“Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, the most famous unrequited love story in the Bible (via Wikimedia Commons).
Twenty years ago, Lisa A. Phillips found herself knocking obsessively on the door of a man who had tried to end their friendship-turned-romance relationship months earlier. The experience, she writes, transformed her “from a sane, conscientious college teacher and radio reporter into someone I barely knew — someone who couldn’t realize that she was taking her yearning much, much too far.”
It also led Phillips, now a journalism professor at SUNY New Paltz, to write Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession. The book examines one-sided passion as documented in ancient Roman medical records, biographies of prominent women in history, and conversations with modern women whose lives were upended by unrequited love. The Sisterhood’s Johnna Kaplan spoke to Phillips on extreme love and the Bible’s “most prominent female stalker in the Torah.”
Johnna Kaplan: One thing that occurred to me while reading your book is that women in unrequited love are usually mentioned only as tragic literary figures. When you started researching this book, did you find that a lot had been written already, or that there wasn’t much out there?
Lisa A. Phillips: There wasn’t any book for a popular audience on the subject of women and unrequited love. But once I started to get a real working definition and use that as the lens through which to view experiences of women throughout history and today, I found a lot. I mean there’s a lot out there in history, in literature, in pop culture, and in the psychology of it.
You write about how society judges women in unrequited love harsher than men. Why is that?
I think what we see in our culture today is women who want someone who doesn’t want them back fall into two categories. They’re either the neurotic spinster who isn’t conducting her love life wisely, or they’re the “bunny boiler” — the violent, unstoppable figure of stalker movies such as “Fatal Attraction.” “Fatal Attraction” is the first of many; that movie has actually been remade time and again, usually in a kind of B-movie form. Those women are much more scary, but they’re also usually in some way very mockable. There’s a campiness to it. “Fatal Attraction” is actually pretty serious, Glenn Close’s character is seriously scary. But all the [remakes] and even the real-life stories, like the story of Lisa Nowak, the astronaut who pursued her rival supposedly while wearing diapers — those stories, usually something campy or funny comes out of them. Late night comedians joke about them.
Those two categories leave a lot out in terms of what is really going on. It seems so fundamentally illogical, that you would love someone who wouldn’t love you back, but there’s a lot behind that experience that deserves a much broader understanding. You can look at the motivation for the experience of unrequited love in a lot of different ways, but it’s really important to see how similar it is to the motivation to love. Someone who gets hung up on someone who doesn’t want them back is basically experiencing a variant of exactly what brings us together in love in the first place. You want that singular person, that’s what makes long term relationships and marriages. But the person in unrequited love persists in that feeling even though the other person doesn’t love them back. So it’s not working in that way, but it’s out of that same human drive to love.
Of course if a woman in unrequited love is being invasive, is stalking, is threatening, is doing what I call crossing the line, we need to be able to see her pretty clearly too. It’s actually not that humorous for the people involved.
Speaking of stalking, you write that one in ten stalkers are female, and you also write about when you became, in your own words, a “creepy stalker.” Is this a problem that isn’t really acknowledged because it can be mocked so easily?
The one out of ten figure comes out of research that uses a stricter definition of stalking. Meaning persistent repeated behavior that’s harassing and invasive, threatening enough to cause fear in a reasonable person. But that’s a really strict standard. What I did, I know it didn’t fit into that. And most of what we, in everyday life, call “Oh, she’s stalking him, he’s stalking her,” doesn’t fit that definition.
I think the far more pervasive problem is in what I call “soft stalking,” where you break down the behaviors of stalking and say, who is repeatedly invading someone else’s space? Who is making physical threats? Who is reaching out and smacking someone? You actually see some very strong claims that among young women and men, young women are doing this at rival rates to male rates. When it comes to soft stalking, there’s been a lot of research on this, they’re not seeing much of a gender difference. The men may not be as afraid of the behavior, or say they’re as afraid of the behavior, as women are. But the behavior still has impact.
How do you think this relates to the popular idea that any woman can get a man? That men have to work hard for it, but women can just show up?
This is a really old myth. There’s that story of Hermaphroditus who basically is emasculated, turned into a hermaphrodite because he refused the advances of Salmacis, a nymph who wanted him. It speaks to how threatening it is, this idea of a man rejecting a woman’s affection. It is important to say that both men and woman make very specific choices about who they’re going to be close to. Because of the myth that men always want it, it can be very insulting to a woman, like “What do you mean? I’m offering myself and you’re not going for it?” But I think we have to get over that sense of shame. People should always have choice in who to love or have sex with or be friends with. That’s not a helpful stereotype for anyone. It doesn’t help the man, who may have trouble expressing his rejection of a woman. It’s harder for men sometimes because the expectation is, if the apple falls from the tree, you have to eat it. It would help women, too, to be able to say, “This guy doesn’t owe you anything, he’s making choices. You shouldn’t be insulted, it’s not a statement of your self-worth.”
You also found there can be various positives, or benefits for women to being in love with someone who doesn’t love them back.
This is so important. Throughout the book, even though I’m hard on people who go too far in their unrequited love and become invasive, I also feel like there’s so much to defend in the essence of unrequited love. As I said, the drive to love someone, a particular someone, is a huge part of how we’ve evolved as a human species. If that impulse goes awry, and you’re not getting the person you wanted, it’s not necessarily anything to be ashamed of. And all the imaginative energy the unrequited lover puts into love that’s not returned, it can be dismissed as just fantasy, as a worthless thing to do, but so many things in life are related to fantasy. For me, I had fantasies for much of my childhood and adult life that I’d be a writer. That’s a big part of what made it happen, that desire. A huge part of what moves us to growth as human beings is having desire even if we’re not sure when it will satisfied.
I think the other important element is, desire can give us important information about ourselves. When we’re completely crushed out, like I was in high school on this guy in New York City who seemed to have this cultured life where he read so many books…so much of that was about my desire to transcend the boring suburban small town life I had where I felt like nobody talked about literature, philosophy, and culture. So even though the love I had for this boy was not satisfying, that started me on a path to realizing that I can be this person who enjoys ideas and tries to have intellectual depth to her life. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with him anymore.
There’s also a very long tradition that women have participated in as well as men of the desire to love and the desire to create as two similarly working forms of emotional currency. They’re both about trying to realize a certain ideal. In some ways, the neurological systems in the brain overlap. Those urges often feel similar.
So unrequited love is not necessarily a waste of time?
No, it’s a challenge. What are you going to make out of this? In the end, what is this going to tell you about yourself, what can you do with this yearning, is there another place you can channel it? It’s not something every person is going to be ready to do, but in my book all the stories of women who have done something, created something wonderful, changed their lives, it really shows you, “Wow this could be a very powerful kind of energy in my life.”
It’s Passover, let’s talk about Joseph in Egypt. How does Potiphar’s wife fit into this?
Probably the most prominent female stalker in the Torah is Potiphar’s wife. She desired Joseph and she pleaded with him to go to bed with her and he said no and he ran away from her and she tore a piece of his clothing off and used that as evidence to say, “This man tried to rape me.” And that led him to be in jail with the baker and the [cupbearer] where he interpreted the dreams that became so prophetic about what would happen to Egypt.
So there are several Midrashim, they have trouble dating them but probably around the 7th or 8th century, so they’re late writings. And they expand upon the desire of Potiphar’s wife. There are these amazingly vivid scenes where she gathers all the ladies of the court around her and she’s basically trying to explain why she’s so obsessed. There’s one where she gives them all etrogs and knives, and says “Here, look at Joseph,” and they all take the knives and slice through the etrog and cut themselves in the hand, which really sounds painful since it’s a citrus fruit. It’s her way of saying “See how crazy he’s driven me, and he’s going to drive you crazy too.”
So what would be the lesson for us today from that? First of all, you don’t want to do what she did…that’s definitely a morally wrong thing to do. But I also think there’s a way we can look broader historically and have, not sympathy, but understanding of Potiphar’s wife. There are a lot of stories from the medieval era and ancient Greece and even much later in history about women whose obsessions are protests against a rigid social order. Here’s Joseph, who’s a slave, and she’s head woman of the household. But she’s also in this constrained position, where she didn’t have a choice of who to love, no one did really until very late in our human history. She’s stuck in this court living a life where she doesn’t have her own sexual or emotional agency. So you can also see this as a way of summoning all these women to witness rebellious passion, to say, “Don’t you understand how I feel, none of us get real choice and here’s this one moment where I feel genuine passion and I can’t deal with it, it’s completely dangerous and self-destructive and the only way I can have any power is to be destructive and vengeful and throw this guy in jail.”
I can’t redeem her completely; she didn’t make good choices, I’d say to my daughter. But I think it’s something, when you look at that story, to look at it in context. Maybe part of Passover can be, most of us don’t live that kind of constrained life so when we do feel a passion that feels so enslaving, maybe we can think about how we can liberate ourselves from it instead of oppressing other people with it. I think that’s why these stories exist - to help us think about, what are the possibilities, what are the meanings and lessons for us. I think that’s something I’ll be thinking about this Passover.