Rachel Krantz, whose author headshot makes her a dead ringer for my younger cousin Beth, is a Jewish woman writer in her thirties, as am I. And if those had been all of our similarities, dayenu, as we members of the tribe say, especially during Passover: that would have been enough. Those few commonalities alone were sufficient to pique my interest in Open: An Uncensored Memoir of Love, Liberation, and Non-Monogamy. But when I finally began reading—I have a terrible habit of walking around with an unopened book for a few weeks before I can muster the strength to start it because new stories always feel daunting to me—I found myself instantly captivated and nodding with understanding at every turn.
My husband Ethan and I celebrated five years married at the beginning of April. In 2017, we made promises to one another, before friends, family, and God that we would be faithful to each other. We both signed on the dotted line with the best of intentions. Our Jewish wedding contract (ketubah) even hangs framed above the kitchen table. But several years before exchanging vows and rings, I pulled him aside in his mother’s kitchen and told him my truth—that I didn’t think monogamy was a realistic expectation for me, certainly not for life—and he was horrified.
When I first met Ethan—twenty-seven to my thirty—I’d already slept with ninety-three other men to his one woman. That alone came as a huge shock to his innocent sensibilities. This newest layer of information was simply too much for my monastic-leaning then-boyfriend to consider. (Yes, before we dated, Ethan had dreams of becoming a Buddhist monk but wound up settling for a master’s in philosophy instead.) Reading the room, I considered the subject closed. Eight years later, I was randomly assigned to review this memoir, and suddenly, all of my longing for autonomy, the unfamiliar, and variety came rushing back.
In Open, Rachel Krantz takes the reader through a journey from her own twenty-seventh to thirty-first years, during which time she is romantically involved with and eventually engaged to Adam—a polyamorous graduate school professor, eleven years her senior, who introduces her to his seemingly glittery and intoxicating non-monogamous world. “He handed me the brew, urged me to sip. And I deliberately chose to chug and fall down the rabbit hole,” Krantz writes of their coercive relationship that is soured with manipulations and laced with an unspoken dom/sub-power dynamic. And yet, the pull. So much passion, spontaneity, depravity. So many firsts—sex parties, triangulations, “safe place[s] to be naked.” So much duality: to be “nasty and treasured at once”; to “want to cry, scream, fuck, and be his wife at once”; to be “wildly aroused and grieving at once.” These contrasting, “increasingly unstable” realities and conflicting emotions become Krantz’s everyday life, and, as a reader, I didn’t envy them.
In fact, nothing about being Adam’s other or better third, as it were, sounds alluring—not: his “refusal to admit [Krantz’s] feelings [are] valid or real”; the goalpost [that] is always moving”; the “expectations [that are] never … fully met”; the undermined sense of reality; the “feeling of being tested”; and certainly not his withdrawing “to get [her] back in line.” But still, the lifestyle, a tiny voice in my head protested, just as a tiny voice in Krantz’s acknowledges that she is “terrified by the idea of life without him” because “he loves me (I think).”
This past week when I was spooning my husband after the first and second alarm had gone off but before the third—smelling his sweet skin and kissing his hairless back—I thought: Remember this precious moment, this simple pleasure, this adult version of joy I also like to call “mundanity”—an everyday occurrence, sacred in its unremarkableness.
Lately, I’ve been having repeated, obsessive thoughts of straying. I can’t sleep, I’m distracted, irritable. It’s all I can think about—how to quell my boredom. How to bring excitement and intrigue back into my tried-and-true, old-hat, more-of-the-same life—all for the high that accompanies risk-taking. How to do what I do best: self-sabotage. Krantz writes that she likewise provokes “rejection as a form of self-sabotage” and, in another part of the book, that she “still didn’t trust [her]self not to self-sabotage.”
I know I’m lucky. I have a husband who adores me; who prepares dinner, even if that means cutting open the salad bag; who does the marketing, the laundry, takes out the trash; who makes my busy life possible by picking up the slack. And yet, I also have a monastically-inclined partner who wholeheartedly believes in monogamy, in restraint as a principle by which to lead our monotonous, married life. As Krantz puts it: “monotony does something to the feeling of attraction,” and she’s right—it does; it has.
How did I end up with this man so disparate from myself when I crave danger, spice, the illicit? Like Krantz, “I get so excited by newness … the thrill of novelty.” Will I risk losing Ethan in the name of a different kind of reckless, forbidden, grown-up joy—desire—the “animal yearning to be free,” the lusty jolt of reawakening? And what is free anyway? Krantz writes, “[M]y supposed freedom with [Adam] gradually became its own cage, a way I felt even more trapped, because he told me no one else would let me be as free.”
Of course, non-monogamous relationships—good ones—are built on trust as much as monogamous ones are. The fact that “Adam had been having frequent unprotected sex” with a lover without Krantz’s knowledge or consent is not a hallmark of polyamory, just as cheating on my husband would not be in keeping with the established boundaries of our relationship per his comfort level.
Krantz eventually calls her “toxic” enmeshment with Adam what it is: gaslighting. Gaslighters, she says:
Fail to take responsibility and claim their words were taken out of context; they portray you as irrationally jealous or oversensitive or like your mother for feeling hurt or angry; they say or imply they’re the only one[s] who will love you enough to deal with your flaws and take care of you; you come to believe them and question your own character, self-sufficiency, sanity, lovability, and good intentions ….
My marriage feels so safe when posited against the backdrop of gaslighting. Adam hurts, diminishes, and shames while Ethan is decent, kind, and trustworthy. But Ethan is also the vanilla to Adam’s sinful, cream-covered strawberries, and vanilla is ultimately not that interesting. Not long-term. Not to me. Like Krantz, the idea of polyamory appeals because “in each relationship I’d gradually lost my attraction and felt stifled imagining a future of kissing only one person, no matter how well they kissed.”
This book, despite Krantz’s fears that “my story will probably end up reaffirming the fucked-up stereotype of an open relationship resulting in a hot mess, and all the monogamous people reading it will just feel vindicated and superior,” made me feel neither vindicated nor superior. Instead, I was brought back in time and reminded of my earliest concerns about my chosen heteronormative, one-man-until-I-die existence and the limitations it poses. Instead, I’ve begun to let my mind consider other possibilities. More expansive ones. Instead, I feel “cracked open,” but in a good way. Isn’t that what successful stories do? Pull us in, expand our minds and horizons, reaffirm our shared humanity, transform us in some way?
Even if you’ve never been in a manipulative relationship or you’re not a thirty-something Jewish writer or you’re frankly not that curious about the logistics of having multiple partners, you will find common ground with the narrator. You will see yourself reflected back, somehow, on the page, whether it be through a shared struggle with food and body image, marijuana abuse, or low self-esteem. You will be grateful that Krantz made herself incredibly vulnerable—“plumbing her most extreme psychosexual depths”—so that you could learn, grow, and contemplate the meaning of your own truth and experiences, just as I have been able to.