NYTimes 14

Romance at Arm’s Length

IN Spike Jonze’s mesmerizing new movie “Her,” a man falls in love with a sultry-voiced computer operating system whose presence in the film is so lifelike you have to keep reminding yourself she doesn’t actually exist. To make it easier for the audience to believe that a computer might be able to mimic human thought, emotion and speech so convincingly, Mr. Jonze sets his story in the not-so-distant future.

I don’t know why he bothers. Other than the sci-fi wrinkle of the woman’s being a microchip, the couple’s ill-fated romance, which involves zero physical contact and relies on electronic communication for emotional sustenance, isn’t futuristic at all; thousands of people are having relationships like that right now. True, they involve a real human being at the other end of the line instead of an operating system, but otherwise it’s the same deal: The romances they pursue are emotionally rich but physically barren. And these kinds of relationships are surging in popularity.

As editor of The Times’s Modern Love column for the past decade, I have been privy to the love lives of tens of thousands of strangers through the stories and letters they send my way. It’s a vantage point that provides a panoramic view of what people are struggling with in matters of love, especially when it comes to how technology is altering our romantic landscape. And among the more pronounced trends I have noticed in recent years is the rise of online-only relationships, a phenomenon I’ve begun to call Soul Mate in a Box.

A Soul Mate in a Box (Smiab, for short) is a person we rarely if ever meet and in some cases never speak to, but to whom we feel closer than anyone else. Maybe the relationship exists through instant messages, or over email, or via Skype, FaceTime and texting. Perhaps Snapchat allows the couple to exchange racy pictures, adding a glimpse of sexuality, if not sex. One couple liked to view each other on Skype but weren’t comfortable talking that way, so they’d instant message instead, watching each other click away at the keyboard as they swooned.

How do these relationships start? Typically with two strangers crossing paths via social media: on Facebook, through dating sites or by retweeting and “favoriting” until tweeting turns to flirting. At the start it’s just harmless fun, a distraction. No need to think seriously about it, because what could happen? He or she lives 2,000 miles away!

Ironically, it’s often this presumed lack of possibility that enables the couple to grow so close so fast. Just as Theodore Twombly, the character in “Her,” grins dismissively at the idea of falling in love with the voice of his new operating system (before doing exactly that), those who meet a potential Smiab online tell themselves it can’t go anywhere. Which then frees it up to go somewhere. And soon their once dismissible flirtation has snowballed into the most obsessive relationship in their lives.

We’re always searching for new ways of finding love that don’t involve having to feel insecure and vulnerable, because who wants to feel insecure and vulnerable? That’s the worst part of the whole love game, putting oneself out there to be judged and rejected. So when we get the chance to hide — whether through typed messages we can edit and control, or by saying whatever we’d like over Skype without expecting the relationship to ever turn physical — we’re freed from much of that anxiety, and we’re fooled into thinking this may be a better and truer way of having a relationship.

These kinds of self-protective impulses were on full display in the thousands of stories I received during the two Modern Love college essay contests I held, in 2008 and 2011. In the first contest, the most common theme among the undergraduates’ submissions was their struggle with the seemingly ubiquitous practice of hooking up — having casual sexual encounters with no strings attached. Intellectually, the behavior made sense to them. Sex was fun, or could be, but relationships can get messy and demanding. So why not try to neatly separate the simpler and more pleasurable part from the messier and potentially more upsetting part? Slicing their actions from their feelings, however, wasn’t turning out to be such a clean cut.

Three years later, college students were already trying something else. The most commonly written-about topic in 2011 was online-only love affairs. Rather than trying to figure out how to navigate a sexual relationship that excluded emotion, they were trying to figure out how to navigate an emotional relationship that excluded sex.

In love’s newest incarnation, students might spend their evenings Skyping and messaging deep into the night with someone they met online who lives five states away. Eventually they drift off to sleep with their laptops open only to wake up hours later, dazed and bleary-eyed, whereupon they tap their screens back to life and say a warm hello to their e-lover in another time zone.

UNLIKE hookups, these relationships are all about sharing your every thought, idea and emotional burp. But they are also, crucially, about being able to close your laptop and turn off your phone whenever you want to and continue about your life as you wish, unencumbered.

When a couple involved in an online-only relationship finally decides to meet in person, their experience often mirrors what happens in “Her” when Theodore tries to have sex with his OS via a human surrogate, but then backs out when the experience feels too weird. Same with real couples. After all that cyberintimacy, being together physically simply doesn’t feel right. The body doesn’t match the sensibility. It’s too hard to square the person to whom they’ve been baring their heart with the one who’s suddenly sitting next to them. Such encounters crash and burn with surprising frequency. But if the couple felt as if they had gotten to know each other so well online, how could that intimacy suddenly drain away?

One explanation: They didn’t actually get to know each other so well. They only got to know what was served up, a two-dimensional collection of images, text and, for some, audio. When the messy parts of us aren’t on display from the beginning of a relationship — when awkwardness and fumbling and being forced to be present without a mouse-click escape hatch all enter the scene — it’s hard to catch up. As good as it felt to be able to create an ideal version of ourselves, it can feel jarringly worse to have that control suddenly yanked away.

Which leads to a second explanation for the high failure rate: For many, the urge to seek pleasure through a device rather than through a person who’s in the same room can be a hard habit to break. In this wondrous world of the Internet, we often find the object that’s far away to be more enticing than the one that’s nearby.

One woman I heard from had been reveling in a monthslong online relationship with a man who lived hundreds of miles away, and their bond had grown so intense that they finally decided they had to meet and see if their online magic could translate into an actual relationship. So one Friday she rented a car and drove nine hours to spend a long weekend with him. And it went O.K. at first. But soon it became clear that their online chemistry wasn’t happening in real life. Their once urgent conversations had dribbled away to nothing. Now that they were physically together, it was as if they each had become the person to escape from instead of the one to yearn for.

Before long he began sneaking glances at his cellphone when they were at a restaurant and drifting away from her to his open laptop when they were back at his apartment. Until eventually, in a perfect tableau of their relationship’s demise, she was left to sit quietly aside as he searched online for the emotional fix he’d grown accustomed to finding there, scrolling for something, anything, to capture his attention.




NYTimes 13

Good Enough? That’s Great

What’s the best way to recalibrate a marriage as the years pass? I wish I had the answer, because clearly millions of us would like to know.

As the editor of the Modern Love column for nearly a decade, I have sifted through roughly 50,000 stories that have crossed my desk. I have noticed people wrestling with two questions above all others. From the young: “How do I find love?” And from those wallowing through marital malaise: “How do I get it back?”

Though it’s not really love they want back as much as attention, excitement and passion. No one doubts the enduring benefits of long-term relationships. But marriage can also get boring, punctuated with deadening routines, cyclical arguments and repetitive conversations.

In my own 21-year marriage, my wife has a habit of asking me to do something and then saying: “You’re not going to forget, are you? Just tell me now if you’re going to forget so I’ll know to do it myself.”

I’ll say (for the hundredth time): “I can’t know in advance if I’m going to forget. That’s not how forgetting works.”

“Just tell me,” she’ll say.

Among my 50,000 strangers, I’ve also heard from just a handful of couples who claimed to have maintained sexually charged marriages throughout the decades. The one story I published from this happier-than-thou crowd, by the writer Ayelet Waldman about her still-sexy marriage (with four children) to the Pulitzer-winning writer Michael Chabon, was met with jeers and hostility when she went on “Oprah” to talk about it, mostly because she dared to confess that she puts her marriage ahead of motherhood.

That alignment of priorities, she said, is part of what has allowed her to keep her marriage passionate. And she argued that doing so is also a healthier model for children, most of whom would be better off with a little less time in their parents’ spotlight. As she spoke, the studio audience seemed to regard her as if she were from another planet.

She might as well have been, given how rare that kind of marriage is these days.

So what to do about it? Sneak around, trying to get our needs met elsewhere? Resign ourselves to the limitations of marriage? Confront the issue head on and work together to try to reanimate our relationship? And ultimately, what does each approach entail?

THOSE WHO SNEAK. Sneakers neither sulk nor celebrate; they redirect their attention to distractions that entertain and titillate. As a matter of convenience, much of their sneaking will be conducted online. Sneakers are never without their electronic devices. When sitting, they will almost always be staring into an open laptop or e-tablet. While walking or doing chores, they’ll be staring into a smartphone.

For these gadget-obsessed types, the hardest work of marriage is listening. To their spouses they’ll mutter “What?” constantly, but they won’t listen when the statement is repeated and they are too embarrassed to ask a second or third time.

Sneakers typically log a lot of hours on social media stalking old flames from high school and college. Have you ever received a friend request from a long-ago love who very early in your messaging session either asks leading questions about the state of your marriage or confesses to loneliness in his or her own? If so, you’ve been targeted by a sneaker.

After an opening exchange of how-you-dos, the sneaker will start in: “yeah im married 2 but we do our own thing these days. what about u?”

Target: “lol i know how that is”

Sneaker: “do u really?”

Target: “omg who doesnt”

Sneaker: “u and me used to have so much fun partying right?”

Target: “like 100 yrs ago lol”

Sneaker: “we should get together 4 lunch sometime”

Target: “that would be so crazy to c u again”

Sneaker: “how far away r u? 3 hrs?”

Target: “yeah long drive for lunch lol!”

Sneaker: “so do u really do ur own thing in ur marriage 2?”

Target: “omg you havent changed at all!!!!!”

Will they get together for lunch? And if they do and have a great time, will they: a) rekindle their romance, b) decide to divorce their spouses, and c) marry each other and live happily ever after?

Maybe, but probably not. The complexity and emotional toll involved in getting from points A to C in this fantasy are staggering. Yet this kind of Facebook-inspired daydreaming (“If only I could be with _____, I’d be so much happier”) is among the most common dilemmas I hear.

THOSE WHO QUASH. There are many who choose to quash their unfulfilled desires, to accept their marriage for what it is and figure out how to feel O.K. about it.

Oh, well, they tell themselves, I still have a lot to be thankful for. I love my spouse and my family. I love my house and my garden. So we aren’t having wild sex every day or every week or even once a month (or ever). You can’t have everything, they argue. Be grateful for what you do have.

There’s a temptation to dismiss quashers as being in total denial, but they aren’t. They just don’t see the point of wallowing in self-pity when they have accomplished what they hoped to in terms of marriage, family and career. As with most personality types, there’s a spectrum, running the gamut from the bitterly resigned to the appreciatively so.

The bitterly resigned will not go to couples counseling, because what are they supposed to say? “My life isn’t as fun as it used to be?” They hardly need to pay someone for that.

What a difference a spectrum can make, though, because those at the other end of the quashing range — the appreciatively resigned — seem to be among the healthiest and happiest of the marrieds.

Not much sexual passion left in the marriage? That’s offset by what’s left. Like Dr. Seuss’s Whos down in Whoville who hold hands and sing after being robbed on Christmas Eve of all their food and possessions, the appreciatively resigned rise each morning not dwelling on their marital shortfalls but counting their mutual blessings, whatever they may be: a shared sense of humor, an exchange of kind gestures, the enthusiastic pursuit of a mutual interest. Somehow they have managed to grow together rather than apart.

THE RESTORER. When a restorer couple’s marriage starts to feel subpar, they sit down and have a sensible discussion about where their marriage is and where they would like it to be. Then they set goals and seek the means to achieve those goals. Typically affluent, educated and highly motivated, restorer couples almost single-handedly support the vast and profitable marriage-improvement industry.

It won’t take long for them to find out that, surprisingly, the most recommended strategy for reigniting passion in marriage — passion that has waned in part because of the deadening weight of its routines — involves loading up the relationship with even more routines: date nights, couples counseling, dance classes, scheduled sex, 10 for 10s (committing to 10 hugs of 10-seconds in duration every single day), fresh flower Fridays (a boon to the local florist, if not your marriage), required kisses upon parting, lunchtime exchanges of erotic texts, and possibly some creative midday play at the local Holiday Inn involving silk scarves and an eye patch.

Such restorative activities fall into two groups: drudgery and spice. The drudgery, like research and couples counseling, is supposed to be hard work, whereas the spice, such as “creative” bedroom play and kisses upon parting, is supposed to be fun. Depending on a couple’s proclivities, however, the drudgery may turn out to be fun (like reading to each other in bed from marriage improvement books) and the attempts at spice may start to feel like work (having to get out of the car and go back inside because you yet again forgot your required parting kiss).

These attempts at relighting the flame may work for some, but for others they seem to be less about feeling sexy or “rediscovering” each other than they are about demonstrating a nose-to-the-grindstone determination to try anything to stay together and remain vital, which can have a bonding appeal of its own.

After all, you have a lot going for you if you’re willing to commit to learning the fox trot when you hate dancing, or giving up your cherished Saturday-morning run for a regular bedroom session of holding hands naked while staring into each other’s eyes (and seeing where that leads).

Like at-risk teens who are kept off the streets and helped in a positive direction through after-school sports or Big Brother and Big Sister programs, restorer couples who embrace these new routines are also kept out of other people’s beds and focused on healthier alternatives.

What’s more, restorers will want to be able to say they have tried everything to bring the passion back to their marriage, so essentially it’s just a matter of going down the list and checking everything off.

Ultimately every member of a dedicated restorer couple will become a marital-boredom scholar, reading everything that explains why living and having sex with the same person for 30 or 40 years can get boring and what to do about it when it happens to you. In their pursuit of such knowledge, these couples convert their night stands from leisure-reading podiums scattered with travel magazines and suspense novels into social-science libraries stacked with ominous-sounding book titles such as: “I Don’t,” “Marriage Shock,” “Against Love” and “Mating in Captivity.”

From their research they will learn how their boredom may ebb and flow before finally leveling off into the pleasant hum of old age. They’ll become experts in the ways men and women have driven each other crazy for all of eternity. They will have hugged and kissed and danced and date-nighted until they can hug and kiss and dance and date-night no more. And although they will have had some good times that made them remember why they fell in love in the first place, chances are they won’t exactly have turned back the clock in terms of reclaiming that ever-elusive passion.

Inevitably, as the intellectually curious people they are, restorers will return to their original and most perplexing question: How much do we have a right to expect from marriage? Is this simply as good as it gets? We do care about each other. We love our children. Health is generally good. Can’t we just be happy with what we have? And isn’t there a risk that in pressing for more we’ll turn something pretty good into something really bad?

There is, of course. And it’s a risk some will want to take. Others, though, will decide to pull back on the marriage improvement program and instead join the ranks of the appreciatively resigned. They will realize that passion does not equal love, and that the loss of one doesn’t necessarily mean the loss of the other.

With Feb. 14 soon upon us, that’s a realization worth celebrating.




NYTimes 12

Confessions of a Tiger Couple

One gray afternoon in November, on the eve of the Harvard-Yale football game, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld were preparing for their postgame party. Furniture had been moved, vulnerable rugs had been rolled into corners. Their older daughter, Sophia, a junior at Harvard, had just called, and Chua returned to the living room bearing some news for her husband.

“One thing — so Sophia’s bringing, like, 45 people.”

“Oh, no.” Rubenfeld reached for a glass on the coffee table and took a sip.

“Oh, you’re not going to like that. It’s flat.”

“You’re right,” he said, grimacing.

“It’s flat diet ginger ale,” she told me. “Jed doesn’t drink diet sodas, and he doesn’t drink flat.”

He also doesn’t like big parties, but she does. And those 45 people were going to be sleeping over. Even nonreaders of Chua’s 2011 book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” may remember the media chatter about how sleepovers were forbidden in the Chua-Rubenfeld household. All of it — the football game, the party, the sleepover — sounded like the stuff of tiger-mother nightmares.

“You have to understand,” Rubenfeld said, when I pointed this out. “Her whole thing was: That didn’t apply once they were older.” Rubenfeld, 54, speaks quietly and deliberately. He has a narrow, chiseled face, and when asked something he doesn’t want to answer, he’ll get very still and maintain an uncomfortable silence.

“It was supposed to be a kind of tongue-in-cheek book,” Chua interjected. At 51, she has a petite frame and a tendency to gesticulate. “The stuff I had to address was so . . . degrading. It was like, ‘Did you burn the stuffed animals?’ ” She seemed incredulous at the memory of it. “That was irony. That was irony!”

A pseudo-memoir of her adventures in authoritarian parenting, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” tapped into two potent sources of contemporary American anxiety: bad mothers and declining national fortunes, or what the cultural critic Oliver Wang calls “Fear the Chinese/Be the Chinese.” The book itself is an amalgam of true story, exaggeration and outright parody — “I trust them to make the right choices for themselves,” Chua writes, of her dogs. But it was her efforts to raise her two daughters “the Chinese way,” which included a willingness to call Sophia “garbage” and the rote drilling of multiplication tables to the point of exhaustion, that swiftly became an object of fascination and disgust. The hardcover edition spent 11 weeks on The New York Times’s best-seller list while generating the kind of enmity usually reserved for serial killers or politicians. Chua was called everything from “insane” to “abusive.”

“Battle Hymn” was Chua’s first real foray into pop-cultural polemics. She had written two books, both on ethnicity and international politics, which were more in line with her scholarship as a Yale law professor: “World on Fire,” about the dangers of exporting free-market democracy to countries where economic power is concentrated in the hands of a resented ethnic minority, and “Day of Empire,” about how “hyperpowers” thrive on multiculturalism and tolerance. Unlike “Battle Hymn,” which was assailed from all sides, “World on Fire” appealed to both ends of the political spectrum, garnering glowing notices in Mother Jones and The American Conservative. She had a personal connection to her subject: Her aunt, a member of the wealthy Chinese minority in the Philippines, had her throat slit by her chauffeur.

Rubenfeld, also a law professor at Yale, has had his own brush with popular success, writing two Freudian thrillers — including “The Interpretation of Murder,” a best seller in England — in addition to two treatises on constitutional law, his area of expertise. “I think six copies were sold, if memory serves,” Rubenfeld says of his most recent academic book, “and that includes the four that Amy bought.”

Considering how appalled they say they were by the Tiger Mother “firestorm,” their first collaborative project, “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America,” might seem either cynical or oblivious, or some uncanny combination of the two. Due out Feb. 4, the book is a work of Gladwellian sociology that enters the same cultural minefield as “Battle Hymn.” Looking at minorities like Mormons, Nigerian immigrants, Asian-Americans and Jews, among others, Chua and Rubenfeld contend that successful groups share three traits: a superiority complex, feelings of insecurity and impulse control. America, they conclude, used to be a “triple-package culture” before it succumbed to “instant-gratification disorder.”

The subtitle alone is enough to set some readers on high alert. Writing about success in terms of cultural values and traits has always been a contentious proposition in the United States, where it’s typically associated with conservatives like Charles Murray (“The Bell Curve” and “Losing Ground”), who argue that poor people are poor because of bad habits rather than bad situations. The Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, who is cited in “The Triple Package,” hadn’t yet read the book, but said he hoped that Chua and Rubenfeld were aware that they’re flirting with a Typhoid Mary. “I’m all for culture,” Patterson said, but “culture is a tricky concept. It has tripped up a lot of anthropologists and sociologists.”

It may now trip up a couple of legal scholars too. When The New York Post got wind of the book in early January, it ran an article about how Chua was “doubling down” with “a series of shock-arguments wrapped in self-help tropes” that could be distilled into one incendiary message: “Some groups are just superior to others, and everyone else is contributing to the downfall of America.” Never mind that the book doesn’t actually say this — the suggestion was out there. On Twitter, Chua was deemed a “racist” and a “troll” (sights were trained on the Tiger Mother; Rubenfeld was mostly spared). Within a week, the authors had been accused of everything from scaring readers to boring them, with New York magazine yawning that the book was “dull” and “conventional.”

“I guess we are fearing the worst,” Chua told me in November. Nonetheless, she was holding out hope that this time would be different. She pointed out all the ways in which they qualified their thesis. They ran numbers and collected data sets. They hired research assistants from “every possible conceivable background.” They acknowledged structural impediments to success, like racism. A chapter was devoted to “the underside of the triple package” and how pathological striving can lead to chauvinism and depression. The text itself is 225 pages, but to that they added nearly 80 pages in endnotes.

“The Triple Package” is full of qualifications, earnest settings-of-the-terms, explicit attempts to head off misinterpretations at the pass. “This point is so important we’re going to repeat it,” they write in a section about Appalachian poverty, which they argue was caused by geography and industrial decline, rather than by any lack of triple-package values. This last month of criticism showed that such lawyerly efforts to walk the line between blandness and notoriety are unlikely to satisfy their most vociferous critics. Yet Chua remained optimistic.

“I feel like it should be a book that if you approach it with an open mind, it actually shouldn’t be controversial. It should be thought-provoking.”

Rubenfeld, who was listening intently to his wife, smiled. “We’re just going to get raked over the coals — that’s what’s going to happen.”

Well before “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” Chua and Rubenfeld wanted to collaborate on a project. “For a while we were going to write a book about Jewish people and Chinese people,” she said, “and it was going to be how different the cultures were.” But then they noticed some historical similarities. “If you take Jews in the 1900s, 1910s, it’s like, ‘You have to listen to your father,’ too!”

Chua and Rubenfeld met in the mid-’80s, when she was in her second year at Harvard Law School and he was in his third. She had just made The Law Review, where he was already an editor, and a mishap at what she calls “the nerdiest volleyball game of all history” almost landed them in the emergency room.

“We were on opposite sides, and we both went up for the ball,” she recalled. She got a bloody lip; he got a black eye. “In fact, we were on the same team,” Rubenfeld said by way of correction. “We weren’t on opposite sides.”

He invited her for coffee, and she accepted. Rubenfeld was trying to democratize The Law Review by doing away with the grueling competitive process in favor of a lottery, which made Chua — a child of immigrants and an ardent believer in the meritocracy — suspicious. “I found the conversation irritating,” she said. “All these people went to private schools; I went to a public school, and I clawed my way into this thing.” She laughed. “I was just there to try to do well, and Jed was leading revolutions.”

When Chua described her first impressions of Rubenfeld, the word “cool” came up several times, and she enunciated it in a way that made it clear she was using it as a term of derision. Asked how she went from mistrusting the cool kid to marrying him, she recalled how, over time, she realized that his intelligence revealed some effort. He wasn’t just coasting by on his good looks and his privilege — coasting being the unforgivable sin in the Chua cosmos. She talks about hard work as both a practical and a moral imperative. Forgoing hard work is a mark of arrogance, which leads to complacency, which leads to intergenerational decline. In “Battle Hymn,” she casts the forced march of music lessons as an attempt to counteract the smug satisfactions of privilege, writing of her determination “not to raise a soft, entitled child.”

Chua grew up feeling anything but entitled. She was born in Champaign, Ill., to Chinese parents from the Philippines. Her father was a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering; her mother was a chemist who eventually gave up her career to care for four daughters, the youngest of whom has Down syndrome. Amy was the oldest. When their father came home from work, she would take off his shoes and socks before bringing him his slippers. Expectations were high, and they were clear. An A-minus was not merely unacceptable but “unthinkable.” Amy spoke only the family’s Hokkien dialect until she was 4, when she was thrown into a nursery school where everyone spoke English. But an English slip of the tongue at home would be met with a “whack of the chopsticks.”

Rubenfeld’s upbringing wasn’t nearly so severe. His parents rebelled against their Orthodox Jewish backgrounds to become, as he puts it, “very liberal, very permissive.” His father was a successful psychotherapist; his mother was an art critic. They didn’t push their three children to get good grades. When Rubenfeld was 12, his parents told him he could take violin lessons or tennis lessons. He chose tennis. “The message in my family was: Kids should go out and find out what they want to do. And that was great for us all, individually. But as a family, things didn’t work out that well. My parents were separated when I was in college. They got divorced. And they practically weren’t speaking to each other for the rest of their lives.”

Rubenfeld is only an intermittent presence in “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” and he generally serves as a foil to Chua’s more extreme disciplinary style. “I was already at a disadvantage,” she writes. “I had an American husband who believed that childhood should be fun.” Which isn’t to say he disagreed with her approach. “I would be seeing these parents, and the kids weren’t happier for having parents who would answer yes for everything,” he told me. “And then my wife is this Chinese woman who has all these ideas about parenting. I’m like, Maybe that is better.”

In “Battle Hymn” as well as in “The Triple Package,” permissive parenting is presented as hazardous to children, whose future success requires discipline and self-control. Yet despite his parents’ leniency, Rubenfeld will admit that he isn’t exactly a cautionary tale. He graduated from Princeton with a degree in philosophy, having written a thesis on Freud and Foucault. Princeton was followed by drama at Juilliard before he was, in his words, “kicked out” after two years (Juilliard was known for cutting its drama classes by as much as half). After Harvard Law School, Rubenfeld clerked for a judge in the prestigious Ninth Circuit, worked for Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz and then for the U.S. Attorney’s office. In his spare time, he wrote a paper about a woman’s right to abortion, arguing that “mandatory childbearing is a totalitarian intervention into a woman’s life.” Within a year of publication, Yale Law School offered him a tenure-track job.

When Rubenfeld began teaching at Yale in 1990, he and Chua had been married for a couple of years. (They celebrated their 25th anniversary this fall.) After the birth of their first daughter in 1992, Chua left the firm of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton and eventually found a teaching job at Duke. The couple endured tedious commutes between North Carolina and Connecticut until finally, in 2001, a series of visiting-professor gigs brought Chua to Yale.

Spending time with Chua and Rubenfeld, I was periodically reminded of something Stanley Cavell once wrote — that the defining moment in a screwball comedy comes when the oddly matched pair find themselves in a “mythical place” called Connecticut. Chua and Rubenfeld have been living together in New Haven for more than a decade, but to hear her tell it, they come not so much from different backgrounds as from different planets — though they’re not the henpecked husband and the dragon-lady wife of the public imagination. “He’s a bad boy,” she says. “He doesn’t mind people being angry with him.” Chua prefers to ingratiate herself, often deferring to others. “I love authority figures, I love experts.” They’ll go to a museum, and he’ll wander around, taking in the art, while she waits in line for the plastic audio guide. At a restaurant, he’ll ask to be seated near a window, whereas she’s willing to sit wherever she’s told, even if that’s next to the bathroom.

On the Monday after Thanksgiving, I arrived at Yale Law School to watch them teach. They’re both popular professors — Chua earned a teaching award in 2011 — but their styles are completely different. Chua was like a coach, nudging her students toward the answers and giving them smiles of encouragement. “Yes! Keep going!” and “You were all right!”

Rubenfeld, by contrast, laid out his points about constitutional law methodically. The students laughed at his jokes, but his delivery might be described as charismatic deadpan. He told a student “O.K., excellent” only once. At the break, he left the room so swiftly, it was as if he had been instructed to exit stage right.

Shortly before 7, Chua and I met Rubenfeld outside the law school, where he was waiting for us. I could hear strains of music coming from their Jeep. “Will you recognize me? Call my name or walk on by. . . .” It was the song from the last scene of “The Breakfast Club,” when Judd Nelson thrusts a defiant fist into the air.

Chua climbed into the back, leaning forward between the front seats to start pressing buttons on the stereo. “I have to turn this off.”

Rubenfeld looked neither surprised nor displeased as he took the car out of park. “Did you see how fast she turned off my music?”

“I don’t like that ’80s stuff.” Chua says that her taste in music is atrocious. She loves country — crooners like Kenny Chesney, not Wilco. Her cultural self-deprecation is so matter-of-fact that it can sound almost confident. Her husband is “the aesthetic person,” she told me when I first met them in their home. “I have zero taste.”

In the car, Chua and Rubenfeld started talking about the criminal-law class he’s teaching next year. He’d just published a paper questioning the standard definition of rape as “unconsented-to sex,” suggesting the better analogy was slavery or torture. Chua talked about her husband’s willingness to broach a subject like rape in his class with a mixture of admiration and mock-horror.

“I don’t want to be controversial,” she said. “I just want to be liked.”

For someone who doesn’t want to be controversial, Chua has shown a persistent willingness to enter the fray. One sunny afternoon in December, she showed me some emails in response to “Battle Hymn” that she stored on her computer, located on a cluttered desk in their bedroom. It was the week before Christmas, and their 17-year-old daughter, Lulu, was sitting on the floor nearby, wrapping presents.

The emails started arriving on Jan. 8, 2011, the morning The Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from the book under the headline, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” To describe those first emails as nasty would be an understatement. Chua was accused of torturing her daughters and putting them at risk for suicide. Her first impulse was to write back to set the record straight. The excerpt and the headline were misleading. People needed to know that the book wasn’t a manifesto, and it wasn’t a parenting manual, either. Couldn’t they see her narrator was unreliable? Couldn’t they see how the book was meant to be funny?

“They got nicer and nicer,” Chua said, opening a recent note from a teacher who liked “Battle Hymn” so much that he had his class enact a “duo interpretation of a specific scene from the book.” One man started out peevish, accusing her of “low moral and ethical caliber” as well as “spousal abuse” before he sent her another email with the subject line: “Mitigation.” “Your article touched a nerve,” he explained. “I struggle daily with the iron will of my Hong Kongenese [sic] spouse.” He had attached a picture of himself with his young daughter, both sticking out their tongues for the camera.

The positive feedback felt like a vindication. “Battle Hymn” was written at a time when Chua’s sister was ill and Lulu, then 13, was going “public with her insurgency” against her mother’s oppressive methods. After a showdown in a Russian restaurant (yelling, smashed glass), Chua admits that she pushed her younger daughter too hard. But that doesn’t mean she thinks she shouldn’t have been pushing at all. For all of her claims about the book’s satire and hyperbole, she expresses a deep conviction about how she raised her daughters: “There is nothing I’m prouder of.”

As Chua and I got ready to leave the house, she walked over to where Lulu was sitting. “Is there some homework you should be doing?”

“I’ve already done my physics test,” Lulu said, curling some ribbon with scissors.

“But you should send an email to your teachers to explain why you’re not there.”

“They know I’m sick.” Lulu was at home with the flu. “You called in my absence this morning. They put it on the attendance sheet.”

Chua insisted Lulu should send an email anyway, especially because just two days before, she was accepted at Yale. “They’re going to think you’re arrogant: You got into college and you’re not going to class.”

Chua stared at her daughter expectantly. Lulu then did what any self-respecting high-school senior would do. She rolled her eyes and continued to wrap her present.

“New Haven is two worlds,” Chua said as we got into her Jeep. Somewhere between their mock-Tudor house and Yale’s campus, well-preserved homes give way to block after block of peeling clapboard and wire fences.

Yale Law School prides itself on being a kind of oasis for the country’s brightest students, the ones who scored highest on the LSAT and got the best grades and have done something ambitious already — volunteered in an African refugee camp, say, or worked as a C.E.O. It’s among the most selective law schools, and unlike the bigger ones, it doesn’t grade on a curve. Incoming students are told they’re “off the treadmill.” They can take some time to figure out what it is that they really want to do.

In “The Triple Package,” Rubenfeld and Chua write that this is the point of striving: to get to a place where you can break out of the straitjacket of conventional success and pursue the life you really want to live. Their daughter Sophia is studying Sanskrit and philosophy but also signed up for R.O.T.C. “Jed and I are wild fans of breaking away, kicking away the ladder,” Chua told me that first rainy day in their house. Their own excursions outside the academy might be seen in this light. But as “breaking away” goes, theirs is a fairly safe bet. They were law professors before. They will be law professors after.

Chua has been attuned to the plight of the outsider in each of her books, aware of how smug and insular success can seem. But there’s a kind of ingenuousness that can settle in after years spent in a safe space, one that stands at a considerable remove from the marketplace where most people make do. “The Triple Package” conveys a message familiar from self-help books: Adopt these values and you too can take control of your life. But you have only to step outside of Yale’s campus to see that the world doesn’t operate according to the same principles of effort and reward. For most Americans, especially now, striving and insecurity are likely to be rewarded with more striving and insecurity; you can do everything right and still have little to show for it. Kicking away that ladder will sound like a fantasy when you’re clinging to it for dear life.

The sky was getting darker as Chua drove us toward downtown New Haven. She had her forearms pressed against the wheel to get a better view of the road, which made her look hesitant. At one point we were stopped at an intersection when someone banged loudly on the back of the car. “Did I — ” she began. What happened made no sense. She’d stopped because the light was red. Had she really done something wrong?




NYTimes 11

Breaking Free From the Nesting Doll

What do you owe someone who’s loved and healed you?

Decades ago, I arrived at the State University of Leningrad in the old Soviet Union as a college junior along with two dozen other American students and a pair of professor chaperones taking a semester abroad. We were segregated from ordinary students in special classes and a dorm designated for foreigners and the carefully chosen Soviets who could be trusted to live with us.

We were warned that many Soviets would see us as enticing marriage prospects because marriage to a Westerner offered an easy way out. Of Western countries, the United States was the most coveted destination, and that made Americans as desirable as movie stars.

I had no intention of marrying anyone. I’d had high school boyfriends but never a serious relationship. And besides, I was ambitious. I wanted a career, not a family.

I was also a wounded soul. I had been date-raped the year before, my first real sexual experience. I told no one.

It sent me spiraling into depression. I felt lonely, isolated and mistrustful. Going to gloomy Russia for five months seemed destined to isolate and depress me further, but then, I thought, what difference did it make? What difference did anything make?

Two weeks into the semester, a Russian man stopped me on my way home from classes. He was 32, thin, with longish hair, a mustache, jeans, a parka and kind eyes. He said that his name was Sasha, and that he was an artist. Was I American? He wanted someone to practice his English with and was wondering if I would meet him for coffee.

I knew I should be careful about strangers, but Sasha seemed nice; besides, how could I learn about Russia if I didn’t make any friends?

I took his number. He gave me elaborate instructions: Call from a phone booth only, one that was far from the university, where all phones were surely bugged.

We met at Dom Knigi, a landmark bookstore. I liked him right away. Russian men are often stereotyped as boorish drunks, but Sasha was solicitous and gentlemanly. Soon he was inviting me to parties, where we sang folk songs and drank vodka.

He gave me cards and flowers. He painted a matryoshka — one of those Russian nesting dolls — to look exactly like me, right down to my sheepskin coat and heavy rubber boots. Nestled inside was a doll he had painted to look like him. And inside that doll were keys to his apartment.

We almost never practiced English, so my Russian quickly became fluent. He was honest, funny, good-hearted and patient, qualities that were healing the wounds I had taken with me to Leningrad. Before I knew it, I was in love with him.

Sasha seemed to be in love with me, too. But I couldn’t know for sure, because he was unhappy there and desperately wanted to move to America. He was an academy-trained artist whose work was considered subversive, so he was consigned to a menial job painting signs for movie theaters, with little hope of ever being able to show his work in a gallery. He had no meaningful future in the Soviet Union.

So when he asked me to marry him, I was in a quandary.

If I didn’t marry Sasha, he would be stuck in the Soviet Union, I thought, possibly forever. I wouldn’t see him again unless I returned on a tourist visa for a week or two. Basically, I had two choices: marry him, or never see him again.

The idea of never seeing him again was unbearable. But more than that, I believed I owed him something. He had brought me out of my depression, and his gentleness had restored my ability to trust and love. In return, I could rescue him from a dead-end life. But was that a good reason to marry someone?

I was under a lot of pressure. His friends summoned ghosts with their Ouija boards to announce that marrying Sasha was my fate. I met his parents, who approved. Everyone in his life seemed to rally behind the idea. In their eyes I was a rich, happy, free American, and they were poor and oppressed. I should share what I had with one of them. And didn’t Sasha deserve it?

My fellow American students, many finding themselves in similar situations, were suspicious. The two American professors chaperoning our group caught me at the United States Consulate when I went to ask about marrying a Soviet citizen. They took me aside to warn me what I was in for: Getting Sasha out would be a Kafkaesque struggle with Soviet bureaucracy.

Americans sometimes waited years for their Soviet spouses to be released. I would be living in limbo, married to a political prisoner. And then, once he arrived, the marriage would have to survive the scrutiny of the immigration service.

I would be responsible for him, a man who barely spoke English, who knew nothing about the West, who didn’t know how to drive, how to use checks or credit cards, and had held only a make-work job that didn’t exist in America. It would be like taking care of a child, when I had no way of making a living myself yet.

Sasha breathlessly awaited my decision. When the semester ended, I told him I wanted to think about his proposal and at least finish my last year of college before I married anyone. He said he understood.

Thus began a year of constant love letters, of expensive, tearful phone calls, of drama and sadness and confusion. When I returned to college in the fall, I met up with a friend, Craig, who had spent his junior year in London. We traded stories of our adventures abroad and eventually fell into a romantic relationship.

Was it love? What did I know? By spring, I felt less than enthusiastic about marrying Sasha, but I couldn’t admit it to myself. After making him wait so long, it seemed cruel to say no.

Even so, I wanted to return to Leningrad to see, and my parents, as a graduation gift, agreed to pay for my flight. I would go in June for 10 days.

Sasha was ecstatic at this news. He assumed, not unreasonably, that I was returning to marry him. I was not so sure. It had been a year since I’d last seen him. My plan was to see how I felt when I got there. Maybe the sight of him would cause all of my old feelings to flood back.

He was waiting with flowers when I got off the plane. My heart sank at the sight of him. He looked tired and desperate. I knew instantly I did not want to marry him.

We went back to his apartment, where I told him my decision. He locked me in. He begged and pleaded. Why had I come if I wasn’t going to help him? I was a callow, spoiled American. He wouldn’t let me leave until I changed my mind. I refused to do it. The more he begged, the less I wanted to marry him. But I was afraid he was right: I had tortured him with my girlish wishy-washiness.

When the 10 days were up, he let me leave to catch my flight home. I felt sad and guilty, but also relieved. I was free. I’d always been free. He was the one trapped.

In spite of his disappointment, Sasha and I kept in touch. A few years later, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, and conditions in the Soviet Union began to change. The borders opened, and Sasha came to New York to visit me. By this time I was engaged to Craig, the college friend I’d started dating during my year of indecision. Sasha and I were just friends now.

It was Sasha’s first trip out of the Soviet Union, and he was overwhelmed. He came from a big city, but one with light traffic, and the speeding cars and blaring horns of Manhattan scared him so much he was afraid to cross the street. In delis, he’d stare at the cases of juice, baffled by unfamiliar flavors like mango and tangerine, unable to choose. He got drunk a lot.

I was glad I hadn’t married him. It would have been a disaster.

We stayed friends for a few years, sending cards and then e-mails on birthdays and Christmas until eventually they tapered off. But all this time I’ve never quite overcome my shame at the way I treated him. He had done so much for me; what had I done for him? Tortured him for a year, making him wait for my decision, only to let him down.

And yet, in the end, he hadn’t held it against me. Maybe he really had loved me. And maybe I really had loved him, too. And maybe sometimes it’s hard to know what, exactly, love is.




NYTimes 10

What’s Alikeness Got to Do With It?

I always thought love was love, no matter where you were in the world. I learned differently when I was based in New Delhi for two months in 2006.

On my fifth day in the country, one of my new colleagues told me he was in love with me and had been from the moment I walked into the office.

This conversation took place in a hotel room in Agra. I had mentioned on my third day at work that I wanted to see the Golden Triangle (the cities of New Delhi, Jaipur and Agra, home of the Taj Mahal) that weekend.

My colleague volunteered to accompany me.

Actually, he didn’t volunteer. He said: “I’ve never seen the Taj Mahal. I’ll go with you.”

It was a little weird, but mostly I felt relieved. I’ve traveled on my own a lot, but India is a tricky place, especially for a single white female. Having a local accompany me on my first adventure sounded great.

It wasn’t until we were in the train heading to Jaipur that I realized he might have motives other than seeing a monument an hour away that he hadn’t bothered to visit. But I wasn’t averse to a tryst. I had come to India in part to get past my last relationship, which had not ended well. A fling on my first weekend in the country seemed like a good start.

Nothing happened the first night. On the second night, in Agra, we decided to split a room to save money. Before long we were kissing, and it occurred to me that we should discuss our relationship before things went further. We worked together, after all, and it could be awkward on Monday if we didn’t set some ground rules. So I stopped him and said we needed to talk.

He said, “Yes,” and then, “I love you.”

Needless to say, that wasn’t what I was expecting. I asked him how he could possibly love me when he didn’t know me. He said he didn’t need to know me.

I said I was a difficult, complicated person. He said he didn’t care who I was.

In retrospect, that admission should have bothered me more than it did. Instead it felt romantic and exotic and like something one didn’t say no to when one was in India for two months and trying to mend a broken heart.

A week later I started to have reservations. When I told him I wasn’t sure this was going to work out, he looked distraught, drew me to him and said, “Don’t leave me.”

Given how little time we had spent together, I didn’t even realize I was in a position to leave him, but I couldn’t do so then. I put my arms around him and told him not to worry, that everything would be O.K.

And that’s how I ended up in a serious relationship with someone I barely knew, and who seemed to have little interest in really knowing me. And how I learned that love is not a universal language after all. It’s cultural and it’s specific.

In India, at least for my new boyfriend, love didn’t lead to commitment; love was commitment. It was a leap of faith made by two people to stick it out no matter what.

From that first conversation in Agra, it seemed like a crazy approach to me. And yet there I was: 40, single, a string of broken relationships. The wait-and-see strategy wasn’t exactly panning out. I decided to try it his way for a change.

It was certainly more romantic, at least in the beginning. My Indian boyfriend fed me the loveliest lines, the ones only the heroines in movies get, that you never hear in real life. And though he may have borrowed every last one of them from Bollywood, or his pirated Hollywood DVDs, I think he meant them.

That first night, for example, I told him I was probably too old to have children. He told me he didn’t care; families come in all shapes and sizes.

(A little cheesy, perhaps, but my last serious relationship had ended over the child issue. He claimed he wasn’t ready. I felt like I was running out of time. I loved him, so I waited, and waited, until it finally dawned on me that running out of time, for him, was the whole point.)

So I admit it, I was moved. The next morning we woke at 5 a.m. to see the Taj Mahal, a universal symbol of everlasting love, in the first light of day. Two months later I returned to the United States, and four months after that, drawn by a job offer and my Indian boyfriend, I moved to Mumbai, where he soon joined me in an apartment I had rented. Little by little, we got to know each other. In India, had we married, we would have been able to tell people ours was a “love marriage” as opposed to an arranged one (it is a surprisingly common question). But other than not having been introduced by our parents, I saw little difference.

Living with this practical stranger, I felt like a character in a Jhumpa Lahiri story, slowly getting to know the likes, dislikes, habits, and quirks of this man who was sharing my bed, bathroom and life practically from the word hello.

But had it been a Jhumpa Lahiri story, the budding knowledge would have morphed over time into a mutual fondness, and, incrementally, into love. This didn’t happen to me. Instead, as time wore on, I became increasingly aware of how different we were.

When I went back to New York for a visit and realized that all of my friends, even the relatively recent ones, understood me better than my boyfriend, I knew there was a problem. But every time I broached the issues in our relationship, he wouldn’t hear it. In his mind, we had made our choice, we had made a commitment to each other, and he wasn’t going to let my shallow Western desire for a shared sense of humor or common way of seeing the world tear that apart.

We started to fight a lot, and each time it came down to the same thing: Did we have enough in common? (That would be me.) Did it matter? (That would be him.)

In the end, I always gave in. He made some good points. We had built a home together, one with pleasant routines and ample socializing. We got on with each other’s friends. We loved to travel and traveled well together. But more than anything he ever said, I think what made it so hard for me to leave was the sheer force of his commitment.

In my whole life, nobody had ever fought so hard for me. It was unfortunate that the person doing so didn’t get my jokes or know what to say when I was down.

On the other hand, to be able to do or say anything, no matter how horrible (and I was horrible — I said hateful things) and still be forgiven, and know I would be forgiven ... I had never felt so secure in a relationship. He didn’t get me, but no matter what, he would never let me go.

Until he did.

To be fair, I pushed him away. After two years in India, I moved back to the United States. My mother’s health had taken a bad turn, and I wanted to be with her.

He wanted to come too, of course, but I needed time away. I couldn’t sort through my feelings while he stood in all his absolute certainty right next to me. It was too seductive and too confusing. So I left him in India, with vague protestations about needing to clear my head and figure things out and all manner of clichés that made absolutely no sense to him.

He said O.K. (what choice did he have?), but as soon as I arrived home, he was calling and sending text -messages, wanting to know where we stood and when would I get my head cleared out and what was going on anyway?

With the distance, and back in my own cultural landscape, his determination came to feel more obsessive than romantic. I cut his calls short, refused to talk about our relationship. When he forced the discussion, I told him it wasn’t working. I started to contemplate other men, and fantasize about his meeting someone else, just so he would back down.

I wanted it to be over. But on a deeper level, I must have believed that wasn’t an option and that he would be there no matter what I said or did.

I guess in some way I was relying on that fact. Because when his e-mail arrived one morning saying he had met another woman and was ready to move on, I felt punched.

Did I ever love my Indian boyfriend? I don’t know. I do know that I was smitten with his love for me.



English learner


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