Elizabeth Benedict

Divorced White Journalist Seeks Love, Alimony Funds

Falling: The Story of One Marriage, by John Taylor. Random House, 225 pages, $22.95.
The New York Observer, March 8, 1999.

I've never heard a word of gossip about John Taylor, but after reading his genuinely engaging and genuinely puzzling memoir, Falling: the Story of One Marriage, I'd bet that he'd be an expensive boyfriend.

I don't mean he'd insist you get liposuction and a place in the Hamptons. I mean you'd be doing two sessions a week with your shrink, plus calls to your girlfriends, trying to figure him out, because he gives you so many conflicting messages, from one sentence to the next, that your head spins. There may well be enough guys like this in New York to get their own classification in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: smart, successful, maverick journalist and book writer; loving father to a daughter; easy access to a psychological vocabulary; terrific story-teller with a great eye for detail; what seems like a generous spirit toward his parents, his ex-wife and the possibility of God — but, at the end of the day, an emotional immaturity for which no clever pharmaceutical company has yet discovered a cure.

Early on, you'd have a few dreamy dates. He'd tell you — as he tells us, in Chapter 3 of Falling, the story of his failed marriage — that he has always felt women were more interesting than men. "They were empathic and alert and psychologically complex. Their desire for emotional connection made them more engaged, more sensitive to truth, more inquiring, and provided them with a spiritual intentionality that men lacked.... Since, for the most part, they did not have the option of resorting to violence, they had evolved more sophisticated strategies for dealing with the unexpected." And early on, you'd learn what we know by the end of Falling: that Mr. Taylor is paying lifetime alimony to his ex-wife, a former journalist stricken with Parkinson's disease soon after they married.

It would be a few more dates before he told you what kind of love Shakespeare was talking about in the sonnet that goes "Love is not love/ which alters when it alteration finds," and maybe a few more before he mentioned that he once beat up a young man who propositioned him on the banks of the Charles River. And that once he assaulted a cab driver in Manhattan because the driver refused to take him to Brooklyn — though that was when he was really unhappy in his long, unhappy marriage. But does he or does he not still occasionally slug a stranger who infuriates him? Maybe he'll tell you on your next date. Or in his next book. Be sure to mention this to your shrink.

Mr. Taylor's first two books were hip, timely, smartly written journeys into what was the prevailing economic and cultural Zeitgeist. His Circus of Ambition was about greed in the 1980's; Storming the Magic Kingdom about an attempted hostile takeover at the Walt Disney Company. With his new book, Falling, he again rides the Zeitgeist: this time our obsession with tell-all memoirs. He's such an engaging, elegant writer, and the story of his 11-year marriage — the bright beginning, swampy middle and brutal ending — is so painfully familiar, so much our melancholy national anthem, that the book is something of a page-turner, all the way from courtship to the night he and his wife tell their daughter that he is moving out.

Mr. Taylor has found an elegiac voice, and the writing is rich, detailed and infused with genuine anguish. The tragedy of his wife's illness and the limitations and burdens it imposes on both of them are especially moving.

But our sympathy for him comes and goes. About midway through the book, several years into the marriage, Mr. Taylor begins the first of many affairs, this one with a married woman named Alex who eventually invites Mr. Taylor to a session with her therapist. They are to discuss her desire to leave her husband and marry him. He delivers what he describes as a "pat," "self-serving" speech to the therapist, justifying his decision (his wife's illness, their small child) to stay in his "loveless marriage" and carry on with the affair. "It's a compromise," he says, "but it seems to be what's best for everyone." When Alex says, "But what about my needs?" the therapist answers, "John's determined what his needs are and what he can and can't do about them. You have to do the same." About this session Mr. Taylor writes: "While there was nothing dishonest in any of what I had said I nonetheless felt as if I was perpetrating a fraud. I had coopted Alex's therapist."

End of chapter. End of our sense that we are in the hands of a reliable narrator. He co-opted the shrink? Is Mr. Taylor being ironic? Is he looking back at this event and mocking his naivete in imagining that this was a triumph for him? Does he really not understand that the therapist was simply trying to help Alex face the bleak truth about the affair?

Often in the second half of Falling, what Mr. Taylor knows about himself and when he knows it are muddled, leaving us bewildered, not so much about how he felt back then but whether he sees things much differently now. Add to this bewilderment distaste for his new modus vivendi as a more or less full-time adulterer.

Was he sleeping with his wife during all of this? He doesn't come right out and say, but the suggestion is no. Was her illness incapacitating? He's not specific, but our sense is that she functioned reasonably well. All we know for certain is that they were both alienated, angry, disinclined to self-examination and incapable of rekindling their love, even with the occasional help of a marriage counselor. When the marriage finally ended, it was because his wife insisted that it should. Not surprisingly, she was lonely. But it was he who was nearly paralyzed at the prospect of living alone.

In so many ways, Falling is a heartbreaking story — in ways Mr. Taylor sees, and in ways that seem to escape him. His repeated digs at therapy suggest someone who'd rather not look at his own behavior and who thinks there is some great virtue to living in darkness — unless his views have changed since the period he's writing about, and that's not clear, either. His violence, hostility, melancholy, self-pity and the three drinks a night, every night, lend some weight to his wife's charge that he has a drinking problem, which he denies.

But the real curiosity about Falling is why Mr. Taylor wrote it. This can't be a book he wants his daughter (now a teenager) to read. His ex-wife must find it excruciating. And it's not much of an advertisement for himself — though maybe he harbors the illusion that it is, that confession equals insight, that suffering has made him wise. He doesn't say. By the end, we're as bewildered about who he is as he himself must be. We feel nothing so much as the undeniable sadness of his situation, a place where John Taylor obviously needs to dwell, and damn the feelings of those he wounds.

But he also needs to dwell in a more practical realm. Late in Falling, he tells about a meeting with his wife and their divorce mediator. The discussion concerns the "maintenance" he has agreed to pay, and the pittance left over. "I can't live off that!" Mr. Taylor protests. "Well, earn more money," his wife replies. "Write a book. You'll find something."

I hope he got a big advance.

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Elizabeth Benedict
photo: Emma Dodge Hanson

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