The Susan Squire Interview

Yes, there is an interview today and one tomorrow!

Pretty much the day I moved out of my apartment to move in with my fiance I received a copy of today's author's new book, I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage. I thought it was kind of funny and put it on the shelf in our new house. Then a second copy arrived at the new house and I realized I either really needed to interview the author or break up the engagement. Other than writing this cool, fun book, Susan Squire's work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times Magazine, New York, and The Washington Post, and in the best-selling essay collection, The Bitch in the House.

Thanks to an article I read on bonobos I'm familiar with your book cover art but what made you choose it? What were the runners up?
I had nothing to do with choosing the cover art, much as I'd like to take credit for it. I can't even take credit for the book idea--that came from the editor. She went looking for someone to write a popular (as opposed to an academic) history of marriage, and found me.

What were your methods for researching "I Don't"?
I couldn't exactly email a bunch of questions to Aristotle, join the game of adultery going on at Eleanor of Aquitaine's court, or listen to Martin Luther pontificate about disobedient wives at the dinner table. The players who drive the story have all been dead for 500, if not 5000, years. With no one around to interview and no way to witness events, I had to rely solely on texts (and for the chapter set in prehistory, there weren't any of those, obviously). So I read--obsessively, exhaustively, and anything but methodically. I spent years in libraries, from the New York Public to the Library of Congress to London's Lambeth Palace (archival ground zero for the Church of England), taking notes by hand; I kept countless out-of-print booksellers in business, online and in-store, amassing a library of my own that I could scribble in. I immersed myself in all the subjects I'd ignored in college--anthropology, the Bible, Roman law, early Christianity, Renaissance art, papal history, medieval gynecology, the Inquisition, the Reformation--and some, like evolutionary psychology, animal behavior and women's studies, that didn't exist back in my day. All of it had to be mastered before I could even begin to understand what I was dealing with.

What were some of your favorite strange bits of trivia that you came upon in your research?
The forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden might have been a fig or maybe a lemon, but apples don't grow on Near Eastern trees; English translators substituted a product more familiar to their readers...until about 200 years ago, the idea that both the man and the woman must ejaculate during sex for conception to occur was considered a scientific reason for the fall of the Roman Empire was a steadily declining birth rate (babies grow up to be soldiers; no soldiers, no army), thanks in part to the unconsciously sterility-inducing Roman way of life: women used lead-based face powder; men spent many hours per day in the steamy frat rooms otherwise known as the baths, an anti-reproductive activity in itself, while consuming massive amounts of lead-inflected red wine; the use of birth control, abortion, and "exposure", aka infanticide, of unwanted infants was widespread among married couples who increasingly and mutually enjoyed sex with anyone but each other, despite state-sponsored financial incentives to reproduce...among the lower classes in England, the custom called "wife sale"--a man placed a rope halter around her neck, led her to market (the cattle market, naturally), often with her enthusiastic consent, and sold her to the highest bidder--persisted as late as, believe it or not, the early 20th century.

Were there any ancient beliefs or traditions of marriage that have faded out that you think could be useful today (even if reinterpreted?)
Once upon a time, people didn't think that love must or even should precede marriage; to base a relationship as crucial to social stability as marriage on something as fleeting--and potentially destructive--as love would be close to insanity. So much was riding on marriage that young people weren't trusted with choosing their own mates; cooler, wiser, older heads made such decisions. "Happily ever after" wasn't even a concept, much less an expectation. A husband and wife might learn to love each other over time, but there was (and is) a qualitative difference between that kind of love--cozy and warm and deep--and the all-consuming, unpredictable blaze of passion, to be avoided at all costs. Only families with nothing to lose could afford to let emotional factors creep into the marital calculus. I'm not suggesting we should go back to letting elders choose their children's spouses, God forbid, but those elders knew what we seem to have forgotten: inflated expectations of romance lead to crushing disappointment when reality sets in: and marriage sometimes has a value greater than the sum of two people's personal needs.

What are some of the strangest holdovers from the institution of marriage that are in place today despite being unnecessary?
Conservatives seem to be basing their entire argument against gay marriage on Genesis 1:27-28 : God creates man and woman and tells them to "be fertile, and increase." The original purpose of marriage was to organize and control reproduction; since reproduction could only occur through heterosexual intercourse, marriage was originally defined as the union of a man and a woman. Modern science has rendered both the purpose and the definition moot. So you could argue that the institution of marriage is itself unnecessary--the strangest holdover of all. And it wouldn't change a thing.

Why did the church decide to focus so intently on the do's and don'ts of sex?
The men who developed church doctrine from the second century onward wrote incessantly about sex--and if they wrote about it incessantly, they probably thought about it just as incessantly. They seemed both fascinated and appalled by the whole sequence of urge, act, and release, either because they'd never experienced it--fear of the unknown, and all that--or had been personally terrorized and enslaved by it. (Augustine spills all in "Confessions," a hair-raising tale of his own excruciating journey from craven sex addict to chaste man of God.) Within a few centuries, what started as a theological preoccupation with sex by men who presumably weren't having any evolved into a collective fixation bordering on psychosis--resulting in these bizarrely detailed lists of sexual crimes and punishments to match, on which the church's teaching on conjugal sex was based. Bet you didn't know that the mother who copulates with her son has committed a lesser sin than the wife who goes down on her husband...

My fiance and I are a big fan of "The Thin Man" movies and in a little documentary about the series, someone mentioned that the reason why they were popular is that they were the first films that made marriage look sexy. What are some of your favorite depictions of marriage in pop culture?
What are some 'model marriages,' according to you (based on what you know of them), and what make them work?

I've never seen "The Thin Man" movies, but they must be brilliant if they make marriage look sexy. I'm a sucker for darkly realistic (someone else might prefer "suicidally depressing") character studies, marriage being the character under glass: Bergman's classic Scenes From A Marriage, say, or the deeply underrated Shoot the Moon (Diane Keaton, sobbing in the bathtub while smoking a joint; Albert Finney on the tennis court in that hauntingly inconclusive final frame...oh, never mind).

As for "model marriages", by definition they don't exist. If they did, I wouldn't presume to know how they work. I don't know how my own marriage works, when it's working.

Based on your research, historically, how much does a good family history of marriage matter? IE if two people get married who come from happily married couples, do they have a better odds of making it than others?

My research reveals only that people weren't interested in family history, of marriage or anything else, until maybe five minutes ago. If I had to answer at gunpoint, I'd guess that it could go either way--if your parents were happily married, or you perceived them as such, you might never live up to the standard you think they set for you.

What would you say is the best time for someone to read this book? Before marriage? Honeymoon? 10 year anniversary?
When is the best time to make sense of your own it is, was, or might one day be? When is the best time to understand why men and women behave the way they do towards each other, especially when they intend to behave some other, better way? When is the best time to grasp the nature of human nature? How about right now?

It seems like a lot of the evolution of marriage has to do with changing ideals of the woman's role in marriage: how has the man's role evolved?
Not much, for better and worse.

It seems like you've gotten a bit of criticism for not talking more about non-traditional marriages--what decisions did you make when considering gay or open marriages (which obviously have less history behind them) for the book?
Much as I'd love to talk about everything under the sun, and marriage pretty much encompasses just that, part of a writer's work is to make choices. So I chose to focus specifically, and said so up front, on the idea of marriage as it evolved in Western, Judeo-Christian, heterosexual, mainstream culture--the dead-white-guy culture currently out of academic fashion. This meant, obviously, that the book deals with, and only with, traditional marriage. If someone would rather read about a more politically correct group, there's plenty of stuff out there.

How did you decide which tone to take when it came to writing "I Don't"?
As Harry Potter maniacs like me are all too aware, the wand chooses the wizard, not the other way around. And believe me, I went through the equivalent of a million wands before the match was made. All those heavy duty texts, all those dead white guys...I just didn't want it to be boring.

It seems like the topics you focus on in your books are in general female-oriented. Are there any other related topics that you'd like to tackle in the future?
Funny, I thought this book was all about men and how they experienced or imagined women in relation to themselves. Men wrote all the texts, after all; and the texts revealed and clarified much about the male psyche. At least, I learned a lot. If it's female-oriented, I suppose it's because a female wrote it.

How does it feel to be the 217th person interviewed for

Nothing to compare it to.