Anna David is the executive editor of The Fix, as well as being the author of Party Girl and Bought. Her newest book, Falling For Me, wherein she tries to follow the advice in Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl, is due out October 11th. She’ll be telling us about some of her adventures in this new column, Sex and the Sixties Girl.
I had just screwed my life up in a major way.
Not in the I-chose-the-wrong-career-path or moved-to-the-wrong-city sort of way. Those were, arguably, screw-ups I’d also made, but they weren’t the new mistake. No, the new one was the kind that transformed respected astronauts into diaper-wearing stalkers.
I’d fallen for a married man.
I couldn’t believe it.
I’d once thought that getting involved with a married guy was one of those tropes it was almost my duty to stumble on, since I’d been single for so long and had made the pursuit of unavailable men into something of an urban hobby. I’d figured adultery was a rite of passage as elemental as a pregnancy scare or a one-night-stand.
But somehow, like eating disorders and panic attacks, an affair with a married man was one of those experiences that I had long been able to cheerfully – and surprisingly! – say had passed me by. I used to chalk this up to strong moral fiber. Once I’d spent enough time on a shrink’s couch to leave an indelible imprint, however, I reasoned it had more to do with the fact that I’d watched my dad cheat on my mom with the kind of determined consistency he’d been unable to display in so many other aspects of his life and my role as the person who could make her feel loved enough to cushion and distract her from this left me certain I’d never be able to do to another woman what those women had done to her. I’d even said this, if not out loud then at least to myself, feeling a bit like Rosie the Riveter from the “We Can Do It” poster, but without any of that eau de lesbian Rosie seemed to emanate.
When other girls would tell me about falling for married men, I’d try not to judge but I always wondered why they didn’t seem to notice the terrible tragedies that lurked right around the corner from extra-marital affairs. But now, here I was completely obsessed with a man who had a wife and kids, and I wasn’t even feeling that guilty about it.
Let me rephrase. I felt guilty but my obsession with him superseded that guilt. And the torment caused by meeting someone who unearthed so many strong emotions in me and not being able to really have him superseded that.
I’d met him in L.A. and had spent the better part of two weeks around him; nothing physical had happened but we spoke endlessly about our growing feelings for one another and, for a non-sexual relationship, it was one of the most sexual relationships I’d ever experienced. Now I was back in New York, determined to forget him—to convince myself that it wasn’t love at first sight but just some bizarre combustible mix of chemicals. A doctor friend told me that intense, obsessive attractions could sometimes be the result of polar opposite immune systems sensing that their combination would produce a healthy child. I told myself that it was that or pheromones, or even something to do with Helen Fisher’s four personality types.
I was falling the fuck apart.
Even worse, my publisher had just come to me with an idea: would I want to do a book that advised single women on how to live?
In the whole scheme of things, this shouldn’t be a problem. I’d dreamt my entire life of a publisher coming to me with an idea. She’d published two of my novels and I was hoping to try, if not another novel, then a memoir. But an advice book for single women?! Even though I made part of my living advising others on dating, relationships and matters of the heart, I was, I’d just proven, incapable of handling my own romantic affairs. An entire book telling other women how to do it? Forget it.
But during one of the days that I was breaking down, I uncurled myself from the fetal position I’d been in since returning from LA. See, getting close to and realizing I couldn’t have the married man had opened up a floodgate in my head, which was now filled with thoughts about how I was surely going to be alone forever. The strongest feelings I’d had for a man in the past decade were for a guy who was married to someone else: clearly there was something terribly wrong with me. But that day, I dried my tears, got dressed and forced myself out of the house. Somehow, I ended up at the Union Square Barnes and Nobles, staring at a shelf devoted to love and relationships.
Last One Down the Aisle Wins: 10 Keys to a Fabulous Single Life Now and an Even Better Marriage screamed one title. Single Minded: Reflections for the Single Journey called another. And then I saw one that had been left on top of the shelf: Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown.
While I knew Helen Gurley Brown was the editor-in-chief of Cosmo for what seemed like a hundred years, I hadn’t realized she wrote a book. But I picked it up, expecting to read a bunch of asinine tips on how to snag and keep a man.
I was, as I often am, wrong.
It brimmed with optimism, offering beauty, health, cooking and decorating tips to make you more sought-after, suggestions for “conversation piece” accessories to attract interest when you’re out (a colorful beach towel, clothes that fit well, a conversation piece pin!) and places to meet new men (planes, beaches, your friend’s address books!).
There was a contradiction in the book’s surprising and uplifting message that somehow meshed perfectly with my own contradictory desire for independence and partnership. Because Helen, it seems, wasn’t just out to convince women that they needed a guy to complete them. She also wanted us to see that a single woman in her thirties wasn’t a pariah or someone to be pitied but “the newest glamour girl of our times.” Sure, it also contained a few dated concepts (such as the notion that a man needs to take a woman out to dinner 20 times before she should consider making him a home-cooked meal) but I found this, if anything, amusing.
Suddenly feeling better for the first time in weeks, I bought the book, took it home and began looking up everything I could about Brown. And that’s when I learned that though she’s put some less than politically correct ideas out there (including, famously, the notion that “a tiny touch of anorexia nervosa to maintain an ideal weight”), she also paved the way for women in nearly unfathomable ways: she’d been the highest-paid copywriter in Los Angeles for a time and endlessly championed the notion that women should earn their own way. She didn’t get married until she was 37—an extremely brave move at a time when most women walked down the aisle in their early twenties. And she did everything she possibly could to eradicate the inherent shame many women feel about their sexuality.
Now, I’ve been obsessed with earning my keep from the moment I first heard my father joke in a way that was clear he wasn’t actually joking that the Golden Rule wasn’t “do unto others what you would have them do unto you” but “the one who makes the gold makes the rules.” And I never understood the notion of wanting to get married young—before you even know yourself. I’d always known I wanted to wait until the last possible second I could do it so I would be confident I’d made the right choice. And—well, I’ve just never bought into the notion that women should be ashamed of their sexuality, or lose all respectability if they’re also seen as sexy—as second-wave feminism always seemed to perpetuate.
I’d found, in short, my new role model.
And so I pitched my editor back: how about, rather than trying to do a book where I told single women how to live, I tried everything Helen Gurley Brown recommended for women in the sixties to see how her suggestions for cooking, cleaning, dressing and dating fared in 2009 and 2010?
She said yes.
The result of my Year of Living Helen? I discovered that in becoming a take-no-prisoners, Type-A career woman who could provide for herself, I’d wholly neglected to nurture my feminine side. And even more surprisingly, there were some things they had right in the sixties that I don’t necessarily think we do today. I also learned that I’d forgotten entirely—if, in fact, I ever knew—how to behave around prospective men: I’d basically grown into someone who decided who she wanted, went after him and either succeeded or failed in converting him into a boyfriend (and, quite frankly, mostly failed: it’s an embarrassingly ineffective technique). So I studied Helen’s suggestions for interacting with men—from how to meet them to how to snare them to how to keep them. I became an HGB disciple, in the process getting over the married man and into understanding why I fell for him in the first place.
The entire journey is detailed in my book Falling for Me, which will be released this October. But there’s so much that happened that couldn’t fit in the book—and that’s the reason for this column. In “Sex and the Sixties Girl,” I’ll be chronicling in detail each of the steps I took back 50 years–which, in turn, helped me move forward.
Next week, I’ll get into the ways Helen pushed me to meet new men. (Hint: it doesn’t involve being taken out to dinner 20 times.)