Spotlight Excerpt from ‘Wanting: A Memoir of Marriage, Patriarchy, and Privilege’
This memoir excerpt was written by Erin Branning in Megan Stielstra’s 12-Month memoir Generator
Erin Branning spent her early adulthood meticulously constructing what she’d grown up believing was the perfect life: Ivy League education, a job on Wall Street followed by a career in philanthropy, and marriage to a successful, ambitious banker. To the rest of the world their marriage looks perfect, but behind closed doors Branning is never enough for her husband and lives in fear of his anger. After sixteen years of marriage, four children, and ten years spent living a glamorous ex-pat life in London, Beijing, and Tokyo, she begins to realize that all the shiny things she learned to covet—love, money, and status—aren’t worth anything at all if they come at the cost of herself. Looking for a way out, Branning eventually falls in love with another man. When her husband finds their text messages and tells the children their mother is having an affair, her world implodes.
What does a woman lose when she marries and pursues a life of privilege in 21st century America? Living within the insidiousness of capitalist patriarchy, what are we taught to value? How do we learn to love and be loved? In her unflinching memoir, told in genre-defying essays, Erin Branning excavates the choices she had as a young woman, wife, and mother; the choices she made, and whether, in the end, they were even choices at all.
Wanting: A Memoir of Marriage, Patriarchy, and Privilege, chronicles one woman’s messy journey away from what she’d been taught to want towards accepting responsibility for her own choices and living a life authentically her own.
The Great Wall Marathon, May 16, 2009
Yin and Yang Square, Huangyaguan Fortress, The Great Wall of China
I have never run a marathon but I am running one today on the Great Wall of China. We’ve been living in Beijing for two and a half years and a year and a half ago, for the first time in my life, I ran longer than a mile. Elaine, my son’s second grade teacher, who is running this race for her third time, turns to me when my driver, Gao Shifu, pulls into the parking lot, the Wall looming above us, and says, “I’m so bloody nervous.”
“I know,” I say. “I feel sick.”
I get out of the car and walk to the bathrooms across the parking lot. The squat toilets smell like a sewer—stale pee, shit, blood. At least I am used to it. The runners who have traveled to China for this race are unprepared; I can hear one of them dry heaving. There are no locks on the stall doors, which only reach the top of my head as I squat. If you are unpracticed in the art of going to the bathroom in China and can’t manage to hold the door closed with your hand while squatting back over the hole in the ground the door will swing wide open. No one makes eye contact.
I wash my hands and start back across the parking lot when I see my husband’s name appear on my phone. He is not here today. He is in Chicago for a work party with old colleagues and a couple of Cubs games.
“How are you?” I say when I answer the phone.
“The game is rained out so I’m fucked.”
I feel a pit hollow out in my stomach. He’s not happy. “I’m so sorry, I want you here,” I say.
“No you don’t,” he says.
I take a deep breath and feel tears prick at my eyes. I turn my back to Elaine and Gao who are standing next to the open trunk of our Buick minivan so they don’t see that I’m near tears.
“I miss you so much,” I say. “I wish we were running together.”
“No you don’t,” he says again. He often tells me what I do or do not think, what I do or do not want. He often tells me who I am and now, after twelve years of marriage I mostly believe him.
Before I can reassure him or try to appease him, the phone beeps and drops the call. I try him back but there is only one tiny bar and the phone won’t even ring.
I type out a text saying I’ve lost the connection and I love him and I’ll call him after the race. I press send and hope it goes through.
“Everything okay?” Elaine says.
“Yep, everything’s fine,” I say. “All good.” Fine and good are words I use to never tell anyone how I feel.
Two and a half years ago, the bank my husband worked for asked him to move to Beijing from London where we’d been living for nearly five years. Our children were five, two, and five months.
Before we moved, I’d been seeing a psychic in London, a spiritual healer who I was hoping could tell me things about myself I didn’t already know, things that might make me happier, less anxious. The main things she told me were that my dead alcoholic father was sorry for not being a better parent and that my mother’s anorexia was not my fault.
These revelations did not make me happier, nor did they relieve my anxiety.
When I told the psychic we were moving to Beijing I asked her what she saw.
“Shipwrecks,” she said.
“Does that mean we shouldn’t go?”
“I can’t tell you how to interpret it. I can only tell you what I see.”
If water is emotion and those ships were my husband and I, then this image encapsulates everything.
In China, after a lifetime of avoiding it, I started running.
In China, after a lifetime of avoiding it, I started keeping a journal.
The only word that comes to mind when I read anything I wrote from the three years we lived in China is: Run.
There is a voice shouting through a bullhorn telling us to line up. There is no time to go for another bathroom break, no time for anything else. This is it. Five, four, three, two, one. We’re off and I am so relieved to finally be running, to finally be doing this that I feel like I will burst into tears. But I don’t. The tears stay in my eyes, my nose just feels a bit prickly.
Nearly two and a half years before I run a marathon at the Great Wall of China, we arrive in Beijing from London to start a new life for my husband’s job. We land at 4 p.m. but it seems much later. The air is a green-grey murk and as we taxi to the gate I can barely make out the hulking bodies of other airplanes lined up on the tarmac. We deplane and even the inside of the airport is hazy, like a bar when smoking was still allowed indoors. I think that this cannot be healthy for the children; I think the psychic might have been right, this move might be a mistake.
Two drivers are awaiting us just past baggage claim and swiftly take the two luggage carts piled with eight black Tumi suitcases and escort us to the fluorescently lit garage where we stand by as they load our luggage into a Buick minivan.
“Get in the Audi,” my husband says. I will soon learn that Buick minivans and black Audis are ubiquitous among the ex-pat crowd.
Too late, I realize the children’s car seats are already packed in the Buick which is now pulling away. “We need the car seats,” I say.
“Don’t need them, the kids can sit on our laps.”
“That’s not safe,” I say.
“It’s not a law here, it’s fine,” he says.
I want to say that this doesn’t matter—car seats and seatbelts are what’s safe whether it is a law to use them or not—but I do not say this because he will tell me to calm down, it’s not a big deal. I hold five-month old Charley on my lap and two-year-old Ella sits on my husband’s. Colm, five, sits between us. Our nanny, Lotte, who is with us for a month from London to help us get settled, sits in the front seat.
Despite the darkness, the streetlights along the highway aren’t lit as we drive into the city. I will soon learn the streetlights go on at seven, no matter how dark the atmosphere, in order to conserve electricity. The air is so thick with smog I can’t see anything beyond our own car lights.
I am so tired.
Children are lined up along the side of the sloped road leading us to the Wall holding their hands out to us. I know I should give them high fives as I pass but I can’t. The thoughts of H1N1—a burgeoning pandemic— are too close. I wave and say, ni hao . Of course they answer with hello . I think about what it would be like to have their life, to live in this dusty village in the shadow of the Wall in one-room brick or cement houses with corrugated aluminum roofs and I wonder if human beings want to suffer, if pain is something we look for in order to make us feel more alive. I wonder if the reason I am running this marathon is to hurt myself in some way, to pay penance for something.
One little girl is picking yellow buttercups by the side of the road. She stands up and runs alongside me holding her fistful of flowers out to me. I take them and she smiles, stops running, waves.
Tonight after running this marathon, when I am back in our glass box penthouse apartment overlooking the Beijing skyline, my husband will call me.
He will tell me how selfish I am for having run this race.
He will tell me everything he does is for our family—to provide for us—and all I care about is myself.
He will tell me I abandoned him this year when he didn’t make partner at the bank and the world fell into a recession after the Global Financial Crisis.
He will tell me how jealous he is of everyone else in my life, how he thinks I care about my friends more than him.
He will tell me how lonely he feels.
He will tell me he loves me so much more than I love him.
I will say I feel like I can’t do anything right. I feel like there are landmines everywhere . And he will say, you’re the one stepping on them.
Ten months after I run this marathon, living in Tokyo for my husband’s work, our fourth city in twelve years of marriage, I try to repair my husband’s hurt and anger and prove my love. I am living in a foreign country for his job with three young children and I do the only thing I think I can to try and appease him.
I am a woman. I become pregnant with our fourth child.
Five years after I run this marathon we will be newly divorced and I will be in therapy trying to understand why I had four children with this man when I was so unhappy and the therapist will say, “Your husband would have controlled every aspect of your life if he could. Your body was the only thing you had agency over.”
And when he says this I also know why I had to run a marathon on the Great Wall of China.
What we feel in our body is the only thing that’s ours.