Rereading Fear of Flying: On Not Being Pregnant in Mid-Air With Isadora Wing
“One of the strongest motivations for rereading is purely selfish: it helps you remember what you used to be like. Open an old paperback, spangled with marginalia in a handwriting you outgrew long ago, and memories will jump out with as much vigor as if you’d opened your old diary…”
–Anne Fadiman, “On Rereading”
The flight from Toronto to London in September 2002 had been my third journey across the Atlantic in less than three months. The first had been in great expectation, the second in disgrace, and I can’t remember the third anymore except for the book in my hands—a mass-market paperback copy of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. To situate the journey, I will tell you that it was one year less a day after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, which was a funny time to be flying, and also that three months and three days after arriving in London, I would meet and immediately fall in love with the man whom I would marry. All that was still a destiny I’d yet to glimpse.
This was a parallel journey to the one I’d taken the previous June, on a flight that had departed the evening before my birthday so that I turned 23 somewhere over Labrador. I must have had a novel with me that time but I don’t remember what it was, and I was paying more attention to my Lonely Planet Europe on a Shoestring, the Eurail pass tucked inside it. A few days before, I’d graduated from university and the rail pass was a gift from my parents. I was going to spend my summer backpacking around Europe by myself in a determined effort to become the sort of person who would do such a thing.
It didn’t work. Turns out that travelling alone is really lonely. I went to Switzerland, Hungary, and Austria, and it was in Vienna that I decided I would cut my adventure short and go home at the end of the summer, rather than carrying on into the UK as planned. It was also in Vienna, while touring the Schonbrunn Palace gardens, that it occurred to me that I was probably pregnant. I managed to cast the thought from my head and spend another week and a half in denial, the denial underlined by a pregnancy test I took in Salzburg whose results I chose to read as negative. Though really, the instructions were just German, which I couldn’t read at all.
By Munich, however, I was sick and practically dead from fatigue, feeling terrible in a way I could no longer blame on boring art galleries and a visit to Dachau. The only foods I could stand to eat were schnitzel and goulash, and my period had been overdue for ages.
Pregnant is such an ugly word when you are pregnant and don’t want to be, but even uglier is the German schwanger. I took another test in the toilet stall of a backpackers’ hostel bathroom, and there was no denying anymore.
Here is an interlude: I took a train to a place called Friedrichshafen, and from there, a plane to England. I stayed in England with a friend and tried desperately to cash in my open-ended ticket for a flight back to Canada, but it was height of summer and flights were hard to come by. By some miracle, not to mention tireless effort by my mother on her telephone at home, I managed to get one, and flew back to Toronto the same week that 500,000 young Catholics arrived in the city to picket clinics and celebrate World Youth Day. I had an abortion. Then somehow the stars aligned, and I found a place to stay for free, plus a six-week contract job at the university that would allow me to save up money for airfare back to Europe. Never mind that I’d spent all my time in Europe longing for home, but I couldn’t keep still a moment longer.
(From Fear of Flying: “Whenever I was home, I wanted to get away, and whenever I got away, I wanted to go home again.”)
So that is how I found myself in mid-air with Isadora Wing. And what I’d mistaken for a world in ruins would be the threshold to my life, but I didn’t know that yet. I thought I was running away.
My Fear of Flying is barely distinguishable from the other “over 6.5 million copies in print!” (as the banner at the top of its cover exclaims). The book reveals little about its reader except for my name and the date written on the flyleaf, September 10, 2002, marking the day—29 years after the book’s first publication in 1973—that I started reading it on that transatlantic flight.
What is curious though is that beside my name and the date is written a price: 75p, inscribed in pencil. I have several books with similar inscriptions, scooped up in charity shops during the years I lived in the UK. But I didn’t buy this book second-hand, and not in the UK, though I remember nothing else about the circumstances of its purchase. (Perhaps it came from the airport? It’s that sort of book). So what of the pencilled price in pounds sterling?
Then it comes back. Fear of Flying belonged to a box of books that in 2005, eager to streamline my possessions in preparation for another move across an ocean, I’d donated to a hospice charity. Donor’s remorse kicked in within hours; the books I’d picked up and carried had become part of my history and no history should be shed so lightly. So I returned the next day to buy my books back, 75p a small price for history reclaimed.
My book now smells like a charity shop, its pages redolent with age and must and bric-a-brac dust, tainted by association. But then Fear of Flying has always seemed tainted by something; it’s that sort of book. The cover reveals a triangular slice of a voluptuous woman’s naked body; was there ever a novel more destined to be turned around on a carousel, picked up then picked over?
My copy could only have been rotated a few times; it was in the shop for less than a day. Maybe charity shops are what all old books smell like. Maybe the charity shop smell is old books after all. And how strange it is that a book can be considered old after just 12 years.
Just 12 years. But then 12 years is so long ago that I no longer remember how most of it happened, how this iconic book found its way into my hands. I remember that I started to read it on that flight from Toronto to London, and I can imagine what it must have felt like to encounter the opening line, “There were 117 psychoanalysts on the Pan Am flight to Vienna and I’d been treated by at least six of them.” Not that I’d ever been treated by anybody—the novel’s references to psychoanalysis had struck me as part of its 1970s datedness—but I would have felt a spark of recognition at Vienna, and reading about a plane in flight from a plane in flight, lives and worlds in ascension. Or so I can speculate from here.
“You see, I still have the scenes, but I no longer perceive myself among the present, no longer could even improvise the dialogue,” wrote Joan Didion in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” My problem, however, is that I didn’t keep a notebook, or that I didn’t keep one properly, so even the scenes are missing now. There was a diary, but one that was never meant to hold the story that would fill it. There was an orange cat on the cover, and I wasn’t cryptic enough to write down anything I could bear to read again. Not for me Didion’s opaque notes or recipes for sauerkraut. I am sure I poured out my heart, no restraint, my terrible handwriting rendered in blue Bic pen. A few years later, I threw that book away into a black garbage bag filled with detritus from other past lives.
I don’t lament the loss. That summer I’d been a pitiful character, unattractive and sunburned, crying in phone booths across Western Europe. When the thing that finally happened did, it was so incongruous with the rest of my story, the kind of thing that happens to girls with something to lose, that I had difficulty believing it was true. So I’ve no doubt that anything I wrote down during that time would have yielded little insight. I don’t want to remember everything. My diaries have always been embarrassing and terrible, and some parts of history are better off shed.
Sometimes you get a say in how your life will be constructed, in the matter of what is retrieved and what is cast aside. Sometimes you get a chance and even a second one, which, incidentally, is the point of Fear of Flying. And so when I wrote, “no history should be shed so lightly,” maybe I was really just writing about books.
But then why does this one seem barely to belong to me? Apart from the name, date and price on the flyleaf, my copy of Fear of Flying is devoid of marginalia. No underlined passages, not even one emphatic YES! in the margins, or phone number scrawled on the inside cover. It’s uncharacteristic: I usually write in all my books, the mass-market paperbacks in particular, without compunction. For me, it’s my books that function as Didion’s notebooks do: “paid passage back to the world out there,” to the person I used to be.
For example, how I underlined “…because I wanted a baby and did not then have one,” in “On Keeping a Notebook” because when I read Slouching Towards Bethlehem in August 2008, I too wanted a baby and did not have one. A single line inside a story that tells a story of its own.
But Fear of Flying reveals nothing. Which is odd for a book with a naked woman on its cover, for a book that’s credited with finally telling the truth about female sexuality.
Although the book is widely known for its sex, a rereading of Fear of Flying confirms that there’s very little here to titillate. The protagonist Isadora Wing is trapped in a dull marriage whose sex is its only high point, but the sex is so taken for granted that it’s barely delineated in the text. Then she takes a chance and falls in lust with an English psychoanalyst called Adrian Goodlove who spends most of the book either unable to maintain an erection or farting. Or both.
But the reality, the farting, was never meant to be the point. As Jong writes in her 1994 introduction to the novel, “Fear of Flying became a rallying call for women who wanted the right to have fantasies as rich and as raunchy as men.” The fantasy, Isadora’s, was of the Zipless Fuck, a phrase which has since become part of the public lexicon, not that many people could properly describe what one is. Isadora Wing explains:
The whole thing strikes me as awful, as I am sure it did in 2002. Zippers like rose petals? Underwear breezes? No wonder nobody knows what this means. I’m not sure a thing has ever so utterly failed to live up to one’s impression of it as the Zipless Fuck, which, I suppose, is a statement about fantasies in general.
I’m still more concerned with what’s beyond the fantasy, that women continue to pay a price for being sexually liberated 40 years after Fear of Flying. I’m underwhelmed by the Zipless Fuck, as I think Jong always intended me to be, because the right to a fantasy isn’t nearly enough, because the fantasy still hasn’t come true. In a life lived properly, as Isadora comes to learn, nothing is ever so tidy as a fantasy’s promise.
There are passages in Fear of Flying that I would never have underlined the first time I read it, about marriage, academia, a brilliant passage on The New Yorker and longing. When I was 23, I didn’t know that I’d become a writer, and it is Isadora’s relationship to her art that I pay attention to now, when she writes:
I’ve pulled out my pen and drawn a brace around the left-hand side of this paragraph now. The lady writer problem, which I’ve spent the past decade grappling with in conversations with friends and enemies, a problem Virginia Woolf addressed 44 years before Erica Jong in A Room of One’s Own. In 2012, the VIDA Count showed for the second year in a row that women writers make up less than 25% of contributions to most major American literary magazines written in English, and even scanter is the percentage of women’s books reviewed within these publications’ pages. The situation was much the same in Canada. Fear of Flying continues to be timeless, for both reasons that delight me and reasons that don’t.
So where has she gone, that girl on the plane? That girl who was braver than I’ve ever been before or since, with her one-way ticket to the world and just $400 in her bank account? “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be,” said Joan Didion about keeping her notebook, but I seem to have lost that girl altogether. She wrote her name on the flyleaf and that was everything she said. So I reread to discover her, to visit the world through her eyes.
I am quite sure that I bought this book because I had supposed it to be the literary equivalent of a steel-toed boot, tough as shit and good for kicking, and I was broken and looking to assemble some armour. And I must have known that I was onto something, and must have even been a bit creeped out when I got to page 37 and the line, “Why had I come back to Europe? My whole life was in pieces.” Maybe the connections were so obvious, no underlines were necessary.
But I don’t really know. I’m rereading Fear of Flying now like it’s the first time I’ve encountered it. Perhaps everything all around me was so heightened at the time that I couldn’t really process the experience. And so as I read the book, what I feel instead of a connection to my former self is such profound gratitude for this book and for what it must have held for me. 29 years after the fact, Isadora Wing was still a revelation and I needed her. A woman who chooses herself instead of motherhood, who chooses to go instead of stay, whose own revelation is that, “You did not have to apologize for wanting to own your own soul.”
You would think that by 2002, I wouldn’t have needed a book to tell me these things. You’d think that after 40 years of second-wave feminism, these ideas would have stolen into the ether to be the air that I breathe, and that we’d all know about them the same way I know there is a thing that is called the Zipless Fuck. But, as Michele Landsberg notes in her book Writing the Revolution, “Because our history is constantly overwritten and blanked out…. we are always reinventing the wheel when we fight for equality.” There are some books that have to be discovered over and over.
Not just discovered by each generation either, with every wave of feminism that comes along. A person also faces the task of rereading to rediscover the same books for herself throughout her own life. It turns out that there’s a different selfish motivation for rereading, not merely to retrieve past selves, but to realize that some books are made new with every encounter. That familiar first sentence (“There were 117 psychoanalysts on the Pan Am flight to Vienna…”) is actually a whole other point of departure—a woman never steps into the same novel twice. However much I might read to go back, I’m forever moving forward.
On that flight in September 2002, I would have read the line on page 299: “So I wasn’t pregnant after all. In a sense, that was sad… but it was also a new beginning. I was being given another chance.” Fear of Flying matters because in 1973, Jong dared to create a fallen woman who wasn’t. As she writes in her introduction, “my heroine… does not die at the end… She lives on despite having reached out for sexual pleasure—a thing [in fiction] usually punishable by death.” So you could fail, you could fall, and there would be other chances, resurrections. I would be allowed to fly back across the ocean so I could do it right this time.