"I set out to write a memoir that was a love letter to a man I was deeply in love with, a man who challenged me in myriad ways, a man who changed my life profoundly, a man I respected and honored greatly at the time," Alisa Valdes wrote on her blog on Wednesday. She was talking about her book The Feminist and the Cowboy: An Unlikely Love Story. "[W]hat I actually wrote was a handbook for women on how to fall in love with a manipulative, controlling, abusive narcissist. [...] I feel I owe it to my loyal readers and fans to be truthful now. It is the decent thing to do."
Less than a day later, the post had been taken down.
In it, Valdes had described how the book — "an engrossing memoir about how falling in love with a sexy cowboy turned her feminist beliefs upside down" — depicted not the loving (and marketable, thank to E.L. James and Katie Roiphe) real-life romance between a dominant man and submissive woman, but instead a controlling, abusive relationship that ended (after she'd written her book) with a terrified Valdes leaping from a moving truck to escape her boyfriend's rage, separating her shoulder in the process. After one difficult fight, in which she'd "challenged him," she wrote, he overpowered her, dragged her to the bedroom, and raped her, "telling me as he did so that I must never forget who was in charge, that I must learn to be nicer, that I must learn... to obey." Only in retrospect, she wrote, did she realize the number of red flags she'd missed.
And in the time between the end of the relationship and the books' publication she'd been "essentially shunned by my publisher, one assumes because the reality of my life more than a year after having turned in the final manuscript is different from the ending one might have liked to have seen[.]"
When fans asked what had happened to the post, she tweeted "I was asked to take it down by my publisher, and did." Later, the tweet was taken down, too. Doing a radio interview in Colorado later that day, Valdes didn't mention the abuse. Had her publishers, worried about the sales of a book now clearly lauding an abusive relationship, silenced her? Did she still stand by the blog post? Did she still stand by the book?
I emailed her to find out.
Valdes has a mild reputation online for combativeness and controversy, stemming from a series of incidents in 2009, documented here by David Shankbone, in which she was accused of claiming, and then denying, to be, respectively, bisexual and bipolar (Valdes says that lesbian news site AfterEllen misinterpreted or made up quotes about her bisexuality, and says she's never been diagnosed with bipolar disorder). But when I reached her at her personal email address yesterday she came across as engaging, thoughtful and self-reflective, a smart and articulate writer stuck between a rock and a few different hard places. Over the course of several emails, she tried to explain to me what had happened with her blog post, how she felt about her experiences, and why she didn't see her book as meaningless even after experiencing abuse from Steve Lane, the rancher and part-time actor whom she dated for two years (calls to a Steven Lane of the right age in New Mexico were not returned).
One thing she wanted to be clear about was that her publisher, Gotham, was not silencing her. In the removed post, Valdes had written that she had "tried to be cooperative" with Gotham and had been advised "to just accept this... lack of support as my penance for the crime of being openly broken up with the cowboy when I should have just pretended we were still together long enough to sell books." ("Alisa has her own version of the publication of her book," Gotham's Lisa Johnson told me. "While it makes a good story, it is not accurate." Johnson didn't comment on Valdes' account of abuse, or how it might change the nature or marketing of the book.)
But while the publisher might have, according to Valdes, treated her like she had the plague, Gotham "NEVER asked me to take the post down," and she'd only written the now-removed tweet saying it had after misunderstanding her agent, who suggested she take her blog post down "because it might be seen, in his view, by the publisher as my sabotaging myself."
Indeed, she told me, she still stood by what she had written on her site. "I wrote a post to try to explain to readers why I was no longer in a relationship with the cowboy," she said. "I also felt it was my duty as a writer to be honest about the circumstances of the end of the relationship, in part because a lot of readers seemed to see in my original descriptions of the relationship (in the memoir) some red flags that I had completely missed." This was more or less how she explained it at the time, in the disappeared blog post:
"[I]f there is any hope of redeeming this book and making it meaningful it lies in the full story of my relationship with the cowboy and not just in the candy-coated version that appears in the book. [...] I set out to write a memoir that was a love letter to a man I was deeply in love with, a man who challenged me in myriad ways, a man who changed my life profoundly, a man I respected and honored greatly at the time, what I actually wrote was a handbook for women on how to fall in love with a manipulative, controlling, abusive narcissist."
But over email, Valdes appeared to soften her tone somewhat. She told me doesn't see the sentiments expressed in her book as mutually exclusive of those expressed in her blog post — and certainly isn't claiming that the book requires redemption or new efforts at making it meaningful. She seemed most affronted at the idea that her book was somehow a lie, now that the relationship it lauded was revealed as destructive and abusive:
The book is true. It's that simple. It is as true as a wedding photo is true, a year after the divorce. Were the people in the photo deliriously happy? Yes! Were they in love? Yes! Was there great beauty? Yes! Did they find in one another something important, something they both thought would last? Yes! Are those people in the photo the same people today that they were then? No.
It seemed to me that one reason that Valdes was able to reconcile her book to the events that followed is that she understands it as a memoir first and a polemic second. The Feminist and the Cowboy is aimed at (and successful with) a certain strain of anti-feminist conservative thanks to its message (its original title was Learning to Submit), but Valdes is less concerned about the truth of its politics or understanding of gender than she is about the truth of its narrative and depictions of the relationship and her personal growth:
The truths of the book are simple: He challenged me, most often in productive ways but sometimes in ways that could be perceived as controlling or abusive. The challenge he provided was a CATALYST for some soul searching that I did ON MY OWN about the extreme radical feminism and anti-conservatism I once held to be the absolute truth. The book has always been about THAT journey, the soul searching, the questioning, the awakening in me of new ways of looking at things. I stand by all of that 100 percent.
Still, I asked her, do you think you have a responsibility to your readers to make them aware that the relationship you speak so highly of in the book was, in fact, abusive? "Yes, and the loyal followers of my blog and social media feeds have known for months that the relationship was over," she explained.
"I've never gone back on the lessons I learned from it, though; in fact, I have been very clear to say I truly believe I emerged from that relationship a mellower, kinder, more compassionate and wiser woman, and absolutely a better girlfriend! My new boyfriend even wrote the cowboy a thank-you letter on my Facebook page, after he and I talked about the ways I changed after spending time in a different culture with a very different kind of man."
Valdes understands her responsibility to end there at least in part because she doesn't think that the masculine qualities that she praises in the book are as closely related to the qualities that led to her abuse as some of her critics do. Not that she doesn't see some connection. "I think that it can at times and with some people be a very fine line between masculine confidence and narcissistic controlling," she wrote me. "I think it is a matter of degrees, just like, say, sexiness versus sleaze, or a strong appetite versus gluttony," she said in a later email. "It's a scale. There are numbers on that scale that are safe, and numbers that are dangers. The cowboy inhabited a broad spectrum, as did I, at various times. People are not statues."
She certainly was more than willing to credit Lane with shaping her in positive ways. "How many of us have parents who might have been abusive in some way?" she asked me when I wondered if it was possible to learn positive lessons from an abuser.
"A father who, when he was drunk, beat our mother in front of us, perhaps, but who also, when sober and magnanimous, took us fishing and taught us incredibly valuable life lessons? This is the dirty little secret of abuse that simple Hollywood storytelling has stolen from us all — that good people can do bad things, that bad people can do good things, that sometimes it is really fucking hard to tell the good from the bad, especially when we're deeply in love, that lessons come fast and hard from life's deepest pain."
But she was also intimately familiar with — and clearly cognizant of — the mechanisms of her abuse, and how she'd become a victim of what she described as Lane's cold brutality. "The dance of it all is so complex, and so patient, so gradual — I compared it to a frog being boiled alive by first being placed in a pot of cold water over a low flame," she told me. "By the time I understood what was probably happening, I had already developed a deep love for the man. I don't know if he consciously sought to trick me — probably not."
Valdes no long speaks to Lane, and is dating someone new. And yet, despite having removed herself from him physically, she's still trapped by him. I believe that she still thinks on her time with Lane with some degree of fondness and respect, but it's also true that she can't do anything else if she wants her book to succeed. Having had her book embraced by the anti-feminist wing of American conservatism, she now needs to play by its rules: even if she is more concerned with the book's truth as memoir than its truth as gender politics, people like Christina Hoff Sommers (author of The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men) care only about the latter, and without a cowboy, there's no The Feminist and the Cowboy.
Valdes laughed off the suggestion — floated in a New York Post review — that she'd written the memoir to stave off bankruptcy. But she acknowledged that writing is "feast and famine, always a hustle... in publishing you are only ever as good as the performance of your most recent book." If there's anything to be salvaged from the remains of her relationship with Lane it's that its given Valdes, who struck me as someone compelled to understand her life in memoiristic terms, more than enough material for a new book — which she's already begun. "I have been working on a sequel about the cowboy and me," she wrote in her original blog post,
"and though I am quite sure my publisher won't want it I will likely self-publish it soon. In it, I plan to detail the ways I was fooled and manipulated, the mistakes I made in choosing to ignore red flags, the many unfortunate ways that I started to subsume and lose myself in order to please an unpleasable and controlling man. I hope that in doing so I will help to make sense of the first book, both for you guys and for myself."
Image by Jim Cooke.