You Never Get It Back (Iowa Short Fiction Award)

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Living Less in the Future: The Millions Interviews Rachel Krantz

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I read Open: An Uncensored Memoir of Love, Liberation, and Non-Monogamy in a single day and night, unable to put it down. Whether it was the complex and heartrending story of award-winning journalist Rachel Krantz’s first non-monogamous relationships or the contextual research that she uses to put her personal experiences in service of an examination of larger questions, I was gripped. When I finished, I felt like I’d lived a different life. I felt, too, like my understanding of the world had been sharpened and enlarged.

Already highly anticipated, Open brings an investigative reporter’s commitment to documenting and analyzing information in service of revealing larger social and political truths. Krantz combines this with a memoirist’s ability to use insights into the self and the nuances of one person’s life lived among others to tell an entrancing story while also helping the reader better understand the human condition.

Krantz had read my debut story collection, too, You Never Get It Back, and we exchanged voice memos and texts about our work’s shared interest in gender, love, intimacy, and desire, along with the question of using documentation as a starting point for a book, before speaking over Zoom about her extraordinary memoir and what writing it has led her to understand about liberation and desire.

Cara Blue Adams: As you know, I devoured your book, Open. Could you summarize the central story of the relationship that led you to explore non-monogamy?

Rachel Krantz: I met Adam on the heels of a breakup. I was 27, he was 38, and I was sick of my pattern of serial monogamy. Throughout my 20s, I would fall in love and then grow bored or restless, feel restricted. But then Adam revealed on our second date that he was non-monogamous. He said that he was looking for a primary partner, someone to share his life with—but also that being with him would mean I wouldn’t have to give up ever falling in love again. That was very appealing to me, because that’s probably my favorite experience in life, falling in love.

And so even though I was very nervous, I decided to try. He offered that the agreement could just be non-monogamous on my side at first, not his, so that I could see the benefits for myself in egoic safety. We started exploring parties and threesomes together, and eventually, I decided I wanted to try opening the relationship on both sides. And that’s when I began grappling with jealousy, and we both began dating other people independently.

CBA: It was such an intense and fascinating and rewarding experience to go through that journey with you. One thing that I think really comes alive on the page is your meeting Adam and feeling challenged both intellectually and in terms of who had control in the relationship. You were used to being the one who was perhaps more likely to leave, who was in control. With Adam, that felt like it wasn’t necessarily the case.

RK: Definitely. We quickly fell into a dom/sub, daddy/girl dynamic. But I had no real idea about how to safely practice kink. And when I tried to talk about our power dynamic, Adam made it very clear he didn’t like BDSM. He denied that’s what we were doing. Part of what Open depicts is how there are consequences to being in a dom/sub dynamic without having clear boundaries and rules and communication around it. I try to give readers resources throughout so that they might go about it more consciously. But it’s in large part a cautionary tale.

Because there was eventually a lot of gaslighting, I began to lose trust in my own reality, abilities, and judgment. My attempt to feel some semblance of control was to document that very disintegration as it was happening, through audio recordings and journal entries. Trusting someone else’s mind more than your own is not something that happens to you overnight. It is very incremental and complex. Even though I couldn’t extricate myself then, the journalist in me knew it might be of immense value to have a solid record of how that happens, to have some sort of “reliable evidence” when I was being told constantly that I was “remembering things wrong” and “misinterpreting reality.”

CBA: In the book, there’s very much an exploration of when a desire is your own authentic desire, and when a desire is someone else’s desire that you’ve taken on—and how to know what limits and what directions are right for you. You’re increasingly “open” and exploring, but there’s also the sense at the same time you might be lost on the open seas.

RK: Yeah, as Joseph Campbell said, “The psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.” I felt myself drowning at the same time I felt increasingly able to swim. A lot of the book is about how both those things can be true. You can be in a situation that’s simultaneously liberating in some ways and entrapping you in others. Part of the reason non-monogamy can be societally threatening—besides challenging patriarchy and capitalist mentalities—is that it’s also a very non-binary approach. It’s a both/and+ paradigm, not an either/or binary.

When I was living this story, I was looking for a book that described the hot mess that can ensue when you attempt to explore beyond the borders of monogamy as a flawed human being socialized in a mono-normative culture. Most of what I found was advice-based, from people who were much more experienced with polyamory than me. That was certainly helpful, but I think there is also value in presenting myself vulnerably as a very flawed person whose mistakes people can learn from.

CBA: So what does liberation mean to you now?

RK: That’s a great question! Feeling a sense of joy and freedom and living less in the future. The more I meditate, the more I see this tendency to view life as something that’s going to happen once I reach this point or that point. But I know there’s not actually going to be a “magic peak” I reach where I’m like, Oh, now I’ve arrived, I can relax. So I guess liberation, to me, would be fully appreciating the present moment—and it resulting in a greater sense of contentment, ease, and freedom.

CBA: That’s a beautiful answer. How would you say your relationship to your own desire has changed?

RK: I think I realize now that my desires are a lot more potentially insatiable and queer and kinky than I originally thought, and that there’s nothing wrong with me for that. But also, there is an increasing obviousness to the finite nature of life, and a sort-of-acceptance that if I’m always chasing, heightening, or quenching every desire, that’s going to be a losing game as well. And so how do you make peace with that and hold both those truths at once? That’s a question I’m still very much grappling with, and that probably anything I write will ask.

I know I so appreciated how your book, You Never Get It Back, is in many ways about that kind of preemptive anticipation of nostalgia or regret over the life unlived, which I think many writers and romantics are especially prone to.

CBA: Yes—enjoying one thing or a set of things, no matter how large that set is, necessitates giving up other possibilities, which can be difficult, and even the things that we enjoy come to an end. And I think the desire to write fiction is in part a desire to document those moments, those memories, those experiences, and in some way then be able to spend time with them again.

RK: Definitely. When I was writing Open, I felt intense compassion for myself—that this is my coping mechanism. That I, person who defines liberation as the ability to be more present in her life, simultaneously feel most in flow when revisiting the past. Reliving and reconjuring the highest-highs and lowest-lows, over and over and over, to understand them. I felt both like, Wow, that’s brave and interesting. And also, Oh, you poor thing, that’s also so masochistic and transparent.

CBA: I’m curious: you were documenting the relationship as you were living it. When you revisited the documentation, did it change your perspective on what had happened?

RK: I had so much material that it was very overwhelming. I spent way too much of my book advance getting the many-days-worth of audio transcribed. But a lot of it was very difficult to revisit. In the face of all these transcripts, I had to ask myself, Is going over and dissecting every couple’s therapy session just elaborate emotional cutting? Or is this valuable service journalism? Of course, it was often both.

Showing some of the recorded transcripts to psychologists was helpful. To have them analyze the verbatim words we said, rather than my memories of them. It was validating to have psychologists say, “This is textbook gaslighting, and this is really important to dissect the mechanics of,” or “I see this kind of rationalization with my clients all the time; this is a common emotional fallacy for survivors of emotional abuse.” But it was also tough because I had to admit to myself that maybe things were even more unhealthy than I was admitting, and his voice was still very much in my head throughout. I tried to be very nuanced, but it is very difficult to avoid the abuser/victim dichotomy completely, to address the behaviors rather than pinning blame on one individual.

CBA: Yeah. It felt to me like toward the end of the book, you start to sort of see what would’ve been difficult for Adam about being in a relationship with you as you grappled with your own jealousy and resistance to non-monogamy. And then you also seem to grapple with exactly what you’re talking about now. You interpret what he has to say and what he does with a great deal of generosity and empathy throughout the book. And at a certain point, you come to understand that some of the things he’s doing are not in fact fair or healthy. And it feels like both of those are pretty profound places of insight to land.

RK: I’m glad that came through. I would never tell anyone else how they should talk about their experiences, but for me, it feels much better emotionally to approach the story and all people with compassion and nuance. And though I do use certain labels sometimes, I also don’t see them as particularly binary or fixed identities. They are imperfect descriptions of behaviors—the full individual themselves can never be captured. Not just because it’s only a tiny slice of them in writing, but because we are all changing in every moment, and there is no solid permanent individual to capture in the first place.

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