I recently reviewed a memoir for The Age newspaper.
Fallen by Rochelle Siemienowicz (Affirm Press)
In a popular TED talk on infidelity, relationship counsellor Esther Perel argues that having an affair is not so much about looking for someone else as looking for a new self. Evidence to support Perel’s theory can be found in Rochelle Siemienowicz’s memoir Fallen. In this frank account of the dying days of a marriage, the author describes her twenty four year old self searching feverishly for a new identity through a series of intense sexual encounters whilst on holiday in Perth.
The twist in this tale is that ‘Eve’ (as the author re-names herself) has an open marriage. Sex outside the relationship is condoned by her husband so long as she asks his permission first. To be ‘unfaithful’ Eve must not only sleep with someone else, but she must conceal the encounter from her beloved spouse.
If you’ve ever felt betrayed by infidelity, Fallen makes for uncomfortable reading. Witnessing Eve’s frantic attempts to both search for, and escape from, a moral framework for her actions is like watching someone wrestle with a snake. Morality matters deeply to this narrator; growing up in a Seventh Day Adventist family, the shame attached to any moral failure – particularly when it came to ‘fornication’ outside marriage – was acute. Eve began losing her faith soon after marriage. Her attempt to forge a new identity through the embrace of sexual freedom could be seen as a final attempt to shed her old skin.
Siemienowicz’s writing is fluid and sensual. Almost every scene – from playing with Barbie dolls to observing a glass vase in a display cabinet – is suffused with the protagonist’s physical longings. Freud’s theory of polymorphous perversity haunts this tale; any person or object can be the spark of desire for the sexual imagination. Even decay can be sexy. Eve describes one of her lovers as ‘heavy and blonde and I can see his youth dying all over him’.
The story ends with the still-married couple boarding a plane to return home from their Perth holiday and the denouement is delivered a little too swiftly in an epilogue. Occasionally, too, we can feel the reconstructive effort that has gone into recalling two-decade old conversations.
When Siemienowicz is describing body language, though, her observations are painfully authentic: ‘Sometimes I see a shrewd and wary look in the women’s eyes, as if they’re assessing me for potential threat. They thought I was safe and partnered, out of bounds. But here I am, shifting the lines of what’s possible’.
Theories abound about the causes of extra-marital affairs. Evolutionary psychologists have been falling over themselves in recent times to persuade us that infidelity lurks in our genes; that men are compelled to sleep around in order to procreate and that promiscuous women have genetic variants that lead them to seek engage in ‘extra pair bonding’.
Science may provide us with persuasive explanations of the role of things like oxytocin and vasopressin receptor genes in our sexual behaviour; this is called non-narrative knowledge. The narrative knowledge conveyed through memoirs like Fallen offers us far more complex and poetic insights into the emotional parameters of infidelity. After reading all about Eve, you may find yourself concluding that some betrayals are not only inevitable, but necessary.