As women, we are powerful beings and one of our greatest strengths is our ability to heal. We had the ability to chat with author Jennifer Waite whose memoir “A Beautiful Terrible Thing” takes a deep dive into the complexities of betrayal, heartbreak, and psychopathy. We spoke about her story and writing process, and were thrilled to get her advice to other women struggling in unhealthy relationships.
1. The structure of the book is unique in that throughout the majority of the story you are skillfully switching between the time “Before” and “After”. What i found particularly striking was the decision to narrate “After” in the present tense – it builds tension and keeps the reader very much in the story with you, as each layer of the deception is revealed. Was this always your intention – to the tell the story this way – or had you tried a more linear approach first?
This is the way the story came out. I always knew that I wanted to juxtapose one really “happy” moment from the BEFORE part of my relationship with Marco with one horrifying moment from the AFTER when everything started to unravel. When I first sat down to write, I didn’t truly intend to write a memoir, I only wanted to put everything down somewhere so that I might be able to understand better what had happened – I thought if I could trace the entire relationship, I might understand how this man changed overnight into someone I didn’t know. In fact, writing did help me to understand, but more than what happened with him, it really helped me to break apart myself and dig deeper into the reasons why I became involved in a relationship with sociopath.
2. I’ve read a lot of memoir and am always amazed by a writer’s capacity to recall dialog, notably in times of great stress. Aside from primary sources like emails and texts (thank goodness for modern technology!), what tools, if any, did you use, to recall these intricate details – a journal, conversations with friends/family, etc.?
Let’s see – most people don’t realize that I started writing while the relationship was unraveling, so a lot of the AFTER parts I was writing almost in real time or maybe two or three months removed. It wasn’t difficult at all to recall those parts..they were seared into my mind. The BEFORE parts I also felt were imprinted in my mind – of course this is the whole question of “truth” – is there an objective truth to any relationship? I remember moments and experiences in extremely specific detail but it was my own experience through my eyes. One of the conclusions I came to in therapy was that I filtered a lot of negative data out of my experiences with Marco, so though my memories are extremely strong, and really visceral, they are still MY memories through my brain. I guess I just went off on a little tangent but I find the whole concept of truth and memories and recollections very interesting.
3. Your female friendships, notably the one you have with Marco’s ex, are incredibly strong. As we grow up, it can be hard to find time to nurture even our most treasured friendships – how do you balance the many roles in your busy life and ensure you are an active and engaged friend to those who have been so supportive of you over the years?
One of the most positive effects of modern technology is the ability to stay in close communication with friends and family all over the world. I’m on text threads with my best friends and we are constantly texting back and forth. I know this doesn’t replace in person contact but it’s pretty wonderful. Same with Marco’s ex, Nat – we text all the time and try to visit (she’s in NYC with Seb) when we can. I will say though that it is hard to find a balance and I think I’m probably falling more towards the end of “doing too much” than really having a balanced life. That’s something I’m working on, but I think my best friends and family knows that if something comes up, I will be there.
4. One of my favorite passages of the book is when you are talking to your daughter and how you describe the difference of how you fell in love with Marco versus how you fell, and continue to fall in love with her – bit by bit. It’s so powerful and so true. But so is the power of passion, lust, and obsession – how do we teach young girls (and boys) the worth of enduring love, of the importance of getting to know our partners, of self-love as the foundation of any successful romantic relationship? Or is it something we need to learn through heartbreak, as so many of us have?
Ooooh good question! Ha, this is something I’m still learning my way around as an adult! I think what I will try to teach my daughter is that chemistry and a strong connection is great, but love shouldn’t make you feel badly or sick to your stomach. There’s a very strong cultural myth that has been perpetuated that “true love” can be extraordinarily difficult and painful and abusive even, but as long as these actions or feeling occur in the name of love then it’s all good. In movies and books the couple usually ends up together despite these behaviors or because of these events/behaviors. In real life, if you “win” someone away from someone else, it is not indicative of you being special, or the love being “true,” it only means something about your partner. I hope that we can teach young people, and especially girls, to trust their instincts and their stomachs when it comes to relationships with other people – not even just romantic relationships! When your stomach feels sick, it’s probably time to disengage. Your mind or heart will sometimes lie to you but your stomach never lies!
5. Understanding and talking about the prevalence of love addiction, codependency, and other unhealthy relationship dynamics in our society is something we so desperately need, but many are unwilling or often unable to acknowledge the problem when its within themselves or their relationship. Your book is a great tool for connecting with such people – how else do we get through to women and men like these who are already so entrenched in their unhealthy relationships?
This is very hard because someone has to be ready or at least the tiniest bit self-aware and willing to change in order to “get through” to someone. It has to come from within that person. You cannot force a person to change. You just can’t. For me, my therapist very slowly started to introduce the “self-work” into our sessions but it felt extremely uncomfortable at first to examine myself and to start to deconstruct a lot of my belief system. It’s terrifying to realize that a lot of what you believe is not true – that affects every aspect of your life and it feels like you’re basically starting over in a lot of ways. But to give as concrete an answer as possible, I think therapy is important because you’re in a safe space with (hopefully) a smart and objective person who can guide you through the process.
6. Moments in the book when you question yourself, the validity of your feelings, the strength of your convictions, are especially poignant – they are entirely relatable. Choosing to write many of these moments in the present tense are especially excruciating as you pick apart your own logic and the reader’s often left powerless to help you take your power back. But then you do – and it’s glorious! As women we are often asked to subjugate our emotional needs – neediness has become a bad word in our society – this is a huge problem. How do we help women to take our power back and empower each other to embrace own complex emotions and the beauty of our neediness?
Oof, yeah, like I’ve said before, the most difficult part of my journey was not in fact the affair or my ex-husband’s double life or the lies I discovered, it was going deep within myself and doing that self-examination. I’ve always been a people pleaser and I think an “empath” – meaning I am extremely attune to other peoples’ feelings and moods. This whole experience didn’t change that – I am still very empathetic, but it forced me to place my own emotional well-being first. I think that’s where a lot of the empowerment comes in – you can still be a vulnerable, emotional person and make your emotional well-being a priority. I didn’t realize those two things could co-exist. I believe that when we have solid boundaries, we are actually more in tune with our emotional needs and well-being – another kind of myth is that a strong woman cannot be vulnerable and emotional when it’s in fact the complete opposite. True vulnerability is rooted in strength.
7. Hormones are a whole other story – we women are beholden to them at most every crucial point in our adult lives. How do we encourage self-love and acceptance in women when our bodies and minds can feel so disconnected, when we feel so out of control?
For me, I have recently been really up and down and I think a lot of that is being more in tune with my emotions than ever before and not trying to repress – so kind of a catch-22 because the more I feel I truly accept myself, the more feelings I feel and a lot of those feelings don’t feel so good. It’s almost like when you let in the “good” you also are opening the floodgate to a lot of uncomfortable, negative feelings as well. And I am super hormonal! My body is so sensitive to hormones. At this point in my life, I try to remember that a lot of my mood swings or depression or anxiety just is. It’s a normal part of life, at least a normal part of my life. Just acknowledging that I am sensitive and I experience these ups and downs can help and make me feel like it’s not the end of the world. It really is this notion of taking the bad with the good – the more in touch I am with my own emotions and mental health, the more I feel – good and bad.
8. Your decision to dedicate your life to helping other women is remarklaby noble and your book is undoubtedly already changing lives. What’s next for you?
I just finished my next book – a novel this time! And I’m turning it into my literary agent soon. Hopefully she likes it and my editor likes it and maybe I can start a career as an author. We’ll see. I am still considering getting my Masters in Counseling and becoming a therapist but I decided to take a step back and make sure it was a fully considered and thought-out decision, rather than a knee jerk reaction to the trauma. I’m trying to truly follow my intuition for the first time which is exciting and maybe a tiny bit scary feeling too!