A harsh rollercoaster of poly lessons: *The Husband Swap,* by Louisa Leontiades
A book is often bigger than the book itself. It may spread its ideas to millions of people who will never open it — through media coverage, author appearances, and buzz. The buzz really spreads if the book symbolizes some new idea, or discovery, or lesson that's easily talked about — boosted by media attention and the air of importance that the book's existence implies.
The book's talkworthy Big Idea, however, will be quite different to different people.
Leontiades is a polyactivist writer, a widely published blogger, and chair of the National Polyamory Association in Sweden. The Husband Swap is the story of the tumultuous, catastrophically failed quad that introduced her and her husband to poly, broke four hearts and two marriages, and set her on the way toward her current joyous poly life with two men and two children.
This is Thorntree Press's heavily edited remake of the book's first edition, self-published in 2012, which was frankly an overlong first draft. As the title implies, it's the tale of two couples who combined into an unstable polycule that fissioned into two new couples flying off in different directions. Or in the poly reaction patterns described by Deborah Anapol two decades ago, a case of 2 + 2 => 2 + 2. The book unsparingly examines the volatile chemistry that took place within that reaction arrow: dazzling love, deep discovery, raging insecurities, careless bulldozing of unstated boundaries, paralyzing fear, plain nastiness (Leontiades does not spare herself in this regard), and real growth and development. This last is especially clear in the case of Louisa's nebbishy, indolent husband, who under the influence of his powerful, perfectionist bulldozer of a new partner, did a slum clearance on himself and redeveloped into the capable, successful man he should have been all along.
If you're looking for a happy poly story, this ain't it. You can see its Big Idea as being one of miserably hard trials setting brave pioneers onto better life paths with the mates they needed — or as a warning that polyamory is simply insane, and you'd be a fool to touch it.
Louisa is getting quite a bit of TV and newspaper attention, mostly in the UK where she grew up and where much of the story takes place. She is dwelling on her current excellent poly life and the message that staying true to herself and her dreams was worth it in the end.
|Louisa, her current partners and daughter today. Photo: The Times (of London)|
As she describes, normal people who've read the tale — or who watched the events unfold in person — were full of I-told-you-so's and are amazed that she has stuck with such a seemingly exhausting and difficult way of life. "As [a friend] trailed off trying to think of a reason [why normalcy is better]," she writes in the epilogue, "I smiled secretly to myself. You could throw anything at me now and I could undermine your argument—snap—like Miss Piggy's karate chop.
"Polyamory isn't for the faint-hearted. It can only be borne in the long term by those committed to sorting out their demons and growing almost beyond what we recognize as the basis of our humanity. But as a utopia, I still believe in it and in my life I still swear by it."
Selected to write the Foreword was Noel Figart, another public poly figure who came out of an exploded quad. Figart dispenses advice as The Polyamorous Misanthrope and leads the PolyFamilies Yahoo Group, which is 15 years old this month. "The love that will allow you to avoid these mistakes," she writes at the front of the book, "is a love that involves knowledge of yourself, deep understanding of your partners, a willingness to set appropriate boundaries and a huge helping of honesty — starting with yourself.
"The polyamorous community often hears that polyamory isn't easy. That's a bit disingenuous. The reality is that good relationships of any sort aren't easy. It's not necessarily that the relationships are work. It's that good relationships require you to ruthlessly and tirelessly work on yourself.
"Read this book carefully. There are excellent lessons in it, like a lovely coral reef below turbulent waves."
Louisa's epilogue to The Husband Swap wasn't enough of an epilogue; there was still too much tumult. So she was moved to write a chapter-by-chapter companion guidebook to this edition: Lessons in Love and Life to My Younger Self. It's available as an e-book; the print edition comes out this fall.
Here she speaks across seven years to her beloved former self, like a mother to a child in a dark place, who of course cannot hear — not so much advising about the specific incidents in each chapter, but how to be the better, more insightful kind of person who would have known better the ways to navigate herself and shape her utopia.
The two books are so closely interrelated that I wish they were bound together. The next printing of The Husband Swap cries out to be one of those double-sided, turn-it-over books. The kind with the front and back being the front covers of two books, each ending where you hit the end of the other one printed upside down. At any point you can turn the book over like a stone, top to bottom, and read inward from the other front. The convenience of having the seven-years-later chapter reflections right at hand would be nice — but the symbolism of physically turning over the story, back and forth, would be arresting.
Okay, now about that media coverage. To help me get this piece posted, Thorntree Press co-publisher Eve Rickert and associate editor Roma have shared their record of the book's publicity so far. Here it is (with a few additions):
Summary: A sweet article filling a two-page spread in the print issue.
Quote: ‘When my boyfriend Christian and I arrive at the school gates to pick up my five-year-old daughter Freya, she shouts: ‘My mummy’s here! Oh and look, there’s Christian, Mummy’s special friend!’
The other parents don’t bat an eyelid, although I don’t know what they say behind closed doors. This is because I make no secret of the fact I’m in a committed relationship with not only the father of my children, Gosta, but also Christian, who I’ve been seeing for 18 months.
Quote: En "The Husband Swap" ("El intercambio de marido"), su autora rememora lo que ocurrió cuando, intentando revitalizar su vida matrimonial, decidió intercambiar a su esposo con otro hombre.
On April 29th Louisa posted,
With the storm of email that's hit my inbox over the past few days thanks to The Times article, so many magazines have contacted me. I reply with a 'That would be lovely, and I'm very willing to discuss polyamory, logistics and loving relationships etc. but I won't be going into any inside the bedroom details.' And they don't say 'We respect your privacy and understand.' Instead they say, 'Sorry, we're a populist title, so if you won't discuss your sex life, Bye Bye'.
Quote: “I’m GLAD her story challenged me, if I didn’t want to be challenged I’d read freakin’ Danielle Steel novels, right? We all need our perspectives challenged + our hearts opened by the real stories of women and their experiences. Louisa is a powerful storyteller – emotional, curious and crazy amounts o’ honest, and she sheds much-needed insight into a world most of us have only experienced through press stories, or if, like me you have a girl-crush on Chloe Sevigny, and have watched back to back Big Love.”
● Book Review, Loving Without Boundaries blog, by Kitty Chambliss, April 8, 2015.
Quote: "I felt like I found a very close, dear comrade within the pages of that book – a friend who has shared some of my own heartache, pain as well as joy in choosing to live a polyamorous life, and then diving in courageously and unapologetically to see what happens next."
● A book review in Russian.
Here are excerpts from both books.
Louisa's Facebook page.