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'The Privilege to Be Ambivalent': A Conversation With Laura Smith

The author of The Art of Vanishing discusses literary mysteries, monogamy, and the future of #MeToo.
Appalachian Trail

In The Art of Vanishing: A Memoir of Wanderlust—part memoir, part cultural criticism, and part historical investigation—journalist Laura Smith works to find out what happened to Barbara Newhall Follett, a child-prodigy novelist who disappeared at the age of 25 in December of 1939, leaving behind few traces, if any, to indicate where she'd gone.

Follett was homeschooled throughout her childhood by her parents, both writers and academics, who idolized Barbara's curiosity and precocity, constantly re-affirming her brilliance. But her parents did not set the example of a conventional marriage: Barbara's father left the family when Barbara was a teenager, vanishing from her life for months or years at a time. After her father left, Barbara and her mother sailed together for a year to Barbados and around the Caribbean, both writing about the experience.

Follett sought a life of perpetual motion—publishing a novel at age 12, sailing at sea for months at a time, and hiking the Appalachian Trail in the 1920s and '30s when, for women, that was not the norm—before suddenly finding herself stuck in a stagnant marriage with a desk job, and eventually "vanishing." Smith's book goes beyond murder-mystery luridness, taking an explorative, painstaking dive into the writings and letters of Follett and her family and acquaintances, to discover that the pressures of convention, and the pain of having to be a "proper wife," may have led Follett to prefer disappearance.

Vanishing is not always physically disappearing; Smith's book also suggests that we sometimes long to "vanish" because we long for a jolt away from our current life path, perhaps out of claustrophobia or a fear of a life that struggles to go beyond merely satisfactory settling. That fear is something that Smith experienced herself: Leading up to her marriage, Smith worried that a marital routine would limit her ability to wander and approach life with a "free spirit." Something as simple as receiving a Cuisinart mixer, which she left in a box above the kitchen cabinets, set off deep anxiety: She hoped her marriage wouldn't be "that kind of marriage." She was afraid that a lifetime of material items would bog down her adventurous lifestyle. "The total lack of spontaneity was making me fidgety," Smith wrote, this restlessness setting in the year even before her marriage. Smith and her husband traveled abroad in Southeast Asia early in their marriage, and later returned to Brooklyn; still, their minds continued to wander. Soon, they discussed the possibility of benefits offered by exploring sexual experiences with other people. Smith began to see an open marriage as a potential way to combat a sedentary and mundane lifestyle.

The Art of Vanishing: A Memoir of Wanderlust.

The Art of Vanishing: A Memoir of Wanderlust.

She and her husband decided to put the "experiment" to the test while she was abroad reporting on Follett's story. But Smith found the open relationship caused pain and tension (even if it spurred some growth). The arrangement led to hurt feelings through a "tumultuous, transformational summer," resulting in a strained relationship with her husband.

In The Art of Vanishing, Smith's devotion to finding Barbara is nothing short of obsessive, to such an extent that the two women's stories become eerily intertwined. Despite the 80-year gap, the jumps between Follett's narrative, Smith's investigation, and Smith's own "experiment" with her husband to test the waters of an open marriage, evoke a shared female desire to live beyond traditional roles created by marriage and conventional expectations.

With refreshing candor and a deeply meditative storyline The Art of Vanishing brings the reader to question whether it's time to redefine marriage in ways that work best for individualistic women. Smith spoke with Pacific Standard on the phone to talk about the difficulty of candid writing and how her work fits into the idea of women's ability to combat complacency and challenge stereotypical family life.


While researching Follett's life, you were experimenting with your own, in both your relationship and your career. What was it like to embark on this project?

I heard about Barbara when I was exactly the age she was when she disappeared [25]. Her story really spoke to me. I started reading her writing and about the circumstances of her life: She was asking questions about how to live. I was asking very similar questions at that time. It felt like by figuring out what happened to her, I would somehow figure out how to live my life. But I actually figured out how to ruin my life instead. Not that my life is ruined, but—you know.

The memoir portions of the book offer a deep discussion about open relationships versus conventional marriage, including some personally difficult moments for you. What do you expect for the response from people who know you and are close to you?

Most of the events that took place in that book happened a couple of years ago, so I've had the time to reflect. I didn't just write this book, I lived it. It was in a lot of ways a harrowing and all-consuming experience. It will continue to be an overwhelming experience as it comes out and people read it.

I couldn’t imagine my family or friends reading the book [while writing] because then I would've been self-editing. It was hard to force that outside of my mind, and of course that's not entirely possible. It's been weird to give people a window into my life that I don't normally offer them. I was shameless in the book, and it's been affirming that people read the book and didn't reject that shamelessness.

P.J., my husband, read it throughout [the writing process]. It was important to me that he be involved the whole way through because he's so written about in the book. I didn't think I could do it without him.

There was one moment in your book where you talked about bravery, and about an inner voice you feared would scold you and haunt you later in life for not being brave enough. How did your relationship with your husband help you lean into this fear? What would this voice say now?

This voice is a couple of years older now and it's saying things I didn't expect. It's really hard to anticipate what your regrets will be. My marriage gave me a lot of security and a sense of a stable place that I could explore from. It emboldened me. I was so convinced that I was at this really great perfect stable relationship. Then, I injected a lot of chaos into it and am still feeling the ramifications from that.

But you found at points that this pain you felt from your relationships' challenges could bring clarification.

There are a lot of different types of pain. There's trauma and that can destroy you, but then there are pain spots in which you're challenging yourself as a person to be a better person and to learn more about yourself and the world. And you can grow from it.

I wanted the challenge, but I never wanted to be destroyed. The interest in vanishing was not a fascination of self-annihilation; it was a desire for challenge, and that's another thing I related to in Barbara. She said: "We want to sweat. We want to be cold. We want to be uncomfortable."

I think that some discomfort can be good. It can force you to examine what you think is true and can put you to the test, but the line between those things is thin. It's easy to cross it.

Laura Smith.

Laura Smith.

Do you think you'll continue to look for her? 

I can't help it. I got an email the other day from this guy who has been trying to figure out what happened to her, and then I was sharing my documents with him. I was talking to one of my co-workers today about the Social Security Administration. It takes a certain amount of time for a person's records to become public, and her records will be released in 17 years. We could know if she had earnings the day after she disappeared. In 17 years, I'll be close to 50 years old, but I cannot wait to know. It drives me totally nuts.

I wonder if something will come out after your book comes out. It's not impossible.

It's my hope. That would be amazing to me. I'm just one person. My background is in journalism. I'm not a private investigator, and my hope is that someone will follow a lead that I missed. There's a really big part of me that believes the answer is out there, whether it's on a piece of paper, a passport or a travel document, a death certificate, or something else. Maybe a newspaper article about an unnamed woman, who knows. A big part of me believes that there's information out there, but we're just not looking in the right places. My co-workers and I joke that she's going to show up at one of my readings and say, "Laura, you got everything wrong."

That would be crazy. She's a hard person to track.

Barbara, I tried to find you, but you obscured yourself.

Originally, you didn't intend for this book to be part-memoir.

The whole time I was writing about Barbara, I kept this journal to record thoughts of personal events I thought related to Barbara in any way, such as ideas testing domesticity, marriage, or whatever else. I would put little thoughts or murmurings not necessarily from her life, but from mine, which probably influenced the way that the book was structured.

There is a growing conversation today about women seeking to redefine their conventional relationships. You talk candidly about trying out an open marriage, and I'm curious to know how you see your book fitting into this larger conversation.

Marriage has always been in flux, but we are talking about it differently now and we are trying to find a mechanism that suits our time. This is a different moment for women to examine what they really want, and they're able to do it with candidness and without shame. What we're seeing now is an updating of the model. I think that there are things that people continue to like about marriage, and the things they don't they'll continue to tinker with probably forever. There is this spirit of experimentalism in the air, and it says something that now we're freer to explore what we think we really want.

I suddenly became more conventional at the times when my marriage was the hardest. It was in those times that my marriage felt endangered that I felt leaning on conventional things. I think that's what really shook me about Barbara's story. The last five years of her known life were incredibly conventional, and in the end she was pleading for a conventional existence. She was doing housework to please her husband and that must have been really painful for her because it directly opposes the identity she had created, but also it seemed like what she wanted. She wanted her partner, and I understand that feeling. After having endangered my partner, I understand that feeling.

It can be easier to think about taking risks when you're in a stable place.

What we're really talking about is privilege. It's having the privilege to be ambivalent. I had those privileges and I endangered them because I could and that keeps me up at night.

While trying to understand your fears and desires, you talk a lot about the benefits, and pitfalls of your decisions. Did you come to any conclusions throughout the writing process?

There were some decisions where I should have stopped moving, paused, and thought about what the ramifications would be.

I realized I wasn't really necessarily to get answers, I was writing to understand, and I think that's an important difference. There's not some large conclusion or big statement.

This is pertinent now because I've really been feeling, with everything in the news about women and #MeToo or the shitty media men [list], I've been seeing so many polemics and so many tidy conclusions in all of them. Everyone argues different truths, and none of them really feel true to me. They all feel like they're missing something.

I wonder if part of it is that we're really hungry for tidy conclusions. There are straightforwardly bad things but—sometimes there just aren't any conclusions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.