Scenes from a Private Life
“This is not normal. This is the opposite of normal.”
Delivered from Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) to her husband, Richard (Paul Giamatti), this punchline lands stone cold sober within the first five minutes of director Tamara Jenkins’s Private Life.
Among the elements of infertility, the movie acutely understands the alien feeling which settles over a couple like fine, frustrating dust. The sense of opening your hands and letting go—of the hopes and routines of normal people—and squeezing into uncomfortable clothes to bow, kneel, and whisper your way through clinical liturgies which leave you cold.
So much of Jenkins’s film deviates from my experience. Rachel and Richard are kind yet mannered New Yorkers in the thick of literary life. Midwestern skies and square feet of earth bookend my existence. Creatively engaged, my wife and I fly just under the cultural radar as a journalist and music educator. Reaching the end of our story—adoption—we sidestepped the most intense and invasive means that were at Rachel and Richard’s disposal.
And yet I saw myself in more scenes than I wished to count. In the decidedly unsexy act of producing a sperm sample. In a series of glances between best friends—disappointment and acceptance traded using only the eyes.
In the overreaching and often degrading analogies doctors and nurses employ, rivaled only by the heresies youth pastors craft to explain the Trinity. In the moments you feel bad for making someone feel bad for you.
Each scene holds enough drama and detail to be its own film or essay. Yet they cannot supply conversation starters for cocktail parties. Grappling with infertility means inviting strangers into your story, yet, as Private Life so keenly depicts, struggling to know when and how to raise the subject with the people closest to you.
It might take a village to raise a child. But how do you engage the village when a child doesn’t come?
You meet several kinds of couples in the throes of infertility. Some keep the pain inside, never breathing a word unless asked. Eventually, something significant atrophies and they limp through life as if favoring a good leg.
Others lose definition to the pain of infertility; the outlines of who they used to be grow fuzzy. Their struggle becomes the truest thing about them—the unprompted answer to unasked questions—as quick from their tongue as their name or what they do for a living.
Finding a middle passage, a way of relating to the world that is neither private nor exposed, seems within reach yet somehow beyond it.
I believe in a God who restores the years the locusts ate, who returns the sense of self lost to paralyzing moments and a leaning pile of little indignities. And I want to believe he uses people as means of grace, just as he does in every sanctifying thing. People as bandages to stop the bleeding, people as balms to seal the wound, people to tend to its healing.
Three years post-adoption and we still do an awkward dance: a couple steps toward others, another back. I am the sort who craves understanding—from others, for myself. I write to connect the dots between people, but also to sweep unkept corners. The open-book approach never delivers everything I want, but I know no better way.
My wife scores more private on every scale. Then, now, perpetually. My best and most knowing editor, she reserves—and occasionally exercises—the right to strike a detail or anecdote from the public record. Her restraint saves me from myself, and keeps a bit of our story back—something just for us.
The right answer, no doubt, lies somewhere between our approaches. Our ability to temper, rather than amplify, the other’s instincts rates among God’s quiet graces.
How I long for a map, something with grids and legends, something that marks off distances and identifies direct routes. Something laying out who is safe and what is fair.
Taking possession of such a map requires a trailblazer, an emotional Lewis and Clark willing to chart a course, stick to it and share their sketches. If such a couple even exists, I understand why they might keep to themselves, soaking their sore feet after so many miles.
I never asked my wife to sit and watch Private Life with me. After all the tears and embraces, all the stories only your war buddy can truly understand, a little distance and daylight exists between what I’ll grit my teeth through and what I can bear to put her through. My breathing went shallow during the movie’s first half hour as griefs tucked away unfurled and expanded.
Amid the visible and invisible aches of infertility, knowing that we live coram deo—before the face of God—offers consolation. Assurance and comfort travels in two directions. To see him, to be seen by him, I know I’m not alone. Living before other people? Well, I thought I’d know how to do this by now.