Her new memoir, Unwifeable, is the filthiest – and most moving – fairy tale you’ll ever read.
When Mandy Stadtmiller was hired as a writer and editor at xoJane, the website famous – or possibly infamous – for publishing cringeworthy confessional essays (“It Happened To Me: My Gynecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair in My Vagina”), she was supposed to be “the girl you love to hate.”
But she wasn’t aware of her mean-girl status until the day Jane Pratt, her boss and the iconic founder of Sassy magazine, breezily announced it in a meeting. “I never realized that all the self-hatred I wrestled with internally would one day become my ‘brand’ at a fucking feminist website,” Stadtmiller writes in her memoir, Unwifeable, just published by Simon & Schuster.
Full disclosure: I got my first break as a freelance writer at xoJane, and when Stadtmiller came on board, I did hate her a little bit. We were the same age (our Scorpio birthdays are within a month of each other), we were both divorced, we both had messy lives, and we were both trying to make a living spilling our guts to the Internet. Now she had a full-time gig working for the woman I’d idolized since I was a teenager hoarding back issues of Sassy magazine and dreaming of one day moving to New York. It was hard not to be jealous.
But it was easy to understand why Pratt cast Stadtmiller in the “girl-you-love-to-hate” role. Her often hilarious, occasionally heartbreaking, always candid accounts of things like stinking up the office with her period-soaked underwear, having to put her rescue dog down, and what kind of porn got her off (to name just a few), brought out the trolls and hate-readers in droves. Still, it was impossible not to be moved by her vulnerability. Whenever one of her pieces went up, I clicked and devoured it immediately. Gradually, grudgingly, my initial antipathy turned to admiration, even affection. As much as I was envious of her, I also wanted to be friends with her.
These days, if I wanted to hate Stadtmiller, I’d have plenty more fuel for the fire. Not only has her book been released to critical acclaim, she’s happily married to the love of her life (I’m still single, thanks for asking). Unwifeable – a memoir about how she overcame addiction and found love with comedian Pat Dixon – has been blurbed by no less than Cheryl Strayed, who called it “bold, tender and tough.” As fairy tales go, it’s an unconventional one, but the ending is right up there with Cinderella. (If Cinderella had been friends with Courtney Love and told the prince she’d “sucked a hundred dicks.”)
Because she’s lovely, generous, and genuinely impossible to hate, Stadtmiller sent me an advance copy of Unwifeable and answered all my nosy questions – even the ones I really just wanted to know for my own personal information. (Like whether writing about her sexual escapades was hard on her relationship, and how does a person actually manage to write a book, anyway?)
Your story seems to affirm the idea that once we learn to truly love and accept ourselves, the right person will then come along and love us the way we deserve to be loved. But what if you hadn’t met Pat? Do you think you’d have found happiness?
“As obnoxious, saccharine and self-righteous as it sounds, I think you can only find the right person when you are okay with the right person not ever coming along. And the only way you become okay with that is by becoming okay with yourself. That’s kind of the whole idea behind reclaiming the term ‘unwifeable’ in the first place. If you integrate all those negative or ‘un’ parts of yourself (‘unworthy, unlovable, unlucky, unwifeable’) you start to realize how paralyzing and meaningless those judgments and identities really are. What makes someone unwifeable anyway? Enjoying sex? Being unconventional? Not fitting into a boxed-in paradigm of polite society? And then it becomes: So wait, am I unwifeable? I sure as fuck am. I wouldn’t be such an amazing wife if I wasn’t.
But let’s be real, I had to do a lot of work to get to a healthy version of unwifeability, rather than a self-destructive or nihilistic version of it.
For so long, I viewed relationships as only what they could bring me rather than what I was offering someone else. It’s like I was a heat-seeking missile, blinking my eyes, wondering, ‘Hi, are you going to fix me? Are you going to save me? Are you going to define me? No? Okay, then I’ll just blow everything up, call myself a victim and enjoy all the freedom that comes with a total lack of personal accountability.’
Being a good, stable, solid partner – with boatloads of empathy and patience and compassion – isn’t fully possible without having done all the ugly, often brutal therapeutic work to look at what needs to be fixed in yourself and in your own life. I’m certainly not all ‘fixed’ now, but I’m the best I’ve been, and I would have still achieved that same level of peace as a person if I had never met my husband.”
You’ve said that the kind of confessional essays you wrote for xoJane help us all to be more honest about our human experience. But being so open about your life has brought you plenty of criticism, too. How do you handle the hate?
“For every time some anonymous xoJane commenter might pop out of the woodwork to tell me that I was a garbage person or disgusting or gross or embarrassing, there would be an email from a reader who said that my honesty about a difficult or humiliating experience made them feel less crazy and alone.
xoJane provided this intensely personal ability to reach millions of people who, like me, were just trying to figure it all out. And that makes you treasure those experiences in a way that creates a perspective-altering level of gratitude. When you’re really in that gratitude place, it’s hard to even mind how you are cast or how the world sees you.
When you realize that all the shit that stresses you out about how someone views you (aka, ‘the girl you love to hate’) is this fleeting passing perception that no one will remember years from now and has zero bearing on how you feel about yourself, it’s a very freeing perspective.”
What motivated you to write a memoir? What was the process of writing it like? And what does “unwifeable” mean, anyway?
“So the entire idea for Unwifeable (which first existed as a column) came about because I knew that the next step when you reach a certain point in your career as a writer is to either do a book, find another staff gig, transition to another field, or get a permalancing deal.
I kind of hustled for the right book agent and getting the column at the same time. Obviously, I was familiar with Cat Marnell’s success in writing a book, so I reached out to her agent, and also did a million Google searches related to book agenting. I came upon an interview about the importance of the ‘high concept’ pitch. That made me think: ‘Ohhhh, high concept, that’s like what I used to do at the Post. It’s an idea you get immediately. Star Wars on the water! Cats versus dogs! Sex and the City but with aliens!’ Years ago, I had heard some quote by Snoop Dogg giving advice to Kim Kardashian’s first husband by saying, ‘You shouldn’t have tried to wife the bitch, man. She’s not that type of ho.’ And I thought about all the flack I had gotten in my life for writing about sex and dating, that nothing was more obnoxious to men, and I thought about the look of terror I had seen in some investment banker’s eyes when I met him off Tinder or wherever, concerned that his stock portfolio might crash right then and there if anyone even knew he was getting a drink with me, and I thought: ‘Unwifeable.’ So I pitched it, did the column, got the agent, and then eventually was shamed into doing the book.
The reason I say ‘shamed’ into doing the book is because even though I had a book agent and a column where I had negotiated the rights so they didn’t own the name ‘Unwifeable,’ I fell into a pattern of using up all my creative energy doing the column, and then I would, like, binge Homeland and try to figure out who killed JFK or something instead of writing. I had this huge mental block about it. I’m such a perfectionist, that when I think about even getting a cup of coffee, my mind starts spiraling out about how I should probably quit coffee and the state of fair trade coffee beans in the world and wondering if caffeine is an acceptable addiction…it’s just ridiculous. I don’t do it so much anymore, but that’s the problem with book writing. Anyone who has any kind of perfectionistic tendencies gets paralyzed by this idea that they need to produce this great thing the first time.
It was only one day when I had hired a sweet young girl to help me paint my house, and it turned out that she had a day job in publishing. ‘So you’re writing a book?’ she asked me. ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I mean, obviously, I can’t write the book until I paint my place, and redecorate it…and…’ She kept asking me, even Googling my stuff and encouraging me to follow through. I can’t tell you how much that does to motivate a person – someone calling you out on your own bullshit.
And then a funny thing happens when you keep writing. You start to enjoy it. You start to figure out what the point of all of it is. You write some phrase that tickles you, or you remember some detail you had forgotten about, and you start to get into that state of ‘flow’ that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about. So that’s what happened with the book. I realized I just needed to keep going, and not stop no matter how much my internal critic was despising something I was confronting. It took me a year and six times of rewriting my proposal to even figure out what I wanted the book to be.”
How did you take care of yourself while you were writing? Was it hard on your relationship to relive those past experiences and inhabit that head space?
“It was really hard on Pat and on the marriage. There were times I was reaching out to different people from my past for the book, and it was excruciating, and Pat was side-eyeing me sometimes like, ‘Is that really necessary or are you just making an excuse to reach out to some dude you hooked up with years ago?’ But it also led to a lot of really intimate and important conversations with Pat and ultimately really strengthened our marriage. Sometimes Pat would force me to go outside or watch a movie or play around on the keyboard with him or just even pull up funny YouTube news blooper videos which have a very high success rate in making me smile no matter what. But self-care was a tricky challenge. I think it’s hard for everyone. Especially when the word ‘self-care’ just sounds like the ultimate narcissistic jerk-off phrase to begin with.
Like, I have several friends with small children, and you see the extraordinary amount of work it takes just to keep a child alive, healthy and happy, and you feel like such an ass for even deigning to be like, ‘Oh hey what’s up, I’m just practicing some self-care,’ meanwhile their baby is shooting diarrhea everywhere and trying to eat razor blades. The one thing that always makes me feel better (outside YouTube videos of news fails) is being kind to other people. So I did that whenever I could – babysitting or even cleaning for friends who were harried. It’s a crazy thing, but if you’re feeling like shit, no matter what, just going outside and doing something kind for someone else has a near-instant magical ability to change your mood and remind you of how life-affirming a positive human connection can be. It instantly tells you, ‘I matter. I can help. I can make this other person feel less alone and they can do the same for me.'”
What do you hope people will take away from the book? Do you see it as a salacious tell-all, a redemption narrative, or both?
“It’s funny. I just pitched Unwifeable to go on the Howard Stern Show, and I think that’s the only time I’ve bullet-pointed the memoir in a salacious tell-all way, because I am at heart a realist, and I don’t think Howard Stern is going to book me for all of my meditations about the ‘child ego state’ versus the ‘adult ego state’ or whatever.
Overall, I see it as a survival narrative in how we learn from all our past mistakes and self-deceptions in learning to be a person who you can love, flaws and all, in order to lead a life of honesty and truth you can be proud of. And I really think the only way that we can get past all of the trauma and pain and self-immolation that can accompany sex and love is by talking about it. All of it.”
Comment: Have you read Unwifeable? What did you think?