Rebecca Woolf writes frankly about widowhood
Former local’s new memoir, ‘All of This,’ is brutally candid about death, sex and single motherhood
When reading a memoir there’s always the implicit sense that by the end of the book the author will have achieved some sort of clarity. That, whatever the crux of their personal journey has been, the book is going to end with some sort of catharsis, one that they now feel compelled to share with readers.
Speaking with Rebecca Woolf about her candid tell-all, “All of This: A Memoir of Death and Desire,” one gets the sense that whatever readers take away from the book, a sense of tranquility and peace won’t be that feeling. In fact, those feelings still elude the author herself.
“The majority of the survivor’s guilt I have, which is very common for anyone who loses a partner, is that he didn’t get to have a life after our marriage and I do,” says Woolf from her home in Los Angeles. “I have this life that I really love now and I’m happier than I’ve ever been, and I wish he had been able to explore what was on the other side of our marriage as well.”
The “him” in question is Hal Isaacson, Woolf’s late husband who, after nearly 20 years together, passed away in 2018 of stage four pancreatic cancer. He was able to live for only four months after receiving his diagnosis and left behind a 37-year-old widow and the couple’s four children. Woolf recounts all of this in “All of This,” but it’s important to point out that this isn’t the typical book about grief and widowhood. While the title of the book comes from Hal’s request that his wife write about “all of this” (that is, his sickness and death), she admits it’s unlikely that the finished product was what he had in mind. Rather, it’s an unfiltered, unadulterated, uncouth, and often hilarious look at a marriage that was falling apart, but was then upended by illness and death.
“I don’t think this is the book he thought I was going to write, because from the very beginning of our marriage, I was writing about our life,” says Woolf, who has been working as a writer for various publications and blogs for over 20 years. “But I was doing so in a way that was protective of him, our kids, and everybody. I was prioritizing everyone’s feelings over my own. Writing truthfully but in a way that was safe.”
She goes on to say that, at some point when she was writing the initial notes for “All of This,” she realized she needed to try a different approach.
“I sat down to write that book and just realized I couldn’t. I didn’t. It wasn’t working,” says Woolf, who grew up in Encinitas. “The experience of navigating his death, there was already so much that I had to do while he was dying that felt performative, but I did it for everybody’s sake and for my sake as well. I had to go back inside myself and find this love for him that I didn’t feel anymore. I have to find a way to navigate this death and honor him as best I can when the last thing I wanted to do was honor him.”
“There was so much anger between us when he got diagnosed, and we were about to split up,” Woolf continues. “We were looking for separate houses. So there was a lot that I had to suppress while he was dying and the months after just so everyone else felt safe and OK with it. And I eventually got to a point where I felt like my head was going to pop off my body if I didn’t tell everyone how I feel.”
And Woolf does tell readers how she feels with an aplomb rarely executed so well in a memoir revolving around death and grief. With “All of This,” Woolf joins the recent ranks of writers who are telling harsh truths in hopes of conveying a unique sense of fellowship (Keri Blakinger’s “Corrections in Ink,” Isaac Fitzgerald’s “Dirtbag, Massachusetts,” and, most correspondingly, Jennette McCurdy’s “I’m Glad My Mom Died,” to name a few). One of the many distinctions in “All of This,” however, is Woolf’s ability to spin a page-turning confessional while interweaving remembrances from her entire life, and her own issues with sex, pleasure and fidelity.
“I don’t feel ashamed of being a human, and I don’t feel ashamed about having human experiences and feelings,” Woolf says. “I think a lot of the reason why people feel they can’t speak honestly is that there’s shame there, whether it’s personal shame or societal expectations. I think that we keep ourselves from our truth out of shame and guilt, and I don’t feel that way.”
Before telling her truth in “All of This,” Woolf made a career from, as she puts it, “writing about my life, my whole life.” She began writing personal essays about her life as early as her teens while attending La Costa Canyon High School and, after moving to L.A. in 1999 and marrying Hal in her early 20s, she made a career writing for publications like the Huffington Post, Parenting and her own blog, Girl’s Gone Child.
“I think with a lot of memoirs, there’s this question of what came first: the story or the storyteller,” Woolf asks. “I think a lot of memoirs come from the story rather than the storyteller, and for me, it was the reverse. I was always going to write this book, because I’ve been writing it my whole life.”
Still, she says she was surprised to learn that there weren’t many books like the one she wanted to write. She recalls going to widow support groups shortly after Hal died and feeling indifferent to the type of counsel that was offered.
“I was being given all these grief books and not a single one was relatable to me,” says Woolf. “What was relatable to me were books and stories from divorced women who were writing about getting out of their marriages. Those were the women I was identifying with, and I realized my experience was very similar to that of a divorced person who is out of a marriage and is free, but of course you can’t say that when someone dies.”
As much as Woolf says she felt a sense of “relief” when her husband died, there are still heartbreaking recountings of love and tenderness in “All of This.” It will be difficult for any reader not to openly weep at Woolf’s recollection of Hal telling their children that he only had a short amount of time before he would die.
“He was glowing. The most beautiful man I had ever seen. Father of my children, love of my life. The crack in his exterior had found its way to mine,” she writes in the book. “It is possible to hate a person with your entire body and also love him with the whole of your heart.”
And yet, the book never feels overly sentimental or nostalgic, and it’s a credit to Woolf’s skill as a writer that her particularly heartbreaking passages are quickly supplemented with funny memories, such as when she plays a rather ridiculous song (The Misfits’ punk classic, “Die, Die My Darling”) while Hal is literally on his deathbed.
“Someone I know read it recently and they told me they weren’t expecting me to be tender toward Hal,” Woolf says. “People are so binary when it comes to this. That if you’re writing a book about how you have a really tough marriage, that I was going to villainize him through the whole book. There are so many things to him and so many different versions of him, just as there are many versions of me.”
In addition to writing a new bi-weekly column on dating (“Sex & The Single Mom”), Woolf is already planning a follow-up to “All of This.” For now, however, she says she’s content in that she’s told an honest story of love, loss and freedom, one that she hopes inspires others to live in their own truths. What’s more, she wants them to know that those truths can be both painful and celebratory.
“I think that I’m very similar to a lot of people in that my feelings about this, his death and my marriage,” Woolf says. “These things are very universal and just because we don’t talk about them doesn’t mean they aren’t happening. The more of us who are willing to talk about it, the more we can normalize a more human, more nuanced experience when it comes to death, love, marriage and all these things that we filter out.”
“All of This: A Memoir of Death and Desire” by Rebecca Woolf (HarperOne, 2022; 256 pages)
Warwick’s presents Rebecca Woolf
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Warwick’s, 7812 Girard Ave., La Jolla
Combs is a freelance writer.
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