When I was a teenager, I slid a yellowing paperback off my mother’s shelf, read it in one sitting, and have carried it around with me like a talisman ever since. The book was Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York by Gail Parent, and it is about a woman who decides to kill herself because she has failed to find love. These are the words she wants engraved on her tombstone:
Sheila Levine killed herself because there weren’t enough men to go around. She didn’t have bad breath. She used vaginal spray. She tried for ten years. But she didn’t make it. No one ever wanted her for forever.
This is not the message of empowerment that my suffragette sisters and feminist foremothers fought for me to embody. But when my loneliness feels as vast—and capable of drowning me—as the sea, this book about self-destruction comforts me more than any self-help.
Sheila tries to do everything right. She rents an apartment in what is now the East Village. She dabbles in artsy jobs, then gives up and resigns herself to teaching. She tries to settle for a guy named Norman who is covered in flecks: “Norman wore a brown jacket with flecks, and inside was a man with flecks on his intestines.” She goes on a million dates, goes to Europe, gets a summer share in Fire Island, and celebrates her birthdays with her intrusive Jewish parents. She has a lot of sex, is relentlessly pursued by a lesbian, tries to marry a gay man, and even tries to marry Norman with the flecks. But in the end, none of it works, so Sheila decides to end it. The novel is her suicide note.
Published in 1972, Sheila Levine is incredibly funny and undeniably dated. Sheila stamps herself expired when unmarried at the age of thirty, though in more millennial math, we can update that deadline to at least forty. Vaginal spray, apparently, is some kind of pre-Vagina Monologues deodorizing product hilariously investigated by Nora Ephron in her seminal (vaginal?) 1973 Esquire article, “Dealing With the, Uh, Problem.”
“There is only one really serious philosophical problem,” Albert Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, “and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy.” After a vigorous mental CrossFit routine, Camus concludes that life is absurd, and so, for that matter, is death, but we can live “in revolt” against this absurdity, by embracing the present and becoming masters of our fate, even if our fate, like that of Sisyphus in the myth, is to push a rock up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again.
Sheila decides she doesn’t want to push the rock up the hill anymore. She just lies down and lets it crush her. Sheila (the novel) makes the case for why life on your own is not worth living, and then Sheila (the character) commits the act that walks the walk of her talk, elevating what could be mere proto-chicklit to existential treatise.
Single women in 2015 bob in the wake of a tsunami of media on women and our choices regarding marriage and motherhood. There is a book called Spinster, a sixteen-piece anthology about having zero children, a whole subgenre that could be called The Reasons You’re Single, and the Reasons Those Reasons are Wrong. There is the virally-forwarded Atlantic article debunking previous virally-forwarded Atlantic articles, the first wave of nostalgic cultural criticism of the post-feminist festivities depicted on Sex and the City, and the post-post-feminist antics of Girls and its ensuing Lena Dunham-centered love/hate maelstrom.
Millennial single women have won the right to our lives, or so we are frequently reminded, if only by the fact that we wake daily to an endlessly renewable public debate about those very lives. But what if we don’t want to live them? What if the loneliness of the unlucky unloved makes these hard-won lives unlivable? What if no book—or book deal—about our loneliness can take away the pain of it?
All those other books and TV shows strive, in different ways, to make this okay. What I have always found refreshing and comforting about Sheila is that she says, “It’s not okay.”
Sheila doesn’t conclude that it’s okay to be alone, that friendship is just as good as love. She doesn’t order a cosmopolitan or write a manifesto validating her choice to validate herself. She doesn’t buy another pair of Manolos, get another tattoo, or make the “brave” choice to have a baby by herself. Sheila ends it. Sheila abandons the hope that has already abandoned her.
Sheila lays bare the dark side of hope—namely, that it is tiring. Sheila laments, “Why would a nice Jewish girl do something dumb like kill herself? Why? Because I have spent ten years of my life trying to get married, and I’m tired. I know now that it’s just not going to happen for me.”
Hope in and of itself is not satisfying. It is not always “the thing with the feathers,” as my namesake Emily Dickinson wrote, before she died alone, unpublished and unloved. Hope unfulfilled is not feather-light, but rock-heavy, not unlike Sisyphus’s giant boulder, rolling down its hill, onto your person, every single, solitary day.
Other depictions of single women proffer some message of hope. Even on Girls, the sociopath who has sex with Hannah and treats her like shit magically transforms into boyfriend material with the drop of a single plaintive request—all before the end of the first season. Even a program rightly praised for its complexity and realism gives in to the temptations of this powerful redemption fantasy—that someone who doesn’t love us, or even treat us like a human being, might change.
Sex and the City ultimately gave us the same fake, tacked-on, happy ending. A self-absorbed asshole who emotionally tortured Carrie for six years crosses an ocean to rescue and declare his love for her—though the shoe fetish, as ever, wins the day. In series’ final scene, when Mr. Big’s name is finally revealed on the caller ID of Carrie’s phone, she is walking down the street with—what else?—a Manolo Blanhik bag. Her “John” lives in her phone (there are also sex worker implications to be read into this, and Mr. Big’s habit of sidling up to Carrie on dark streets in a limousine), but it is her true love, Manolo, on her arm. (The movies go on to work the Cinderella/shoe fetish metaphor to dizzying depths.)
Sex and the City posits that materialism can fill the void left by lost, missing, or inevitably imperfect love. Girls goes on to suggest that its protagonist is so self-centered that she might not be able to sustain any meaningful connection—romantic or platonic. Many critics, and the show’s creators themselves, have suggested that the creation and performance of such an unlikeable character is itself a radical or feminist act. And yet even Girls does not dare suggest that its unlikeable characters are unloveable, and does not dare approach the question of what it is like to be alone for longer than a few episodes.
Sheila is not a rom-com with a twist, or a marriage plot masquerading as the diary of a libertine. Sheila is not plucky. She does not grow. She eats, but she neither prays nor loves. She does not go Wild. Oprah would not find her message uplifting. Because Sheila’s message is: there is no hope.
Sheila Levine is not feminism. It’s probably not even humanism. It’s existentialism.
Sheila Levine is about what happens when nothing changes and no one is redeemed. Seinfeld creator Larry David’s governing motto was “no hugging, no learning,” and the show’s inevitable ending consisted of the Waiting for Godot-like shot of the four main characters in a jail cell. Sheila is not the spiritual mother of Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha or Hannah, Marni, Jessa, and Shoshanna, but she is the spiritual daughter of a dead French philosopher who says life has no meaning, there is no hope, we might as well kill ourselves, and every moment we don’t, we are choosing, absurdly, to live.
Sheila makes the other choice. She writes a will, and takes the pills. The will ends, “Fuck off.”
This idea—that life is a choice, and death is the big “fuck off”—comforts me in my darkest moments. If I can opt out, then I can also consciously opt in. Sheila, in its bitterness, is a pleasure guiltier than the sugary rom-com. It indulges not the seemingly impossible fantasy of love magically emerging from the human void of the cruel, the remote, the self-absorbed, or the otherwise engaged, but the reality that even when we feel we have no choice, we do. “Life on one’s own,” as one spinster manifesto puts it, does not always feel like a choice. But Sheila reminds us that it is always our choice whether to live at all.