Coming out as a fully fledged adult can feel like staring at yourself in a funhouse mirror: Am I looking at the same me I was looking at before? Have I been wrong this whole time? Am I faking it? Or, as the chef and food writer Molly Wizenberg says in her new memoir, The Fixed Stars, you may find yourself plagued by the Sisyphean frustration of someone banging her head against the wall: “Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?”
For Wizenberg, this string of questions came in her late 30s, when she was married with a small child, running two businesses with her husband, and overtaken by a crush that began, of all places, at jury duty. That crush was the first crack in the foundation of her life; the questions were the force that pulled it apart. The Fixed Stars is her effort to survey the new landscape and how she arrived there with a fine toothed comb.
The first seeds of the book came as a blog post on Wizenberg’s beloved food blog Orangette. (It’s named for those little chocolate-dipped candied orange peels.) She started the site in 2004 after abandoning a PhD in anthropology in hopes of becoming a food writer, or maybe even just a food writer’s assistant. The site took off quickly, due to Wizenberg’s homespun vibe and the deep, wide-eyed pleasure she took in small things, many of which happened in her kitchen. (“Satisfaction is a fine roasted chicken and a slab of ridiculously rich chocolate cake, honey,” she wrote in an early blog post from 2004.) A book deal came out of it, and a new relationship—her now ex-husband, Brandon Pettit, first emailed her because a friend had passed on Orangette as something he might like.
By 2016, the blog had slowed, as so many have since their early-2000s boom. But in late November, after nearly two months of radio silence, Wizenberg resurfaced and published a lengthy blog post coming out. The post reads like a clear-headed account of a hurricane written from its roving eye. “I’m learning who I am, and I can’t stop,” Wizenberg wrote. She said she and Pettit had separated; he had moved out, and they were coparenting; she no longer identified as straight, but didn’t have a tidy category for herself yet.
“I felt this incredible pressure because it felt like I was hiding, and the post felt like relieving that pressure,” Wizenberg told ELLE.com of the blog post, which now has over 500 comments. At the time, she was in her second queer relationship, with the person she’s now married to, Ash Wizenberg-Choi. “I couldn’t stand the thought of being out somewhere with Ash, and being affectionate, and having someone who knew me only through my writing see me and think that I had been deceitful. Not towards my husband so much, but that I was deceiving the reader somehow.” This dogged desire for self-knowledge and resolution animates The Fixed Stars, as well as an almost self-flagellating fixation on the question of whether or not she had just been closeted, whether something in her shifted, or whether she was queer all along.
“In the early months after going to jury duty, I felt so much shame and bewilderment,” said Wizenberg. “Like, how could I have not known this part of myself? I’ve spent years writing about my life in ways that I felt were very honest. I felt [like] I must have somehow been lying to myself all along.” The crush and the shame it produced festered in tandem until Wizenberg finally addressed them: first by telling Pettit, then by trying an open relationship until it became painfully obvious that it wasn’t the right solution.
The Fixed Stars is as much a queer coming-of-middle-age story as it is a loving, honest portrait of a dissolving marriage. Frustration is a central theme,providing a foil for Wizenberg’s introspection. But as the book progresses, that tension slackens, and opens up to a kinder, more nuanced self-assessment. “I felt very consumed with getting to the bottom of this,” she writes about the question of her sexuality. “And as I wrote more and more, it occurred to me what I really wanted was to do some thinking about, what do we mean when we talk about the self? I found myself wanting to go beyond the questions that I originally started out with, about sexuality, and what it means to be a good woman. I wanted to ask, what does it mean to have a self that bumps up against other people’s selves, and that moves through the world and is altered by it?” Throughout the book, Wizenberg comes off as an eager student both of queerness and of herself.
As an adult, realizing you might be gay, even just a little bit gay, when you had long seen yourself otherwise often turns into a second puberty, one that is more intellectual than physical. (It happened to me around age 28; depending on who you ask and how you define “coming out,” this can often feel more like entering purgatory than a dawning revelation.) There is ample evidence that sexuality is fluid and can shift throughout one’s lifetime, a fact that can at times makes Wizenberg’s “was I closeted or was I straight?” line of self-interrogation feel almost beside the point. But the tenacity with which she seeks to chip away at her self gives her quest a necessary backbone.
As the book progresses, Wizenberg eases into the idea that the past, straight version of herself wasn’t wrong or in denial, just the version of who she was at the time. Writing the book, she says, helped her achieve this level of peace. “To go back with a sense of curiosity and live in some of these scenes again, and really start to believe that maybe this was in me all along, but that doesn’t mean that I was closeted, or even that I knew,” she says. “It means that there was the potential for change in me, like there’s the potential for change in all of us for all kinds of things that we don’t get so worked up about.”
She described it like loving boxed mac and cheese as a kid and then finding it revolting as an adult—a fully mundane, widely accepted shift in preference and feeling.
Once Wizenberg begins a relationship with the prosecutor she met on jury duty, named Nora in the book, her questions begin to shift from “Am I gay or not?” to “What would it mean for me to be gay?” Some interesting clues come from Wizenberg’s reflection on her upper-middle-class upbringing in Oklahoma City, and the gay men who surrounded both her mother (an aerobics enthusiast) and her uncle (a gay man who died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1988).
When Wizenberg had to do an eighth-grade research paper for her science class, she chose the biological basis of sexuality, hoping to prove that queerness was an innate thing, as simple as eye color. “I thought then, and well into adulthood, that each of us has an essential self, and that self is solid, stable, dependable,” she writes. “Sexual orientation was part of my essential self.” And it was part of the essential selves of the gay men she idolized; this was a foundational fact in her admiration of them. Look at these people who are so different than me, she thought, and so beautiful. But the “born this way” reasoning has long existed as a way to justify queerness to straight people rather than examine it from the inside; the farther Wizenberg (and the discourse at large) gets from this kind of essentialism, the more interesting her reflections become.
The Fixed Stars describes a familiar yearning for baby queers of all ages: knowing what you are, but not knowing how to embody it quite yet. “I was euphoric….when I ran into the lesbians at pickup or drop-off,” Wizenberg writes of two different couples at her young daughter’s school. “I wanted them to take me in like a stray.” Her relationship with Nora ultimately unravels because of Nora’s insistence that queerness, and queer sex, should only look one way, but never really explaining what that one way is or being willing to teach it. A friend of hers deems Wizenberg a femme, a categorization she finds ill-fitting—like many queer people, she lands somewhere a bit fuzzier, a little less definable, on the standard butch-femme spectrum. Finding her way to a queer identity as a divorced cis mother who lives in a pretty straight part of town turns out to be a far more dizzying trajectory than she had thought.
Throughout the book, Wizenberg dips into other texts to mark her path. In this practice she both nods to and mimics Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a text that is constantly in conversation with queer theory, braiding itself seamlessly into the category. For Wizenberg, the effect is more like a set of North Stars along the author’s path: references to Garth Greenwell, a writer she adores, and citing Lisa Diamond’s study reflecting the mutability of (cis) women’s sexualities as compared to those of (cis) men. By the end of the book, once Wizenberg has begun her relationship with Ash, she offers up a quote from Ursula K. Le Guin: “When you look at yourself in the mirror, I hope you see yourself. Not one of the myths.” It reads like a deep, relieved sigh.
Perhaps naturally, writing about her current relationship feels like a touchier subject for Wizenberg than writing about ones that have ended. The book’s last chapters discuss Ash’s decision to use they/them pronouns; when we first meet them, Wizenberg uses she/her pronouns for Ash until the two of them have a conversation about it, a stylistic decision that Ash was a part of. “[I was] trying to make sure that I was doing right by them,” Wizenberg says, “representing them the way they want to be represented now, and in a way that is not inaccurate to who they were when we met. And I wanted to use the time and space that I had to give some examples of what it looks like to learn about a partner whose gender is not the same as mine.” At first read, the choice was off-putting—was the narrator misgendering her own partner?—but this is not meant an iron-clad lesson of what queerness or a non-binary identity should look like, it’s a portrait of a set of relationships, something messier and more human.
“What I want for my queer family is conventional,” Wizenberg writes. “I want a partner who is home with me for dinner, who is an equal partner in domesticity and parenting, who goes to bed at the same time I do…we are the ordinary partnership I want.” She goes on to explain that this might not be the queer liberation fought for at Stonewall, that many other queer people whose faces and bank accounts don’t look like hers have it much worse off. The Fixed Stars describes a white, upper-middle class version of a queer awakening—this is Seattle, after all—and its self-awareness is appreciated, but these nods to privilege often feel compulsory when not grappled with more fully.
By the end of the book, Wizenberg has eased up on herself and settled into a sense of self and a relationship that feel easy; this ease comes out in the joy and optimism that fill these last chapters. Introspection and domestic life have long been her chosen themes, and both get swept up in the storm of this book, shaken and transformed, then set back down on solid ground—remade more loosely, more humanely. What’s left isn’t a version of our narrator who is finally safe from crisis forever, but one who’s done the hard work grappling with change, so that the next time dark clouds form on the horizon, she’ll be ready.
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