Bookforum talks to Leah Dieterich

Vanishing Twins: A Marriage BY Leah Dieterich. Soft Skull Press. Paperback, 304 pages. $16.

Leah Dieterich’s Vanishing Twins is more than a memoir about love and marriage. It’s a literary experiment in both structure and subject, a novel mix of theory and story. The book examines Dieterich’s marriage to Eric, a man she met in college. When they first got together, they formed an unusually close partnership, creating a private world that felt both thrilling and stifling (as Dieterich notes, they had never spent more than a night apart). Eventually, this dynamic became overwhelming to her, and the couple decided to experiment with non-monogamy. Dieterich narrates the ensuing adventures, both sexual and emotional, in unsparing prose, paying special attention to just how messy it could get. Composed of short vignettes ranging from several sentences to several pages, the book begins to feel like a play; as the drama builds, short theoretical musings zoom out on what might otherwise be an unbearably intimate tale.

How did this book begin?

It began as a coping mechanism. After having lived apart for nearly three years on opposite coasts in an open relationship, my husband and I decided to move back in together and be monogamous again. I was relieved but also feared that I’d lose all the “freedom” (though I’m not so sure that’s what it truly was) I’d gained during our time apart. Writing helped me work through the conflicting feelings, from relief that my marriage hadn’t totally disintegrated to the creeping fear that my autonomy would again be squashed.

As the vignettes began to accrue and turn into a narrative, the book itself, both the object and the act of writing, became a stand-in for my former lovers. It was a source of passion that was just mine—it was a little dangerous and a little threatening. In the past, I’d looked to other people to be my mirrors, to show me who I was, but I found that the book could do that for me in a much more satisfying way. The Latin term for a vanished twin is Fetus papyraceus, which means “paper-like,” and I hoped that when I finished the book, it would close the loop on this particular need to find my lost twin.

How did your vision of freedom change while writing this book?

What I saw as “freedom” when we lived apart was really a lack of accountability. I liked the fact that I didn’t have to explain myself to my husband. I didn’t have to tell him who I was going out with or what I was doing. Now, I see that the bigger project and hopefully the path to true freedom—or at least to a solid identity—is being able to articulate my desires and take action while considering another person’s feelings and desires. In a way, it’s akin to Winnicott’s idea of being “alone in the presence of another” as an important marker of healthy selfhood. But it’s not a one-way street. It means that the person you’re in a relationship with needs to allow you to be alone in their presence, too, letting you try on thoughts and feelings and identities as they stand by, at a slight remove, letting you know they are there for you but not going to interfere.

What is the background behind the title of the novel?

The title Vanishing Twins takes its name from a phenomenon called “Vanishing Twin Syndrome,” which is what the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology calls it when a fetus in a multiple pregnancy dies in utero. The book is about the mysterious feeling I’ve long had that I was supposed to have been born a twin and have been seeking this lost twin in all kinds of relationships throughout my life. In the end, I like to think of the book itself as my twin, my mirror, my likeness in paper form.

Early in the book, you write that recognizing monogamy as a social construct rather than a necessity was part of what led you and your husband to explore an open marriage. When you eventually “closed" the marriage, how did you reconcile this idea of a social construct with the reality that non-monogamy did not work for you?

Adam Phillips’s brilliant book Monogamy helped me see it with fresh eyes. Monogamy as a construct is not a topic that seems exciting in movies, in literature, etc. But infidelity is. Affairs are the stuff of narrative. I had made the mistake for a long time of equating a happy monogamous marriage with a conflict-free marriage, which means a marriage with no story. Nothing to grab on to, nothing dangerous. Phillips’s book changed all this for me and allowed me to see the darker erotics of monogamy. “Why are we more impressed by the experience of falling in love than by the experience of falling out of love?” he asks. “After all, both are painful, both are utterly baffling, both are opportunities. Perhaps we value monogamy because it lets us have it both ways.”

I’m fascinated by your use of the phrase "the darker erotics of monogamy.” It's a good description of the book, where you delve into the inner terrain of a marriage. Were you afraid of exposing so much?

I was excited to share this terrain. I think so many of our insecurities and feelings of alienation come from the assumption that we’re the only person who is experiencing something.By sharing the details of our experiences we can connect with others who might be going through the same thing. Most people try monogamy—it’s the dominant model for romantic relationships—and yet we don’t talk about the fact that it’s a process. We talk about infidelity because it’s visceral and immediate. It’s good narrative. It has mystery and betrayal and lust right on the surface. It’s harder to write about a marriage that doesn’t break apart, but instead expands and contracts and shifts. I think it’s necessary to write about this in order to create a map of possibilities.

The way Phillips peels back the layers of monogamy helped it seem much more interesting to me than it had when it was just a social construct, a tradition, something I was expected to follow without questioning. I think having questioned it, and having tried something else, allowed me to see its virtues rather than just its flaws. “At its best monogamy may be the wish to find someone to die with,” Phillips says. “At worst it is a cure for the terrors of aliveness. They are easily confused.”

You have several passages in which you detail the private language that you and your husband developed. What were the challenges of making that personal shorthand public when publishing the book?

Of all the things that were challenging about writing of this book, that was not one of them. I was excited to include it in the book because I felt like its strangeness and specificity would make the characters feel alive. I liken it to Cryptophasia, a language twins develop that only they understand. I love learning languages and am particularly interested in how certain phrases translate or don’t translate into English. Writing about our private language felt like an extension of that interest. As a child, my family had all kinds of made-up words and phrases, too. They were inside jokes, and I remember not realizing that they didn’t translate outside the family. I thought everyone called a dog’s muzzle a “moofle” or a fart a “putt putt” and I’d be embarrassed when I’d use these phrases in public and get laughed at. One goal of literature is to make a reader feel less alone and I hoped that including bits of our private language would help me connect with people.

Rebecca Schuh is a writer based in Brooklyn.