriage and kids, but she kept starting conversations with me explaining all the reasons why I couldn't be the father of her children or why we could never be together forever" and he mentions "criticism sessions we'd have about once a week where she would tell me everything that was wrong with me" as well as daily weigh-ins. At least to hear Tim tell it, Gottlieb had a pretty unhealthy relationship style when they were together. She admits as much — though she no longer talks about Tim — but says what she learned while researching her book has changed her for the better. However, Tim disputes whether "settling for Mr. Good Enough" is really anything new.
He says, "she pretty much stated the thesis of Marry Him in something she did for Slate in 1998 where she compares searching for a mate with searching for a parking spot: do you jump in the first space you find, or do you circle the lot endlessly trying to find a spot near your destination? And might you lose a good-enough space by looking so hard for the best space?" Later in the email, he adds, "Lori knew all about the satisficing strategy and was writing about it when she was 30, so the idea that it's this new epiphany in her 40s is just bullshit." So why did Gottlieb write Marry Him now? Tim's hypothesis is tinged with more than a little bitterness:
Every book or article Lori writes has nothing to do with the subject of the book: they're all about making Lori look more attractive. She's the precocious-but-troubled eleven-year-old grown up into a real size 0 who partakes of milkshakes; she's the Internet executive who saw through the bubble before it burst; she's the wise and witty dispenser of relationship advice. She still has the anoxeric's desire for control, and it's about controlling her image.
And this book is no different: it puts forward the persona of Lori Gottlieb as a famous anti-feminist writer of best-selling books and controversial Atlantic essays, which is a much more attractive persona than the 40-something single mother who could never commit to any of her boyfriends. And she'll tell her husband-to-be that she thought she had to settle, but is glad she didn't have to after all. And then that book will be Lori's version of Elizabeth Gilbert's "Committed." Then there will be a book about her soccer-momhood, and how she does it better than the other moms or her own mother. Maybe even a book like Sandra Tsing Loh's about leaving her husband for a more exciting guy after that. Not necessarily because there's something wrong with her husband, but because it would make a much better movie deal if there was conflict and an arc.
Obviously Tim isn't in Gottlieb's head — he's no longer even in her life — and his isn't the definitive word on her motivations. But few people actually write self-help books to help people, and Gottlieb may have been less concerned with aiding women or even scaring them than she was with her own personal goals. Whether these included burnishing her own image is up for debate, but they almost certainly included selling books.
Gottlieb has now embarked on a campaign of softening her message, a bait-and-switch in which she promises a guide to open-mindedness and embracing "opportunities" and delivers something far more bilious. First she told Meredith Vieira the book was about "true love." Then, in a Salon interview, she responded to our review of the book:
I see it as the opposite of denial — it's about the opening up of possibilities and not denying ourselves the opportunity to fall madly in love with someone because we've intellectualized ourselves out of getting to know someone who isn't our culture's ideal of Mr. Right.
The funny thing is, this writer and I probably agree on everything — that nobody needs a man, that marriage isn't the answer, that you have to be truly attracted to and in love with your partner. But the idea that you might not get your ideal and might have to compromise on some things in order to find that guy makes her think this is about self-denial when it's really about giving yourself permission to look at more than just "your type" and see who you fall in love with organically.
"Giving yourself permission to look at more than just 'your type' and see who you fall in love with organically" actually sounds like great advice, but the dating-coached view of love Gottlieb presents in Marry Him, with its intolerance of mistakes and its treatment of many relationships as wasted time, is the opposite of organic. It's clear that Gottlieb is savvy enough to tell interviewers what they want to hear, and also savvy enough to mine her own life for marketable material, whether or not she has to embellish along the way. Tim may still have a jaundiced view of his ex, but he's right that she's become a brand, and it's probably better to see her that way than as any sort of example to other women. The experiences she details in "Fat Like Him" and Marry Him aren't ours — they may not even be hers — and we should take her words not as advice but as very successful self-promotion. When she starts giving marketing rather than dating tips, we'll be listening.